“There are millions and millions of cells in the body, and each has a purpose, a life and a value,” my friend Nghiep once told me. “Each contributes to our ability to achieve life, intelligence and wisdom.” The objective and reward for all this expended energy and activity, he said, is pure and simple: happiness.
And the ultimate source of happiness?
Not love, or money, or family, or even food, he opined.
“It is good relations between people,” Nghiep said, his dark brown eyes sparkling. When it comes to understanding these sorts of things there’s seeing and there’s knowing, but the ultimate is sensing it, feeling it.
Nguyen Thua Nghiep’s ideas and writing inspired the idea for my latest novel, A Reasonably Viable Marriage, a story about a couple’s 63-year marriage woven around the vows they used at their wedding: Trust, Honesty, Fidelity, Openness, Acceptance, Partnership, Commonality of purpose and values, and Love. These were Nghiep’s pillars of truth, what he perceived as the foundation of any structurally sound relationship or marriage. Our common belief in these principles brought us together, he believed, and forged a strong bond between two men from disparate backgrounds who really didn’t know each other all that well.
After we happened to meet in a Saigon park in 2011, we became fast friends, emailing our ideas on life and what matters most to us. We would meet for breakfast or coffee whenever Gabi and I made one of our regular trips from Phnom Penh to sample Saigon’s flavors, and to indulge in long, meandering talks about our ideas on life, family, love.
Nghiep – husband, father, grandfather, and friend, was also a retired oil executive, philosopher, writer and devoted caretaker of the human psyche. He wrote nine books that captured his ideas of what truly matters in the world.
On one visit, he gifted me a copy of his latest and final book: Chuyen Doi, A Story of life. From the back cover:
A Story of Life
A story of life is as it happened
It was a certain way; it can’t be changed
The reasons and motivations have solidified like rust
And though they seem a certain way; they can be changed
If you want the story to improve
It can be adjusted, renewed, and enhanced over time
Intelligence sponsors and promotes life goals: wealth, richness, creativity, power and facility to accumulate experiences, he once told me.
Wisdom, however, is the higher goal, creating life itself, health and happiness.
There was more. Always, there was more, as Nghiep had spent vast chunks of time thinking about these things, and he always had much to say. Talking with him was like entering a maze in the dark: one never knew where the next step would lead, but if you trust and keep moving, the journey will be well worth the while.
The three aims of life, he believed, are simple and pure:
He would grin his crooked grin, eyes alight with amusement, joy and life, and engage me in one of the quizzes he loved to administer. “B answer, my friend,” he would laugh when I would do my best to follow his thinking about life’s priorities, “a good answer, but not A answer.”
He loved to grade. Measure. Compare, not to elevate himself or his thinking, but to contextualize that which can be overwhelming complex and confusing. To seek order to the chaos. Such was the life of a man who organized his wallet with tabs to keep receipts separate from currency denominations, each carefully placed upright, facing forward, in perfect order.
He would rate the quality of his days. A tough day, with health challenges that plagued him, or money worries, or family troubles, would rate low on his 1 to 10 scale. Whenever we visited, though, the results were consistently high:
“Today is 12 on 10,” he would beam, leaning forward to plant his frail hand on mine and gift me with the knowing smile of a loving friend. And we would talk, and laugh, and savor time both of us knew was precious, fleeting and growing short for him.
Nguyen Thua Nghiep, my friend, fellow writer, and philosopher, died in 2016 after 93 years of a full life. When we left our last visit, he struggled to rise from the hospital bed his family had placed in his living room to make life easier for him. Aided by a cane and by his ever-present wife, Ton Nu Ngoc Chuong, he stood in the doorway, a wafer-thin man in pajamas with a wide, crooked grin, waving farewell.
One of his final emails to me included a gift, typically realistic, honest, and self-effacing.
RETURN TO THE NATURE
Now, it is time to return to the nature
Peaceful, untroubled mind in the fairy land
Goodbye to my dearest persons with a loving heart
All of us will ultimately return to the nature.
The above poems have been engraved on a granite piece (40 cm x 50 cm) and will be erected close to our tombs as my last thoughts and feelings before the end of my life.
As my English is rather a “copper English” (not gold English). This is only a rough textual translation. Would you please check and revise the translation in order to have a good text in English (a poem?) as a souvenir.
Your dear friend – NGHIEP
I vowed to do better than simply edit his work in English.
It took me nearly four years to finish A Reasonably Viable Marriage. The writing, re-writing, editing and re-writing once again came in fits and starts, driven by my determination to write a book in Nghiep’s honor. To capture his ideas, his theories and philosophy; his goodness.
And to memorialize a truly unique man who embodied the qualities I admire most in human beings: kindness, openness, tolerance, acceptance, intelligence, and truth.
I recently sent an email to one of his relatives, eager to tell them I’d written a book dedicated to Nghiep. I hope his family will know that like him, his words and ideas mattered a great deal, and they now linger on, consumed and digested by people who happen upon a book his dear friend wrote to remember, respect, and appreciate all the goodness he represented and brought to the world.