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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Two Years Out

I was washing dishes when I had the thought. It was a thought that had never occurred to me, but which made so much sense. A thought I fleshed out later while wetting my hair in the shower.

I never knew the depth of my love for Baba until now.

It’s a cliche in a way, the “you never knew how good you had it till it was gone,” type of situation, but it genuinely had never crossed my mind. Maybe I always figured my desire to do everything right in his eyes stemmed from deep seated, manipulative Asian dad guilting. Maybe because the times weren’t good. I am not nostalgic for any of the hospital visits, the back/feet/hand massages twice a day, his swollen feet, having to get him a change of clothes over and over again because the fabric was too itchy. Or perhaps it was the fact I became numb to the idea of his death. “Used to the idea” in a way. Before he died I thought of the aftermath of his death a few times, in a sort of pragmatic, of course it will be sad, but then we’ll get to watch a movie all the way through without him interrupting, kind of way.

Now though, now I see how much I loved him, how devoted I was to him, how much I admired him for his adventurous spirit, the type of spontaneity I can never imagine having. It has been two years, and no one ever asks me about how I am doing, what it is like, two years out. Perhaps it is because they think it is none of their business, or, what I have been thinking more, is that they don’t want to hear what it is like.

This is how it is:

You still have dreams about him. Dreams of killing him, of him returning – his absence explained through spy movie plot lines, of annoying him, but sometimes you dream of nice things he never said, never would have said, words your subconscious fills his mouth with when he is kept, created, as you wish he were. In my last dream, during a nap in mid-day on the, “too loosely knit” according to Z, couch I kissed him on the cheek and he said, “Your kisses always have so much love,” and I smiled.

When someone mentions their dad something pings inside your head. You want to talk about him, descriptions of his shortcomings, the chores he made you do, the trips you went on, come out whenever remotely related. You hope people want to hear it, but never ask. You still feel guilty about the time he bought you Jack In Box after school to bribe you to run errands with him, but instead said you wanted to sit in the hot Suburban, eating the sandwich slowly and then reading your book.

You worry about your friend’s dad who has cancer, don’t want him to die, but at the same time imagine how you will be a better friend to him than he was to you. How you will get a last minute plane ticket, go to his house unannounced, hold his Mom’s hand, make them food, help, be unsolicited help. He probably won’t feel guilty that you are doing this and it will cement the idea in your mind that you know how to take care of people in grief. You know people can’t ask for the help, the comfort they need. You know how infinitely their lives will never be the same.

You wish there were still formal mourning traditions, searching for a way to display your grief, wishing you could simply stitch, “Baba 1942-2011” on the back of your jean jacket, wondering if anyone would notice, what they would say, what you are expecting of people. You want every individual that runs across you to recognize that yours is not a traditional path, you have been touched by death in a significant way. You go so far as to google “mourning etsy,” hoping there is some kind of DIY grief gear for the 21st century.

You can’t give pep talks to Z because you find it hard to muster optimism. You feel uncertainty in your bones, in the carpeting, in the stucco of your dilapidated apartment building. Occasionally when you say goodbye in the morning you say, “Bye, I hope this isn’t the last time I see you. I love you, be safe.” You decide this intimate knowledge of uncertainty, not in a carpe diem on a magnet kind of way, but in the way you’re annoyed by anyone being “certain” of anything, is important, makes you better than others. There must be a reason this terrible thing happened to you, to your family. It must be necessary for your development, to unpeel a layer of bullshit spread over everything by long life spans, media (obvi), those people with brick-by-brick idyllic lives who you stalk on Facebook. It can’t simply be that life is truly that fragile, that tenuous. But it is.


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Ash

“It’s amazing that two years can go by, and you think you’re over it, and then you see these boxes and everything comes back. You’re right back in it,” J, my brother says.

“Really? The ashes don’t bother me,” Mom says.

A few minutes ago J set a small brown leather stool in the middle of the living room. It is a tiny room, part of my mom’s new apartment attached to the main house. There is a little space between the fireplace, piano, extra twin bed, and bathroom wall for one nice leather chair and stool.

E, my sister closed the screen door earlier saying, “We’ve watched enough movies to know what can go wrong with this.”

On the stool are three boxes. They are about the height of a piece of paper and about six inches wide. They are wrapped in plain white matte paper and taped together with clear packing tape. They have moved from a cabinet in the living room to a cabinet under the Buddha in Mom’s new office. I was a little surprised when I found them the other day while looking for incense. I knew they were around, but hadn’t given it much thought.

“You aren’t ever really bothered by this kind of stuff,” J says. “You’ve always been strong. Remember with grandma passing? You told Baba she was confused and that he should tell her –“

“I did?” Mom says.

“Yeah,” I say. It is nice to hear someone compliment Mom. She has developed a terrible habit of insulting herself in the last year. If she forgets something in the car, for instance, she’ll say something like, “I forgot my car, stupid Alicen.” She says she’s being honest, but no one thinks these things about her.

“Figure I might as well say it instead of someone else,” she says.

“But no one feels that way,” E says.

Maybe grandma’s presence about an hour away has brought this critical side of herself out. Another side of her I never expected has emerged. I don’t like it.

I wonder if she has forgotten her good attributes. Perhaps experiences real shock at J complimenting her, anyone noticing anything good. What is beating her down? You know, besides the whole world.

“You said she didn’t know what was going on and he should explain it to her,” J says. “Baba was having trouble, but you were fine.”

“Oh, I don’t remember that,” Mom says.

“You could tell he didn’t want to have to deal with it, he’d rather distract, but he did,” J says. He cuts through the tape, separating the boxes. He picks up each box lightly shaking them. “Oh man, this one’s heavy. This one’s lighter. Do you think the heavier ones are bone and the lighter contain more ash?”

“That makes sense,” I say.

“I don’t know which one to open.”

“Just start with that one,” Mom says.

J cuts through the wrapping. “Oh wow.”

I am scared to look around the cardboard slightly blocking my view. I can see the white of a shaft of bone. I imagine half of a skull hiding right beneath it. I’ve been watching too much Bones.

Mom moves forward.

“Woo,” E says.

J picks up the bag. Whole pieces of bone, partial pieces, bone, obviously bone. Here it is. Baba. Baba. Baba. I see half of a thin bone; split long-wise, the place where the marrow would be, empty.

“It’s amazing. It looks like fossilized bone,” E places the bag in her lap and pokes the bones around through the plastic. “That piece is his pelvis. Wow, it’s amazing.”

“There really isn’t much ash,” J says.

“There’s some at the bottom,” Mom says. “You could scoop it out.”

“Yeah,” he sweeps his hand through his hair, looking down at the bag. “This is not what I was expecting, though I guess I should have been.”

“I don’t think we knew what to expect,” E says. “This must be why people usually crush it, because it looks so much like bone.”

“To mask what it is,” J says. “Distance themselves from the reality.”

“This is so cool,” E says.

“We’re really all star dust, right?” J says. “And we return to it, you can see it.”

“So, well, if you just crush it a little bit it becomes littler pieces, ashes, maybe you could do that,” E slowly crushes a small piece through the bag.

“I guess, I’ll open this one then?”

“Let’s see what the other ones look like,” Mom says.

“Sure, why not?”

“Let me help,” E says. “It’s a race.” Both of them are unwrapping.

“This one has more ash,” J says, “it’s the heavier ones which are ash, the lighter ones are more bone. That makes sense. It’s smaller so it can hold more.” He holds up a bag which is about a third ash, all of it sitting in the bottom underneath bones. I can see the round ball-like bone which must connect our legs with our hips.

“Look, this is his femur,” E points out a bone through the bag.

“Is this? Is this a tooth?” J moves his head closer to the bag. E leans over. “No, no, it’s amazing, the black part must be where the protein burned off.”

“That one has a good amount of ash,” Mom says.

“Yeah.”

“I think it’s a good one to take from,” Mom says.

“It must be crazy working at the mortuary. After the fire it must just be bone, it can’t move,” J says.

“So what happens to the blood?” Mom asks. “It burns away. Is it sludge?”

“I guess so,” I say. “You can’t bleed after you die.”

“You can’t?” Mom asks. “I guess that makes sense. You need your heart to be pumping.”

“Maybe it’s sludge,” my voice trailing off.

“Is this spoon okay?” J asks holding up a large aluminum spoon we usually use for salad.

I shrug, “As good as any, I don’t think there’s really an appropriate tool for this.” E smiles.

J cuts through the zip tie holding the bag open. He pushes the bones aside, getting down in the bag, at the ash. We have prepared a small zip lock that will sit in an empty box that used to carry Baba’s pearl powder. It is long and thin, with a blue embroidered casing.

“Baba really liked pearl powder,” J says.

“It’s true, and zip –ock,” I say. Baba never pronounced zip lock correctly. He always said, “Zip -ock,” with an intense emphasis on the ock part.

“Here,” E cracks open the bag. Here’s a zip lock commercial in the making. J spoons a little up, carefully lifts it out of the bag and over to the zip lock. He quietly sifts through the big bones, digging in to the small layer of ash at the bottom. His brow is furrowed, but his hand does not shake as it carries the small spoonful over to the bag.

“We have to make sure there isn’t anything that’s obviously bone, if I get stopped by customs and they see something like that it’s going to be really hard to explain,” J says. “I’d rather not deal with it.”

“Don’t you want to take our permit?” Mom says.

“It does say where the ashes came from and that they’re being shipped to China. This is being shipped in a way, I mean, it’s not in the mail, but still, it shouldn’t matter.”

“We should copy it and have you carry a copy,” Mom says.

“Honestly, if I get stopped at a custom’s office it’ll probably be easier to lie, otherwise if they find out I have human remains, who knows, right?”

“Yeah,” E says, “I think it’s easier that way.”

“It’s funny, it reminds me of the herbs Baba used to bring back,” J says as E holds up a bag.

“Put it in a pot and make tea,” I say trying to joke. E is a little misty eyed. I am crying. I am guessing they notice, but are trying to ignore it. I guess because this reminds me that Baba is gone, which seems so simple it is almost silly, but I still can’t believe he’s gone. The other night J showed us the promotional video he made for his cycle tour. He is biking from California to Ontario Florida, taking a plane to Norway, and then cycling from there to Guangzhou, China. He talks about Baba being an inspiration over video of him cycling through Alaska. At the end are clips from the old camcorder videos he had transposed on to DVD by a guy through Craigslist. It is an amazing video (You can see it here: pilgrimsandashes.com). They are heartbreaking. I am about three years old during this trip to China, Nepal, and India, so young Baba helps me with almost everything, walking up the stairs, waving at my Mom. His youth is so apparent, in his gait as he walks down a dirt road; in the way he puts his hand in his vest, looking out through darkly tinted sunglasses. It is hard to believe he so swiftly went from that, to being these bones.

“But what are you going to say it is?” E asks.

“It can’t be soil, they won’t let me transport that,” J says. “Hmmm.”

“Maybe you could say it’s ash from some kind of fire ceremony you had before leaving, but look, if anyone knows what they’re looking for, if you look, it’s obviously ash. Look at that,” she points her finger at small white pieces of bone. “But if we crush it small enough, they probably won’t expect it.”

“Should I take a bit from every one?” J asks. “Do you think they started and ended somewhere?”

“I don’t think it matters,” I say. “It’s all jumbled together.”

“Good call and then we don’t have to deal with sealing them all back up again.”

J puts about seven big spoonfuls in the bag before saying it’s enough. E seals the top and lays it in the box.

“You should get more,” Mom says as E tests to see if the box closes.

“How much more?” E asks.

“At least twice that,” Mom says as E reopens the zip lock.

“I don’t think the size is important. It’s symbolic, right?” J says.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Mom says.

It’s during moments like this I am surprised by the strength of my family. I am the weakest one here. I let the tears drip down my cheeks and sniffle. No one says anything. Maybe we are past the point of comforting each other.


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Quick, which is worse: Losing a father or a husband?

Haha, just kidding. No one actually does that. It’s almost too bad there’s no definitive answer (and that there isn’t for similar “feelings-related” questions – like which is worse: Not having a prom date or not getting to walk at graduation?), because it comes up. You would think it wouldn’t, but it does.

The Saturday I came home everyone could tell Mom was headed towards a break out. E, my sister, said she and J, my brother, heard it in the first words Mom spoke to them that morning. I’m not sure how I got in on it. All I know is I followed Mom in to her bedroom so she could change before heading out to move furniture.

“You’re all going to leave and take the best things with you, and I’ll be stuck taking care of what’s left. It’s fine!”

“Mom, we’re not going to take the best stuff,” I said.

“Yes you are, because the best things are yourselves.”

“Moommmm…”

“It’s okay, I know it’ll happen to you one day. That’s consoling.” She’s crying by this point.

“Mom.”

“It will, just you wait.”

“Mom, we’re just taking out things. I don’t know what you want. If me and E leave our stuff here you’re going to say we’re keeping you from moving out, but if we take our stuff then you think we’ll never come back. I don’t know what you want.”

“This isn’t what I planned,” she says looking at the queen size empty bed. The bed Baba died in. I found the sheet we covered him with, leaving him there for two days, in the linen cupboard. Orange paisleys on a white background.

“I know.”

“I feel so alone. You guys have all gone off.”

“Mom, you’re not alone.”

“Oh yes, I am. I know I am. You and E are a team now, and why shouldn’t you be? E’s always criticizing me, telling me I’m wrong, well then I won’t talk. No one cares what I have to say anyway.”

“We care about what you have to say.”

“No, you don’t. You pretend to, but the one thing, the one real thing I said to you after I picked you up, you said, “Are you going to start this again?” The one real thing. You don’t want to know. I know, I’m not ‘fun’.” Mom did air quotes. I have never seen her do air quotes. Is this pop culture catching up with her? I am pretty sure I did not say this extremely insensitive thing. It sorta sounds like me, but this happened two days before, I would have remembered. I know she is so wrapped up in her own emotions, very sensitive, anything could have morphed in to another attack.

“Mom, I don’t…I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.” I hug her. She won’t ever believe that I didn’t say that. It’s too bad, she’s transforming me in to a new person. The type of daughter that blows her off, attacks her.

“You guys are going along with your lives, having a great time, and I’m alone.”

“Mom, we’re not all just great.” I feel emotion building in my voice, the strain of keeping it in check.

“Oh yes you are,” she says quickly, anger in her eyes.

“Mom,” I say loudly, slowly. Tears are in my voice, it has risen in volume by notches and notches.

“My dad died when I was 22, you don’t think that’s a big deal?”

“A new girl at the office was telling me she lost her dad not too long ago. It happens to alot of people.”

“Mom. It happens to some people, some, but not to most.” This is the closest I have gotten to yelling at Mom in the last five years. “And it’s a big deal. A really big deal.”

“Really?” she asks. I can’t believe this.

“Yes! Of course. When Baba died my whole life fell apart. Okay?”

“It did?”

“Yes, Baba was a huge part of my life. Of who I am. And I feel it everyday, with everyone I talk to,” I am crying, yelling now.

“Oh, I didn’t know,” Mom says. Her face does not register the huge insult she delivered.

“It’s a big deal Mom… you still have your dad.”

“Having him alive isn’t the same as having him in my life,” she says folding her clothes.

“Well, your dad is still alive, that’s all I mean. He could be in your life.”

This doesn’t let up for awhile. She accuses me and E of trying to “get away from her.”

“I know you moved to Portland to get away from me. I know, I wanted to get away from my mom too, why wouldn’t you?”

“Mom, that’s not why I moved to Portland. If Z-”

“It felt like it was.”

“It wasn’t. I want you to be part of my life but whenever I call you or J no one ever picks up or you’re busy.”

“Well, I’ll try to pick up more often, I don’t want you to feel like I’m butting in to your life or anything.”

“Mom, I would never feel like you were butting in. I still feel like our lives are together.”

“I’m sorry I’m not more like your dad, he was so fun, HE had so many plans. He would know what to do.”

“You don’t have to apologize, Mom.” I hug her. “We’re happy you’re not dad. Believe me.”

Mom hasn’t mentioned this since. At first I wanted to apologize for saying (in the heat of the moment) Baba was a huge part of who I became without mentioning she was as well, but now I don’t feel the urge. A few days afterward, by the time I returned to Portland I was upset with her. I know if Evan heard this it would stand as fodder for a grudge for years. I am beginning to be grouped with Evan, meaning seen as “irrational” and “over-emotional,” which usually means questioning anything anyone else in the family does. I can imagine the relief Evan must feel at no longer being a group of one, but I don’t want this kind of label. I don’t know why Mom doesn’t want to work harder at feeling like a part of me and E’s “club,” but I think it’s a continuous cycle, she feels alone and that we don’t want to hear what she has to say, so she doesn’t call, making her feel more alone. She is building a new identity, one where no one understands her, or contemplates the amount of pain she is, and her kids are all fine by themselves, totally untouched by losing their father, only she feels the loss. I understand this kind of trap. I have been in it before, but not about the family. I have never before considered that any of the other kids or Mom is in less pain than I am. The pain drew me closer to them. I thought she would see us all as part of this club. The only people who really understand. I am starting to think, despite Evan’s desires and plans and what sounds like the right thing to do, that maybe the family shouldn’t be together for awhile. We’re all so emotionally scarred, still hurt, processing, we will probably be working through this for years more (T, my other brother who is younger than J, still won’t talk about the day Baba died), we might be the worst combination of people to be together. A therapist would probably disagree. Isn’t this exact group of people the making of a grief counseling group? There may be too much back story for us, too many power plays, confusion about what role we all play, wanting everyone to be the same as we were as children, the littlest disagreement possible, wanting to finally be heard after years of being silenced by Baba. No one foresaw this.