night I had dinner with my friend Rocco. We were talking about our
respective families, our children, who range collectively in age
from three to twenty-eight, and our wives, both past and present.
The conversation turned to a discussion of how our various family
members deal with disappointment and tragedy, great and small.
Rocco's wife Vi, his second, is Vietnamese.
He told me that recently he saw her crying and asked what was wrong.
Vi said that she had been thinking about her cousin and his wife
and three children who had not survived their voyage from Vietnam
to the Philippines following the end of the war in 1975. Vi and
her father, mother and brother had barely survived their own emigration
on a separate boat, sailing for a month with only a week's worth
of food and water from Haiphong to Subic Bay.
Rocco had not heard the story of Vi's
cousin's ordeal before and when he saw how upset his wife was he
asked her to tell him what had happened. Vi said that Thai pirates
had boarded the ship and demanded that everyone on it hand over
to them their gold and jewelry. Vi's cousin told them he had no
gold or jewelry, that he and his family had exchanged their valuables
for passage. The pirates cut off one of his feet and threw it into
the water, attracting sharks. Again the pirates asked for gold and
again he told them he had none. They threw him overboard and made
his wife and children watch as the sharks tore his body apart.
The pirates then demanded that Vi's
cousin's wife give them her valuables. She said her husband did
not lie, they had no gold or jewelry. The pirates then threw her
children, all three of them, into the bloody water where they, too,
were dismembered by sharks. The woman became hysterical and could
not answer the Thai pirates' final demand that she surrender to
them her gold and jewelry. In view of the other terrified passengers,
she jumped overboard.
Vi stopped crying, and Rocco asked
her how she could live with this. She told him that she would now
take this terrible memory and put it into a little box and store
it in a far corner of her mind and never mention it again. She would
always have it with her, Vi said, she would know it was there, but
she would not remember it any more.
Rocco told me his head was filled
with little boxes, too, the difference being that he couldn't keep
from opening them over and over, even when he didn't want to. What
about you? he asked.
My mind, I said, is one big open box.
The only thing I can't remember is where I put the lid.