30 Day Travel Series: Being a Daughter
He told me that standing there in that train station, looking at all the flag-covered caskets, he decided that he would go to Vietnam someday, just to see where his brother died and to be there where he had been.
It wasn't until May 6, 2011, five days after Cooper was born, that I really thought about how much of an effect I have had on my parents’ lives. I went over to Jake and Lauren's house, which was now a home for three, to meet him. As I walked in I could feel just how significantly everything had changed. Jake and Lauren had created, out of nowhere, one of the most important people in their lives. I sat there with a tiny Cooper in my arms and wondered how he would change Jake and Lauren. I wondered what kind of friend he would be to his Mom and Dad. I wondered if his perspective on the world would change theirs. I wondered if Cooper would open up parts of his parents they didn't know were there. He adjusted his little body in my arms and I wondered if Cooper would change me. I'd been waiting for him for months and had been rooting for him since before he was born. To be honest, I was sorta waiting for him to bring us joy.
Two months before he was born, Cooper had lost one of his dearest Aunts, Lauren's best friend Maggie. I had spent those two months wallowing in the absurdity and mystery of death. I had tried to not put pressure on Cooper's little soul but I did want him to bring us some sort of message that life was more than just a series of days, that there was some sort of magic out there. I would stop myself every time I would start to put that pressure on him because I wanted the kid to live life the way he wanted to live it and not have doting Aunts hovering over him hiding their anxiety about the world in his existence. But sitting there with him in my arms, within minutes of meeting him, I did love him already. I could feel it all through me. That was message enough for me and I was so excited about my new little friend.
As the weeks went on I wondered if I had brought a message to anyone when I was born. I wondered if anyone had hidden their anxiety about the world in my existence. I wondered, for the first time in my life, what it was like to be in a relationship with me from my parents’ perspective. I wondered what parts of my parents I had opened up that they had never known about. I felt really weird about myself that, at 29 years old, I'd never considered my parents’ relationship with me from their side.
I started to think about my Dad. My Dad is a deep dude. He loves reading poetry and blasting music to feel every single note. When Grandpa, who was my Dad’s advisor, friend and best man in his wedding, was on his deathbed, my Dad took a step back and stayed calmly and quietly at home. But he called his distraught daughters three times a day as we ran around Grandpa's hospital bed, crawling up there with him, giving him a thousand kisses and yelling that we loved him in case he could hear us through his coma. Dad listened to us and told us that Grandpa was glad we were there. He comforted us. But the thing about Dad is that he rarely talks what is going on with him, about his feelings.
But holding Cooper that day, I started to understand the role I have been playing in my family since I was a tiny girl. The role I was born into. My role is to feel and express the sadness we are all feeling and give other people the option to share and open up. Most of the time growing up when I expressed the sadness it just turned into a “comfort the little girl” session and no one else shared, but I knew they were feeling it too. I come from a family of over-empathetic people and I know we all have issues dealing with our empathy.
I know therapists would say I need to break that pattern and that I can't take on this burden. They'd also probably say that I cling to that role because that is what gives my my sense of purpose. Okay, I agree in some senses, but when I see deep unexpressed sadness inside of the people I love and cherish the most on the planet it is hard for me not to dive in head first and see if there is anything I can do to help heal that pain. (Or at least heal the pain I feel about their pain).
That is why I went to Vietnam. My Dad's closest brother was killed in the Vietnam War. His name was John. John didn't have to go to war, he chose to. The military even made a special gas mask for him with prescription lenses because he had really bad vision. There was no reason he needed to be on the front lines, except that he was driven to do his duty. One of the members of his platoon had written a book and in that book it said that my Uncle died on the battlefield, next to a stream, in a small village, north of Hue in 1968. That was about all I knew about my Uncle’s death, until one afternoon when I was having lunch with my Dad in Hiroshima, Japan.
My Dad and I were eating Okonomiyaki. We had just gone to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a museum about the atom bomb. We both sort of dragged ourselves to lunch. It was a deeply disturbing museum, but eating the Okonomiyaki made me feel a little better. I can't
remember how it came up, but Dad told me that one night in 1968 he drove down to the railroad station in Los Angeles to meet his brother, who was coming home from Vietnam in a flag-covered casket. My Dad's best friend, Doug, had gone with him. He couldn't remember why he felt like he wanted to go meet the train, but he just did. He told me that standing there in that train station, looking at all the flag-covered caskets, he decided that he would go to Vietnam someday, just to see where his brother died and to be there where he had been.
My heart sank. I wanted to say, “Ummmm, why have we never been on a family trip to Vietnam? Why don’t we go to Vietnam next week? I have been around for 29 years and you have never told me about this?” I could see his sadness. Poor Dad. My head spun around in circles trying to figure out how I could help. “Well, are you going to go to Vietnam??” I asked.
“Some day, probably,” he said. I was not sure what he meant by that and was really worried he'd never do it. Right there over Okonomiyaki I took the family baton. I'd go to Vietnam, I'd find where Uncle John died, I’d stand on the earth and take photos and videos to send back home to Dad, Doug, and all my Aunts and Uncles.
But when I got to the small village in Central Vietnam, even though I was armed with satellite maps and pages of wars books marking the area where my Uncle died, I felt lost. I don’t know what I expected; I guess I was hoping to see a ghost or something. But as I rode through the small villages on a motorbike, with my arms around Julian, I just watched the vast and overwhelming beauty fly by: the rice paddies, the water buffalo, the school kids racing each other on their bicycles. I passed dozens of streams that day, and as I passed each one I’d wonder if that was the one that my Uncle had died by. It was almost impossible to imagine the horrendous violence that happened right there on that dirt. It was even harder than impossible to imagine my Uncle, looking like me with his small chin, laying there in the fields.
It just makes me feel so mad, like light-headed mad, that he had one life to live and had to bear witness and be a part of such a violent, dark part of our human capabilities.
I wanted to stand on the edge of the road, snap my fingers and bring all the dead bodies back to life, even if it it was just for a few minutes, so they could call their families and tell them they loved them. Maybe they could tell them where they were exactly when they died. Because just dying by a stream, in an unknown land, leaves families with this overwhelming emptiness and nothing to grab on to.
That is why I was there, I guess, trying to throw a speck of understanding into that nothingness for my Dad. With my Grandpa’s spirit in my heart, and my Dad and his Brothers and Sisters in my mind, Julian and I continued our search.
We couldn’t find the exact spot so we just wandered in the sandy fields, kicking up dust and snapping photos. Julian said, in his weird, formal/something-sad-happened voice, “Want to say something to your Uncle?” I did. My Mom had said I should tell him hi, and I thought it would be weird to come all this way and not say anything in case he could hear me or had been waiting for someone to return. We decided to go down by
a stream we had seen a mile or so back and say something there. We got back on our bike and rode down a narrow road, across a small bridge, past a old farmer who was resting under a tree, and got off down by the stream.
I guess I just wanted to tell him that my Dad loved him, and that my Grandpa was so proud of him and missed him until the day he died. I wanted to tell him that we always missed him at the family reunions, and my Sister and I are so
curious about him because, supposedly, he was the serious, straight-laced one in a family of eight wild hippies.
As I collected dirt in a film canister, I could hear the water buffalo bathing in the stream nearby. With my hands in the dirt, I wished for my Uncle’s peace. I wished that for my Uncle because I had a reason to feel that connection, he’s my family. He looked like me and probably had all the same mannerisms as my Aunts and Uncles. But looking over at an old Vietnamese farmer, who was still resting in the shade by the bridge, I wished for the people he had lost too. It was really hard for me to take my hands out of the dirt. I could feel that there were so many Brothers and Sisters out there in the world who wanted the ones they lost to have peace too. I just kept wishing for them, over and over and over again.
That afternoon made me really realize that war never ends. The spookiness, loneliness, and pain of people dying and suffering lives on for generations. I am sorry for the unborn Nieces and Nephews who will be on some similar mission 30 years from now, in Iraq or Afghanistan, looking for some semblance of a reason for the pain they see in their parents’ eyes.
My hope was that me going out there, and putting my hands in the dirt, helped my family heal a little. Meeting Cooper made me to realize that attempting to “help” express other people’s sadness when they weren't ready to may be my assumed family role, but riding back to Hue that evening I realized that what collecting the dirt and talking into the sky really did was help heal my own sadness about never getting to meet my sweet Uncle John.
This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.
Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX
Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.