We arrived in Hue, a city on the coast of central Vietnam, on a steamy Wednesday morning. The sky was clouded grey and I could feel threat of rain. We were tired and sticky after our 12 hour train journey. All we wanted was a shower and a nap. Small luxuries.
Our first impressions of Hue (pronounced Hway) were positive. Our taxi drove us down a wide boulevard, dodging motorbikes and cyclos. To our left the broad green Perfume River wound its way towards town. The smiling girls at our hotel welcomed us with cold water and tea and we were shown right to our room. I felt like everything was going our way. The day started so smoothly.
Maybe I should have checked my email more quickly. I knew there was a chance. But, I waited. I was in no hurry. I had a cool shower and changed into a light cotton dress. Andy logged in and checked his email and ESPN. It was more than an hour after we arrived at the hotel when I finally, somewhat tentatively, logged into Yahoo. And there it was. Simply titled “Grampa.” Mom had written to tell me that he was gone.
I felt helpless. It was midnight in America and I was sitting, in broad daylight, in a hotel in Vietnam. I couldn’t call anyone. I couldn’t speak to my family. I had no more details than what my sweet mother managed, through her own grief, to put into an email.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. We’ve been living abroad, away from the USA, for seven years now. We’ve lost grandparents and cousins and friends. It doesn’t get easier. The sense of loneliness, of isolation, doesn’t abate. You don’t miss your loved ones less simply because you’re on the other side of the world when they leave.
In fact, I’d argue that in some respects it’s harder for us. We don’t have those family gatherings to attend. We don’t get to cry on the shoulders of our brothers or sisters. We, my sweet husband and I, cling to each other when we experience a family tragedy. We are all we’ve got.
And that’s ok. It is our choice to live so far away. We take the good with the bad, and 99% of the time, it’s so good. So very very good. I think my grandfather would be glad for us. Glad that we have each other and we’re doing our very best to make a way for ourselves. I hope he would.
Back home, Grampa’s memorial was scheduled for Friday. That morning Andy and I got up and hired a motorbike from our hotel. Armed only with a hand-drawn map, we set out for the beach. Grampa was from Rhode Island… the Ocean State. Summers with him meant sun and sand and sea and chowder and clam cakes and lemonade. I couldn’t find clam chowder in Hue, but I could get myself to a beach.
Andy drove. I sat behind him watching the city slowly give way to the almost electric green of rice paddies. We could see glimpses of the ocean in the distance. We arrived at a public beach and parked the bike. It was almost silent. Then, once the pack of Vietnamese children trying to sell us cans of Coke finally left us alone, it was silent. We had the beach to ourselves on this windy Friday.
We walked along, picking up small shells and looking for crabs. I took off my sandals and stood in the shallows. I can’t see the ocean without putting my feet in it. Then we sat in the sand and talked. Talked about Grampa. About my parents. About what would be happening in Rhode Island later that day. I looked out at the ocean and thought about how far away we were from everyone. Then I looked at the man beside me and thought how grateful I was to be right next to him.
We slowly picked our way back to the motorbike and cruised back into town. I kept two small shells in my pocket. Momentos of a day spent honoring one man that I loved in the company of another man that I love. Some days are harder than others. But if I’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that this love will get me through anything. I’m a blessed woman.