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 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, 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)
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.