The things that happen: Two boys and cancer

Chapter Four: The worth of a boy

April 23, 2013 

Story by Julia O'Malley | Photos by Marc Lester

The pig was in the side yard in a dog crate. It was about the size of a golden retriever, with pasty skin and yellow eyes. A couple of children peered in at it, shrieking every time it scrabbled around. The acid odor of pig urine mixed with the smell of mud.

In the kitchen of the trailer, Ia Yang and other women chopped up chicken carcasses and frozen razor clams. A big kettle of rice bubbled on the stove, filling the house with steam. Men had gathered around the other side of the trailer in folding chairs, drinking canned beer and swatting at mosquitoes. Most of them had the surname Vue and were distantly related one way or another.

In Anchorage's Hmong community, which members estimate numbers at least 5,000, there are 13 last names. Each is a marker of clan ties that go back generations. Vue is a medium-sized group here, with 35 to 40 large families. Most Vues keep telephone lists of other Vues. Like members of the same church, people from the same clan turn out to support one another and help with cultural events. They have built relationships with farmers who provide the animals from the Mat-Su and farther north. Killing a pig is relatively common. It might be done for a New Year celebration or a wedding, one of the men told me. Most Hmong will only see a ritual important enough to require a cow once in a lifetime.

Children, all elementary school aged, darted among the cars parked in the gravelly yard. When Steve Vue is around his family, his attention is nearly always divided, as a parent's might be, between whatever he is doing and whatever is going on with his brothers and sisters. That day he kept running after Eric, the youngest brother, not quite 2 years old, who seemed determined to run in the street. With Eric wiggling in his lap, Steve pulled down the front of his shirt and showed the scar from his cancer surgery, a long, fleshy brand over his heart.

The sky turned dusky. One of the sisters made Eric a bottle and gathered him up on the couch. Finally, the shaman breezed in, trailing a female assistant. He was an older man, dressed in a pressed short-sleeved shirt and slacks, looking like a business traveler in the Honolulu airport. The assistant went to the stove and began to toast raw kernels of rice. One of the men explained that spirits can't see, but they can hear and smell. The rice smoke would lure the grandmother spirit to the house. Steve took a seat on the couch.

'The jingle bells'

The arrival of the shaman sent the women to the kitchen. They set a large folding table in the living room and dished out bowls of rice, clam soup and sausage. After the meal, the shaman's assistant set up an altar with bowls of rice, incense and eggs. Eggs are sacred in Hmong culture, symbolic of nourishment, rebirth and traveling between worlds.

The men brought in a special bench to serve as a horse for the shaman to ride into the spirit world. The shaman took off his shoes. He was missing a pinky toe.

The men helped him up onto the bench. He covered his face with a black hood and began to chant. In his hand he held what looked like a crude tambourine -- a circle of metal strung with flat metal disks. Steve called it "the jingle bells." The shaman hopped from foot to foot, shaking the instrument and chanting. The children grew bored and went to play in a back bedroom. The women cleaned the kitchen. The men milled and talked. Occasionally, the shaman took breaks to wipe the sweat from his face. Hours passed.

Mitchell Xayapraseuth slid onto the couch with us. He was back from Portland and his last round of radiation. He looked thin and his eyes were dull. Steve handed him a soda. I asked how he was doing.

"Good," he said, without making eye contact. Soon he would undergo tests to see if, like Steve's, his cancer was gone. A subtle tension hung between them. I tried not to think about what would happen if Mitchell didn't get the news he was looking for. He stayed for an hour or so and then left. He said he felt tired.

Toward midnight, the shaman climbed off his bench, packed up and left without ceremony, like a plumber who has finished a job. Steve's dad handed him an envelope of cash.

A man who said he was a shaman's assistant brought out a small piece of cow horn, split long-ways down the center. He made an offering of Corona beer in a shot glass, chanted and tossed the horn on the floor. The way it landed told him when Steve's grandmother's spirit was near. After a while, the men rearranged the furniture. They brought out a doll fashioned from rolled cloth, a symbol of Steve's grandmother.

They tied one end of the string to the doll and unrolled the rest through the house and into the lean-to on the front of the trailer. One of them covered the floor with plastic. The rest disappeared into the dark. Steve went to the back room to get his brothers and sisters.

The men came back with the dog crate. I could hear the pig knocking around inside. They pulled out the pig and held it by the legs. The animal didn't move. There was exactly one squeal and the pig was dead, its throat slit. The men bled it into a large kitchen bowl.

Earlier I'd asked Steve's dad, Koua, to explain the ritual. He told me to think of it like a trade. A spot had been ready for Steve on the spirit side. Something valuable had to fill it. He and Ia could have lost their oldest son, but instead a pig died.

It was after 2 a.m. when I got up to leave. Steve's mom, Ia, hugged me. At first light, she said, they would drive to the Valley for the cow. It would be just her, Steve's dad and some elders.

On the way home, I thought about Steve's tumor and the scar down the center of his chest. It made what I'd just seen with the pig make more sense. Killing the pig was violent but also existential -- a reminder that life is fragile and death is inevitable. Cancer is like that too.

'A good boy'

I went back to the trailer the next day about dinnertime to find a charred cow head floating in a plastic storage container on the lawn. Nearby, cow hide bubbled away in a giant pot on a propane burner. A spread of rice, boiled entrails and watermelon had been set out on a folding table in the yard. Steve's sisters made me a plate. Steve brought me his father's phone. They'd made a video early that morning.

On the little screen, I watched an older man parading around in a circle in a bucolic Alaska pasture. He was playing a qeej (pronounce "cane"), a bow-shaped wind instrument. I recognized Pioneer Peak in the background. He was calling the grandmother spirit there, Steve told me. The doll from the night before lay under a tree. In the next video, also made in the field, a half-dozen men were skinning a small cow.

Now, Steve's dad looked exhausted, sitting with the other men on the side of the trailer. I asked him how much the previous two days had cost them. More than $1,000, he estimated. It was a lot for their family, but his oldest son was worth it, he said. When he was an old man, Steve would pay him back.

"He is a good boy," Koua said. "I think he is really good, really good."

Steve hung on the periphery listening to us talk. I could see him absorb his father's words.

I didn't hear from Mitchell for a few weeks after that. Then, in mid-July, I got a phone message from Pat, Mitchell's mom. The results from his tests had come back.

"They found more cancer in his bones," she said. He was already on the plane back to Portland.

Read chapter five

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Email her at, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at Reach staff photographer Marc Lester at and follow his Twitter updates at

Chapter one   |   Chapter two   |   Chapter three   |   Chapter four   |   Chapter five
Video: Part 1   |   Video: Part 2