Before I give you the rest

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Photo Credit: Mary Beth Griffo Rigby

The last time I wrote about losing someone it took nearly a year to get it on the page, and I hardly wrote anything else during that time. I’ve lost someone again, but I can’t wait a year to write this time. In fact the people I have lost would entreat me not to.

So before I give you the rest. Before I finish putting my Vietnam experience into words and continue on this amazing journey of learning how to share myself more openly. Before writing can be my everyday again, there’s something I need to tell you.

On the second day of my trip to Vietnam this past January my father died from bone cancer that had metastasized to his lungs, doctors believe as the result of his exposure to Agent Orange during his service as a para trooper during the Vietnam war.

The last time I saw my biological father, James, was two months after my dad, Johnny, passed away from cancer in 2013. It was Christmas and I had only just learned that James also had cancer. I can count on my fingers the number of times I saw James before he died.

A cousin told me by accident that James had cancer in September, my dad died in October, and I flew down South to see my father in December.

I flew from Seattle to Birmingham, AL. My palms sweated and my heart pounded 35,000 feet above the ground. I watched the sun set over the Midwest. I rented a car on the ground and slept on Auntie Stella’s couch surrounded by my cousins and their cats.

The next day I drove to my grandma’s house in Elmore County ahead of twister weather, gave her a hug, watched her cook dinner, listened to Auntie Georgia’s update of the day’s events, looked at pictures I had forgotten, and said goodbye. A storm was surely coming and as I got up to leave Nanny’s stationary trailer home, Nanny and Auntie Georgia packed overnight bags to stay with a friend who’s house was more firmly rooted to the ground.

I saw Christmas lights light up the darkest two-lane country roads I have ever driven alone. I heard thunder and saw soft flashes of light illuminate the profile of the dense tree lines in the distance. I listened to a capella Christmas music on repeat because the bass singer’s voice reminded me of my dad’s own deep timbre. It got me the rest of the way to Blakely, GA.

When I finally saw my father waiting for me outside Auntie Alma’s and Uncle Lester’s hog farm, the only thing I could think about was how different he and my dad really were, how different this place was from any of the haunts my dad and I had explored together. As he drove me around his hometown and showed me the old yellow house he grew up in back when the streets were still just dirt roads and before folks had real addresses, I couldn’t stop thinking about how tall and dark my dad was and how slight and more amber-toned my own father was, like me.

This is the house where my father grew up with his parents and five siblings. The house doesn't have an address and the road used to be nothing but red clay.

As we meandered past his childhood church and the cotton fields he and his siblings used to pick, I noticed a timidity and gentle kindness in him where my dad had been  warm and absolute. And when he took me to his favorite place, Kolomoki Mounds, the place where the threads of our American ancestry meet in one place, where the black, the white, and the red, are laid to rest in one soil, I recognized the peacefulness in his soul and our common desire to retreat from the world to quiet places.

View of an old farm house from an ancient Native American burial mound.

View of an old farm house from an ancient Native American burial mound in Kolomoki Mounds State Park.

On Christmas Eve morning I ran away from him and Auntie Alma’s and Uncle Lester’s hog farm back to the Mounds. I took out my violin beneath a tree covered in Spanish moss and played to the dead for four hours. The park was empty and cold. No cars drove past. No planes flew overhead. It was the quietest place on earth except for my bow on my strings. No one ever asked why I left or where I went and in that way I was able to receive some healing and give some love in private.

One of the most peaceful places I've ever been. On Christmas Eve I came here and played my violin. The park was so empty and quiet because of the holiday I lost all sense of time and played for hours.

I started to notice how similar he and my dad were too. Two black men from the South, who joined a war to escape a more insidious one at home. Two men who both at some point loved the same woman. Two men who shared a daughter. Two men who shared a merciless disease and a shortened timeline.

On Christmas Day, after most of our family had gone home, I played for my father for the first time. I played Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet. I told my father I would go to Vietnam to touch the land that he could never talk about. I wanted more in common with a father who liked to go to Kolomoki Mounds alone.

So, before I give you the rest, I give you these words and the foreknowledge that during my lightest moments in Vietnam, for it was truly the trip of a lifetime, I was many things. I was reverent at times, but more often profane. I was sad and confused. I was a million miles away from reality. I was on top of the world. I was an ecstatic guilt-ridden drunk who smiled far too much for someone who had just lost their father. But I was there, breathing it in and eating it up. I made it and my father knew it before he moved on and that’s what mattered, so I smiled and punched God in the face for robbing me twice and enjoyed every moment of it.

Now, I can give you the rest.

On Top of the World

On Top of the World at Hai Van Pass, Vietnam

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