Keo and Phouxay Phanthavong have built a shrine to their deceased son, Anousone, to which Keo adds fresh flowers every day. Keo keeps in her freezer the lychee and star fruit her son gave her the day before he died. She carries photos of his Buddhist funeral in her purse.
Her husband, Phouxay, who fought in the Royal Lao Army alongside the CIA, fights this battle in his head. "Day by day," Phouxay said. "Missing him every day."
Anousone's death is no easier nearly a year after he was killed while filling his gas tank on an Interstate 94 exit ramp at Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis. His death, at 38 years old, forced the unassuming Phanthavongs to deal concurrently with the grief of losing a child and the strange burden of being thrust onto center stage in one of the most sensational hit-and-run trials in Minneapolis history.
Yet, the Phanthavongs remain gracious and steady on the eve of Monday's sentencing of Amy Senser, wife of former Vikings football player Joe Senser. She was convicted in May on two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide. State guidelines call for 41 to 57 months in prison.
The Phanthavongs call the American justice system "fair" and are less concerned with whether Senser serves four years or four weeks. For them, longed-for closure will come in other ways: in what is said, and in what is remembered.
"We hold no grudges," Phouxay said through Lao interpreter Anna Prasomphol Fieser, Anousone's closest friend and his boss at True Thai Restaurant in Minneapolis. "We have to watch," Phouxay said, "and hear her apology."
Keo nods. "An apology," said Keo, who has lost 15 pounds from stress, "will bring comfort."
Buddhists, explained Fieser, who attended every day of the trial for the friend she called "Ped," believe that if a wrong-doer asks for genuine forgiveness, "you give it to them. It's not the accident at all," she said through tears.
"It's all the trying not to take responsibility, trying to get away with it. If [Senser] asks for forgiveness from the heart, then we will do it, because it's what Ped would want us to do."
Senser's attorney Eric Nelson said last week he "fully" anticipates Senser will make that apology. "I know that she had been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to do so," he said.
As essential to healing as a heart-felt apology would be, the family also wants people to remember their son and friend as far more than "the victim." He was complex and imperfect, forgiving and selfless.
And, sadly, he was born and he died surrounded by noise.
Anousone Phanthavong was born in Laos on Christmas Day 1972, as bombs dropped on his village. Keo could not get to the hospital so she birthed him alone at home. Thirteen days later, she and her infant son crossed the Mekong River, fleeing the communist Pathet Lao.
At 7, he watched his parents and three siblings leave Laos for the United States. Too young to travel, he stayed behind with his aunt, to care for his grandfather. Keo candidly recounted that this was devastating to her son, who felt abandoned. "Why me?" he asked. "I tried many times to bring him over," she said. "But his grandfather needed him."
He learned how to cook from his aunt and trained as a Muay Thai boxer. At 16, Phanthavong finally arrived in Minneapolis, then lived briefly in Milwaukee with his uncle, a pastor. There his best friend, another Lao refugee named Konerak Sinthasomphone, was murdered by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
"That was the kind of life Anousone had," Fieser said, shaking her head in disbelief, "but not once did I ever hear him curse Dahmer. Only, 'My poor friend, Konerak.'"
Phanthavong returned to Minneapolis, graduated from Roosevelt High School and worked as a machinist. Fieser hired him as a dishwasher in 2002. Two days later, she realized he was "too good" for that job. He soon was winning awards for True Thai.
Fieser, who also works as a Ramsey County public health nurse, knew when she hired him that he had a criminal record, consisting mostly of misdemeanor traffic and drug offenses. He also had cocaine in his system the night of the hit-and-run. But she was appalled that his record was posted online before he was even buried.
"Ped hung out with the wrong crowd when he came to Minnesota. He was young, he was small and he knew how to fight," she said. "When his past caught up with him, we helped him with those problems."
He helped her, too. A few Christmases ago, he gave Fieser the gift of a year of cooking for her to help her lose 60 pounds. Last year, Fieser was robbed outside of her restaurant. From then on, Phanthavong walked her to her car every night, then called to make sure she arrived home safely.
He was in a bowling league and on a soccer team. He loved to tell stories. He brought food to his parents regularly and he thrived thanks to support from his restaurant family.
One month before he died, he cooked for Bono when U2 was in concert here. Two weeks later, he cooked for Sade. Still he remained "humble, so humble," Fieser said.
With a $200 tip from Sade, Fieser gave half of the money to her cooks. With the other half, she bought white tennis shoes for Phanthavong.
He was wearing them the night he died.
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