(written April 26, 2007)
“The bodies of the dead were thrown into the ravine like bags of sand.” My mother’s eyes are still and distant as those words escaped through her dry, quivering lips. I wasn’t born until 1974 – one year prior to the end of the Vietnamese/American War – but through my mother’s recounts of the events that she lived through prior to the fall of Saigon and even more through the heavy silence that she emotes with each long breath between each word she speaks, I am able to live those moments as if they were my own heart wrenching memories.
A lot like the way the sky can grow very grey and dark prior to a storm; sometimes it builds up quietly and stirs up malevolently, on occasion ending with nothing more than a disappointing drizzle, but more often times ending with a downpour that not only frightens your senses into staying indoors to wait out the electricity and wind, it can also chill you straight to the bone, so much that no matter how tightly you wrap yourself up in your comfort blanket, you can’t help feeling the spine tingling effects of each clap of thunder. That is my mother to a tee. You never really know when one of those moments will come up, when she will feel the need to revisit a tragic memory, partially to share her grief with another person in hopes of relieving some of the weight the memory may hold, but more so to remind her of how good she has it now.
“The soldiers did not make any effort to keep this horrific sight from the civilians. I was only twelve years old when I saw my first dead body.” My mother had taken the same road to school every day. Her thin, rope laced sandals made a soft patting sound as each step made contact with the dry dirt, followed by an even softer clap as her feet left the ground and her heel reconnected with the top of the sandal. The soft sound of her walking accompanied the whisper of the flowing river next to the road; dark muddy water carrying the sounds of nearby farmers conversing and singing as they tended to their abundant rice crops. The walk to school was about three to four miles from her mother’s shack in Sa Dec and would take my mother about an hour to get to the neighboring village where her desire to learn could be met.
At the end of the day, my mother would have a light dinner, rice and fried fish, at an aunt’s house about a mile down the road from the school. Here she would tell stories of the new bits and pieces of knowledge that she had obtained during the day and assist her aunt and cousins in some daily chores. Family is important to the Vietnamese people and my mother is as traditional as they come.
As the sun begins to drop below the green and orange skyline, my mother says goodbye to her aunt and cousins and begins the walk back home.
This particular day – what should have been just like any other day – changed my mother’s life permanently and left a deep, deep scar in her heart that still causes her to grow silent and remorseful as she rethinks the events that took place on that walk home from school. The river no longer told tales of a rich crop or a full constructive work day for the farmers. It now roared details of a heated gunfight and mimicked the screams of the fallen soldiers who fought aggressively to take over the surrounding villages, only to end up as part of the land that they shed so much blood to obtain. The trees that once provided shade for my mother on this daily walk now barricaded the road as their shredded trunks smoked signals of destruction and horror, the dry dirt now moist from blood, sweat and tears.
“The smell was so horrible,” my mother recalled. “The smell of the dead is like no other smell.” Her twelve year old senses went into overload as she cried and ran every happy thought she could think of through her head to force out the sights, smells, and sounds that she experienced that day but it was all too overwhelming. Where a child would normally need a father or mother figure to hold her – embrace her in the safest place a child could be at a time like this – she only had the cold hand of a soldier, gripping the still warm metal of his rifle which just contributed to the obliteration of so many lives. A cold hand that simply told her to turn around and encouraged her to forget what she had seen that day.
My mother did not forget. My mother could not forget. That day, as the soldiers dumped the bodies of the dead on the side of the road; as their limp carcasses slid down the riverbank, some falling into the river, my mother was told to forget. My mother has not forgotten that that was the day she stopped going to school. My mother has not forgotten how many hours she cried, how many tears she shed at her aunt’s house as she told her about the terrible things she had seen. My mother has not forgotten that her children cannot go through the rest of their lives not knowing what sacrifices had to be made in order for us to be living when and where we are now. Because of this and so many other reminders from my mother’s past, I will never forget.