The Pope is gone, my mother-in-law is dead, but life goes on…
This week Pope Benedict 16th steps down, the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years. At the University of Tubingen in Germany, the theologian Hans Kung, author of the forthcoming “Can the Church Still Be Saved?” hopes for a new spring for a fading church. But in the Mekong Delta, in my husband’s family, life flows on uninterrupted like the river.
Every Spring, my husband and his Saigon siblings make an annual pilgrimage to the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho to celebrate my mother-in-law’s life and commemorate her death.
My mother-in-law, my husband’s adopted mother and the younger sister of his blood mother, died 11 years ago on the 16th day of the Lunar New Year.
She was a survivor.
In her 96 years she lived through the first World War, the Great Depression, the 2nd World War, the Vietnamese-French War of Independence, the Vietnamese-American War, the first starving years of Vietnamese Re-unification, the Vietnamese Cambodian War, the expulsion of the Chinese as boat people in S.E. Asia and finally the re-opening of the Vietnamese economy. She mourned the deaths of her only sister, the Viet-Minh insurgent brother-in-law she admired greatly, her husband’s stroke and demise twenty years before her own and the drowning of a grandchild who was trying to escape Vietnam by way of a rickety boat on the South China Sea…
Yet, at my mother-in-law’s memorial meal, we did not talk about how she overcame these global and national disruptions nor her private sorrows. My husband, his siblings, his nieces and his nephews, talked about the small things she did for the family: how she baked moon-cakes to sell at Mid-Autumn to supplement the family budget; how she was a martinet about the house, insisting that my husband stoop down every morning to sweep the floor the better to catch stray motes of dust. One sister remembered the silver bracelet for a very small wrist that my mother-in-law had been given as a bethrothal gift. Another talked about how she’d been present at the birthing of most of her grandchildren. Everyone talked about her care, her attention to detail, the doing of the small things to perfection.
When they lifted up the incense sticks at the family altar to pay their respects to her memory, they were communing not with a photograph but with someone whose essence continued to hover over the house and watch over us. Indeed, I know that my mother-in-law took so long to die because she did worry about her children, especially that last adopted child of hers, my husband. That she finally died in 2002, one day after the 15 day Lunar New Year holidays, was because my husband had brought me and my children home to celebrate Tet with her, the first time he’d done so since leaving Vietnam. And before we flew back to Singapore, my husband sat by her and whispered into her almost comatose ears that he was fine and his wife and children were fine and she could leave in peace.
I did not pray at the family altar. My Christian niece, her husband and I went to Sunday service at the church three doors away from the family house and said our prayers for her spirit there.
I do not think my mother-in-law, who was a traditional Buddhist woman would have felt alienated at that service. It was quintessentially Vietnamese, starting with the sounding of an old skin drum and the setting of three incense-sticks in a censer. She would have approved of the men and women sitting separately on either side of a central aisle. The Old Testament reading was from Genesis, with God asking Abram to set out a sacrifice of a heifer, a goat, a ram three years old, a dove and a young pigeon and then making the anomalous promise of descendents who would both be enslaved and mistreated but also come into great possession.
I believe my mother-in-law, having lived the life she did, would have understood both the bitterness and sweetness of that promise from God to Abram, the fact that things change despite the absolutes, yet still the absolutes remain.
Next year, my mother-in-law’s anniversary may no longer be held at this home she lived in for over 50 years. The neighbourhood is being cleared for urban re-development. The nieces and nephews are talking about moving out to the suburbs. Architects and surveyors are being consulted. The new house will be bigger, brighter and with all the mod-cons.