I hope my visit to my elder sister Anh in Chợ Rẫy hospital would be the last as I heard she was getting better. After dropping me off at home at 6pm, Dad went back to the hospital.
Around 7pm, Dad arrived back home and hastily parked the car across the driveway. My sister was lying in the arms of Mum in the back seat of the car. Also in the back was my maternal grandma’s maid who helped look after my sister at the hospital. Everyone came home from the hospital. I jumped up and yelled, “Sister Anh’s home!”, but I was surprised, then distressed to see Dad get out of the car and cry loudly. Dad is a stoic and quiet man, and I had never seen him cry before!
Then Mum got out carrying my sister and was crying too. My sister wasn’t moving and her eyes were closed. The maid told me my sister was dead! I stamped my feet on the ground and cried!
It was a fortnight earlier when my sister told Mum her index finger hurt. Mum applied some Chinese medical oil that acted as analgesic. When her finger became swollen and red, Mum took her to the GP across the road. Only when she was admitted to the hospital several days later, her illness was diagnosed as acute arthritis which was very rare and unknown in Vietnam.
My sister was given her own room with a bell to press whenever she was in pain. She’d been in hospital for a week when I visited her that day. As I left, complications related to the acute arthritis caused a heart attack and my sister pressed the bell. When the nurse came, she’d already died in pain, her teeth still strongly biting her lips. She was eight and I was seven.
During the night, my maternal aunties were busy sewing mourning clothes. My late sister and all her siblings all wore white pants and white buttoned,long-sleeved T-shirts with white cloth strips wrapped around the heads. The white head band on my sister head symbolised her anticipated mourning of our parents’ death. Our head bands were for mourning her.
The next day, my sister was placed in the coffin and guests and relatives started to make condolence visits, and a monk came to chant for the day.
For two days and three nights, Mum and Dad took it in turns to watch my sister’s body, careful not to let any cat go near. It is believed a dead body would be awaken if a cat jumped over it.
When she was buried, Dad wore a white shirt with black tie while Mum wore a light-coloured ‘ao dai’. We all got into a black funeral car together with her coffin and were driven to a cemetery at the outskirts of Saigon, where our relatives and Dad’s servicemen colleagues were waiting. After the funeral, I kept singing the lyrics of a popular song to myself, “I am no longer sad, sister!”
It is considered a taboo in Vietnam when someone visits others in their mourning clothes. Mum kept telling me that her sister-in-law whose father died earlier in the year did just that when she visited us, bringing bad luck to our family and causing of the death of my sister.
At the time of my sister’s death, many of my memories of her were still very fresh in my mind, and her absence felt like she just went away for a short time. With time, the deep void of not having a kind, older sister like her began to eat away at me.
I hate and fear the mourning garb I wore during my sister’s funeral. Since that day, white just reminds me of death.
So you lied there all clad in white,
A young girl who just lost a fight,
With a rare and unknown disease,
Wake up, sister, please, WAKE UP, PLEASE!
I need you now to play with me,
And calmly forgive my fury,
So happily give up your things,
Make me happy with your blessings!
I dreamt of you last night, sister!
You told me life would get better,
You consoled me with your cuddle,
And promised to be my angel!