MENDING A BROKEN HEART
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my lesson to satisfy this prompt, orhow to survive against the impossible
MENDING A BROKEN HEART
I looked forward enormously to that day outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Saigon, South Vietnam’s largest Christian building and a monument to French colonialism. It had been built to accomodate those lazy colonial administrators and worshippers who ruled French Indo-China more than a century and a half ago. They wanted to show the indiginous population the majesty of their imposed adoration.
But on that day in May 1969 it was not that wonderful church and its purpose there that I was adoring as I entered it. No, it was the lovely girl who was about to join me at the altar that we might be married and pledge our lives forever each to each in the sight of God. Anh really was beautiful and I the envy of my friends and journalistic colleagues. I often used to criticise the learned fathers at the second Vatican council in the early 1960s for changing the Catholic liturgy from Latin to the native tongue of each country in which holy Mass was said. I am an Anglo-Australian Catholic. My beloved Anh was pure Vietamese and in her religious practices, such as they were, a Buddhist. But the nuptual mass and wedding vows were said in French thus satisfying all parties. Her inability to learn all the tenets of the Catholic faith meant no more to the priest who wed us than it did to me. We both promised to look after each other and never come between each other and our god, whatever such spiritual experience that might mean to each of us. And the hymns we chose were sung in Vietnamese by the cathedral choir to music in a pentatonic key that I had never realised could sound so beautiful.
Now, what sort of a honeymoon do two young people have when one works daily at an orphanage for blind and abandonned infants and the other spends his time covering man’s inhumanity to man in the form of a war that was neither desired nor understood by either side? We only had two days but by good luck I had been to University in Paris with the son of the head of state of Cambodia and we became good friends. Although, at that time, journalists were barred from the country on the other side of the Mekong river to Vietnam, I managed to get visas for both of us to fly to the wonderful Cambodian resort of Siem Reap and its jewel, Anglor Wat, a world of a thousand temples set in a forest and surrounded by a moat-like lake. In those days only a few tourists could visit those remnants and ruins of an ancient cult, and the calm and serenity of the spires and trees by the lake in the moonlight was as perfect a setting for a tryst for life as any place on earth. We only spent thirty six hours there as Prince Sihanouk’s guests, but it was more than either of us could have imagined we would ever experience. On our return to Saigon I wrote to the prince to thank him and was later to be instrumental in saving his life when the war spread to his country the following January. I must tell you about that some time.
Anh and I settled down to a daily life of work and as much family life as we could get, living in a flat over my office by the presidential palace. We often helped each other out in our work and I always loved playing with the poor orphans that she cared for. Her sense of fun and love gave them hope and daily filled my heart with more and more love for her. Shortly after our marriage she became pregnant and I had to cajole her regularly into taking it easy when she worked too long or took on tasks not at all suitable for her condition. But eventually on February the 5th 1970 she gave birth three weeks early to a gorgeous little girl. I was over the moon with my wife and daughter. I chose Gemma, my favourite name, for her and Anh added Tuyet, very popular in Vietnamese. Given the dangerous circumstances in which we lived and worked, though, I was keen that the baptism and Christening should take place as soon as possible, which it did in the cathedral soon after Anh and Gemma had settled down in the flat.
But we both knew that with a child Saigon, given our work, was somewhere we had to leave fairly soon. My editor in chief in London had written to me about this and I was told that in a month’s time we would be returning to England, first for two months much needed leave, and then I was going to be posted either to the United States or France. I told Anh and even little Gemma smiled as she heard the news. Anh was taking her for a short walk in the park by the palace opposite our flat. I waved to them and watched in unspeakable horror as a mortar shell, I know not from where, landed almost right on them and killed them both on the spot. My eyes could not take in what they saw, and I remembered nothing more about that day. My colleagues and friends both military and civilian did all they could for me but apparently it was obvious I had to get out of Saigon and fast. But I could not leave without burying my family. The funeral service was arranged for the cathedral just two days later. I had to be there.
I looked forward in mental and spiritual agony to that day outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Saigon as I walked towards the huge doors. There before the altar was the coffin containing my wife and the tiny immitation of it in which my little daughter’s body lay. A close friend who had worked with me for several months held my arm, well held me up to be honest, as I walked up to the front pew and collapsed rather than knelt in prayer. I did not ask God why, I think for the only time in my life I did not want Him to answer me. But as the Mass progressed I looked at Anh and Gemma and I did ask one Saint to help me mend my heart, lying in shattered shards on the cathedral floor.
“Antonino,” she said. I actually heard her, “stay with those who need you and love you it is the only way you will get over your sorrow. Go across the river to your Cambodian friends and when the war breaks out there, as it will very, very soon, continue Anh’s work helping the poor and the maimed and continue to tell the world how terrible acts of war really are. Just for a few more months until you can live with yourself again”.
The voice that spoke to me, or whatever was happening in my head, was the gentlest Italian sound I had ever heard. So I did as she bid me, and in a relatively short time those shattered shards began to come together normally once again. Every child I helped to laugh again and deadly engagement or bombing about which I wrote evoked Anh’s adorable smile or little Gemma’s infectious gurgling chuckle. I don’t know how they got me back to normal. But even after all that time, and another very happy marriage some years later, they are both always with me in my dreams and in my loving, mended heart.