They were stunned by the warmth of their welcome.
One day in her hotel, Anne felt exhausted and overwhelmed. “I did what I should have done 34 years before. I began to grieve deeply. I let out all the collected emotions “ grief, bitterness, guilt, sadness and anger. I wailed and raged at Norman for leaving me at the age of 30 with such challenges, and for abandoning his children. I felt completely alone.”
Eventually she cried herself out, and prayed.
“Lord, help me, I can’t carry this load any more. I can’t carry this little family by myself.”
Then she fell asleep, and woke the next morning tired but peaceful.
They met a lot of Vietnamese people.
“What people most wanted to do,” Anne says, “was tell the stories of where they had been when they heard the news of Norman’s sacrifice, often with tears streaming down their faces.”
“As a child,” Christina says, “the only thing that helped me understand my dad’s death was being aware of the suffering in Vietnam. On our visit, I got to meet some of those children who told us how much my father’s sacrifice meant to them. This was indescribably healing for me.”
The wartime prime minister, Pham Van Dong, told them: “Your family is esteemed to the highest magnitude.”
Norman’s “noble and great act” had touched “the most beautiful and valuable parts in humanity,” he said.
“I went to Vietnam to say thank you for the kindness and love expressed to us,” says Anne. “I came away with more love than I knew was possible.”
Emily especially was venerated, because only she, as a baby, had witnessed her father’s horrifying death.
One thing that had always haunted Anne was Norman’s decision to take Emily with him to Washington.
In his posthumous letter he’d mentioned Abraham, commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Could Norman have have thought, even briefly, of sacrificing his daughter?
Eyewitness reports were conflicted. Did Norman pass Emily to an unidentified woman? Place her on the ground? Anne knows only that Emily had no cuts, bruises, singes or burns.
Emily, now older than her father was when he died, believes her presence beside him was crucial.
“By involving me, I feel he was asking the question, “How would you feel if this child were burned too?” People condemned him for my presence there when perhaps he wanted us to question this horrifying possibility. I believe I was there with him ultimately to be a symbol of truth and hope, treasure and horror altogether. And I am fine with my role in it.”
Today, Emily lives in the same village as Anne and Bob, who look after her sons once a week. Christina and her husband have moved nearby from Texas.
Others remain close but in a different way.
In a corner of Anne’s living room stands a sideboard she bought with Norman. It’s now her family altar, created on her return from Vietnam in the style of altars there.
“It holds pictures of Norman and Ben, my mother and dad, and childhood nanny, along with several objects special and sacred to me.”
In Vietnam, Anne was moved and enchanted by the significance of family altars and the rituals performed there.
“Physically they are no longer with us,” she was told, “but spiritually they are still present, to give us love, encouragement and advice.”
Held in the Light, by Anne Morrison Welsh, is published by Orbis, “12.99