Twenty-five years ago, the book you hold in your hands, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
, was joined by two sister narratives. One was named Child of War, Woman of Peace
, my account of my early years as a refugee in America and my first attempts to help survivors in my still-troubled homeland. The other was called Heaven & Earth
, a glamorous Hollywood relative, that retold both stories to movie audiences around the world. Their strange and wonderful journeys continue to this day.
Here in the West, we celebrate a quarter century as a “silver” anniversary. For me and my print and film daughters, it is a very suitable color. As you’ve seen in these pages, I grew up near a beach lined with silver sand while silver clouds swirled overhead: sometimes bright with sunshine, sometimes dark with smoke and summer monsoons. When I came to America in 1970, the terrors that clouded my life found silver linings in three growing sons and a chance to help the Vietnamese half a world away who had not shared my good fortune. As my story reached millions more on the printed page and silver screen, I began to see old truths with new eyes: through the lens of wisdom that only comes with age.
In 2006, as my mother’s old gray head lay on a shabby pillow at Danang General Hospital, my three elder sisters, my brother, and I surrounded her bed in a vigil as old as time: waiting stoically for the moment our loved one moves on, whether back to the world of the living or onward to the realm of her ancestors. Mama Du
was 102, thin as a reed, and almost drained of the sap of life: a stalk of rice with no more grains to give. As I watched her life begin to ebb, I saw another circle being closed. Her sickbed was in a hospital built two years before by the humanitarian organization I founded in 1988 but is now entrusted to other hands. Like every Vietnamese hospital, its rooms and corridors are filled with patients’ families. Some help the nurses with the sick, but most just tend their loved ones, bringing food from home with smiles and tears.
Independent to the last, Mama whispers that she wants to leave this life on her own terms: at home in her bed, surrounded by friends and family. With my sisters and brother, I look for someone to discharge her, but it is Reunification Day, a public holiday in Vietnam, so there are no nurses or orderlies to help. We finally find an army stretcher and, taking care to keep her oxygen tube and IV in place, bring her home ourselves in an old hired Dodge van, another relic of the war. Neighbors and distant relations—even the village herbalist, the monks, and the wizards who mediate between the living and the dead—catch sight of our van and gather at our door to meet us. Before we let them in, my sisters and I bathe and shampoo Mama and dress her in finery that befits the grand journey she is about to take. She is now beyond speech, but her smile shows that she hears us singing as we work, recounting family lore about the old days in Ky La: how Mama and Papa met and married, and how, together, they survived the long fall through two wars and the loss of family and a way of life.
As Mama’s spirit prepares to leave, guests and mourners glide past her bed, saying good-bye and giving us, her children (including our brother Bon, now bent and gray like the other village elders), advice for the coming funeral. They want the ceremonies to go just-so
, with no confusion about the rituals or interference from troublesome ghosts. When they’ve had their say and resume their vigil outside, my sisters and I sort through the small aluminum box where Mama has kept her prize possessions: her few nice clothes, her favorite comb, fingernail clippers, and a pair of dangly earrings made by a grandchild. Among these treasures are two long-sleeved white shirts, now discolored and stiff with age. I remember Mama wearing them on special occasions, recalling only now that they were made from a GI pillowcase at the start of the American War. I swallow a sob and marvel at how much history fits into one box.
“We should bury this box outside the casket under Mama’s feet,” I suggest.
“Oh no!” Hai looks horrified. “After we go, people will only dig it up! We might as well bury gold.”
Disbelief shows on my face but quickly fades as I watch the villagers mill around. Wars may end, wounds can heal, but scars on the soul often persist until the bearer is reborn. Fortunately, if the universe promises one thing, it’s that we all get another chance.
Copyright © 2017 by Le Ly Hayslip. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.