Doubtrage

young, humorous, and grieving


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Why Don’t You Talk About Your Father?

“You said people would never understand,” my therapist says. “You were talking about the fear people have that prevents them from opening up to others, that it makes you sad. Are you afraid to talk about your father? And if it is fear, I’m not saying it necessarily is, where does that come from?”

My father, Baba. There are not many reasons why I don’t open up to people about Baba, why I write about him sparingly these days, why I’d rather focus on the evolution of my life in Portland or my heart. Those relationships will encounter new action, dialogue, easy, pithy anecdotes, my relationship with Baba is now solely for my digestion. I can reinterpret past events, think of new questions, but the food will still be the same.

Am I afraid people won’t understand? Is it possible to be afraid of something you take for granted? I guess my answer to that would be yes, I know death awaits me, but I still fear it. I grew up knowing none of my friends were having similar experiences. Friends were not comforting their mother the fourth time he was sent into the hospital for water retention, studying GRE vocabulary words for fun with their brother on the way to the herbalist every day all summer. I knew Baba’s sickness made me different and I hated him for it. It wasn’t enough I had to be culturally different from everyone in our town, that it could be seen in my wardrobe, my pronunciation of “r,” that I grew up without any neighborhood friends, no, now I had to have a dying father. It was the kind of selfish anger I don’t blame myself for.

When people ask me about my father I start with a few details.

“He died a few years ago.”

“He was from China.”

Then move on.

“He was…very interesting. He escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution, became a monk in Thailand and then came to the U.S.”

“He was…probably the most difficult person I’ve ever known.”

Probably a little more.

“He had heart disease, he was sick for a very long time.”

If I’ve been drinking.

“I always wanted a normal dad, you know, he was so difficult, but I was told I should always do what he asks because he might die soon, but that meant I couldn’t argue with him ever. I don’t know, I have a lot of mixed feelings about him, it really depends on what angle you take, if I tell it one way you’d think he was the greatest person ever. If he were alive and visited I’m sure he’d make you love him. But there was the other side of him, the tyrant, always hours upon hours of lectures about what we would have become were we raised in China. My family doesn’t talk about it much, but my sister and I have talked about how we have trouble deciding probably because Baba made us feel our ideas weren’t valid if they didn’t match his. Sorry, I’ve been talking a lot.”

I still wonder what he’s doing sometimes. I wonder what he’d want to talk to me about if he were still alive. I think about how he probably would have the same habits – calling and telling me what was new in his life (property being scouted, medicine, new herbal miracle), then getting off the phone without ever asking me about my own; buying too many Chinese New Year candies and dried fruit; wanting a quilt with him in the car on our long family vacations. They would still annoy me. I don’t imagine him changing at all from who he was when he died. I miss him infinitely. And I know I never won’t. I know he was our sun. How did we continue going. Being strong, that’s what he taught us, probably preparing us to support Mom after his death. Tai agrees with everything she says, supports any fun idea she has. The Enabler. Julian is the manly man who is there to solve her problems, devoted to her. The Hero. Evan tries to ground her, progress past her exhaustion. The Staff. I try to fix her the way I fix myself, build up in her what I want built up in myself. The Therapist.

Of all the things I could confide in someone about, Baba feels the most legitimate. By that I mean, no one thinks you’re over-reacting if you’re sad about your dead dad. People don’t know what to say, but no one will ever compare it to “what’s going on somewhere else” and make you feel bad.

I don’t tell people because it is so personal, private, it’s mine. I don’t need to know if it’s part of a larger pattern of loss. I don’t need to know this is part of the human condition. I treasure my loss in a way, the pain is pure, untouched, it makes sense to me. It keeps me separate, an individual, it’d be like trying to explain to someone what being Chinese means to me. I could mention facts, wider cultural context, history, but it’s like explaining the ocean to someone who has only ever seen water out of the tap. You can explain, but they’ll never really know what it feels like flowing through their fingers. They’ll never know the clean chasm of loss until they’re in it, until they feel it inside of themselves. The hot ragged edges of anger when you think of all the time others have, think of who Baba was in the world, all that he’d done, all that he was, how much bigger he was than anyone else you knew.

I’m not worried about not talking about Baba. If I wanted to talk about him I would, if I wanted to explain to someone what his loss means to me, I would. I don’t fear talking about him, I simply don’t want to. I haven’t found someone I trust enough to remain there in that space with me, not make me want to move us to another estate, not feel like they’re trespassing. It’s a small room, and I’ll open the door. I don’t need to force myself to show anyone else. It’s a quiet, dark room the size of a large closet. The walls are lined with the type of silk fabric that wrapped Baba’s statues when they were sent overseas. It billows out, comfortingly, you’re always brushing against it. I kneel in the room, I hold a candle, and I cry and think about Baba.


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The American Way

Last night, while reading a new novel on Chinese cooking, I suddenly started sobbing. There was only a passing reference to death in the book, but it struck a match, illuminating a memory. The memory of my family not waiting for my Chinese family before cremating and burying my father. I never put any significance on it before. When we told them the memorial would only be about a week past his death they were shocked. They said there wasn’t enough time for them to get tickets to come to the US from Guangzhou. We had never expected they would consider coming to the US, the expense, the time. It had probably only been months since they had last seen Baba. The oldest sister had lost her husband a few weeks before after months in the hospital. Now they would never see their brother again. I think about how I would feel if my brother died in a foreign land and there simply was no time. If the people around him had to go on as quickly as possible through the process of grieving, planning and executing. The rush convincing them they were coping well, getting things done. I hope they forgave us. Maybe they decided it was the American Way.

On my walk back from buying a new bike tire today I thought about cutting M out of my life completely. It wasn’t too drastic for other people to stop talking or seeing someone they felt a profound connection to, if it were in the name of self preservation. When I hear that phrase I think of Cher in Moonstruck, talking about how Nicholas Cage’s fiancee was a trap and he was a wolf who had to cut off his own foot to get away from the wrong love, but that’s what he did. I wouldn’t gnaw my foot off in a trap, I’d probably start decorating it, drag it around, convinced one day the springs would rust and open. That’s what I did with Izzo. I thought eventually he would grow sick of being depressed in a relationship with someone who clearly didn’t feel the same way as he did. When I brought this up with M the other night he said, “I don’t think Izzo would have ever broken up with you because he really liked you, even though it made him insecure and…I can’t think of the word…not good, I wish there were a better word, but you know what I mean, being with you. And you didn’t break up with him because…well maybe you were afraid…and so one year became two became three.”

Fuck, me and pain.

I remember after I was in the bike accident a few months ago I told M how silly insurance is.

“You pay a company to try to protect you from something which in the past would be chalked up as a freak unfortunate accident that you had to deal with and suffer through. Now we want to be paid when something inevitably goes wrong? It makes no sense. I’ve been dealing with crap my whole life, why should I be compensated for it now?”

“Well you’re hoping you won’t have to use it, but you pay for it to help if things do go wrong,” he said. “…and don’t tell the other car insurance company you feel that way.”


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People want death to be something it’s not. It’s our attitude-centric society forcing us to think the real problem with death is our perspective on it.

“They’re in a better place.”

“It’s all a part of life.”

“They lived a great life.”

“If we didn’t have death we wouldn’t be able to truly appreciate life.”

“It must give you a whole new perspective on life.”

You know, it does. It does give me a whole new perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s a better perspective than when I was blissfully disconnected the reality of death. The finality. The sharp careen your life takes, cutting up the flowers of the neighbors’ as it crashes in to the nearest phone pole. The inconsolability (making this word up!). That’s the most shocking, the degree to which a person can be inconsolable.

The sciences have even defined this nifty term “post traumatic growth,” as a way to convince those who have never experienced grief first hand that it’s not that bad.

“We’ll get something out of it,” those people flipping through Psychology Today must be thinking. As if we have to get something out of everything. As if it’s not possible to get completely shafted, jilted, forgotten, forsaken. It is possible. And it will be so much worse than you imagined.

But, but, THE SILVER LINING.

No.

Let death be sad.

Don’t take that away from people. We will still be fucking sad. We will be sad when you aren’t there. When you are there. When you ask. When you don’t ask.

I am still sad.


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I’m Not Asking For Your Advice

“What you should do is not tell anyone until after you’ve done it. If you want to do it, do it, if you ask anyone they’re going to want to put their two cents in and suddenly you have ten different opinions flying at you and you don’t know what to do,” T crosses his legs, holding a small glass of tequila and soda up from the piano bench where he is sitting.

E had come to the family with a “What do you think?” about a messy situation she suddenly found herself dipped in. Walker, her ex-boyfriend after a long, tumultuous eight years, was going to drive her back up from our hometown in Murrieta, where we all currently were, to Oakland, where she lives. Her new girlfriend, J, when hearing about it days after the plan had been made, a few hours before this conversation, told E she didn’t want to be jealous, wished she didn’t feel this way, but would really really prefer if E could find another way back. Evan agreed, saying she’d catch a flight, but when she told W he was angry.

“He says I never do what I want to do and my mind is changed so easily, and it’s just, I don’t care, but everyone is angry, and they’re all asking me what I want to do, but I want everyone to not be angry at me, but it’s too late for that!” she said earlier while crying.

Now she had come in to the room asking for our advice. We finished dinner a little while ago, but were enjoying drinks in my mom’s new kitchen, in her new tiny house, dubbed the Casita.

“Let Lucy go first, I don’t want to influence her opinion,” T said right off the bat. Oh thanks, I can tell you hold my opinions in high esteem, they are so easily changed by your slightest whim.

I told her I thought she did the right thing. She knew J wouldn’t be okay with it, which is why she told her, and it was annoying, but in the end she has to put her new relationship in front of her old one with W.

“I know nothing would happen with W, he’s my friend, I love him, of course I want to ride up with him if I can. It shouldn’t be a big deal but it is,” she says.

“And J gets to tell you what to do?” T says. “You shouldn’t have told her, and then if she asked how you got up you could tell her and if she’s mad she’s mad, at that point it’s too late.”

I looked at T with my mouth open, “You could do that, but E knew J wouldn’t like it, she’s being considerate.”

“Clearly there was a part of you that knew you might have to not go, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it,” T says. “What you should do is not tell anyone…” he continues.

Here was finally a little insight in to T’s workings. E and I had tried a week earlier to do a therapeutic pretend conversation, with one of us being ourselves and the other being T, until we realized we didn’t know what made T tick, we couldn’t capture him and therefore the conversation went nowhere.

My mom interjects from the other room, “W is an asshole, he’d have done the same thing to you in a heartbeat, so don’t even worry about what he says. He’s just mad because he can’t control you anymore!”

“Thank you peanut gallery, now if you don’t mind we’ll hear from behind door number two,” E says.

“Well, this is a tough situation-” I start, T is laughing softly to himself and shaking his head and I turn to him instead. “I really don’t appreciate it when you laugh and shake your head while I’m talking T,” I look him in the eyes, “It makes me feel as if you don’t respect me or take my opinion seriously, especially when we’re talking about something which is not funny.” E and my mom don’t say anything.

“Okay, okay Lu, I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing at the situation, it’s funny, maybe you should realize that people laugh all the time in conversation, but it’s not necessarily at you,” he says smoothing his voice over.

“Of course I realize it’s not always at me, but not everything is funny, this isn’t funny, E is upset… now I don’t remember what I was going to say.”

I am sure me forgetting what I wanted to say partly proved one of T’s points, that I am easily influenced, quickly diverted off my path, and though I apologized a few minutes later for putting him on the spot, I hoped he realized this was not some kind of reactive statement, more and more on my trip back home I felt disrespected, mostly by T who liked to chuckle to himself and say everything was okay or no big deal. I saw that dismissive behavior as a bigger and bigger problem my family was unwilling to address. Everyone wanted to have a good time all the time, it was inconvenient if anyone was in a bad mood, so we tried to gloss over it or pep someone up as quickly as possible without working out any real problem. Something prevents T in particular from admitting when things are not going well. When things are not okay. Something keeps the slightest of condescending smiles on his face while you’re talking to him. Which allow him to tilt his head slightly down and to the side while answering you, in a type of false platitude.

I find it especially interesting T revealed his own disinterest in advice and sharing of ideas. I have seen him shy away when Mom tells a relative what T is spending his time doing. He doesn’t even want people to know the book he is currently reading! And yet, T has been the most guileless person in terms of giving me advice. I can barely tell him a slightly baked idea without him launching in to a flurry of “You know what you should do”s. I don’t know how to tell him without getting a hushed voiced response, but I don’t need his advice. And I’m not asking for it. I don’t think he understands that simply because someone tells you an idea, that doesn’t make it a communal one. I rarely give someone advice unless their actions directly affect me or if they ask. That is because I understand what it is like to be easily confused and messed up by others. T worries about this too, or so Evan told me, and his reaction is to not leave anyone room to influence him, rather than taking himself out of the arena of affecting others, unless apparently it involves a show of allowing me the first opportunity to speak my mind. Maybe give me the first opportunity to act too.

2013 was the start of what I see as a long road towards self-improvement. I consciously am trying to be better to myself and to others, to think about what I am doing, about how I am behaving, about us on Earth. Or as I told M, “…to not feel so fucked up.”