Vietnam Diary Part 2 – Hoi An and Josh’s birthday (by Jane)

Illuminations in Hoi An for the Full Moon Festival

I was nervous and exhausted and so apprehensive about our trip but from the moment of arriving in Vietnam I have felt as if I was at home.  Nothing is familiar but yet it all feels right.   Ho Chi Minh City was one surprise after another and our 3 days there were a chance to relax despite the frenzy of the city.  We visited the Mekong Delta, then on to the house swap I had arranged in Hoi An half way up the country. I had been wondering if it was a virtual fantasy as the pics on the Internet verged on the unreal.  Glad to say it meets all our expectations and a few more.

Owned by Vietnamese author of many books about Vietnam, Anna Moi’s house was built by French architect Jacques-Emile Lecaron and is breathtaking.  Built in a style that replicates natures shapes and forms we feel as if we are amongst the palm trees floating in the air.  Our bathroom which had no walls just wooden slats for windows that can be opened to the sky.

The 4 of us slow right down.

 Hoi An 23rd May – Josh’s Birthday

Our 3rd celebration of Josh’s birthday without him. Each year since his death we have marked it as a family quietly and intimately supported by the love and good wishes of our friends and Josh’s,  This year is no different except this time  we are finally strong enough to visit the country where he spent his last few happy days in his life cut way too short.

The other difference is that our friendship group has changed and realigned as some friends have been tested by our openness and moved away as other friendships have deepened and strengthened through shared sorrow.    Though our world is reordered and different I am noticing that as time passes it becomes slightly more possible to live with our pain.   The hole is still as big but it is getting less jaggy round the edges and much more tolerable.

Helping us to make a ritual for remembering Josh on his birthday is Anna Moi’s father, Kha who is 91, a Buddhist and a yoga teacher. He lives simply in a separate part of the house, meditates every day and exudes wisdom.   His tells us his wife died 3 years ago and he had to return to Vietnam from LA where he had moved some years before. He misses her terribly and I am reminded yet again that every grieving journey is unique.  However there are also so many overlaps as I have been discovering these last 6 months while we have been making a film for the Compassionate Friends called Say Their Name.

Kha is 91. Josh would have been 25

Kha is comfortable with our loss as we are with his and he observes gently how painful it must be to lose a child. He gives us no advice just acceptance and this feels good.  He explains about Karma and cause and effect. He explains that maybe Josh will be reborn as a flower or a plant or even an animal and if he is lucky and was a very good person maybe as a human being!  But he also adds that this would only happen 2 or 3 years after his death. I say Josh died just over 2 years ago and Kha smiles knowingly. I feel Josh’s presence so strongly and comfortably that I reckon this may just be the case!

Kha recites a Buddhist mantra for us at the little shrine we have created on the dining room table: playing cards, a photo, a string of sea shells (a gift from Josh’s friends Hollie and Charlie) and some flowers picked from the garden by Kha’s carer, Hai.  Hai is a beautiful, pick up best slots and casino on Svenskkasinon website gentle woman who laughs at our wide eyed surprise at everything new as well as  at our strange eating habits. (I have to admit I struggle with black beans and noodle soup for breakfast)

Hai picks flowers from the garden

In his new book Levels of Life, written some four years after the death of his wife Julian Barnes talks about the experience of surviving a loved one’s death.  “Grief” he says “is like death. It is both unique yet banal”.   There was a time when Josh could be reluctant to admit being over excited about anything.  Like leaping out of an aeroplane for that parachute jump on his 21st birthday –  “How was it?” we asked.  “Pretty banal really” came his reply.   Strange how the same word can belong in two so very different emotional settings.     Yet I feel consoled by this juxtaposition of Barnes’ observation and the memory of Josh’s dry humour.

We talk a little more on matters of life and death and then, in turn. we all light a candle to remember our son and brother.  Joe puts on Star by Primal Scream, the tune that came to mean so much in the days after Josh died.

 That evening the river front in Hoi An became a seething mass of humanity as people gathered to light candles to mark and pray to the full moon.   We scrambled  aboard a flimsy boat and set the ones we had bought for Josh afloat and watched as they drifted off to join a glorious mix of dazzling colours.   I was again struck by the sheer synchronicity of this event unlike no other I have experienced in my life – with the exception of Josh’s funeral and the viral candle lighting ceremony.

I thank Josh for bringing us here to Vietnam. I feel him everywhere and understand for the first time that just because he is dead, no longer alive, it doesn’t mean that he no longer exists.  Being here is right for us as we move on to the next stage of our grieving journey.

Jane

Vietnam Diary – Part One


Saigon  May 19th

Arrived mid evening after 14 hour flight via Dubai feeling buzzed out but not too tired.  The taxi from the airport was our first experience with Vietnamese traffic, the driver leaning on his horn while weaving through the only other vehicles on the road – motorbikes, motor cycles, scooters – the rules of traffic being seemingly non existant. Hands over ears and eyes most of the time. Check in to Hotel Continental – spartan but comfortable – not as ‘faded glory’ as I had imagined – polished marble floors, chipped paint and spotlessly clean if a little soulless – the colonial era has given way to socialist efficiency. If Graham Green and Somerset Maughan had stayed here there’s no sign of these illustrious guests – any other hotel would have huge pictures of them in the lobby .   There was however a massive photo of a bride and groom – weekends is wedding time as Michael the butler from Claridges would say and over this weekend the hotel would cram three in.   The first of these was in full swing in the courtyard, the music rising with the heat and causing Joe and Rosa some concern for their sleep. Jane and I had a room on the other side of the building. Jane was out like a light but I stayed awake till 1.30 having started to watch a documentary about the American war in Vietnam – “Hearts and Minds” a brilliant and beautifully made film.

When you open the hotel window on the morning of your first day in a foreign country, the novelty of it all wraps round you like a brand new scarf.  The heat, piped music from the square, the advertising hordings, the constant roar of motorbikes, all confirmation that we are here at the start of our journey to find out more about the country Joshua was traveling through. The motorbikes of course have special significance – Josh was riding a 100cc Honda Win when he died and every time I see one of these bikes, my thoughts spin back to those earliest imaginings in the days after we received the news of his accident.  But  already I’m getting a sense that these machines and the roads they inhabit are not ‘the accident waiting to happen’ as we had feared.    To ride in what looks like chaos does not mean it is unsafe though I guess a fundamental requirement is to have 360 degree awareness of everyone else around you.

It takes a while to learn how to cross the road

Breakfast was a disaster – every conceivable meal and taste seemed to be catered for – porridge with meat balls, noodles, dim sum, as well as croissants and fruit yogurts. The coffee was disgusting – was it laced with cardamon, coriander, or chicory – probably none of these, maybe all of them. I decide to stay with jasmine tea with slices of tropical fruits.

Ho CHi Minh is everywhere

We spent the first part of the day  wandering the streets of central Saigon – it is Ho Chi Minh’s birthday tomorrow and there are red flags and posters of him everywhere, even a special photo display in the square. Something to look forward to. We don’t have a lot of time in Saigon so whatever we do will be very cursory – a spin through the market, a visit to the War Museum, a high speed lift up the city’s archectural icon to modernity – the Bitexco Financial Building, a meal seated on children’s stools on the pavement. This unsurprisingly turned out to be the better of any of the food we’ve eaten. There was a menu but our order disappeared further off down the street to someone squatting over a small stove in a doorway. Call me old fashioned but food hygiene in the modern world leaves a lot to be desired – taste!

Good Morning Vietnam (photo: Joe)

Her first day in Saigon and Rosa is picked up for soliciting !?!?    (photo: Jimmy)
The War Remnants Museum (photo: Jimmy)
Sea Cadets at the War Remnants Museum (photo: Jimmy)

On Sunday we became a bonefide contributors to Vietnam’s booming tourist economy with the purchase of a day trip to the Mekong Delta. The mini bus arrived at the hotel at 8.15 on the dot – standard Viet punctuality – before rounding up our fellow sight seers from the various other internationally branded hotels in central Saigon. On board were Korean, Chinese, Japanese, even some Vietnamese all with American accents. Our destination was My Tho, nearly two hours away down Highway One. Just to make sure we were on the right road in the right country our guide galloped us through 3000 years of Vietnam’s history and the two Indochinese wars – the first against the French and the second against the Americans. I didn’t catch every word – his English was good but heavily accented and what with the constant beeping of the buses horn I think I just about got a sense that his war, or what would surely have been his parents war was in effect against the communists. Vietnam opened up to tourism with the lifting of the US blockade in the early 1990’s and the influx of foreign capital. Our guide seemed happy enough with this development. In one of the first documentaries I cut for television, ‘Apocalpse Then’, I well remember a scene with huge Coca Cola banners hanging on the façade of the Hanoi Opera House – (the equivalent would be 20 metre high portraits of HO Chi Minh draped over the National Gallery by Trafalgar Square). The Vietnamese call this ‘market socialism’ and in copying the Chinese, have adopted what is probably the most efficient and most developed form of capitalism, a state controlled commodity economy in which one of the best sellers is history and authenticity.

A short boat trip from the bus station across the river and we were in what was explained to us as a ‘village’ and we were being shown around a ‘villagers house’ just down the path from the local ‘market’. It felt very conveniently mapped out for the continual stream of cameras and video recorders. On sale was of course was, every traditional handicraft – sarongs, t shirts, lacquer bowls, coconut sculptures, much more than I care to remember. We were then invited to sit and enjoy some ‘traditional’ folk music including horribly scraped out versions of John Lennons ‘Imagine’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  I suspect that we haven’t as yet found the Vietnam that Josh was getting to know.

On our return to Saigon, we found that the celebrations for Ho Chi Minh’s birthday were non existant… mind you he is a symbol of revolutionary fervour, not necessarily of capitalist growth, something that has been in double figures for the past two decades.

Midday – Mekong Delta – waiting for the rain to pass (photo: Jimmy)
Without Josh we wouldn’t be here … (photo: Jimmy)
The old and the new (photo: Jimmy)

SAY THEIR NAME – a TCF video

For the past five months Jane and I have been working on the production of a promotional video for THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS.  Initially tasked to make something akin to a similar video produced for the US branch of the charity, ‘SAY THEIR NAME’  has been hailed as a ‘wonderful film’, ‘very inspiring’ and “a huge insight into what it is like to be a parent who has lost a child”.

THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS is a charity that we have become very close to since Josh died.   The charity is run exclusively by and for bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents.     It has a help line, an on line forum and runs many local groups with monthly meetings.  We go to one near us in Minchinhampton.    It’s a place to talk about your loss and a place to remember.   Jane and I have both made new friends at TCF and have found much comfort from being able to talk about Josh and the way we are feeling   Whatever crap emotions we have, whether it’s the immense sense of loneliness, anger at other peoples responses, guilt about not thinking about Josh enough, our fear of social occasions, the lack of confidence to be our true selves again, all these are somehow validated and made to feel OK by sharing them with other bereaved parents.    It’s a while now since we felt we were the only family in the world to have lost a son and it really helps to know that the ups and downs of our lives are perfectly normal –  for us and for all bereaved parents.

And that is really what the film is about – validating and normalising the experience of bereavement, particularly as it overtakes a family who have, or are trying to survive the death of a child.       SAY THEIR NAME seems to work on all sorts of levels; its good for the newly bereaved to know that there is hope beyond the horrendous darkness; its good for professionals (counsellors, social workers, health workers, teachers) to have a better understanding of what it means to lose a child, and its good for the non-bereaved who often feel at a loss themselves, unsure of how to support a friend  or simply stuck in that “don’t know what to say” position.   And it’s been good for us too; we’ve been able to engage with and learn from others experiences; we’ve been able to devote our emotional energy to a project that we really believe in;  Above all it’s kept us busy.   When Josh died we had so many conflicting emotions flying around that never seem to land anywhere.   Making the film about his funeral gave us focus for awhile but producing this video for TCF has given our lives new purpose .. or at least that’s what it feels like right now.

SAY THEIR NAME is we believe the only film available in this country, where bereaved parents and siblings have been able to speak openly, frankly and in public about the devastating experience of the death of their child.    One weekend shortly before last Christmas, twelve members of The Compassionate Friends did just that.

We built a temporary studio in what was once the cellar of a pub in Deptford, SE London, now the smart new premises of THE JESSICA MATHERS TRUST, a small charity set up by Jannet and Stephen Mathers in honour of their daughter Jessica who died in 2007.     Jannet and Stephen have been committed supporters of TCF since that time and have done much to promote the charity.   They have even created a space to house the TCF headquarters at JESSICA’S HEART as the building is now known.

With camera and sound recorder set up, people began to arrive.    We had allocated an hour per interview and inevitably this meant a bit of a queue while they waited their turn in the upstairs room. Jannet had provided refreshments but it still had the air of a dentist waiting room.  Enlisting a good cross section of parents and siblings had taken much time and persuasion.  Now their time had come and the nerves were beginning to show.

They needn’t have worried.   Jane did the interviews –   “they were more like conversations really; my questions were based on our own personal experiences after Josh died; the shock of his death, feelings of hopelessness and of a terrible loneliness, a remoteness from friends and family, a constant dread and anxiety for our other children. Before Josh died I would not have had the confidence or the wherewithal to talk so openly to another parent about the death of their child, but now I was intensely curious to know what other bereaved parents felt, what made things better, what made things worse, how long was it before they felt ‘normal’ again.”

Jimmy was (nominally) in the role of director – “I was hidden from view and could only watch the interviews on the monitor.    As far as I knew Jane had not conducted such intense ‘on-camera’ interviews before but she had complete confidence in her ability to tackle such sensitive issues.  It felt like Jane was ‘holding’ the interviewees in ways that her experience as a therapist must have surely have helped.  Her calm and steady voice assuring her subjects that this space was safe, that she understood what they’ve been through.   ‘You can trust me’ she was implying, and they did.”

Jane  –  “There was a remarkable feeling of closeness and I still hold that day in my mind as the beginning of a deepening and ongoing relationship with many of the interviewees. Regardless of the cause of our child’s death we’d all had very similar experiences. We’d all suffered a loss that was every parent’s worst nightmare, we’d all had friends cross the road to avoid us, we’d all found ourselves stuck in some kind of time warp; and then there was the gob smacking realization that every bereaved parent has at some moment had thoughts of ending their own life.   But grief, I also learnt, is about love and just as there is no one way to love someone, so nobody can tell you how to grieve.”

This was an opportunity for many to speak of their loss in ways that was new to them and revealing for us.  And when one mother implored her friends to stop avoiding any mention of her child lest it upset her more –   Say Their Name became an obvious choice for the title

By the end of the weekend we’d both found that (as one interviewee had said) “we’d made some of the best friends we wished we never had.”

We had expected the edit to take just a couple of weeks.    In fact it took much longer.     We’d recorded some fantastic interview material and we soon realised that to give it full justice, we’d have to employ all our creative skills and call in a few favours.    The budget for this project was minimal but we were very generously helped out by a number of my professional colleagues.  In particular we’d like to thank Alasdair Oglivy who who set up the studio and shot the interviews, Marc Hatch and Christine Felce for recording the sound, Russell Taylor and Steve Cooke who provided the music, and Films@59 in Bristol for their post production work.   All this work was done completely free of charge so big thanks to all of them. Without it we wouldn’t have the film we have.

SAY THEIR NAME will be released in July 2013 but you can watch a trailer here ….

Our Journey to Vietnam

TRAVELLING MAN

Josh died on the Ho Chi Minh Highway near the town of Vu Quang in the north of Vietnam just over two years ago.  Two years that have both flown and dragged by.   Two years and his death still seems so unreal, so unnatural.   The boy that was becoming a man, venturing abroad to discover what life had in store for him – how could he not now be living that life.

Perhaps we have too many photos and film clips of him – so many good memories shielding us from the pain of his death, of his absence; so many happy, vibrant, quizzical pictures of Josh as alive as any could be.   Too many good stories that have, in a curious way, built up a fog of uncertainty around the fact of his death; a fact that should have been confirmed when, the day before the funeral, we all four of us stood round his casket and gazed on his lifeless form.  We stroked his cold hands and kissed his cold forehead and tried to take in this awful reality.    We were with him then for an hour, maybe only half an hour, who knows; time stood still.   But hovering in the night air, the question no parent should ever have to ask:  “why is our son so quiet; why is he lying in a box?”   We were there; his mother, father, sister and brother.   In his jeans and T shirt, Josh was there with ashen face, and sightless eyes.    We must have known the answer to that question        But that was then and this is now and time has discarded the evidence that was once so very clear.   If my mind ever told me then that Josh has not and will never return home, my soul has continued to say no, still and forever no; this is not  true;  he is not dead. Joshua is out there still, wandering somewhere in this big world of ours.

Laos and Thailand November/December 2010

As a family we always knew that one day we would travel to Vietnam to visit the spot where Joshua had his accident.  And that day is almost here.  We fly out on 16th May. Our initial idea was to continue  Josh’s own journey, with a bit of an overlap.  We would start in Laos travel through to Hanoi and then journey south to Saigon and from there to Cambodia.  This would have been Josh’s plans as he made his way back to Thailand and thence to India and Nepal.  Maybe one day  Jane and I may well do this, but for now we have decided to concentrate on visiting Vietnam and Cambodia.  We will want to soak up the atmosphere, particularly of Vietnam so that we can have a sense of the place that Josh was enjoying so much. Starting in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City officially but still referred to locally as Sai Gon) we will then spend a week in Hoi An before visiting Vu Quang where we hope to meet with the school teacher that spoke English and helped Josh’s friends with the aftermath of the tragedy.   Then tracing Josh’s last journey in reverse we will spend next few days in Hanoi including a nightover in one of the many junks that cruise Halong Bay famed for its thousands of small limestone islands.

With friends in Halong Bay – 11th January 2011
Halong Bay
Halong Bay

Joe will have to go back to work after two weeks but  Jane, Rosa and I will then fly down to Siem Reap in Cambodia, and gorge on all the temples of Ankgor Wat and the surrounding area, before traveling through to Phnom Penh and hopefully a few days lazing on one of the many tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand.     Thats the plan but who knows, and who cares if it actually works out like that.

With Tram, Hanoi, January 2011

What’s important for the four of us, is that the trip is both a kind of pilgrimage as well as a well earned holiday.   Josh will of course be with us all the way but we don’t want his death and the sadness we all feel to get in the way of what can also be a journey of discovery.  When Josh died we were all changed in ways we never thought possible and certainly never wanted.   This trip may well be our chance to find out more about who we have become. I don’t think we are looking for ‘closure’ (as some have suggested) or that after we have been to the site of the accident, that we can then somehow “move on”.   Who knows what we will feel, or how we will react. Personally I feel a desperate need to connect with the place where Josh died so suddenly; not so much as a way of imagining a horror of the scene, more as an attempt to encounter a reality, an ordinary everyday reality with ordinary people, people who may wonder why we are there, why we have arrived at this particular bit of roadside.  And when we stand silently together, looking for signs, for clues, maybe take photographs of the empty highway, perhaps then we will know that the circumstances of Joshua’s death are both mundane and extraordinary. Both so deeply personal, so individually painful, as well as so universally commonplace.  Perhaps then I won’t have to dig so deep, past days and months of waking up to each morning’s cruel reminder, past the continual background noise of Josh’s death, past all the things we have done to create a new life for him, to find that ghost of a memory that tells me, yes I did see him lying there … dead as ever dead can be.

Full Moon Festival – Hoi An

An important moment will be Joshua’s 25th birthday on 23rd May. We will be in Hoi An and  it just so happens that the famous Full Moon Festival for May is on the 23rd.  Apparently its not at all like the full moon beach parties of Thailand where everyone just gets smashed out of their head – this really is about honouring traditional cultures with lots of poetry and folk music and of course thousands of lanterns.  So we’ll definitely be setting one off  for Josh.

Watch out for regular postings to this blog while we are a away – check Josh’s Facebook pagePostcards to Josh, and throw in some of your own thoughts and stories to the comments below – with lots of love  Jimmy

Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos December 2010
With friends near Luang Prabang December 2010
Mekong River, Laos – December 2010
Luang Probang, Laos – December 2010