For Mom

For Mom

Suting

I promise to try and not let the loss of you heavy my steps. Instead, I will find freedom in your freedom. I miss you. You are near me now, but so fast disappearing. You are the glimmer of white in the distance, the sweetness of the ache in my chest. I love you. Pale blossom: your fragrance is sweet even as it leaves me, like a vanishing trace of angels. I thank you for my life itself.

—March 23, 2013

 

This was for Mom. I wrote it last year, but I never posted it here. Today, it seemed appropriate.

Legacy

Dad and me

I was, apparently, a hella out of it baby who slept lots.

Dad died three years ago, this morning. 6:47 am, to be exact. I was awake for it, by some betrayal of my body, staring at my phone as the minutes counted down. The battery died before I got there, cheating me out of the most self-indulgent memorial I can fathom (besides, of course, this). I remember the exact time because I can still hear the doctor’s voice pronouncing it; somewhere, it’s still echoing in my ears. And in that place there’s a pathetic fallacy: eternal late winter without the hope of spring.

But, here and now, I know tomorrow will be warm, at least.

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My Winter Rooms

I.

The city retreats in winter.
It recedes into itself and
I worry about the alley cats
And the man who used to sit
Wrapped up in ratty blankets
Like a great flightless bird
Nesting over the sidewalk grate.

Without them, the sky closes in
And low-hanging clouds
Fat with ice bear down
Compressing skyscrapers into
A claustrophobic maze of
Pavement—white with salt
And cracked like
The skin of my chapped lips,
Once so plump in spring.

I retreat into myself:
Another hidden face
Biting against a scarf.

What imperfect beasts we are,
Dreaming of our heated rooms,
Wrapped into misshapen wool packages
Into down-padded trappings that
Don’t keep out the misery.
At least not for me.
I feel all full of leaks
And the wind it blows
Through every open window
Every crack in my countenance.

And in my house of empty rooms
The fires have all been banked, for
My heart is an unused space:
I do not heat it in winter.

II.

I miss her again. Sitting in my new life. In a room she never saw, in a city she never lived in. And yet, in this place she’s never even dreamed of, her absence is an ache: as palpable as a physical wound.

Winter is maybe the worst time. The years of their passings were the longest winters of my life. I’m not sure they’ve ended yet.

Still, I know I’m not the only one living with ghosts. Everyone will, eventually.

III.

My friend:
I love you just enough
To visit you.
Provided
It doesn’t involve walking
Through the bad part of town.

IV.

Meet me in the cold. In the untrodden snow. In the memories we never made. I miss you, or the grand potential of you: I’m not really sure which was ever dearer. I miss your hands and the sideways look you’d give me in the backseat of a cab. I miss the way I fit right under you chin. I miss how annoyed at you I could get. I miss your optimism, your frustration. I missed the way you loved everyone you met, but could never find the words to really tell them. I miss who I was when I was with you.

I wonder if it’s an authentic feeling, this wistfulness coiling in my chest, or if I’m merely looking at ourselves on paper. A story with characters much beloved and yet…finished. Done with what they have to say. I hope not. I’m very jealous of anyone who has your time, these days. I wonder often if we could be friends. Not the kind we are now. The kind with late phone calls and an encyclopedic knowledge of the other’s everything. I know you’re busy. That these things either happen or they don’t.

I wonder if my missing was the problem all along. I wonder if I saw the ending before the start. I wonder if I was too wistful, too sad. Because the truth is, I don’t smile much. But when you touched me, I laughed.

Explaining Myself with Help from a Song Dynasty Cityscape

I think people misunderstood my last entry. Or maybe I led them to the wrong conclusions; I apologize for that. I am not a basket case, but writing is an exhale for me. It is a way to repel the forces at war inside myself, which sounds incredibly hackneyed and I almost winced when I wrote that because I am not a tortured artist by any stretch.

Forgive me, I can’t explain myself plainly at the best of times. I don’t carry conversations easily, you might find. As many words as I may spit into the air over my lifetime, all my better and more intimate thoughts make their first homes on paper.

But it seems my stupid scribblings fail to convey what I mean even now, so I’ll speak through the ancients. To paraphrase from Dream of Red Mansions: referencing an old thing, after all, is better than creating a new one.

And the best allusion, the best metaphor even, I have to explain my state of mind is this:

Along the River During the Qingming Festival. Or rather, just a snippet of an 18th century reproduction of the 12th century original which is 17 feet long. Click the image to view the entire original scroll.

This is a detailed view of a painting called Along the River During the Qingming Festival or Going Upriver on the Qingming Festival or whatever slightly inaccurate translation that you prefer to refer to it as. Painted by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan this panorama stretches over seventeen feet long. Seventeen feet.

The room I’m sitting in right now probably doesn’t even have that much square footage.

And it’s not an empty scroll of Zen landscapes (each with a wide textile border) instead it depicts the day of the Qingming Festival in the Song Dynasty capital. The temporal setting of this work, the Qingming festival, is sometimes translated as the Tomb Sweeping festival. It’s the day you go to clean up and honor the graves of your ancestors, which were usually out-of-the-way places. Chinese people didn’t believe in keeping their dead close. Better a tomb be kept where no road would ever be built over it.

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape hands...

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape handscroll Along the River During Qingming Festival, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 528.7 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there’s a beautiful paradox here, because this painting isn’t about death at all: it’s about life, flowing into the capital like a river from the mountains. This scroll is bustling with people and activity, growing more populated as the landscape slowly changes from bucolic to urban. Its people are clothed richly and poorly. Stylized though they may have been, the painting is populated by recognizable characters: from peddlers and actors to even tax gatherers. It was a snapshot of a vibrant, living city on a day dedicated to remembering the dead.

And what I mean to say is that I’m living that duality right now. I grieve in bursts, but I don’t spend my time wallowing in a pit of tar-like sadness. In fact, at this precise moment, my major concern in life is that I can’t sleep because of words and also because of the late-running birthday party at the bar across the street. But at the same exact time, the greater context of my life contains death and I do spend days dedicated to remembering. But even on those days there is life. While I sometimes speak hopelessly, theose feelings are passing. Like ships on the Qingming, they must still leave the harbor despite the day. Because the painting, after all, is populated by the living, and they have their tasks.

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape hands...

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape handscroll Along the River During Qingming Festival, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 528.7 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s Talk About Our Feelings

I can’t really keep it together right now, which is why I’m writing this. 

The hope, usually the hope, is to talk about these things to someone before they get to this point, but I guess the stupid truth is that it’s easier to tell everyone than just someone. Because these days, no one makes the choice to see me. Which is fine. I understand. If losing parents has taught me anything about my friends, it’s not to expect. Most of them are horrible with death. And I love them for it. I do. It’s fine. Except.

I just wish someone could say an impossible thing to me. I wish they could tell me that it would all go away. I want to be normal: that girl you actually like, who is not always sad and frustrated about everything, who is not inadvertently bitchy. I’m such a burden. I want to be someone who can work hard and never has to sleep or eat and never says the wrong thing. I’m trying, and I slip up, and I’m not her. I can never be her. And I think I might just be cementing my position as supremely not her by writing this.

I want someone to tell me that it’s not my fault, that it’s okay. But no one is going to do that anymore. I don’t get the reward system, too old for things like approval: achievement is expected, is adequate, is the default state of being. 

I want to know if my parents are proud of me. But I’ll never get to know that: not anymore. I want to know that it’s not my fault that they can’t be, that they aren’t here anymore. Please, I just want to talk to my mom again. I just want to see my mom the way she was before Dad died: before she got too thin. I can’t even remember what she looks like because my own traitorous brain won’t let me. Please if I could just see her in my mind when she’s not hurting. 

I want to know what my dad would think of me and what I’m doing with my life. I need his advice. I want him to help me with all these things I’m working on and tell me that everything is going to be okay, that I’ll be able to learn everything I’m trying to because everyone can learn it and that I’m just lazy for not understanding physics. Because it’s so simple. Everything’s so simple.

Please just make everything simple. I just want to understand why I feel so alone.

 

 

There’s No Mom in Mothers’ Day

So this is my first Mothers’ Day without Mom.  Part of me wishes I could have just holed up in my room and ignored the world: not have seen the girls holding balloons that said “MOM” on the subway or the numerous Facebook posts saying I love my mom.  I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Well.  I can tell you that the first thing you do is cry a lot.  But you’ll want to keep it mostly together for the EMTs.  Their job is easier if you’re not in hysterics.  You offer them gummy bears.  It’s nine in the morning.  Your mother’s body is cooling in the next room.  Her blood is on your shoes.  They refuse the gummy bears.

But it’s not your mother lying in her bed with the sheet pulled over her face.  It can’t be her.  Your mom wakes up early so she can take forever in the bathroom.  She asks you whether her hair looks better up or down when honestly to you she always just looked like Mom either way: you couldn’t see her in any other light or capacity.  In your mind you see Mom in a serviceable black dress with her hair up yelling that you’re making her late.  But the next morning she’d be the one making you late, her favorite boots unzipped even as you ran together for the train.  Then Mom in the last few days: too weak to get out of bed.

There’s no way she’s gone.  You need her.  Who else will call you baobao in public or remind you not to get home too late?  Who else will make your favorite foods when you’ve been away from home?  Who else will need you like Mom?

The next thing you do is…no, you’ll still cry a lot.  For good reasons or for no reason.  Without meaning to, even.  In the most awkward settings possible.  When that doesn’t cut it your brain tries laughing.  And you can see the way her best friend stares at you, a worried crease between her eyebrows.  You know she will distantly adopt you now: hover slightly more than she ever did in the past, make you a Chinese dinner sometimes because now Mom can’t.

It’s really her friends that trigger the next thing you feel: the incredible guilt for the selfishness you’re displaying.  All of the people Mom touched in her life come out of the woodwork: discreetly asking if you need help with college, buying flowers for the frankly rushed funeral.  Talking to your grandmother about what her life will become.

You’re not the only one who’s lost her, you selfish idiot.  All these other people have as well.  You miss the woman who cooked for you, who took care of you.  You haven’t missed the woman she was outside of your life.  If you mourn her, mourn all of her.  You’ve been raised already.  Mourn that she still had other work on this earth.

It doesn’t work.  For a couple days you want to die.  This is well after the funeral, mind you.  The funeral was actually beautiful.  You could see her again, face made peaceful.  There’s no blood on her teeth.  She’s in her favorite dress (a particularly Jackie O number—a cut that neither you nor your sister could ever pull off) and surrounded by flowers.  Why does she have to be put into the earth?  Why can’t you just keep her in that room, so that you could go and see her whenever you wanted?

You’ll never visit her in the earth.  You’re almost certain of this. There’s no point.  She’s not there.  She’s off wandering in the canyons or watching the slow dance of stars in the night sky.  You hope she doesn’t think of you, doesn’t even remember who you are.

Because you’ll still find ways to disappoint her.  You know you will.  And you’ll do them anyway.  Spend your life throwing yourself into “boys’ work” or staying out too late roaming the streets.  Write things that would make her sad.  Write things she would hate.  Listen to degenerate music.  Cut your hair or get tattoos.

This is where the social workers come in, maybe.  You’ll have to talk to many of them, and they’ll tell you to stop feeling guilty about it.  Stop sabotaging your relationships with other people.  To let yourself be sad.

But the only way to do that is to completely forget her.  And you’ve tried.  But she’s saturated in your life.  You need to make some more memories without her.  She shows up everywhere in your town, or you’ll dream of her.  She’ll even haunt your thoughts at night when you can’t sleep.

You’ll try to scrub her from your life: throw yourself into school and work.  Start a fucking blog. Keep doing the things she hates so from wherever she is she’ll make you feel guilty.  Because you love her disappointment.

You love the woman she was.  You love your mother, who gave you her flesh and blood.

I don’t know what comes after this in post-Mom life. This is only as far as I’ve gotten.

Back to the Keyboard.

Image

Grand piano guy at Washington Square Park

It’s Sunday at noon and I’ve been in the library for about an hour already.  I don’t know how I’m supposed to concentrate when there is so much blue sky outside the window, but I couldn’t bear to go down into the bowels of Bobst, where there is no sense of time and even your directional orientation is only a trick of architecture.

Today is reverently cloudless.  The kind of blue that reminds me of summer days in California when I used to roam through the dead canyons to the strawberry fields, or cross the tiny trickle of a creek that ran adjacent to our disgustingly uniform housing development.  There is an idyllic quality to my memories of California now, not just for the gorgeous stoop of flowering trees or the joys of being fifteen and surrounded by the most friends I’ve ever had in my life, but because my parents were still alive then, and my sister and I shared a room with sky-blue walls and secrets.

We had an old Yamaha piano that none of us could play properly, but I don’t think I can separate the sound of my sister practicing on it from any part of my childhood.  Pachelbel was just making a comeback and I wasn’t yet sick of hearing her play it.  Music from the Amelie soundtrack was another favorite: so cool and French, an escape from the unrelenting cheerfulness of life outside.

Pianos.  I can’t get away from them.  My mother, apparently, took lessons specifically while I was in the womb.  She remembered as little from them as I did.

I miss her.  I miss Dad, too.  I miss Dad in a different way: because it has been longer, I guess.  Because I never felt like he hung around much more than his allotted two weeks afterwards.  But I miss driving with him at night: our paper route that wove among those haciendas lit up in the darkness.  I miss seeing Calavera at night, with its massive hill overlooking a city turned into fairy lights.  I miss making up stories for them.  I miss Dad driving in the dark, 10 miles an hour as I tried to hit driveways but miss cars.

There was one night when, going down Chestnut, we stopped at a stop sign for thirty seconds too long.  “Sorry,” my dad said finally, shaking his head.  “I was waiting for it to turn green.”

Take me back to those days please, when I was a bookishly smart teenager with the universe’s nerdiest glasses perched on my nose and two parents and a sister and played the cello badly and was on the JV academic league and paid no thought to life after debt other than maybe having unreasonable aspirations of being an architect and literally building the world.

It’s no good to wish for it.  Time can be stupidly linear when you least expect it.  You were forced to grow older, and change into the girl you are now: the one who should be writing about censorship because she actually cares passionately about it, the one who in twenty-five minutes will head to a practice room and, with a classmate, pound out seventh chords on yet another Yamaha piano in an attempt to imprint the intangible into her mind.

Pianos.  We’re still at pianos and a sky blue with secrets.  Life is like the world, in the same way time resembles space. They both aren’t that big at all. Or rather, they are large but repetitive, baffling but stupidly beautiful.