No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. – Heraclitus
Vietnam used to feel so far away from my life in the US. Not only is it physically half-way around the world from New England, but in my mind, the country and people–my people–seem to inhabit a different time and space, separate from my everyday life. But two months ago I returned to Vietnam for the second time in less than 3 years, and this time, the country and I finally existed in the same reality.
On this trip, I accompanied my mother to Vietnam–the first time she and I had set foot on Vietnamese soil together since 1980. Not to mention that it was also the first time she, my father and myself were in the same place at the same time in 38 years. As with many of my trips to Vietnam, I didn’t know what to expect. My mother is not an adventurous or confident traveler, not even in her own country. And her anxiety made me anxious.
Ever the planner and with multiple trips to Vietnam under my belt, I make all the arrangements–hotels, transportation, cruises, local tours, etc. In my mind I reasoned with her fears: all she had to do was show up and everything was taken care of. And indeed, everything went very smoothly. Knowing about her concerns and reservations (as well as mine), I tried to pre-empt every potential disaster. I made sure she had her own room when possible. I made sure airport pick ups were punctual and followed up repeatedly. I made sure that our Ha Long cruise junk had only three decks and that our cabins were in the middle deck so that she would never have to go up/down more than one deck to participate in activities and meals. I double and triple checked that a car and driver would meet her upon arrival at the airport. My mantra was plan, plan, plan!
I spent as much of my energy as possible on the logistics, so I could avoid pesky feelings that kept coming up before, during and after the trip. I wasn’t quite sure what I was anxious about. There were no planned grand reconciliations or reunions, nor did I expect any sudden resolutions or renewed relationships. I am no longer the young girl, like many young girls from broken families, who dreamt of her family being whole again. I have a whole family–my own family with my husband and children. No, this time the anxiety felt different, almost separate from my own narrative.
Now, several weeks after I’ve returned home, I think I know what it was that lurked in the back of my mind. I was anxious for my parents, both of them. I wasn’t worried about how I felt, but rather how they felt and what they felt. My father is getting older and more frail and there is a part of me that senses his desire to “set things right” before he leaves this world. Every time I leave Vietnam I worry that my next return will be for his funeral. He is a man of few words but I can sense that there are things he wants to tell me; maybe simple stories, or perhaps more painful confessions. And I simply don’t know if I can hear them, if I can bear the weight of them now that I have moved on and finally found my peace.
My mother, who is forever reliving the past, struggled to reconcile her past life with the present Vietnam that feels so different from the country she left behind. Her memories are a fixed point amidst a gushing river. How does one relive a past in the same places when the present keeps moving on? On the one hand I worried that she would not be able to find her Vietnam anymore. On the other hand, I worried that all she would find only darkness and old wounds. She too seemed to want to tell me something. And again, I couldn’t listen. I am that gushing river, rushing past her memories.
But if I am to be honest with myself, I was motivated by a selfish sense of freedom. After carrying their regrets and resentments within me for so long, I am free now and cannot go back. I don’t want to upset that delicate balance between accepting the past and living beyond the long reach of its shadows. I cannot rehash old grievances and misunderstandings anymore than I can heal old wounds that still fester. They are not my grievances, not my wounds. I feel selfish, but also self-preserving, as if I need to protect myself, my sanity, my way forward. I don’t usually put myself first, so this is a deliberate and meaningful struggle.
And yet, I often think that perhaps if I did ask, if I did listen, they would have a measure of peace. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe next time.