04.27.16 — Updates from the Field — 1 Month After the Fact
“Never forget this. You’re mine, mine to me. No matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son.” -Rakshan / The Jungle Book
When will watching movies about parents and families, about departure and despair, about farewell and goodbye, not feel gut-wrenching to me? When will I no longer be saddened by the sight and sound of hands clasped tight, holding close, but not being able to hold on? From my conversations with 84 year olds who have lost their mothers for 17 years now, to 60 year olds, who have lived longer without their mothers than with, I suspect the answer is never. I suspect the weight becomes lighter, or our muscles stronger, but the heaviness of loss, the measure of absence never fully disappears.
Twice now, I’ve traveled through the streets of Hanoi, on the back of a motorbike, navigating circumlocutious routes, only slightly less confusing than the convoluted words my adopted brother chooses. At least, in the sentiments he tries to convey, he is straight with me. We know we are both using each other. But we have fought and we have cried and for now, I feel that I can trust him. We talk and talk at length about how I have so many people who love me, who seek to claim me as theirs, and how I still flounder about, thrashing my limbs, and wreaking of this loneliness, complaining of this lack of belonging?
“Do you ever wonder about whether you’ll end up alone?”
Sometimes. But then I remind myself that I live in a world where women can have economic freedom, that I don’t have family pressure…
“Between you and my actual sister, I think you need a family more than her.”
“Because, objectively, my sister still has a mother and a father. Grandparents. A brother like me.”
It has been about a month since this tour was completed. I found myself unable to sleep alone after 33 days of traveling en masse with others, of sharing beds instead of sleeping solo. The collective life had affected my habits and my thinking: I called a Vietnamese-American and spoke to her in Vietnamese on the phone, because I was afraid of being listened to / judged by the Secret / Thought Police. I know it sounds paranoid, but it is true that this type of thinking shrouded my mind, like a bad cigarette habit (or more realistically, chocolate habit) I couldn’t shake following this trip.
I spent 5 days on the floor of a friend’s house, sleeping on her mattress, which plateau’ed at the lumbar spine like a cliff and was bordered by flashing fairy lights, in between four other comrades, stacked sideways like little squished sardines. It reminded me of when I used to play “sardines” for the first time as a senior in high school, somehow catching up on the belated childhood rituals of innocent sleepovers and late night movies, many years too late. What started out as a rooftop pajama party evolved into an unwillingness to e sleep alone. On the first couple of nights, I murmured in agony while asleep, apparently punching the person next to me in the stomach. Over the next couple of days as I stopped having nightmares about this trip, I descended into soundless, dreamless sleep, surrounded by the soft comfort of warm bodies.
Then I threw myself into arranging the logistics of my return to Boston. The frenzy of thinking about where to borrow a white coat and a stethoscope; of completing financial aid forms; of choosing lists for residency; of wondering whether I’ll still have / be able to find dress shoes; of booking plane tickets and then bothering my Vancouver-based cousin to pretend to be me to sort out the issue with the plane tickets because I couldn’t contact Delta from their Vietnam number. Then I had to renew my driver’s license, all while not having an actual address in California, where my California based ID could be sent. Then I reserved my Step 2 exam and realized, for the first time in my medical career, I was signing up for a big test where I wasn’t telling George, where George likely wasn’t to be any part of it. This man, who had comforted me the first time I failed to show up for my Step 1, so ridden with insomnia and anxiety, who had put me on a bus to New Hampshire for the retake, who had loaded me up with movies on my iPad and a phone call the night before to wish me sweet, restful dreams, who celebrated my return with Boston Burger Company dinners, would not be present for this next (albeit silly) rite of passage. All of this to remind me that I am a nomad, with so many loving and supportive friends and adopted family I don’t know what to do with it, but still so rattled by the tenuous nature of relationships, the fundamental change inherent to all things.
And perhaps this is where my stressed out body finally realized it had missed its monthly ritual. No, not the cleansing of its uterine lining ritual, but the monthly shedding of my bronchial cells. Here in Hanoi, I can count on at least one upper respiratory infection per month. If not more. Now, during my 8th month here, when I tabulate it up, I feel sick at least 1/4 of the month, I feel more sick (eyes swollen, body sluggish, brain slow and sleepy) and more homesick than at any point in this journey. There were 2 nights when I was home alone, lying on the living room floor, looking up at the crescent-moon of the lamp projected onto the ceiling, feeling damp and feverish, all my loneliness and neediness amplified by all of the space created by being alone, by absence. Today was the first day I could get out of bed, could walk onto the streets without a fog of toxic death exuding from me. (Truth be told, my illness wasn’t even that bad — I’ve had traveller’s diarrhea, where I was shitting in squat toilets and the side of the road every 10 minutes, where my soggy body cycled between shaking chills and thermal inferno the entire night — but at least then, I had the comfort of my mother rubbing my aching limbs, of menthol oil and eucalyptus, of warm blankets and warm tea.)
In those hours of just feeling out my human mortality, the very shallow edges of my pain neurons and my immune system working overdrive, I questioned a lot about myself: about whether I had it in me to reach these big dreams of doing global health work, of serving in areas of crisis, when I am tempered to comfort, when the smallest respiratory infection sends me wishing for home. I questioned how this one trip to Hanoi had rid me of a 3 year romantic relationship, one in which marriage was on the table. And, at the time of these musings, how this trip had likely landed me with dengue, or malaria, or something sordid, that my fragile constitution was too weak to handle. Clearly these were the deranged delusions of a hypochondriac, with too much time alone, such that its fears were amplified into giant shadows and monsters in the cave of her mind.
I write now as an update of life post-tour. That I have return tickets. That the countdown is officially less than 2 months. That I am eager to be home. To be on asphalt roads with a bicycle that I don’t yet own. To have blue skies again. And hummus. And most importantly, friends. Familiar faces that I miss a lot. With big, American-sized hugs.
It has been a crazy/chaotic 8 months. Beyond anything I could imagine. Believe me, that I am hugely grateful. This time of my life has opened up in me new caverns of thought, little eddies of emotion, and wide chasms of unknown. I can see how much I seek approval; how, like little desperate urchins craving acceptance, I would readily give up all my previous identity, my relationships, for the affirming gang or cult leader. This is a serious factory defect within me, vulnerable to exploitation, which has already cost me a little naivety and idealism. Well worth the price, but good to recognize the false idols I worship.
All in all, this is the most time I’ve ever had to spend with myself: to really sit with the ways I reach out through text messages to create the false illusion of cameraderie; the paper promises I break over and over again; the unrealistic, overly ambitious scheduling; the difficulty saying “no;” the half-hearted “yes” that would have been better off a “no;” the ways I evade conflict; the indirect way I approach most problems; my susceptibility to the opinions of others.
I’m reminded of a comment dubbed of me, before I left for Vietnam, in the office of my old Society Master (something like a Dumbledore or a Mcgonagall in the Harry Potter world). We were speaking about my 3rd year experiences, how I felt about this whole medical school thing, his impending return to San Francisco, my upcoming trip.
“You know, there was a time when you first got here, when it was painful to see how much you lacked confidence. I mean, sure, the circumstances were sad. It was terribly sad to hear about your mother’s loss and how much you struggled with it, but… it’s good to see that you’ve gained some confidence again. It’s good to see you assured of yourself.”
At this moment, the countdown to home seeming imminent, my bags half packed, my heart spilling full of delicious firsts and fresh friendships, my soul scraped open like a skinned knee (evidence of having lived, of having experienced something beyond superficial, of having learned), I feel more confident in myself. A little more humbled too, to see all the hidden corners and dusty tables where I hide the broken bits of myself, the dusty fragments that don’t seem to fit neatly. I don’t want to see myself as victim anymore; a pathetic case deserving of pity. I don’t want to see myself as powerless or dependent; willing to lose my independence for a cheap place to stay or the heavy promise of company over dinner. I once built empires out of novels and poetry, lost myself in a symphony of song. This year has been a reminder that I have choices and dreams; that I am capable of change; and that I can be happy, albeit occasionally soggy and sniffling, on my own.
Any path will require me to reorient myself, to realign myself with what feels true to my values, to daily commit to practices that bring me closer to the ideal, to stumble and to keep walking. And to send letters home, these little reminders that we remember our relationships, these paper promises that I will be seeing you soon.