05.19.2016 — Ritual Narratives

Every year, my mother would tell the story of her water breaking. If you’ve ever seen Gilmore Girls, the scene where Lorelai wakes Rory up, and Lorelai recounts what it was like to give birth at 16… that is a page straight out of my family’s history. When I was still living at home, she would pretend to groan as though her belly was aching, her face lighting up with the joy of her theatrics. When I left for college, she would call the night before, her voice open and bright, laced with an enthusiastic smile.

I miss the reminder of how we used to be one, how the tether finally was severed, but the intangible connection remained, revived by the ritual. So, here I am, sharing stories of my mom. It’s not all about loss: there are lovely, joyous moments, I am sure. But to get there, I think I need to uncover this stuff first. And reorganize the mess of feelings that always bubble up.

The beginning is an excerpt from a book called “The Iceberg” by Marion Coutts. The final excerpt is from Audre Lorde.


“Here it comes again, not a word, an utterance. It is Tom’s voice saying my name. . . . I have never heard my name like this, with so much mourning, and I will not hear it so again. I understand it, its timbre, of course I do. He is losing my name. He is seeking it out as a word and feeling it on his tongue. . . . My name is a word like any other and though it means all of me to him, just like any other it may be lost. . . . In the last two days — two days! — we lose more in two days than you fail to recall in a year — all the names are going. . .


“The dark floor was pooled with piss. Everything happens for the first time and then you know and the knowledge after that is never surprising again. So it was here.”


“It felt primitive then, from a folk tale about lovers.” Now “I send my voice freely into the dark for there is no one else to hear me. We say good night and good night and good night and use up all the words we know for goodbye.”

The last time I went to HCMC with my mom was in the middle of April 2012: we tried to take one last adventure into Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It was a bit of a last ditch attempt at normalcy: by then, her bones had started aching more from mets that had regrown in her bones a second time; she was more tired; her appetite dampened; her eyes dulled.

One evening, as my mom was sleeping with the TV blaring in the background, she suddenly awoke, a need to move her bowels overwhelming her ability to get to the bathroom. Her path was complicated by my nephew’s plastic toys, a sea of pillows and blankets, a skyscape of cardboard insta-noodle boxes. And her mind was utterly stoned from the opioids she was taking for her pain. She had many near misses in her lifetime, always one with an overactive bowel. In fact, she met my grandmother, her mother-in-law, simply because she could barely summon her colon to stop churning and needed to borrow a bathroom in her youth. There were few trips in my life, up until that point, where we hadn’t been trying to find a bathroom. This was not new.

New was the fact that her body had finally failed. That it would no longer listen to the autonomic nervous system that commanded it to tighten its sphincters. To stop. Instead, there she lay, in a pile of shit. We moved her to the bathroom and washed her body clean. My aunt disposed of the sheets and changed the bed. My mother tumbled back into the heavy sleep that foreshadowed her future.

In the next couple of months, she had more subtle episodes of not being able to expect the same control of her body, sometimes staining a portion of her sweater with brown excrement, the stench a shameful, sad reminder of how everything tends towards chaos. How entropy always wins.

By June, she lost her ability to walk: she was bed-ridden and relied on a diaper. By August, she had lost spontaneous speech. I have a video, recorded on my laptop, of our family before I was leaving for school. She has no words for me, just her wide-eyes rimmed in her permanent eye-liner tattoo, blank and aching. I haven’t been able to watch it since my 1st year of medical school: there is too much space where I could imagine what she meant to say; there is not enough distance for me to see what she meant, behind the blurry pixels of my screen.

The last times I saw her, her final birthday, I remember lying in her hospital sized bed. A bent big spoon, timing my breaths with hers. Those shallow gasps were the last bridge I felt like I could use to connect to her, in a state where her mind and body were so brittle, so near dust and ash. I could speak into the empty silence, but I feared all that would do was open up the grief inside my bones, that the rattling hurricane that would break loose might break her even further. So we lay steeped in silence turning the moment bitter with the taste of loss, the rapid rise and falling of our lungs the last anchor between us, as speech and touch failed.


Now That I Am Forever With Child
How the days went
while you were blooming within me
I remember each upon each
the swelling changed planes of my body
and how you first fluttered, then jumped
and I thought it was my heart.
How the days wound down
and the turning of winter
I recall you
growing heavy
against the wind.
I thought
now her hands
are formed, and her hair
has started to curl
now her teeth are done
now she sneezes.
Then the seed opened.
I bore you one morning
just before spring
my head rang like a fiery piston
my legs were towers between which
a new world was passing.
Since then
I can only distinguish
one thread within running hours
You, flowing through selves
toward You.
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