“Today madam we should pay our respects to the landlord’s mother” announced Chi. Great I thought, having been bitterly disappointed that we missed out on the actual funeral a few days earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not somebody who delights in death or bearing witness to another’s sorrow. In fact I have probably caused more harm along the way with my complete horror of causing pain to another person – with the things not said and the actions not taken – than any mischief I might have carried out intentionally.
No, my delight is because I am intrigued by how others do things. How they conduct the rituals of life and how we learn what is expected of us simply by ‘being there’. And what better way to observe, at least a small part of, the rituals surrounding death here in Vietnam than by going along to pay my respects to a lady I have never met, for a man I never knew?
Despite being acutely aware of how little I know about Vietnamese societal norms, one thing is for sure – I can recognise a mother’s pain in any language and can think of nothing worse than the raw agony of losing your child, no matter how old they are.
Chi explained that we should take fruit and an envelope each on which we must write some words of condolence. It was agreed that I should write what I would in the UK to someone I didn’t know and so, conscious of the need to translate it too, I opted for a rather bland:
We are very sorry for your loss.
Warm wishes, Kevin and Karen
Into the envelope we were to put 100,000 Vnd per person (i.e. 200,000 in my envelope and 100,000 in Chi’s – which she refused to let me pay)
At 2p.m., which Chi considered to be the right time to visit, she called our landlord and landlady and, getting no reply, set off next door to find out what time would be convenient.
The mother was there but about to go back to her own house along the alley. A few minutes later and Chi’s ‘phone rang to signal that we should set off. Walking Sally through all the inter-connecting lanes on a daily basis, I already knew the house to which we should make our way but the landlord’s 23-year old son was waiting at our gate to escort us.
On arriving Chi pushed me forward saying: “You are older than me, you must go first”. So there I was, straight into the front room as is typical in Vietnamese houses. The grieving mother looked to be in her 80s but I find local people incredibly difficult to age accurately.
We were handed a plate on which Chi arranged our envelopes and the fruit (grapes the size of golf balls because as Chi said: “They will be offered to other visitors and everyone will know that they were brought by the ‘tay’ – the foreigners”) This she then placed on the altar where we stood side by side with hands raised, flat together in a symbol of respect and prayer. We dipped our hands three times before the photo of the deceased, made a small bow and sat on the hard wooden chairs beloved of Hanoians, to chat about the deceased take tea and eat fruit. (I learned that the Vietnamese way to eat a banana is to snap it in the middle and delicately unpeel one half at a time eating it as you unpeel. My rather ungainly and faintly obscene ‘Western’ way had me cursing the previous visitors for not having had the foresight to have taken grapes too)
The mother, my landlady and the deceased’s sister all sat with us chatting, with Chi translating, bridging the divide and asking all the questions I longed to ask but would have felt to be impolite even if I could speak Vietnamese. (They have no such qualms and to say that they ‘call a spade a spade’ would be under-emphasising just how blunt they truly are). The old lady started to cry and kept saying “Cam On” (thank you) over and over. Chi explained that she was so moved that I had taken the time to visit and that the whole family are most grateful to Kevin and me for caring about them. I confess I felt slightly guilty at just how fascinating a pleasure this visit was for me and muttered the obligatory platitudes, you’re welcome, it’s nothing …..
And so to the deceased. He was the youngest of her children born in 1969, making him 42 at the time of death, which everyone agreed was far too young. He was diagnosed with throat cancer 6 months ago and had whatever treatment could be offered here. Towards the end he was ‘so sick he could not eat rice’ Chi confirmed solemnly. Anyone who has been to Vietnam will immediately discern just how truly dreadful was his condition as, for most of the population rice is eaten and enjoyed three times a day, every day. He was conscious when he died but very weak having existed on just water, yogurt and milk for several weeks. His illness did not unfortunately take away his appetite and he begged for food right up to the end, knowing as he did so that he could not possibly swallow anything with any substance. Surrounded by his entire family; mother, brother, sister, nephews, nieces and the collective spouses, he passed away peacefully on Monday.
We all agreed that this was a blessing, that he was a very handsome man and that he had a lovely smile.
Chi explained that the family must continue to feed him for 49 days which was slightly disconcerting until I realised that this is done by leaving his meals on the altar for him to enjoy, along with his favourite brand of Hanoi vodka, soft drinks and cigarettes. Prior to his illness, he had been a heavy smoker so his relatives must ensure that during this mourning period he enjoy a continuous supply of cigarettes, lit for him and placed between the incense sticks in a manner that seemed sickeningly close to a replica graveyard with its burnt out stubs sticking into the air almost mockingly.
During this 49 day period the daughter and daughter-in-law will take turns on alternate days to feed the mother before she moves in next door permanently on the 50th day.
With the niceties over we took our leave to more ‘cam on’ing and squeezing of hands and, once outside the door the sister invited Kevin and I to her restaurant, just near where we all live and my landlady begged me to teach her English in exchange for Vietnamese classes from her.
The son escorted us on the return trip with Chi confessing that she had not been that way along the alley before (despite admitting to me earlier in the day that she had lived not 5 minutes walk from my house for 10 years during her marriage!) and the son laughed and said that everyone knows me because I walk through there every day with my dog. As she opened our gate Chi said how lucky it was that the deceased had no children of his own. Thinking how difficult it would be for them to lose a father I agreed with a sympathetic nod only to be brought up short when she said “The landlord must now look after his mother and if there were children he should pay everything for them too, at his own expense. Yes it is very good, I think so, that he had no children. Very luckeeee.”
Well now I would never think of not having children as being lucky, although I can see her point. Even in death, life must go on.
Ooh, I’ve just been overcome by a strange thought that has been sloshing around on the edges of consciousness ever since we decided to try for an expat life: what if either of my parents die while I’m away?
Now I know, in the rational bits of my brain, that death or the possibility of it, accompanies all of us, all the time and we somehow reach an accommodation with the thought whereby it doesn’t cripple us provided we acknowledge it’s presence occasionally.
But my father is 83, fit and healthy – not that that’s a ‘get out of jail free card’, there are plenty of perfectly healthy people who die! Maybe my misgivings are around the distance and logistics of getting back to the UK from Hanoi. As the oldest of three daughters I would anticipate people looking to me for guidance and support and realistically I simply won’t be there for them in those first few hours.
This might seem like a very morbid topic for a post but it’s real and important to think about so as to prepare myself as best I can for the eventuality which – God willing – won’t happen!
I have some processing to do around this issue and will write more if it seems pertinent. All comments welcome please from everyone who has had to deal with just such an event or at least the thought process around the possibility.