twenty years I tried to push all thoughts of your death out of my
mind. I did not read about Vietnam, neither articles nor books.
I could not see the famous Vietnam films or the television specials.
It's not that I didn't think of you. For a long time I could think
of nothing else, feel nothing but the pain of your loss. We shared
so much from the time I was 14 until my 24th birthday when I heard
you were missing. But thinking of how you died—that was beyond
me. It made me crazy with rage. Now finally, 20 years later, I want
you to know what it was like for me, your widow, in those long days
and months of 1968. And in the years since, how your death destroyed
me, how I rose up from the rubble that had been my life, our life
together, transformed, ultimately stronger, and with a better understanding
of the value of life because of the pain I had to endure.
I am ready to tell you what it was like for me to lose you so suddenly,
I remember the night before you left for Vietnam.
We were at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco, eating at L'Orangerie,
walking around, trying to be very jolly. You were so alive, so filled
with life—how could you be any other way? How could you not come
back? I just couldn't imagine it. You
had to come back. I remember getting the news that you were missing
and saying, "If there is a God, I'm praying for him to save you.
I'll do anything. I'll believe for the rest of my life." I know I'm
not the first one who's ever presented this deal to God, so it may
have fallen on deaf or indifferent ears. But that you were dead
was proof to me of all the existential reading, thinking, and talking
into the night we had done in the years during college. Remember
those last four lines we read again and again of that e.e.
Leaning back in my arms
For life's not a paragraph
And death, I think, is no parenthesis.
This was, for all eternity, the one drop of life that you and I
would ever share.
You crawled out of a foxhole during a mortar
attack, risking your life to save a wounded young man. You won a
bronze star and lost your life. What does that mean, a bronze star
in exchange for your life? You were that kind of a person, a most
unique human being. I hated you for doing that for quite a long
time, for losing your life to save other people. I didn't care how
brave or wonderful it was. I just wanted you back in my arms,
alive and well.
When I was alone, the blackness of the universe
would swallow me up. I started taking sleeping pills.
I would swallow my pill, sit down at the kitchen table with my father
or mother for company and wait to feel drugged. Then I would take
a magazine to bed until I just passed out. I couldn't read anything
but a mindless magazine for a long time. If I was alone, even for
a few minutes, I would grab a magazine, just to have words going
into my head so that I didn't have to have my thoughts for company.
Then the hardest part was waking up—the denial and disbelief,
the anguish and the rage. You know, Jeff, the feeling, the sudden
desperate wish that this is just a bad dream; it can't really be
happening. And then, the reality that it is happening.
Do people ever stop to think that somebody has to prepare these
bodies to be shipped back to their families? Perhaps for the undertaker
it's rather cold and impersonal. But what merciless human being
took your wedding ring off and didn't wash it before it was put
into the envelope and sent to me? When it arrived, it was encrusted
with mud and blood, along with your dog tags, all of which were
bloody and filthy. I couldn't believe "they" sent that
stuff back to me without washing it. I remember sitting on the floor
and opening up that package, the personal effects of Jeffrey Gurvitz—rings, watch, wallet, my letters to you. But the stuff that
was personally on your body, covered in blood, that's what drove
me crazy. Your last lifeblood soaked into the ground in Vietnam.
That land, with your blood in it, belongs a little bit to you.
How could you do something as intimate as to die and not share
that moment with me? I remember crossing the United States with
my father a few months later and feeling so angry at you. That you
didn't call me up and say, "Hey, next Thursday I'm going to
get killed. You're not going to hear about it until your birthday.
And I hate to deliver that kind of thing to you on your birthday,
so I want to prepare you for this." You and I had been such
a part of each other's fiber from childhood. It was just beyond
my reckoning that you would go and die like that, by yourself, without me.
The day of your funeral, picture Chicago in March.
It was a Tuesday, sort of a white sky, sunny day, winter sunshine,
not a bitterly cold day. It was, in fact, an innocuous day, which
was just what I wanted. I didn't want it to be a beautiful day,
so that every beautiful day would remind me of you. I didn't want
your funeral to be on a Monday because I couldn't deal with Mondays,
I thought, ever again. I couldn't stand for spring to come that
year. I couldn't bear it that the trees would bud, the leaves would
unfurl, the flowers would blossom. It seemed like such a vulgar
display of life when you were so dead.
The darkness of your death formed and colored
my days. I can mark my transformation, my freedom, to the time I
began swimming in a friend's pool, about eight years later. Although
I certainly had had some very good periods by that time, I was
still haunted. One night I had a dream I was swimming underwater in a place filled with light, and I was accompanied by
streams of red cloth. The dream had such power. As soon as the
stores opened the next morning I went to the local fabric shop
and discovered a large piece of bright red cotton in the remnant
pile. I took my cloth and my underwater camera to the pool and started
photographing the shapes it created. They
were organic, embryonic shapes. The red was no longer the blood
of death but the blood of birth and life. Through this work I began
focusing on the light rather than the darkness. Swimming and seeing
the light, the beautiful refractions as the light split apart on
the bottom and sides of the pool, provided a transforming experience
for me. Finally, I was able to get out of my place of darkness and
explode into that light, experiencing energy that had been buried for years.
I remember the dream I had repeatedly. I
would be in a house, an unfamiliar house, a place where the wallboards
were torn away. A bloody body, an unrecognizably bloodied,
skin-torn-away body would be sort of stuffed into the wall like meat. I would
start to scream and scream and awaken with that terrible choking
scream of a nightmare. It took eight long years before that
dream stopped. During that period I experienced, for the
first time in my life, periods of extreme claustrophobia, particularly
in dark places like movie theaters, or awakening at night in a darkened
room. The dreams would sometimes haunt me in the day. My heart would
pound, and I would have trouble breathing. Sometimes, I thought I
was losing my mind, that I would never be free of this torment.
I would see the mortar exploding into your body again and again
and again. I felt obsessed for years, even after I remarried, with
the awful imagery of your death. But gradually the images dissipated,
and I was free to live my life feeling whole again. I felt light
and optimistic and excited about being alive, as I had felt before
you were killed, and in some ways even more so because now I was wiser. I had learned some painful lessons. I knew the sweet
and ephemeral preciousness of life, and the true meaning of living
not in the past or future, but only in the present.
I am sitting on an airplane waiting to take off
for Vietnam. Very unreal. I can't believe I am doing this, until
I look down at the middle finger of my left hand and see your wedding
ring: a simple, thick gold band. I remember the day I gave it to
you. And then I remember the day it was returned to me in an envelope.
I decided I would bring it with me, to have something that was yours,
that was close to you, to keep it close to me on this journey. Now,
my heart beats wildly. I can't believe I'm actually going to land
in Hanoi. Standing in the doorway of the plane, my heart is pounding.
I am smelling the air in the land where you died.
A fitful night's sleep, not very surprising,
thinking about today, when I am actually going to be at the spot
where you were killed. I am remembering 24 years ago when thinking
about you dying in Vietnam was like thinking about you dying on
another planet. The darkness of the days and nights after you
were killed, the awful and awesome and inconceivable reality of
your death, grief like an explosion tearing into me, like the explosion
that killed you. My heart was ripped open, as though I would bleed
to death with you. Now, those scars which have taken all these years
to heal—picture my heart, just picture it with long and jagged
scars, scars that most days I do not feel after all these years—but today, on the way to where you took your last breath, to where
your heart stopped beating, I am painfully aware of those scars.
We passed hundreds of little ponds—all bomb
craters. What would it be like to have war in my own home town,
to have bombs dropping day and night, killing my family, napalm
burning up my house, agent orange destroying the redwood and oak
forests, poisoning the food I eat, the water I drink,
soldiers battling each other nearby, as I desperately try to hide
my family and myself? Rounding a bend, a desolate landscape. A long
dead forest, dead for many years, not burned, but nothing is growing
here. Agent orange was sprayed here several times. We are all looking
around, horrified by the devastation so many years later. In
a burned forest, the next year green sprouts up. Not here.
We enter the village of Khe Sanh. At least ten
people are waiting to greet us, ushering us from the blazing heat
into a large, cool, blue room with windows on three sides. I am
now accustomed to these welcoming ceremonies, but I am struck by
the sincerity of the welcome in each place, by how surprised they
are that an American Vietnam War widow wants to actually film their
story, by how desperate they are to tell their story. We sip our
tea. I tell them what an honor it is to come to this village, to
be welcomed by them. Two stunningly beautiful women enter. They
are village officials, but the woman in blue, Nguyen Thi, was head
of the local Viet Cong—the National Liberation Front—during
the war. Folding and unfolding her hands in front of her, grim-faced,
she looks into my eyes.
One of the men tells me I am the first American she has spoken
to since the war. She takes a deep breath and begins. "The
war did terrible, terrible damage to this area. 106 out of 107 villages
in this district were burned to the ground by the Americans, some
several times. Women were raped and murdered, children were torn
to pieces, old men were stuffed down wells." Her voice is shaking.
She pauses, her elbows on the table, her head in her hands for a
moment. Recomposing herself, she continues."This area was
a free fire zone. That meant that anything that moved could be shot
and often was. Quite frankly, many people here still hate the Americans."
Unlike people in the north who never saw an American soldier, these
people had daily contact with American troops. Again, a long pause. "But I am glad you have come. We welcome you. We want the American
people to know what suffering took place here. Films like yours
can tell the true story. We know you come as a friend." Her
voice softens, her eyes seeking mine. "I am sorry your
husband had to die here."
Pressing her lips together, she raises her eyes.
"Everything we had was destroyed. Sometimes there was no food
for weeks. We ate leaves and grasses. The water was poisoned by
chemicals, but we drank it anyway. We had to, to survive."
Her voice becomes vehement, "It is so hard
to talk about this. I never talk about it, but the Americans must
know what happened here. I am glad you are here even though this
causes me great pain." I get up to pour her some tea. I do not know what to say. Anything
I could say seems so paltry. She looks at my face, sees my grief,
squeezes my arm. The room is absolutely silent. There is not even
a breeze through the open windows. An older woman, who is a widow,
is ushered in. As she begins to speak, she bursts into tears."My
husband was bombed. We couldn't even bury him because there were
so many bombs. We tried to collect the pieces of his body but we
had to run and hide." Sobbing, she continues. "Sometimes
the Americans would just come into a village and shoot everybody—women, old people, children." Her voice rises with anger
as she tells me, "If you could stay for 10 days and nights,
it would not be enough time for me to tell you all the terrible
things I saw the Americans do during the war. Now I am exhausted.
I am an old lady. These memories cause me such terrible pain. I
must stop. I must rest."
Dung tells me they want to escort us into the mountains now,
to show me the place where you were killed. Feeling emotionally
devastated, overwrought by this day, I would like to sit and weep
with these women, while the director part of me would like to interview
them more fully—hear every terrible detail of what happened here.
We bump through an incredible terrain, steep drop-offs, ruts like
canyons, and the disquieting feeling that this region looks so like
California, so much like the coastal mountains of central California
in the dry season. I find myself imagining that millions and millions
of years ago, California and Vietnam were one land that split and
got separated through the eons by the Pacific Ocean.
Remembering that these brown rocky hillsides and cliffs were covered
with dense jungle when you were here, I am increasingly aware of
the scrubby plants that we pass, none higher than my chest, and
a light metallic smell. A doctor in Hanoi told me there is
still a scent of Agent Orange where it was heavily sprayed. Dung
and our local guides have explained to me that the spot where the
mortar attack took place was less than 4 kilometers from here up
the mountainside across rough terrain. I was asked if I wanted to
chance finding the actual spot. "This would be quite dangerous,"
Dung explained, "because the area was heavily mined, and local
people are not infrequently killed or maimed by old mines which
were laid by both sides."
We walk out, into the heat. My clothes stick to my perspiration-soaked
body. My head pounds. The sun is like a hot iron pressing down on
me, taking any energy I might have left. I cannot imagine the young
soldiers here in full battle gear, carrying 80-pound packs. Nguyen
Thi points up the mountainside. "See, there, that rocky cliff.
To the right of that and up, that is where I believe it happened.
The fighting was very intense at the end of February, 1968."
I feel my heart flip over.
I am at the place where you were killed. My guide is the former
Viet Cong leader of this district. For all I know, she led the attack
that killed you. Now we stand here, no longer enemies, only both
of us against war. Nguyen continues. "I was walking on this
road once and the planes came over; drenching me with Agent Orange.
Lots of us were sprayed several times. We have many health problems.
I have terrible arthritis and strange skin problems. Many people
here have died young of cancer—sick suddenly, then dead. Lots
of deformed babies. Lots." Similar to the diseases that American
soldiers are dying of, only so many more Vietnamese are dying.
In a small, grass-covered shrine, we light incense to honor the
Vietnamese and Americans who lost their lives nearby. I look over
my shoulder to see up the mountain. Abruptly my mind fills with
explosions, fire, bodies from both sides, lying broken and dead.
I am reminded of the violent imagery of your death that flooded
my consciousness for years. I feel overwhelmed. My knees feel rubbery.
I am sickened. I just want to fall to the ground and weep for the
tragedy, the awful waste of lives that took place here.
I turn and look back, perhaps for the last time, at the place where
you lost your life. A moment of solitude. But no, three women are
alongside me on bicycles. They smile as I look at them, and I smile
back and indicate that I am stopping to look at the view. They stop
for a minute, and finally continue. I walk on, finally alone. I can't
help being annoyed at this kindly man who I see walking just a bit
behind me, obviously guarding me. So much for solitude. His job
is to make sure I'm okay. I notice this man is picking
flowers along the way. As we see the jeep approaching in the distance,
he catches up with me and presents me with a bouquet of flaming
orange flowers. Smiling, closing his eyes for a moment, he nods.
I am so touched by his gesture of understanding. We walk together,
my friend and I, until the jeep arrives.
Sonneborn, Producer/Director/Writer, has worked as a photographer,
mixed media artist, and set designer for 26 years. She designed and
directed all visual aspects of Jean-Claude Van Itallie's play Bag Lady,
which was produced in New York at the Theater for the New City. She
photographed and directed the use of projections in The White Buffalo,
produced at Princeton University. Her
artwork has been exhibited in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
and can be seen in New Directions in Photography, a book edited by
then New York Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of photography Weston
Naef. Her photographs are also included in many private and museum
include a 1998 Rockefeller Film/Video/Multi-Media Fellowship,
the International Documentary Association Award for Distinguished
Achievement/ABC News VideoSource Award and two National Endowment
for the Arts grants. Regret to Inform is Sonneborn's first
Her future plans include writing a book
about the widows of the Vietnam war, and further films that explore
the psychological and societal impact of war.