Photos courtesy James Cannon Boyce.
Photos courtesy James Cannon Boyce.

Finding My Father in Burma

Transforming grief
July 24, 2013

Floating along Inle Lake in Central Burma, I lean over and run my hand through the warm water. As I do, my eyes never stop searching that one hill I came more than 10,000 miles to see. Most tourists, if they  choose to stop on the lake, will pause to take picture after picture of the fishermen, the floating villages, the temples, and the jumping cats. The engines to their boats then fire back up, and they head off, chattering away and comparing shots taken. The engine on my boat has been shut off for an hour now as we float and look and watch and wait.

For me, the journey to Inle Lake is less about the sights the tourists love and more about floating in this boat, at the northern end of the lake, until I see a distant shape of a mountain that looks just right. I take out the last photo I have of my father alive, here on this lake in November of 1984, and double-check the hills. They line up perfectly, and I settle back and snap away. In the picture of my father, my aunt sits up front; my boat is empty, as it should be, as if I had saved him a seat.

On November 11, 1984, when I was a sophomore living in House CC, in a triple in the basement at the end of the hall, the phone rang. My father was in a hospital on the other side of the world, and my aunt told me I should fly home to Boston to be with my mother. I remember, vaguely, hugging a close friend in a hallway; perhaps she drove me to the airport as well.

I probably also had a vague awareness my father would have been in Asia. He went every fall and every spring for his consulting work, helping American firms as they expanded into the region, into Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and more. I wouldn’t have known exactly where he would have been, or why. I was more concerned with a new girlfriend I had, getting locked out of my room on Saturday nights because of a roommate's new girlfriend, and pondering whether I would join a fraternity. As a J-Frosh, I was experiencing my first fall on campus, and I was fully involved in everything West Campus offered, even classes. When I got back to Boston, the phone rang again; it was my other aunt, from Singapore. My father had died, having been brought there from Burma, and that was it. In a place I had never been, on a continent I had never visited, without a chance for me to say goodbye or see him, my father had died. I missed the rest of that semester and then returned to campus.

But a little bit of me was always at this lake, with this picture of my father, smiling, relaxed as he always was on the water, happy, content back in his favorite country in Asia. When it was one year after he died, two, five, ten, fifteen, I thought of him here.

When my mother died in the summer of 2011, in my arms in a hospice, it made me realize my father had died so far away—not alone, as my aunt and uncle were with him, but distant from me. Almost as soon as I walked out of my mother’s hospice room, I started making plans to follow his last journey. As I scanned old photos and letters, I watched as Burma started to open up as well, facing her past just as I was facing mine. It seemed like everything was falling into place for me, and for my journey.

Last September 27, on what would have been my father’s ninetieth birthday, armed with thousands of pictures and old letters scanned in my computer plus my memories and stories of my father working in places like Bangkok and Saigon and Singapore, I left Boston and headed east. By the time I get to this lake, I had seen where my father stayed when Saigon was falling—the Caravelle Hotel, now renovated. I had paid for a day pass and worked out at the new health club, and sat out by the pool. I had seen where he went in Northern Laos fifty years ago, very much the same except for the concerns—about China entering the region, building roads, damming the rivers—that occupied many locals’ minds. I had a beer in the open-air bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh where he used to stay, the same ceiling fans he must have sat under still spinning slowly, just moving the hot humid air off the river.

And I stood outside the hospital in Singapore, on a hot humid November night, twenty-eight years to the minute that he died, and told him I had finally made it. I was here and I said goodbye. I also told him I was going to Burma, to find his house, to learn what I could learn about how he had died—to learn what had happened to him during his few days here that left him in a coma, on a respirator, and then gone. And most important, I had come to this lake. I had studied that picture a million times, wondering what he saw, what he was thinking, what the water and the air and the sun felt like here. And now I know.

Closure is a word I don’t like much; to me it implies that at a certain moment, a past injustice, a lost love, the death of a parent somehow doesn’t matter anymore, and you simply close the door, throw away the key, and you’re fine.

I will never have closure completely on my father; I will never be able to shake the feeling I should have done something, gotten on a plane, flown through the night, seen him, saved him, or at least said goodbye. But what I discovered, on this journey, is that it doesn’t matter if it’s one week later, one year later, or twenty-eight years down the road. Time is not of the essence. What matters is we each have moments in our lives that change us, that linger with us over the years, and those moments often leave questions in their wake. Those questions define us, become part of us, and at some point, we have to answer them. Or at least ask them out loud. For yourself, and no one else.

I never could have made it from Boston to Singapore in time to do something for my father, to talk to the doctors, to hold his hand, to tell him I love him. At nineteen, I probably wouldn’t even have known how, even if there had been the time to make it around the world to be by his hospital bed. For me, this journey, this moment, floating in a small wooden boat on a still lake at the end of the day, with tourists occasionally motoring by—this is my chance to not only show up for my father but also to show up for the younger me, the one who couldn’t make it to Singapore in time, the one who didn’t understand what really was happening or what I had lost that November night.

I close my eyes a second, the water flowing softly around the boat, and quietly I tell my father: I am here. In the tall green hills to the west, a breeze turns into a gust. It sweeps down over the edge of the lake, through the tall, thin palm trees, past the floating villages, and then it arrives here, out to the middle where I am, and in the wind, my father whispers back:

“I know.”

 

An Internet pioneer, former MSNBC commentator, and adviser to two presidential campaigns, Boyce ’87 is working on a book about his father’s life and death in Southeast Asia, floatingthejourney.com. He’s a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.