March 6, 2017KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsRemembrances

Painting the Since [Then]


This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles – 


—Emily Dickinson,
“This World is not Conclusion”


Grief is a plane that ricochets off the faces of the dead we no longer praise.

This is how they make us remember their names.

Last summer, on a trip from New York to Toronto to attend a funeral, you flew into a red cell in the dead of night. After so much turbulence and chop, the plane lost control, surely marred and marked by the violence in which it was tossed around in the sky, by the sky.

It was in those seconds you were without language.

It was in those seconds you’d have promised an entire plane that on the ground, things are clearer. Such a promise was not yours to make. Brains tumbled. Last thought: To think as a child I saw airplanes as birds. Exit, the past present— in very present time. Exit, identity and woes. It was only for a few seconds that a grief greater than yours quaked, broke apart, cascaded guttural— and yet its slipshod skeleton held. Holds. Holds you still within its bones.

You mean the kind of grief as what almost happens— and did.

 * * *

Now you can speak of things that almost happened— and yet did: that you fell from the sky into the hands of the dead who had no children to say Kaddish for them, who beat you to their chests until the ocean below too hungered.

Were you destined to know such undrownable sorrows, you who are unable to carry a child to term? Who will say Kaddish for you? Who will say Kaddish for your husband who isn’t sure he believes in God, who asked you, upon landing, to recite The V’ahavta as you shook in his arms, knowing it was more for your own comfort than his, your favorite prayer which you once called home, more so than any homeland or country, long before you began to call New York home, Toronto home, Hong Kong home, that such language pricks the ears of your mother who smiles in relief, but how this also grieves her, that her prayers for you to find love and happiness were answered, and yet she mourns she’s lost you not only to New York, but to another two?

None of this will reach the ground.

None of this reached Toronto, where Mama Christina— as your husband’s mother has asked you to call her, wanting to be your mother, but a named mother, out of respect for your birth mother— picks you up from the airport. Her grief floods the car.

In less than two years, she has lost her eldest brother in Hong Kong and now her eldest sister in Toronto, her sister dying suddenly, while Mama Christina herself was on a plane, flying back from Hong Kong to Toronto to escape the hottest days of summer, having no idea her sister was ill. That she would pass away before Mama Christina could get to the hospital in time. That her sister would carry a grudge to the grave. A grudge that Mama Christina would only discover after the funeral, hearing about it from her late sister’s sons. How they’d urged their mother to clear the air, although they too did not know how ill she was.

Later, Mama Christina will reimagine a past future in which she takes an earlier flight. In which she checks in with her late sister more. Calls out to the distance between them, the lack of phone calls, the unwritten messages and emails.

What still hangs in the air, full-stop.

What nearly— and is done.

How the irrevocableness of regret can become past continuous, can eat away at days before they’re lived. How insatiable, how overly-sharp-tuned-spirited— that which is grief’s unrelenting hunger.

* * *

The day after you land, your husband decides to paint the fence.

This is what he does when you come home for a funeral a few days early.

You watch him as he ropes his brother into it, and you think the line’s gone dead because your mother hasn’t said anything since you called to say you are in Toronto.

Later, she’ll claim it was her concern over the dress. Not that she had to see it. She knows you have a whole closet of wrong clothes, most of which friends have given you because, they say, no one else can wear them. You aren’t sure this is a compliment. You have exactly one zip-up black shift that’s just a fingertip too short, tailored in tiers that add a bit of “interest” which means it doesn’t fit the occasions for which it’s expected, much less a funeral. This is not about the dress. This is about grief, which you learned to never hide in a garment bag in the back of a closet, lest it call out your name. This means you have worn this same black dress to funerals and to teach poetry workshops in the evening. To long-days-end dinners with friends and to breakfast meetings. You think this gives you a better understanding of how to care for grief, to keep its presence open and shifting, not confined to places of mourning.

But your mother’s silence is not about the dress. This is how you said a single word. It’s that you spoke of home without thinking, even though you said his parent’s home in Toronto— even though Mama Christina later corrects you: this is your home too— all that you mother, your first mother, no first name required mother heard you say was the word home.

And it is in her silence that you whisper your husband is painting the fence, in a shirt stretched out from years of washings and a rigid trucker hat that no one remembers buying. You don’t tell her that every time you return to Toronto, you bring clothes that are hard to leave. You bring the kind you’ll miss. You’ll never tell your mother this. Or that you’ve been thinking how one day you’ll say Kaddish for her, although she believes there’s always too much to be done for the living. That you will say it too for Mama Christina, although she does not believe in God. No, you’ll never tell either of your mothers this.

Because things on the ground are not clearer.

* * *

You watch your husband’s body arc and bend, moving quicker than his younger brother who has known only this house, its babbling stone fountain, the little wooden turtle whose face of endless displeasure is saved by his hunched back and little belly round and exposed. You watch them under a wooden awning strung with paper lanterns you still mistake for lemons.

Pick one, your husband smiles.

Cheers, your mother says, over wine that sweetens less in your glasses. It’s nine in the morning. Use your influence, she squeezes your hand, to bring my son back inside. Your husband’s younger brother hears this, not meant for him and gives up, trudges back inside. He’s never lived anywhere else but here. Are there farmers somewhere who only grow lemon trees? Do farmers ever take vacations? Who would you trust to tend to your vineyards, your harvests and your groves, your horses and spring lambs you’d never slaughter? Once you saw a stuffed Dalmatian so lifelike outside a New York City firehouse— he was even leashed to a chair— and how you approached, thinking something not quite right but with open arms?

Sometimes it takes you a while to recognize things as they are. Sometimes it’s called numbness on your left side. Sometimes it’s called brain fog. Your neurologist longs to curb this. Once you grieved for the person you were, the one who’d never mistake lanterns for lemons and stuffed dogs for real ones. The one who could tell you the exact date she stopped believing airplanes were birds. You no longer grieve for her.

For even if things on the ground are not clearer, you arms are still open.

You hear through that openness, through the pain and fog and dizziness, the music that becomes these words. You hear the music before it becomes spoken language.

* * *

Your husband will not go back inside. You were meant to bring him back inside. Instead you pick up his brother’s paintbrush and join him painting the fence. You turn to see Mama Christina’s face, her beautiful face, looking mournfully back at you, but she’s smiling too.

In painting a fence, there’s a start and an end. An end that doesn’t go on forever. An ending that you can see if you give it all your focus and leave nothing to chance. As you paint together, he asks if you remember the night you first met his late aunt, how you both ate exactly one piece of geoduck before she had it hauled away, telling you it was not good enough. Without tasting it. He tells you it meant his aunt liked you, and you remember how little she spoke at that meal, and then again months later over your twelve-course Chinese wedding feast, in which Mama Christina saw you through three dress changes, as was custom, as your own mother was asked to do nothing more than eat and drink.

Your mother, honored that you’d found a family who loved you. Your mother, anxious about what all this would mean.

Especially if you had the child she knows you cannot have, which grandmother would that almost-child of yours love more?

Your mother didn’t tell you such things at the wedding feast, as she stood aside, as Mama Christina helped you change out of the red-and-gold cheongsam into a watercolor gown in fluttering layers, smoothing each set down by hand, every inch of you from breast to ankle. She saved for last a floor-length, blood-red cloud, gathered at one side, with an oversized silk rose that kept sliding down you shoulder as your husband & you cut the cake, as you toasted table after table and said all of their names, together, buzzing off champagne.

Take a moment, your mother wept in your ear, or you’ll forget everything.

She was deliriously happy. She was grieving. How she showed restraint while squeezing you tight, cutting herself off just before her voice was breaking. How real the restraint and leashed stillness of that unreal Dalmatian. How deeply wrong to love New York City as home, with its unending sirens and soaring rent prices, its fruit rotten by the next day and your beloved 7 Train always breaking down, your exposed and elevated train breaking down even here in Toronto, as you paint a fence just days before his aunt’s funeral.

You are painting a fence and still on the plane that did not arrive Mama Christina in time to answer the echo of her sister’s grief. You are painting a fence during all the times the 7 Train has been so packed that you have no choice but to go all the way, to the very end of the line. To Last Stop, Flushing.

Imagine what it means to not be able to get off a train until the end— and even at the end, you still have to fight your way off the train just to exit. Dazed, disoriented, in a place you know like the back of your hand. You have to teach tomorrow. You are painting a fence. You drift down Kissena boulevard together in Flushing, Queens, for Dongbei dishes of roasted lamb and sliced fish in cumin, your lips burning, signal malfunction delays, the constant holding of doors, and it is always your husband who is holding them while you jump in—

You are painting the fence where months before, you were in this very house, and the other end of the 7 line changed. That it was your train that received the newest station in 26 years. There were reasons to take a moment, when Hudson Yards opened in New York and your own uncle passed away in the Rio Grande Valley and your husband’s sister here in Toronto married, all within a few days.

It was a few days for which when you needed it most that you could not pray.

And now you are painting the fence when you were meant to bring him, your husband, her son, inside. Inside Mama Christina will wait for a few days to bury her sister who suddenly died. Mama Christina’s plane will never quite arrive and did. You will fall from the sky and remain suspended there, without time. You are still doubting and were saved. Take a moment, you can only say on solid ground when no ground is solid forever. It was less than a minute when you were falling, fell. It takes less than a minute for a crumpled, half-finished would-have-been to unfold another year of ash to spark the third rail of your nighttrain.

Oh, what years did you stop believing airplanes are birds?

When did you stop believing in those eyes that wish all things living?

When will you trust that grieving is a ghosting of the ghostly rails that light up the rain?

Can you not hear such grief, exposed and elevated, bellowing all those forgotten names whose trains are the shattered bones of paper cranes?