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For Wuhan in February 2020

Here is the story I have to tell before they die. It may not even be a story. Stories have complications, climax, falling action, and resolution. Mine doesn’t have those things. Mine are fragments, a rough draft that won’t be revised, a story that can be told only once. It is just my farewell and waking dream. “You know how lucky you are?” a few days ago I told my mom. “Think of the travelers that are not allowed to return home, the patients that do not get hospitalized, sometimes a whole family infected, waiting for death. You still have food under lockdown.” Before January 23, who knew that Wuhan, my hometown, its name would be connected with Virus, the progress being Corona soon inserted between, the addition undoubtedly unsettling Corona beer. Still, when she mentioned in the extended family’s group chat that she didn’t get salt online, numerous people ordering daily supplies at the same time, you felt uneasy. Isn’t it merely sauces and vegetables? They have rice that can last for several months. Now you just wanted them to survive. Still, it was like watching the door pinch your baby’s finger, while between you two, there was the American continent and the Pacific Ocean.

The first Spring Festival your mother without a mother.

“She protected you, all of you.” After the Spring Festival, it occurred to me. “Imagine if she is still in hospital now, and you have to stay there every day. Most of you might have been infected. She passed away in October so you were spared.” In August she became sick, when I began planning to go back for the winter break. Coughing caused by pneumonia, aerosol therapy at home for two weeks. Taking her health religiously, she went to the hospital. On September 11 she was put into ICU, bedridden, little eaten. Then gastrointestinal hemorrhage, kidney dialysis, heart failure, ICU in and out. The ripple effect. “I told her you would graduate in the spring,” my mother left a message. “She said she would be waiting for you.” I was the only one she didn’t get to see in the family for several years. The last time we met was the last summer I saw my geese friends all: Lily, Sturdy, and their three babies, barely together. With birds it was like that. You don’t know when it was the last time. One day someone disappears, never coming back, and you won’t recognize it long after that. You keep waiting.

The last summer we met, she had long been shrunk. Having turned eighty, her aging reached the stage of timeless senility. She looked almost like that ten years ago, only smaller. Sinking into the sofa, she didn’t talk much, and you would believe that she could sit there forever. The grandparent alive was the pillar supporting your sky, the sense of security that death remains far away, that you can still freely wander outside, when your roots sat there, small and quiet. When you talked, you talked about things you wouldn’t remember, the last words now you know are last words hard to recollect.

“She can’t talk to you anyway,” in October my mother said. “Most of the time she was in the ICU. Had no strength. She spoke in a low voice without dentures. The doctors couldn’t understand her. They had to ask your aunt to go inside and see what she was whispering repeatedly.”

“What did she say?”

“Home, she wanted to go home.”

But I can’t say I have no Jiajia now. When in many places the mother’s mother is called “Waipo,” literally meaning the old woman outside the family, in our dialect, the language of the heartland, she can only be Jiajia, the word home doubled. Jia-jia, home home, a nursery rhyme. Your mother’s home, and then your home, never sounds like the outsider because your mother married into your father’s family. The Chinese family tree, the hierarchy, everyone assigned a different title, indicating a traditionally defined position; the father’s mother enjoys a more privileged name Nainai. Sometimes even Chinese do not understand what relationships they have. My mother’s eldest sister, my first Yima once reported that her son got a daughter and congratulated me and my cousins for becoming “Biaoyima.” “No,” I had to correct her. “We can only be Tangguma. For the child, we’re on the father’s side.” So when two of my uncles died, after my father’s father, before my mother’s mother, one is Shushu, the other Gufu. She is the fifth one leaving that I didn’t get to see.

But I can’t say I have no Jiajia now. My mother’s is such a family that defies this tradition. When my local friends asked about my Jiajia, I would not respond. I was unfamiliar with the sound, and I never learned to see her on that ground. I grew up with two Nainai, in spite of the confusion. The child speaking her first words was taught to also call her mother’s mother Nainai, and in her life, she would explain again and again: No, the Nainai I just mentioned is not the Nainai you understand. Yes, I had a Jiajia, but I never called her Jiajia, and it would never feel natural to call her Jiajia.

Home, home.

How do I go home? We were prepared. My parents had made a list of all the valuables and contacts, the address I should not forget. They sent me photos of furniture, in which drawer I could find keys, certificates, passbooks, or credit cards, the apartment where I never lived. Our plan B: No one would come to pick me up, if they were also sent to the hospital, if we lost touch. We had seen the social media posts. The next time the man saw his pregnant wife after she was loaded into an ambulance, it was an urn of ashes. The woman ran after the funeral home’s van at night, calling “Mama! Mama!” When all the family members had been isolated, the little girl wearing a mask sat alone in bed at home. “Stay there, don’t cry, don’t!” the social worker said, after putting down a meal, before closing the door, and then it was the adult who burst into tears. Why was it not me who really needs a lockdown to complete the dissertation, but them?

Can I find the way home? I had to ask. No, you don’t understand, that after twelve years everything looks strange. A lot of construction, the city beyond recognition. I will get lost in front of the home I never know, the door I never unlocked. I will have no key, no usable cell phone, no RMB credit card, and a little cash a small number of stores still accept. Few traces I left. The visitor suspicious to the neighbors. Teach, teach me, how can I get there? Now the home I know exists only in my mind. I researched the map. All the directions I remember were not right. Can I still find the cedar tree, planted the year I was born, standing tall and straight outside the window like my twin? Or the gas station, a wall in between, at which I often peeped at the windowsill to see in her mother’s cubicle what my classmate Li had for lunch? My Fruit Lake, before it became a commercial and political center, connected with a new river. The same place where my mother was born, grew up, left, and came back. The fish ponds, the phoenix trees, the snoring pig pen, the summer frog croaks, the song of my dream, the days without McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Do I know how to go home?

I will still come for your graduation and help you move back. My mother remained optimistic. I will come in any case. In January she said she would fly in February. In February she said she could fly in March instead. And then the flights were suspended until the end of April, while I will graduate in early May. Home is the epicenter of the outbreak. Unnecessary. It will be too late, I said. I had planned for her to come to see the goslings hatch for the last time. It won’t be safe to travel anyway. I will come, she said, please wait.

For them it has been a long wait. Twelve years, to be accurate. Who expected in the last year of rat that three years of my studying abroad would be extended to six years, and then twelve years? There is the Sunflower State, there is the Sunshine State. The early trouble of falling asleep, before you had no time to sleep, because it was so quiet, no crowds passing by outside until midnight, unless you count the wind. Then all the people in the world gathered for the football game, afterward spurted out of the gates, their noises flooding the parking lots. The fireworks blossoming in the dark sky, you and your team, six or seven students working part-time, sat on the grass slope, waiting to clean the whole stadium, knowing that the real battle would soon begin. You will forever wonder what happened on one New Year’s Eve, a basketball game attracting eight thousand fans to the coliseum, the number of workers reduced to two. The American students had to go home, two Chinese stayed, and when you asked the only guy how he survived that night, staring at the ceiling, he did not look back. You would never touch popcorn. In Washington, DC, when visiting the Capitol, you would habitually scan the trash bag and discover they didn’t tie a knot to prevent the bag from slipping into the can. “Not so professional.” Leaving Saint Louis in the March snow, with two giant snow-plow trucks in front clearing the road, you would drive until you almost dropped off. Three cups of coffee didn’t work. You found a car with a trailer to follow, so if you really fell asleep and lost control, it was less likely to hurt people. Again to Washington, DC, the first flight after the snowstorm, between dozes with heavy eyelids, you glimpsed at an alien planet, the new Ice Age, the uninhabited wild land, only to find at AWP that the writer you wished to see was still trapped in Iowa. For your comfort, you would go to Smithsonian’s National Zoo to watch a panda scratch his head.

Milwaukee, Milwaukee, that night more flight cancellations, the unexpected detour to Wisconsin, to be back to the small, rented room you couldn’t call home. The moment you walked into the Cream City’s waiting lounge, heavy feet, the Chinese mother, the American landlord, stopped talking on the phone and turned to you without introduction and transition. “Teach my daughter to translate this sentence.” Her cellphone dropped into your hand, the timid girl, a second-generation immigrant, murmured about her assignment, “How to say ‘pour water into the glass’ in Mandarin?” “Ba shui daojin beizi li.” Flying to Kansas City together, the mother would sit beside you and push you awake so you wouldn’t miss the free snacks and orange juice you didn’t desire. Food, food. To try your luck, you would go to Bamboo House. You had heard that the owner from Taiwan, the best cook at the restaurant, the taste of the dishes depended on her mood. The first time she would complain about some mainlanders who seldom tipped at a buffet. After the first time, they all remembered you were Ms. No Ice. The old woman called Liu Nainai, the waitress wearing a white apron that turned gray, you tipped her more. After a buffet, after the bill, sometimes they would urge you to pick several dishes for free. “Why don’t you eat the fish? Didn’t you see today we have fish with pickled cabbage?” One night, the aged waiter, the owner’s brother, would come and ask, “Why don’t you eat the fish?” Later the cashier would also come and ask. “I am a vegetarian now.” After your car accident, the owner would stir-fry additional vegetables especially and come out and chat with you for hours.

Your stomach is always somewhere else. You kept updating a list of local delicacies you grew up with, a few found in the States, some substituted, many still waiting to be crossed out. You had forgotten that in a small Korean grocery store in Kansas, the corner of the world, between dumplings and steamed buns, the second you heard someone speaking Wuhanese, your face lightened up. Outside the family, you rarely spoke your dialect. Once studying in the north as a kid, you stuck to Mandarin, despite the protest of your local friends. You show no accent. But you took care to not speak Mandarin when first traveling alone in Hong Kong. Soon mainlanders would be called locusts. You understood Cantonese. So it really surprised you when the middle-aged woman sitting beside you on the subway started chatting with you in barely fluent Mandarin after a glance at your ticket to Wong Tai Sin Temple, its healing power. A high school teacher, how her life was clouded by her selfish sister, her husband, and her children. You tried to be a good listener. Only the train chattered, the next stop, and the next stop. For you, Hong Kong is always the first and the last stop, the gateway through which you left and returned home. The first step into the big carousel world, the final ritual of the passage back to the lake-rich heartland. Every time you chose to stay on a small island, far away from the downtown, one stop away from Disneyland, the first Disney you know, so close to midnight you would ride the empty resort line back with all the Mickey Mouses inside. You would check in the same hotel, walk through the same underground market, order the same dishes, minus the seafood, stroll the next morning in the same sky garden, still expecting to encounter the same homeless man sleeping on the same bench, whom years ago your exploratory tour awakened, only to find at the breakfast that your favorite, Coffee Milk Tea, a mixed drink nicknamed “Mandarin Ducks,” didn’t get sweetened after five packets of sugar. Your tongue, after all, was influenced by the American taste. This was before you met her, your mother’s mother, the last summer you met.

Can she go home now? On October 24 I sent my mother one message after another. Can you tell me her lunar birthday again? What is she still able to eat? Maybe rice cereal? Or try to feed her mashed vegetable or fruit? To recover, she has to eat something. Will massage and acupuncture do?

“She died at 11:32 a.m. today.”

Somehow I knew. I typed back. Somehow at that time I had kept listening to an old song “Take Care Tonight” over and over for hours. I didn’t know why. First the Cantonese version, then the Mandarin version.

“I was there alone. When your aunts and uncle rushed in several minutes later, she was already gone.”

Somehow I knew. When a cousin living in Guangzhou posted a photo of the ticket to Wuhan in the family group chat earlier without saying anything, I knew the day came near; I knew it was probably for the final visit, but I didn’t know she could no longer wait.

“Her lunar birthday is also October 24, the same date, easy to remember.”

After eighteen years, I typed, she got reunited with my grandfather.

The grandmother was not someone a teenager paid much attention to. For a long time, she was the unwanted morning call during the weekend when we tried to snooze for an extra hour in bed, a quixotic disciple of Qigong at the feet of Yellow Crane Tower, her bedroom the museum of health products, and the head of the family that couldn’t lose when playing mahjong. I never got the patience to watch her making noodles, from a large bowl of flour to the dough to the strips to the boiling soup, all by hand, a nail-biting hassle to even think that she did this every day for who knows how many years for her husband who came from the north and ate only noodles while the rest of us enjoyed steamed rice, knowing that it must be true love.

“No need to come back this winter,” my mother said. “It will be too late.” In this chaotic life of graduate school, mourning had to be delayed. I should have been home one year earlier. I should have graduated one year earlier. Then we could have been trapped together. Or if you let them come to the States for the Lunar New Year. Let’s wait, we thought without discussion. It’s the first Spring Festival without her. It’s better to stay. They had already waited a year. The year before they tried to come after your car accident and you told them to save the trouble. “It’s better to stay with your mother,” you said. It turned out to be the last Spring Festival they spent together.

No time for the farewell. It’s over—the moment that felt like the world stopped, the giant Saturn bearing down the street from your left. Your small Toyota got hit and pushed in the middle, forced to make a U-turn, as if in a low-budget action movie, an enhanced version of Disney’s roller coaster ride. The intersection became the stage, all the other cars idling in a distance, two construction workers running forward, speaking in silence—not yet. Though at the last second the Saturn missed the driver’s door, you still felt the impact from behind. Staggering out of your car, with your body uncontrollably shaking for twenty minutes, you would decide to appreciate everything in your life. You would have a heart attack noticing a car approaching near and cling to a lamppost before realizing the traffic light had changed several times. “Finally,” you would tell your mother after things became easy to forget, “I understand your pain.” For years you thought her amnesia was just her brain. Now you remembered a long time ago, after she told you not to climb the wooden ladder temporarily stored in the living room, the naughty five-year-old who didn’t listen would fall after a few steps, fall with the ladder hitting her head. Perhaps that’s why you would never be a social climber.

“Go home.” The afternoon you didn’t know you almost lost your mother, the afternoon your elementary school teacher got the call. Her sudden command, you didn’t say you would rather stay with the sunshine and the bustle. You already knew there was some surgery, your father busy in the hospital, the one where you were born. Walking away from other children, you would sit alone in your curtained bedroom and wait hours for what you didn’t know. Then she would come, your mother’s mother, together you ate noodles. Those days you waited, until the story could be told, an unknown ectopic pregnancy, the hemorrhage after a misdiagnosis, the miracle of survival, your mother becoming infertile. When the story grew old enough, into a joke, during one of those long, humid, summer nights leaning on the couch, she would pull her pants down a little, revealing the purple centipede outside her womb. Occasionally she would let you finger the stitched wound. Occasionally she would mention how the anesthetic failed when her belly was cut open so it felt like a vivisection. The touch would be scalded by the dead baby’s rage. But that afternoon, when your mother’s mother came, together you ate noodles. You wouldn’t remember what you said, and then she wouldn’t be able to tell. At that time sitting at the table, your face smaller than the bowl, you had no idea that years ago, when she lived here, when your mother was a child, she rode the bus to work, the driver slammed on the brake hard, and she fell over, a miscarriage of twins, your premature aunt and uncle. You ate with the things you didn’t know, the story never being told. But you did know the power of wound, how, years later, she would be grounded by the doctors, confined at home. How her constant back pain should be traced back to something ages old, a fall that hurt her spinal bone. You tiptoed every step, uncertain which one might hold a regret. For months she remained in bed, not allowed to sit or stand. In spite of the doctor’s order, the one that couldn’t lose would finally adventure to walk with and soon without a steel scaffold on her waist. The stairs still an obstacle, her home her whole world, year after year. Maybe now it is her turn to travel, to a far, far place, free to roam anywhere. “Now you may understand,” I told my mother after a month under lockdown, “and the city can feel, a taste of such a life.” Such a life the city is experiencing somehow.

Home, home.

I could have been home if it were not for the summer cold. We could have met in August, but we wouldn’t know when having the last dinner. We would eat rice instead of noodles. With many people, with a small table, kids screaming or not, most would walk around holding a bowl. If in a good mood, she would play mahjong, and I would barely look, rooted with my Kindle in the living room. It was normal. We wouldn’t have much to say as usual, and she would cough. And even though she would cough, with a vague sense of what is incoming, with her timeless senility, you would still believe that she would live very long, just like her neighbor who at the age of ninety-two could still take a stroll, just like every fairy tale. There could have been so many things to feel, to do, in hindsight. Under every fact numerous possibilities already curdled.

The summer cold extended into the fall. In August I coughed. In September I coughed. In October I coughed. After the funeral I didn’t attend I coughed. Recovery was slow. From the productive cough to the dry, nonproductive one. From the acute cough to the subacute cough to the chronic, nocturnal one. Coughing my old friend. As a child I used to catch a cold twice a year, one in spring, one in autumn, each lasting six months. What do you do when you have nothing to say? I cough. “It’s the Floridian mold,” I told my mother in my recently purchased black-and-white sweater, some of its fuzz I suspected having wormed its way into my throat. We had reviewed the rules. No clothing in red forty-nine days after her last breath. No visiting friends or acquaintances the first new year. No attending weddings or touching newborns because now you are shadowed by misfortune. With all the grandparents gone, without a shield, you can’t help thinking that your parents’ turn is on the horizon, and you don’t always know when it will happen.

But you have already bidden farewell to Florida, many times. After August, there wouldn’t be another year. Picking up a family-size shampoo on the shelf, you know when you see the bottom of this bottle, it is time to go. When the painkillers you didn’t take expire, you will no longer stay. After Halloween, when the childless goose Lily walked to you, still crippled, it could be her last call. The feathered gang with tiger eyes occupying the empty parking lot, alone, she would come to hide behind your opened car door and wait at your feet, for a while. Am I your last connection to home? Her second husband, Sheep, took the chance to pinch her neck when she escaped. Before you left, after she retreated far away from the flock, you put down a handful of rice and urged her to take more bites. Soon in your moving car, through the window you saw a pack already dash forward, the leading one ready to attack. The last sight, you turned right. After Christmas, in Tallahassee Museum at 5:00 p.m. when you stood at the back door, a white-tailed deer pushed her face into the wire fence. Are you the naughty one who peed when I tried to take a video before? She stuck out her tongue to catch the leaves of grass you plucked, one after another. Then this is the end. You stepped away, looking back, into her final stare. Later you would post a photo you took at the museum in the family group chat, The white squirrel in Florida wishes you an auspicious new year! Your cousins would greet you back on the morning of the New Year. “But I am still in 2019,” you replied late into the night, walking away from Cascade Park, the pond without water fowls full of the reflections of the fireworks. “Happy New Year!” you would hear people say again and again, but for you it was still the last month of the year, the year of pig that would never feel an end.

The Spring Festival that was yet to come would never fully come, the reality that feels unreal. January 23 manifested the unprecedented lockdown. On January 24, three months after she left, the last day of the twelfth moon, the traditional family reunion dinner for the first time was not widely welcomed. “Don’t gamble,” I said. “Didn’t you already decide to cancel it? Why go out? It’s suggested to have no gatherings now. Everyone stays safe.” “But it has long been planned,” my mother answered, “It is the first Spring Festival without her.” They all drove to the apartment she was unable to return to in the last moment, including the cousin living in Guangzhou, who hurried back before the public transport was suspended, to stay with her mother. Each wearing two face masks together, at the round table they raised their glasses to propose a toast. On January 25, the lunar New Year’s Day, you would find that your mother had gone out. “Again?” You would call and she would say, “But it’s your uncle’s birthday. We walked to many stores, most closed, only this one still selling cakes.” “I won’t eat anything uncooked in this case.” “I saw the worker wearing gloves. It looks good.” She would add, “It’s your uncle’s sixtieth birthday. We went to her apartment to celebrate his retirement.” After this day, it can be never and forever.

“The fear is you don’t know who is the next, and the next, and the next,” one cousin would say. We would watch the TV show where the news host spoke behind a face mask. We would see doctors and nurses from all over the country sent here. They kept coming. One after another, the local doctors got infected, some my alumni, several died. They kept working. In the swirl of social media posts, a nurse in the hospital made three deep bows to the direction of her mother’s sudden death. A nurse saving lives in the ward, her father passed away from the lack of renal dialysis at home, few other patients accepted since the outbreak. Losing her parents in succession after the Spring Festival, a nurse and her brother would die on the same day, Valentine’s Day. “I can’t cry,” when asked by a reporter to inform her family that she was still safe, a young nurse turned her head, “Once wetting my goggle, I won’t be able to continue my shift.” A police officer cried when finally having piggybacked a patient down the stairs as the unfortunate on his shoulder gasped the last breath. No way to return home, through the camera online an owner stranded outside the city watched her cat starve to death. “Here seven or eight families have been infected,” one of my aunts would say, “five people already sent to God.”

Home, home.

“I am ninety, I fear nothing.” A mother went to the hospital alone, taking care of her sixty-two-year-old son for five days, sleeping in a chair. “I am not afraid of infection.” Until the man was put in ICU. No longer able to rub her baby’s hand and urge him to tough it out, the ex-general’s daughter would write a letter on the back of a medical receipt. “Hold on.” Infected after his father, an FSU postdoc visiting his parents was found reading The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution among hundreds of patients under the camera in the mobile cabin hospital. “Tonight’s moon.” On the Lantern Festival I posted a photo in the family group chat, for all. “Eat sweet dumplings,” a cousin said. “Will do after going home.” Where my home used to be, the LED units of a theater shaped like a huge red lantern continuously spreading the message, Wuhan stay strong. The city had been lighted up earlier: 202002022020, 20:20, February 02, 2020; a new social media trend encouraged people to take a picture at this symmetrical moment. The photo going viral was the one of two family members of the patients with the ninety-year-old mother in the hospital hall, titled We are here, We are together. At the same time, my cousin uploaded the photo of her standing at the window. Behind her, under the dark sky, beyond the empty road, bloomed the evening light show. “If you take a look at the lunar calendar,” I told my mother, “we have two springs this year, one in the beginning, one in the end. I believe the second one will be better.” Lights everywhere. In the apartment without her you could still see Yellow Crane Tower, ruined and rebuilt, ruined and rebuilt, since 223. Farther, at the feet of First Yangtze River Bridge, lay the small garden Hanyang Gate, sometimes an outdoor theater for Chu Opera, the place in the namesake popular song hummed in our mother tongue, on and on:

Ten years away from home . . .

Jiajia waiting here every day

When to return

And farther, in the suburb, you would find Mulan Mountain and Mulan Pond, her Jiajia’s home, where Mulan was born, grew up, left, and came back. Refusing to be the emperor’s concubine, General Mulan died here.

“A hug,” I remember, when asked what he wants after it is over, a doctor in protective suit said, “a good hug.”