Vietnamese godchild of Stephen Hawking remembers strict and loving father

By Trong Giap   March 18, 2018 | 05:00 am PT
Vietnamese godchild of Stephen Hawking remembers strict and loving father
Nguyen Thi Thu Nhan with Stephen Hawking in England in 2000. Photo provided by Nhan
The orphan said being chosen as his goddaughter ‘was the best random thing’ in her life.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhan has removed March 14 from her calendar and put it into a stack of photos of hers and Stephen Hawking, so she has something to remember of him on the day he died.

“I really wanted to see him for the last time, but I couldn't afford the trip,” Nhan said from her home in Hanoi, two days after her godfather, known to the whole world as one of the brightest brains of humankind, passed.

The English theoretical physicist and cosmologist had a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which gradually paralyzed him over the decades. He died aged 76 in Cambridge, and his death has been grieved from the entire world.

To Nhan, he was not just a genius, he was “a strict and very loving father.”

Nhan's biological parents died in a shipwreck when she was six years old. A year after that, she and her three siblings were placed in a Hanoi orphanage. Each child there was supposed to have a godparent, and when the orphanage sent the children's photos to potential godparents, Stephen Hawking chose her.

“That’s the best random thing that has ever happened to me,” she said.

During a trip to Japan in late 1997, Hawking and his wife Elaine Mason made a stop in Vietnam and met Nhan for the first time.

He showed children at the orphanage how he could turn his wheelchair around with just the push of a button.

Nhan was amazed by his talents and how hard he tried despite his condition.

He talked to her with his robot voice, via an intepreter. Sometimes he raised his eyebrows.

He and his wife also took Nhan for a walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake. He bought her an English dictionary and a camera, and personally picked the fabric for Nhan’s first ao dai at a shop in Hanoi. Now married with two children, Nhan has given the dictionary to the orphanage. She still has the ao dai and hopes to pass it on to her daughter some day, but plans to hold on to the camera for as long as she can.

Hawking stayed in Hanoi for three days, and Nhan said it was a tearful farewell for both of them.

Two years later, Nhan visited England and stayed with her godparents for nearly two months.

She said he had made time to take her shopping, to the zoo and on the London Eye.

She also got to learn English at Cambridge, where he was teaching.

Every morning, he called out to say goodbye before he went to work. Every night, he made sure she went to bed early.

Nhan said she did not understand much about the black hole theories that Hawking was studying, but she did understand his advice about staying strong.

She remembers he had told her to study as hard as she could, because that what he was doing.

In a letter in September 2002, she learned that Hawking was weaker, but he was still working and traveling.

Her godparents paid attention a lot to her personal life, asking her questions like where she was living, and with whom, how much she got paid for her job and how much she had to pay for her place.

From 2006, after they divorced, she lost contact. Hawking then resumed closer relationships with his first wife Jane Wilde, their three children, and grandchildren.

Nhan, 39, now runs a restaurant with her husband from their house in Bac Tu Liem District.

Her children know of Hawking as their grandfather, a role model that their mother wants them to follow.

“Study hard so you can become a fraction of his greatness,” she told them.

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