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Lang Van

December 15, 2011

My brother used to refer to us as “foodies,” which is probably a bit overstated, but Sydney and I were passionate about food. We loved to cook together, were very adventurous eaters and were always searching for a new restaurant off the beaten path. We especially loved ethnic restaurants. Of the restaurants I can remember in Charlotte, we ate food from: Spain, Turkey, Japan, France, England, Germany, Italy and Mexico (of course), Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China, North India, South India, Columbia, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Greece, Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil and Lebanon.

Despite our tendency to always try someplace new, there were one or two restaurants we couldn’t get enough of. At the top of Sydney’s list was a Vietnamese restaurant located on the corner of Eastway and Shamrock, called Lang Van. Sydney was introduced to the spot ten or twelve years ago by a dear friend, Laura Vinroot Poole. From that time until she died, Lang Van was consistently Sydney’s favorite restaurant in town and the only one I can think of that she never tired of.

Part of the appeal for Sydney was an enthusiastic waitress named Dan. In addition to her charismatic appeal, Dan has an extraordinary gift of memory. If you order something and like it, she will remember both you and the dish, and the next time you visit, she will suggest that item for you to order. “I know what you want.” she says. “I got it.” I remember taking my parents there for the second time, which was many months after their first visit, and she remembered what they ordered down to their drinks.

Dan knows she has a gift too, and will even claim, with confidence, that she can predict what a new customer will enjoy. Upon bringing a new friend to try the restaurant, Sydney would look at Dan and say, “What do you think she would want?” “I know, I got it” she would say while heading back to the kitchen. Sometimes her predictions were correct and sometimes they were not, but we always got a kick out of her method, especially when it was at someone else’s expense. There were times when she would actually refuse to allow customers to order certain dishes saying, “No, you don’t want that. I know what you want. I got it.”

Sydney would go to Lang Van for lunch with a friend, dinner with the family, date night with me, whatever. There really is no telling how many friends and future customers she introduced to it. As Sydney’s disease progressed, she continued to want to go, and we went with a walker, a wheelchair etc. Each time, Sydney would hug her friend and order her favorite dish, rice paper wraps with tofu and chicken. I would usually order Pho (a traditional Vietnamese soup) and eat some of hers as well.

The night before the funeral, when I walked into the wake, I was completely shocked to see the following sight. “Are you serious?” I said to myself. “How in the world did she know?”

Dan had heard about Sydney’s death through some of Sydney’s friends who ate at Lang Van the funeral week in Sydney’s honor. After their dinner, the girls came by the house with bags of carryout food given to them by Dan, who insisted that they bring it over. We even heard that she found the funeral home and went to view Sydney’s body the day before the funeral.

Since the funeral, Vail has been asking to go back to Lang Van, but we have not had a great window to do so until last week. Like their mom, Vail and Mary Haven are also big fans of the rice paper wraps. The other night, after finishing the firedrill of getting the kids dressed and buckled, we headed off to the restaurant. As we drove I was beginning to feel the importance of the event I had so blithely undertaken. The kids were chatting and happy just to be out and about.

As soon as we opened the door she saw us. “My babies!” Dan said cheerfully before giving us a round of welcoming hugs. The typical bamboo decor was overlain with a variety of Christmas adornments, and Christmas music was playing in the background. “Thank you for the flowers,” I said to her.

After we were seated, Dan approached the table with visible tears in her eyes. “We’re going to do one large order of wraps.” I said. I could hardly finish my statement when she said, “I know, I got it.” “And some noodles for him,” I said pointing to Boone. She nodded.

As we waited for the food I couldn’t help but tear up myself, thinking of the magnitude of the event. How many times had I sat at this place with Sydney over the years? How much would she love to be here right now? “Why are you crying?” Haven asked me. Before I could answer Vail smiled and said, “Because this was mommy’s favorite restaurant.” “Oh,” said Haven, and they continued with their conversation unfazed.

My emotion was exacerbated by the painfully slow Christmas music as well as seeing Dan continue to work her tables while wiping the tears from her eyes. As our food arrived, I began to do the same, serving my kids with a positive vocal tone, while my heart was breaking and my face was showing it.

What a crazy circumstance. We are eating out on an ordinary weekday night in a bustling restaurant with action and excitement all around. Meanwhile, my Vietnamese friend and I, who typically live in different worlds, are connected tonight by a common love, a common pain, and a deep understanding that this night is anything but ordinary. Tonight, because of Sydney, we are in the same world, separated from everyone else.

I wonder what in the heck the other folks in the restaurant thought was going on. That’s how grief is sometimes. You are in a world of your own, while the rest of the world moves on. Her work didn’t slow down, and I had three kids asking for more food, drink, help, etc. and one little boy climbing on the back of my neck and shoulders in the booth.

As we worked through the wraps, I saw her turn the corner approaching us with her hands full. She set a bowl in front of me. It was my Pho. She saw my face and touched my shoulder. “More tofu?” she said to the girls. “Sure,” Vail said, before I could filter her.

As we finished our meal I asked for the check and Dan shook her head. “I got it.” she said emphatically. I got the kids together and we started towards the door. I left cash on the table and we said our goodbyes. “No wait,” she said, rounding the corner. She handed me a large to-go bag, and stuffed the money in my pocket. After trying to resist, I finally said,”thank you,” and we walked out of the door.

From → Stories

  1. becky walker permalink

    It’s likely thtat Sydney touched everyone she ever met.

  2. becky walker permalink

    . . . that . . ..
    Tears get in the way.

  3. Anne Huitt permalink


    Thanks for continuing to share your heart. Your writing continues to bring tears. Sydney was amazing in how she touched EVERYONE! 🙂 What a little slice of Christ she was and is!

  4. Tears in my eyes as I read for you and what you had to experience there. Praying for and with you this Christmas. Love, Renee’

  5. Meg Kimmel permalink

    After reading this post at work, smiling and tearing up as I read, I go back to the other screen on my computer — a database full of music selecting songs for one of my clients. Right in the middle of the screen is the song “Sydney” by Brett Dennen. Of course I stopped and listened to it and it made me smile! Todd, thanks so much for sharing! I love learning more and more about your family and our friend Sydney and all the lives she touched!

  6. patrick permalink

    Some of our closest friends are people that we know least…I’m glad you had the courage to go back there and I’m sure she was too.

  7. Anne Albright permalink

    While I am filled with tears and less with words this is the most dear, sweet story and thanks for sharing it.

  8. Nancy Markle permalink

    Oh Todd I always loved your posts and am still brought to tears as I read this beautiful experience you had with the kids and Dan. Continue you share your heart as always. It’s healing to so many. Blessings to you and your three beautiful kids and your family this Christmas.

  9. Stephanie Blanton permalink

    A couple of weeks before Sydney passed away, we were supposed to go eat there together … With Mary and Kelly. Sydney told kelly the week or two before our appointed dinner date, “i will try to cancel but don’t let me.” Our dinner was not to be. And in my selfish heart, I couldn’t help but think during the week of her passing and the weeks to follow that I was so sad and mad that I didn’t get my dinner there with her. A few weeks later we went without her. Syd was there in our hearts. I will never go there and not have Syd in my heart.

  10. missy highsmith permalink

    Great post, especially dear to my heart. Sydney got me hooked too, that was our usual date spot as well as many others I know! So ironic that you posted this this afternoon, I am going there tonight for the first time since Sydney and I went in May. You captured Dan perfectly.

  11. Sadee permalink

    beautiful. thank you.

  12. Steve Leach permalink

    Todd, I have known your father through the Raleigh-Wake HBA and a men’s bible study group that we’ve shared together for many years. He is a man for whom I have a deep respect. You & I have met a time or two and although I am a distant acquaintance, I have felt somewhat akin to the courageous battle with Sydney’s illness you both fought in part through your father’s stories, updates and prayer requests and in part because you had a host of men praying for your wife, for you and your family. We still do. I cannot imagine what you and your kids have endured but am delighted to see stories like the one shared here. I imagine there will be many more like these, each with a bitter-sweet taste, but always important reminders to you and your children of the special person Sydney was. I know your family is very proud of you. Clearly you and your kids have been blessed with special memories and I pray that you always will be. May God be with you and yours this Christmas season; you continue to be in my prayers. sl

  13. hannah poteat permalink

    Bob and I continue to hold you and your family in our hearts. It is incredibly hard to walk amid all the giddy Christmas noise with a hole in your heart as big as the moon. Hold each other tightly and speak openly of love. In time, you learn to live with the wonderful memories and the pain in your heart.

  14. Cassandra Wry-Ridlinghafer permalink

    Oh, Todd,
    You have an amazing gift of story telling and really being able to touch people’s hearts. Thank you so much for sharing your precious experiences with all of us who have followed your journey

  15. Amber Varner permalink

    You don’t know me. I am a total stranger to you and your family, however, we have mutual friends that directed me to your caring bridge website months ago. They directed me there because my mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor 7 months ago. I have continued to follow you ever since. You inspired me to start my mom’s caring bridge website. More than that, you have been an angel through your words, constantly reminding me and other readers of the perfect work of art God is painting for us. Something so beautiful that it is beyond our comprehension. This fight can leave you feeling alone, but I just wanted you to know that your ability to share your thoughts and feelings so openly has touched many, including people going through similar battles that you don’t even know. Merry Christmas. Thank you for allowing us to walk with you. -Amber Varner, Greenville NC

  16. Christian Bohmfalk permalink

    Todd – my family and I made our first visit to Lang Van tonight, after reading your amazing post about it. We had a great experience, and at the end, I saw Dan and told her that we were there thanks to you and Sydney. She smiled and said she had a surprise for us, and came back with a plate of amazing Vietnamese desserts that our 2 boys devoured. It is a special place, and we’ll be back often, with memories of Sydney each time.

  17. Katherine Vest permalink

    My, oh, my. Todd Gaylord, you have one heckuva gift for expressing yourself, my friend. I just read all of the posts, many for the 2nd or 3rd time. Do you think insurance will cover my need for a new computer? I have just sobbed all over my keyboard… it may short-circuit at any minute. Maybe BlueCross can file it under the “emotional health” tab?! Luckily, because of Sydney’s precious spirit of JOY, I smiled through many of the tears, but boy did I shed some water. I am so grateful for your decision to continue writing. It is healthy grieving AND healthy living for us all.
    Love you, love your family. Here for you always-

  18. Michelle permalink

    Thank you……

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