My daughter Q handed me a ‘Y’-shaped stick. “This is for mom.” I put the stick in my coat pocket with the sparkly rock (probably a piece of New York street flecked with broken glass) that she’d somehow spotted in the deep grass. We were exploring the park paths we knew by heart, but the world it runs through gives us new puzzles each trip. By the end of our walk, I had pocketed three ‘Y’-shaped sticks, a couple of rocks, and some prickly seedpods from a tree I couldn’t name.
Home, I hung my coat over hers as she went off to construct more adventures in her room. I interrupted my wife, who was drawing crazy robots with our son, to show her the sticks, proof (unasked-for and unneeded) that she was just with us in a way. I returned the sticks to my coat pocket, where they will stay for weeks.
I hold on to these and other finds long after my kids forget about them. They remind me of their way of thinking about the world.
How do we manage to think about the world? How do stick thoughts come to be about sticks while thoughts about my son and daughter reach out to them and only them, wherever they may be?
It’s not an easy question.
We usually succeed in thinking about things, but no one really knows how thoughts latch onto their subjects. To think about something, we must have a particular way of thinking about that thing, one way among many, including ways that misrepresent a thing yet still have meaning. And we can usually follow ways of thinking about things to the things themselves, but not from things back to the way we think about them — the world by itself does not suggest whether and how it is being thought about; it does not show itself to be covered in thoughts. Astronomy eventually revealed that Hesperus and Phosphorus both named Venus, but the ancient Greeks would have denied that Hesperus was identical with Phosphorus. The stars are what they are, but our thinking about them makes for its own universe.
In switching out my fall coat in favor of winter, I discovered (among the rocks and sticks and robot drawings, five small seashells) each a scoop of polished rainbow. Q gathered them from the California beach where my wife and her sisters released their mother’s ashes into the sea.
Ong Ngoai* met us alone at the San Diego airport. The air suggested summer evening even deep into December, and our East Coast clothes felt thick and wrong. He doesn’t trust himself on the roads at night, and I drove while the others slept the hour more to the smaller town and big house. We were tired before we began.
The house was always too much for the two of them, and it seemed cavernous now. Ong Ngoai had only recently returned after days on the hospital’s cot and then weeks on friends’ couches. But he was a visitor in his own house, sleeping, when he could, in the guest bedroom just off the kitchen, and showering in the small guest bathroom off that. He went to the second floor only to bring food to the photos of family who have passed on, talking sweetly to his memory of Ba Ngoai up the stairs to the altar with her small meal before he sat down to his own.
We had stayed in this house many times, but the new silence made it unfamiliar. Ong Ngoai was excited to have the kids come, and he had put together the Christmas tree and laid out a ring of presents under it for them. The corner dedicated to the holiday made the room seem even emptier. That first night, we carried the kids in from the car dreaming. In past visits, Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai happily gave us their bed to ease the kids through the nights strange in place and time, but we left that door closed and instead carried the kids, already dreaming, up into the two smaller bedrooms. Ong Ngoai quickly took himself to sleep, something he hadn’t done much of lately.
My wife and I were left sitting on the couch that became, in the complete quiet, a cliff of grief. We expected to look toward the kitchen and see Ba Ngoai mixing and chopping at the stove, with her kids and their kids close by making snacks of her ingredients. We listened for but didn’t hear her tell us about how our son and daughter had become even more beautiful and clever, and we missed how her thinking seemed to make it so. We wished we would have to convince her, as always, to leave the kitchen to join us all at the table where we stayed long after we saw the bottoms of our bowls.
The child may be the keeper of the gene, but the parent is the keeper of the story, and her sudden loss meant that so much of the family’s telling would remain unfinished. We don’t consider ourselves religious, and we don’t have any ready routes to reassurance. Ba Ngoai was so alive, so present, just months ago. It’s tempting to believe that if she is not here, she must be somewhere. But such reasoning leads quickly to more and more troubling questions: Was she alone and scared wherever she is? Did she know we thought of her and missed her? My wife wondered whether when she dies she will be with her mother. After dedicating myself to studying what we tell ourselves are the deepest questions — how to live the best life, what constitutes the nature of meaning and thought and mind. I was supposed to be able to answer these questions for her, but grief teaches that so many answers remain unknown and unknowable.
Ong Ngoai had been packing. He had neatly sorted Ba Ngoai’s clothes and bags and shoes into clear bins that he had labeled and inventoried. She had been a hair stylist for many years, and she had accumulated appliances and chemicals in industrial strengths and sizes. Ong Ngoai had sold much of the furniture, but he had saved nearly everything of hers and hadn’t yet let himself think beyond the saving. The boxes needed to be gone through again, some not kept and the rest carried somewhere else, which was why we had come. We were also there to help Ong Ngoai prepare for what was next, though none of us knew what that was. He wanted to leave, go away about as far as he could from here and from what happened, and we agreed that this house and town only reminded him of what he no longer had. He thought he might move to a Vietnamese community up the coast. He talked often about returning to Vietnam, perhaps for good. We encouraged these thoughts when we could.
The weather acted as if it had never known loss. The days grew warmer through the week until the kids began to overheat from riding bikes and scooters along the brief subdivision sidewalks. They played restaurant with Ong Ngoai on the patio he built out back for his wife. He laughed at their gourmet dishes of leaves and sticks and lemons that had fallen from their tired tree. We succeeded in occupying ourselves at Sea World for most of one day, and we spent a good part of another riding boats and go-karts at a local family fun park, happily losing ourselves in the motion of our bodies. Each night we took the car around the neighborhood to look at houses dressed up in holiday lights. (Some local store must have had a compelling sale on motorized reindeer.) Our kids’ delight at those lights strung in the warm dark somehow made the trip less impossible.
The Vietnamese inflection of Buddhist tradition requires that a deceased person’s ashes remain in temple for 49 days before family can take possession of them. Ba Ngoai’s 49th-day service was held at a lovely temple a little over an hour away from the house we were working through. Much like her earlier services, her picture from her middle daughter’s recent wedding sat centered on an altar, made lavish with fruit and flowers that Ong Ngoai bought in that morning’s dark. The altar sat at the end of a long strip of red carpet hemmed in gold, and those paying respect, after leaving their shoes at the door, could choose a chair on either side of the carpet or, as most did, kneel on it. Nearly all the big family had come for the funeral — Ba Ngoai had four children, five grandchildren (at the time), and herself was one of nine — but not everyone could make it. Ba Ngoai’s son was home waiting with his family for a new daughter to arrive who they would name after her. We all knelt close to Ba Ngoai’s picture as monks in gold and maroon robes sang lowly into microphones and rang bowls with wooden mallets. Three enormous Buddhas behind them contemplated everything with closed eyes. It felt cold despite the Southern California sun.
We lit incense and poured tea for Ba Ngoai, the kids deliberate and careful with the match and the pot, bowing deeply three times as they had seen others do. After a few more songs and many requests to take pictures with the kids in the sun and one more time to the bathroom, we left with a bamboo box on my wife’s lap.
We ended up at the beach because of a joke. Long before her liver abruptly gave up on itself, Ba Ngoai said she would like to be cremated and sent into the Pacific Ocean so that she could swim back home to Vietnam. “You can’t swim,” Ong Ngoai reminded her. We all laughed.
The Pacific coast lacks the angle and anger of the Atlantic. West Coast beaches tend to be wide and gentle, the waves breaking far out and unfurling lazily on the land. A stripe of sand had been made into a mirror by the wet, and the kids rolled up their pants right away and walked out onto their reflections.
It was my wife’s idea to carry out Ba Ngoai’s wish by cutting a hole in one of her handbags. While we watched the kids dig in the sand, the youngest daughter moved the ash from the box to the purse Ba Ngoai carried to her children’s weddings.
She came down the steps from the cars, the bag on her shoulder.
“Hold this,” she said, as she pulled off her boots and tights. It was heavier than I expected.
“I can carry it, if you like,” I said.
“That’s okay, I’ll do it.”
“It’s up to you,” I said. “It’s your mom.”
“That’s not mom,” she said.
The three daughters came together at the edge of the ocean. My wife cut open a corner of the bag with the scissors she remembered to pull from a box as we left the house early that morning. Were there laws against mixing the dead with the beach? Probably, we thought, and the youngest strolled along the water shaking the bag, with a look of innocence so determined that we found a thrill rising up in us that came out in laughs.
The three sisters took turns with the bag, but there was a surprising amount of ash. It was more fine-grained than the sand working between their toes. They huddled around the bag and began scooping out what they could until their hands went black, but even their handfuls weren’t enough. The youngest went into the cold waves nearly to her waist, and, after a quick glance up and down the empty coast, upended the bag and shook loose the rest. She hopped her way out of the surf, and Q came to meet her. The afternoon sky hung over the water was bluer than anyone’s idea of it. They looked to each other, their faces both suggesting Ba Ngoai in shape and smile, and took hands. Q, still untouched by loss, skipped now and then back to the car, handing me a few small shells on the way. Our son and his mother together drifted further down the beach and looked out past everything for a long time.
Aboutness allows us to think of things in their absence. Aboutness is, then, the mother of memory, of grief. As you read this now, you participate in the truth it holds. No one yet understands how the stories we tell ourselves work, how you somehow touch in thought those you love, even the ones who now lie beyond all hands. Here. This is what I have found, what I ask you to hold for me.
I put the shells back in my pocket.
*“Ong Ngoai” means maternal grandfather in Vietnamese; “Ba Ngoai” means maternal grandmother.