By Katharine Webster
The last time Saran Yous opened his eyes, he saw his granddaughter, nursing
major Darany Long, wearing a graduation cap and gown.
It was a vision Yous had been striving toward his entire life, the fulfillment of all his hard work to provide more education and a better future for his family. Long was the first member of her family to graduate from high school and will be the first to graduate from college in December.
So Yous smiled for the first time in weeks, sat up, donned a shirt, tie and suit jacket, and posed for photographs with Long and other family members. He ate a small meal, then laid back down and went to sleep.
He never woke up again. At midnight the following day he died of gall bladder cancer. He was 68 years old.
“He just passed after I was able to take the photos with him,” says Long. “I think he was holding on for that.”
Long, who is a junior, hoped that her grandfather would live long enough to see her graduate from UMass Lowell.
“It’s a big milestone for our family, to finish high school and then college, and in the medical field,” she says.
But when her grandfather’s health went into rapid decline a couple of weeks ago, Long started searching for a cap and gown. She knew how much it would mean to Yous to see her in graduation regalia, so she reached out to Clinical Assoc. Prof. Laurie Soroken
’89, ’14, director of the undergraduate nursing program, for help.
Soroken acted fast. She still had her Bachelor of Science hood from her own graduation, and she emailed other professors in the Solomont School of Nursing
to see what they had on hand. Faculty Chair Heidi Fantasia
offered her son’s cap and gown – he graduated last year – and drove the whole ensemble to Long’s home.
Long and her family took the photos on Tuesday. On Wednesday, she sat with her grandfather as his oxygen levels dropped. He passed away at midnight, leaving her with one final gift, one last lesson in patience and acceptance.
“At first, I couldn’t believe that he only had three, four months to live – he seemed so strong. But I slowly started to accept it,” she says. “In the last two weeks, he was barely awake. As much as I wanted him to stay longer, I wanted him to be comfortable on his journey.”
Yous valued education as only someone who has been deprived of one can. Growing up in Cambodia, his schooling was cut short at 13 years old, when the Khmer Rouge won the country’s civil war.
He managed to survive the years of mass killings, hard labor and famine that followed, and eventually married and had a daughter. Yous and his wife were determined to send her to school, but when she was 16, she gave birth to Long, who was very sick.
The whole family, which had a small business sewing school uniforms, worked hard to scrape together enough money to travel to Vietnam and Thailand to get medical care for the baby, care that they couldn’t get for her in Cambodia.
Fifteen years ago, they immigrated to the United States and settled in Lowell, where doctors finally diagnosed and treated Long’s immune system condition.
“Throughout my grandfather’s and grandmother’s life, they were always working. They always wanted to go to school, but school was a luxury in Cambodia,” Long says. “They decided to come here when I was 5 because they wanted a better education for me, and they couldn’t even provide that for my mom.”
Her grandfather worked at first, but the years of hardship had left him with a heart condition. So Yous and his wife stayed home to care for Long and, eventually, her younger sister. Their mother works long hours at a factory to support the whole family.
Long grew up to be healthy – and a stellar student. She decided to become a nurse so that she can help to improve medical care in Cambodia.
“Not a lot has changed with the health care system there,” she says. “I grew up in the hospital, pretty much, until we came here. I want to go back and help my country out, even in the smallest way.”
In the United States, Yous finally had a chance to return to school. He attended English language classes in downtown Lowell for four years, sometimes asking Long for help with his homework, and then embarked on citizenship classes.
“He was very persistent in learning his English. He graduated four times,” Long says. “He loved learning more than me. He was the learner with 100 questions.”
He, in turn, taught his granddaughter how to drive, persisting in his gentle way even when she was ready to give up.
“He would take me to the (Buddhist) temple’s parking lot and have me parallel park over and over and over again. He got me there,” she says. “I didn’t really have a father in my life, and he took that role on better than anyone I could ever ask for.”
Long took care of her grandparents, too, accompanying them to medical appointments and translating for them – including the appointment four months ago when her grandfather learned that he had Stage 4 cancer.
After a short course of chemotherapy, he chose to receive hospice care at home. Long administered his medications and called Merrimack Valley Hospice whenever she had a question or needed help.
“Hospice was amazing,” she says. “My grandfather has always been super-grateful to the U.S. and how the health care system has treated him.”
In addition to raising her to value education, Long’s grandfather taught her how to dance to traditional Cambodian music. They also shared a talent for art.
But his greatest legacy was his humble, loving personality, she says.
“If there’s one thing I learned from him, it’s to be kind and patient,” she says.