Dad died two years ago today.
He died mid-sentence, sitting with a bunch of Rotarians in the Solomon Islands at the end of the first day of their charity mission.
The guy he was talking to told us later that it was like someone had pressed the off switch on a computer — the lights just went out. There was no gasp of pain, no anguished last breath, no dramatic plunge off his chair. He just stopped, still sitting up, with his eyes open.
We were in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand when got the terrible news of his sudden and unexpected death. The family gathered at Mum and Dad’s place in Queensland as quickly as we could, flying and driving from Thailand, Brisbane and Darwin. In the middle of the numbness and tears, we met my baby sister’s boyfriend for the first time.
We were all in a state of shock for a very long time. Sixty-four just seems too young, especially when you’re expecting to inherit the family trait of living into your 90s.
Two years later, I still get unexpected bouts of grief, the most recent while driving down to a death anniversary party for Darling Man’s grandmother, who died about 20 years ago. Death anniversaries aren’t such sad events in Vietnam. In Darling Man’s family they’re regarded as an occasion for a reunion.
Darling Man, Miss M, Snowy the puppy and I hired a taxi for the two-hour journey to ông bà nội’s place. The driver had a CD of Burt Bacharach and Lionel Ritchie numbers blasting out of the car stereo. (Vietnamese people do love 70s and 80s love ballads.) I was singing along, Miss M was doing free-style singing next to me and trying to spot pink motorbikes and buffaloes out the car window.
Then the old Seasons in the Sun song came on.
Goodbye my friend it’s hard to die
When all the birds are singing in the sky
Now that spring is in the air
Pretty girls are everywhere
Think of me and I’ll be there
I don’t even know how I know the words of this old song … but suddenly I was sobbing. The taxi driver was horrified. It’s very poor form to show emotion in Vietnam. Miss M was worried and Darling Man had no idea what was going on – he wasn’t listening to the lyrics.
We all eventually recovered. Snowy, who was on his way to his new home at Uncle Loc’s house, helped break the mood by vomiting all over me and Miss M’s new cloth dolls. Then I realised the CD was on a loop … and I had to listen to Seasons in the Sun a second time. The second time was a bit easier.
The death anniversary party was a lot of fun. We caught up with aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins and feasted on amazing food prepared by Darling Man’s aunts.
As is often the case with large gatherings, we sat on the floor for the death anniversary feast. (You can fit more people in a room by sitting them on the floor rather than at a table with chairs.)
After several hours of feasting and chatting, we said goodbye to Snowy and climbed back into the taxi. Seasons in the Sun played twice more on the way home but I was braced for it and it didn’t get me again.
Ancestor worship (or veneration) is common in Vietnam. Most homes have an ancestor altar and every morning incense, fruit and fresh flowers are placed before photographs of the dead relatives. On death anniversaries, a special offering table is usually set up as well, with the special feast dishes served to the ancestors first.
You can also send things to your dead relatives. Ancestor worship stores sell a range of paper and cardboard items that can be “sent” to the next world. You can send money, gold, houses, cars, motorbikes, clothes, iPads and tea sets — just about anything you can think of, really.
Sending hell money (and other “ghost papers”) is done with surprisingly little ceremony. This temple attendant helped us send off some papers during Ghost Month (because I wanted to see how it was done). There was no chanting, no prayers, no incense; he just spread the papers out out and burnt them.
I’ve thought a lot about how I should mark Dad’s death anniversary. None of the Vietnamese rituals seem to hit the right note for me.
Two years ago, during the Yi Ping lantern festival in Chiang Mai, I sent a lantern into the sky for Dad. We’d bought a noisy firecracker tail for it (Dad was quite a loud man) and as I watched it float up into the darkness, towards the stars with its tail fizzing and popping, I felt only the same sadness that was with me every day.
I can’t visit Dad’s grave because, for one, he doesn’t have one. I am not even sure where his ashes are. Last I heard they were at the funeral parlour, waiting for our family to decide what to do with them.
Darling Man says in Vietnam the second death anniversary isn’t as important as the first one, which we missed because we were both freaking out about me losing my job. (He also says grieving people shouldn’t cry too much because that only makes the departed worry about them and feel less inclined to move on to wherever they’re supposed to go.)
So sometime today I’ll find a quiet spot and think about Dad for a bit. I miss him and I feel like his life finished too soon. I’m going to miss him at Christmas and I’m really going to miss him when the new baby arrives, a grandson he’s never going to meet.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to have a family reunion of sorts when I’m back in Australia. Until then, Dad, take care of yourself. We are all thinking of you.
6 years ago