Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice


 Sarah Liu, Nonfiction

 

 

In Flowering-Plum Village at the foot of Luofu Mountain,

               The flowering plums' bones are of jade, and their souls of ice.

                                                             Su Shi (c1060)

 

 

Part I:  A Traveler's Phrasebook to My Mind

 

Closet (‘klä-zət)

Place of refuge. Cozy, unlike the emptiness of the large white house, domain of my father. Of course, the closet is in this house, for I leave its walls only to go to school. I decorate it with posters, the kind I don't want my father to see: pictures of rock stars, television personalities. My father strongly disapproves of "barbaric music" and any precocious interest in the opposite sex. "I know you'll grow up and leave me some day," he moans, "but not yet."

 

Coat hanger (koht haŋ-ər)

He wrenches it apart, uncoiling the neck, creating a crude prong. I hide behind the door of the living room, watching my father with his primitive bayonet, watching my mother cover her face with her hands, watching red scratches spring to the surface of her cheek. Later, when she has left for good, he turns it towards me. But his jabs are half-hearted. It is not as much fun to play this game with a kid.

 

Maturity (‘mə-'tůr-ət-ē)

You frighten me, Baba, with the smell of whiskey on your breath during the day, and the smell of cognac at night, even though you do tell good stories about Monkey and Princess Iron Fan, and Mu-lan, who went off to the wars disguised as a boy. My mother never had time to read to me like you do. I cannot remember her playing with me at any time, but she did give me books, and take me to the store to buy school supplies. I always ask for books. I never ask for toys—to do so would be to admit I am a child.

 

Love (‘ləv)

If I really loved my father, I would be like the girl who got up at six to cook her parents breakfast, or like himself at the age of ten, when he sold the most valuable stamp in his collection to buy his mother a duck for New Year. His love for me, according to the Chinese women—wives of his friends—is extravagant and touching, especially since I am a girl. "Your Baba loves you so much, you are spoiled," they tut to me. I also hear them hissing, in terrible whispers, "Poor man. Abandoned by his Western wife and left with a child who doesn't even speak Mandarin properly. Ai-ya. We must find a good woman to care for him." But my father tells me he finds Asian women unattractive.

 

Critic (krit-ik)

His eight books discuss questions that arise from translating and interpreting Chinese poetry. In a larger sense, these are conflicts inherent in bi-culturality. In himself.

Steeped in centuries of Chinese learning but also in current Western literary theory, my father rejects the traditional title of Sinologist. Yet despite his proficiency in European culture, his focus on "arcane" Chinese literature means his rejection as a Western theoretician.

My father appreciates T'ang poetry and composes his own verse in classical Chinese; he wrote one dissertation on Christopher Marlowe and another on Virginia Woolf. He loves both Peking and Western opera, Ming porcelain and Picasso, French cognac and the Chinese liquor mao-tai.

Unlike many immigrants, my father's command of English is flawless. He taught me how to diagram sentences when I was in seventh grade, yet his hand strikes the table loudly when I do not kow-tow low enough, or the brush trembles in my hand while we practice calligraphy.

 

Leukemia (lü-'kē-mē-ə)

A disease that other people have. A disease for which you donate a quarter and get a gumball in return. A cancer that originates in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. We studied it in ninth-grade biology.  Just a few weeks ago, in fact. From the Greek "leukos," meaning "white," and "haima," meaning "blood." A disease that has nothing to do with me. Please. Not me. Not me.

When they told me, I did not think, "Will I die?" but rather, "This will kill him."

 

Blood (‘bləd)

I receive a card from the blood bank with the exhortation: "Carry this with you at all times!"

"What type of blood do I have?" I once asked my mother, who worked at the clinical lab spinning columns of blood into sedimented bands. "Oh, type O," she replied. "Ordinary, like mine."

"Rare blood type!" the card announces. "Type A. Rh positive with Anti-Lewis factors."

My father takes a blood test. "Type A!" he reports back to me triumphantly. I get my strange blood from him. My mother, type O, absent, recedes even in my DNA.

 

Face (‘fās)

In the bathroom mirror I see a face with a nose distressingly unlike the sharp maternal English beak, eyes too sloe-shaped to be anything but Asian. I practice eye-widening exercises and nose-pinching to shape my hopefully still-malleable flesh.

"You must save face!" Baba tells me. "This is a terrible disease, but don't forget, you are my daughter."

His friends stare at me as a creature in the zoo, not venturing to come too close, but I smile and thank them for the flowers and the cards and bow politely from my bed when they leave. I save face.

 

 

Part II:   Zài zŭguo qù   Homeward Bound

 

I thought I knew—after six years of chemotherapy, radiation, relapse, the slow fight to recover lost ground—what these terms meant. But sometimes definitions change. Sometimes life defies definition and doesn't fit into neat, verbal bundles at all. Sometimes the switch is on you and you must scramble to try to keep up.

 

I am on vacation from college. After my chemo session in the oncology day hospital I walk down the corridor and up three flights.

In the lounge area of East 2B, the ENT ward, a heavy cloud of smoke hangs over sagging chairs and a vinyl couch. A man in a plaid shirt is chain-smoking Marlboros, stubbing the butts out on the already stained carpet. It smells sickly sweet, like a pipe stuffed with treacle. My father's room is right by the nurses' station.

I'm not worried. He complains that he feels something in his throat, but, after all, he has always had the annoying habit of clearing it loudly. He's been eh-HUMMing for over ten years. It's all psychological.

Ignoring the other patient in the room, I push past the curtain surrounding Baba's bed. But I am not prepared. I am not prepared for the plastic tube jutting from his trachea. I am not prepared for the oxygen line beneath his nose. Or his thinness. How could he have gotten so thin?

"How do you feel?" I ask.

He shakes his head, pointing to the trachea tube. He reaches for a clipboard and pen on the bedside table, scrawls a few words, and hands me the board. "It's cancer."

"Are you sure?" What a dumb question, I chastise myself.

He nods.

Mechanically, I repeat the words they said to me, the words I understood both then and now to be more for the speaker's benefit than for the possibility of providing solace: "Don't worry. We'll get you the best care. This is a great hospital. One of the best in the world. Everything will be all right."

He gesticulates wildly towards the clipboard. A greasy lock of hair, still black, falls over his forehead.

He writes: "Can't talk. If I can't talk I'd rather die."

I grab the board from him, and start writing furiously. Shaking my arm, he laughs noiselessly and takes it back.

"I can still HEAR!" he writes.

"Oh, right, sorry."

I can barely decipher the hasty scrawls: "They will put in a gastro-intestinal tube to feed me. Surgery Tuesday."

"Ah," I say. He is impatient, the words on the page too slow for the words on his lips. I am desperate for time, the words on the page too swift for my numbed mind.

"Final report tomorrow. Then doctors will discuss what treatment to give me. Maybe radiation and/or chemo. Operation impossible because of location."

"I see." It feels strange to hold a conversation and hear the sound of only one voice.

Baba falls back on the bed, exhausted by his efforts.

"I think I'll go outside for a few minutes," I say, and leave before he can respond.

By the nurses' station, I collar a resident who is reading a chart on his lap, and shout, "I need to talk to you about my father!" The nurses stare at me. The resident looks up. I didn't mean to scream.

"You're the daughter?" He grabs my elbow and steers me outside.

It is windy, the lion days of March. The palm trees shake violently. The breeze helps my headache. The resident sits me down on a bench. He turns off his beeper, puts his hands in the pockets of his lab coat, and waits.

"What are his chances?" I ask, staring up at him.

"Esophageal cancer is almost always fatal."

"Okay," I say, even though it isn't.

"I won't fool you, it doesn't look good. One thing, though, I want you to know that when the time comes, we won't let him suffer. We'll use morphine. But that's for the future. There are still some things we can try now. The next couple of weeks will be hard, but feel free to ask if you have any questions."

"Thank you." What does he mean, about the morphine? Euthanasia? Putting Baba to sleep? Or just pain relief?

"I have to get back now." The resident smiles slightly and raises his eyebrows. I don't want to go back in, but Baba must be wondering where I am. I rub circles over my eyes with the palm of my hand and stand up. As we are walking back, the resident trips and scrapes his elbow against the concrete.

"Damn," he says, patting the torn skin gently. "I can't stand the sight of blood."

We laugh as if this is the funniest joke in the world.

 

My father is very pleased when Kaity Tong becomes the anchor of the six o'clock news in New York, even although we live in California and will never see her on TV. He beams with pride when Connie Chung makes it to the CBS Evening News. Me, I'm waiting for the first Chinese rock star.

"Do you want to watch the news?" I ask my father. "Emerald Yeh is on channel 4."

He shakes his head. My father has stopped watching television, reading newspapers. He does not seem interested when I tell him events of the outside world. He has grown used to the rhythms of solitude. I have no words for him, for all of my language is movement, a striving towards. I have not yet learned to let stillness move me.

 

"Dear Aunt," I write in my schoolgirl Chinese.

It is hard to know where to begin. A language, a culture, a generation separate her from me.

"Dear Aunt," I begin. "I must tell you some very bad news...."

I wonder whether the censors will read this. Is the mail still censored? How long will it take to reach Beijing?

"My father wants to see you before..."

Before what? Should I be so direct? I crumple up the thin airmail paper and take out a fresh sheet.

Days do not end but time passes. He will come home from the hospital soon. I am not prepared. They teach me to clean his trachea tube, swabbing it sterile and suctioning up the mucus. I learn to set up the oxygen mist, the TPN bag to feed him, the injections to ease the pain. I am not prepared.

"Please come," I write.

"Please come."

                   

"I never thought you would outlive me," my father writes.

"I know."

We never imagined.

"I'm glad," he writes.

I nod my head. It is for me, the grief of the one left behind.

Content, my father lets the pen drop from his hand.

 

I am too late. They are getting ready to go to the hospital when I return from the supermarket. "What happened?" I say to the graduate student who has been visiting that morning. Blood and mucus dribble down the front of my father's shirt.

"The inner cannula, that plastic thing, came out of his trach tube. He can't breathe. Quick, get him in the car."

I drive at fifty miles per hour over the narrow, potholed campus streets, barely slowing for the stop signs. I wish a police officer would catch me.

They take him immediately, although people cram the waiting room. We are not allowed in. I pace away from my aunt. The ER resident behind the desk is really cute. God, how can I think such a thing? Now, when he's dying? Unfilial child.

The doctor comes out. "You're his daughter?"

"This is my aunt," I say, waving her over. She hovers tentatively in the corner of the room, next to the Coke machine. The doctor says, "Come, we'll find a room where we can talk privately."

He does not start speaking until the door is fully closed.

"He has pneumonia," the doctor says, crossing his arms. "We can treat him more effectively here in the hospital, but he doesn't want to stay. Since he's terminal anyway,"—I start to cry and the doctor looks at me not unsympathetically—"you can take him home with some antibiotics. It often turns out this way with cancer patients. It's often better."

"I know," I tell him. "I have cancer myself."

"Oh," he says, taken aback. "Well, it's up to you. Either way, there's not much time left."

I do not look at my aunt. "I'll take him home," I say, knowing there is no choice.

I return to the main room of the emergency ward. My father is trembling, sitting upright. He wants to go home. I will let the pneumonia kill him. We look at each other slowly.

"There is nothing you or I can do," I finally tell him.

 

"Tell me about Monkey."

"I don't remember."

"Of course you do. Once there was a monkey who was born from a stone..."

"You've heard it so many times."

"Please, Baba."

"All right, all right. Once there was a monkey..."

 

His students come from all over the country to pay their last respects.

"We have already lost him," says Paul, learning that he cannot speak.

"I've only had the chance to work with him for four years," says Kate. "I will never read Chinese poetry without thinking of him."

"No one will ever love you as much again in your life," Diana says to me.

I think: This is a tribute? Or a curse?

 

There is mucus and blood, crust from the feeding tube, water and bile.

I rifle through my father's drawers to take out a fresh pair of pajamas. Beneath the layers of clothes I find it, half-empty, the stench of whiskey rising to stain the room.

"Even now!" I scream at him, shaking the bottle. "Even now, you still can't stop!"

My father, in bed, looks at me and shakes his head helplessly. He cannot speak.

I think: What right have I? What right have the living? The dying?

But I do not want to think. Stalking across the room, I open the window and fling the bottle outside. It crashes against a flowerpot. Whiskey and dirt and glass and shards of pottery spill across the patio. I storm out.

Later, that same day, I watch from my bedroom window as my aunt stoops and carefully sweeps the fragments into a dustpan.

I will never speak to my father about whiskey again.

 

We sit, speech swallowed by the strain of waiting. The air is static and buzzes in my ear. I put a tape in the portable player by his bed: Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I think: This will be good music to die to. The first movement slowly unfolds, each note a surrogate tear, an unspoken word. My aunt kneels by the bed. I hunch behind his bedside table, distant enough, close enough, arms folded.

The boundary is much less clear than I expected. For days he lies suspended in a morphine-induced coma. This is not death. I have not heard a sound, seen a movement, a flutter of the eyes, for days. He is not dead. The breathing grows more and more shallow, nails on a chalkboard, less and less frequent. His feet and hands turn chalk white, alabaster cold, yet his face still burns with fever. Fire and ice. Some say the world will end in fire and ice. He is not dead.

Minutes pass between breaths. We sway with each rise and fall of his chest. Now and then, my aunt takes up his wrist, feeling for a pulse. Several times we feel hope and despair rise in our throats, thinking: It has come. But the sunken chest heaves upward again.

Only measured music ties me to passing time. He should die during the Adagio. No more lingering. He will die before the movement ends, I tell myself fiercely.

Outside, through the window, the moon hangs ivory-yellow, jaundiced. At 9:40, ten minutes after the last morphine injection, the breathing stops. My aunt takes up his wrist, checks, checks again, then turns her large, black, frightened eyes to me. She nods. I stare back. It's over.

My aunt shrieks at the corpse. "Xiao-di-di! Xiao-di-di!" Little brother, little brother.

I fall to my knees and clasp my aunt around her shoulders. She changes her cries from Chinese to English. She tells the corpse that he has a fine daughter, that she will be all right, that we will miss him and mourn him. I manage a whisper, "Baba, Baba," nothing more.

The tape player snaps off; the Moonlight Sonata is over. I phone the coroner's office, telling them to pick up the body in half an hour. I phone the home nursing service, inform them that we no longer require their services. I phone the executor of the will and arrange to see him tomorrow morning. I ask my aunt for a few minutes alone with my father for the last time.

The body I could scarcely bear to touch in sickness I now cradle in death. I croon my love to it, caress the bony limbs, stroke back the unruly strands of hair, this shrunken mass, my father. Isn't this a joke, the eyes rolled back grotesquely? Baba teasing me, the way he did when I was little?

I thought it would be a relief. I thought nothing could be worse than the waiting, that death would come easily. But now I can no longer remember him healthy, alive. There is only this husk, and an image of sickness in my mind.

I begin to wonder how soon rigor mortis will set in. Time returns, I feel its pressure against me. The coroner will arrive soon; I must make use of the time that's left.

The doorbell rings. My aunt lets them in. Their footsteps sound clumsy on the carpeted stairs. Two men enter and engulf the room, windbreakers swishing, a folding cot on wheels between them. They peel back the bed sheets. The room fills with a horrible stench. The body's final act of release: defecation. My shame must show, for one of the coroner's men says to me cheerfully, "Don't worry, it happens all the time. Perfectly natural." Nevertheless, I cringe. Why did no one tell me? Why didn't someone warn me before?

They decide it will be simpler to wrap the corpse in the soiled sheet. "You don't need it, do you? We'll clean him up later." They talk across the bed to each other, maneuvering the body onto the cot. "One, two, three..." The cot eases down the stairs, outside, and slides neatly into the long, sleek hearse. My aunt is wailing. I hold her tight, shivering in the cold air. The neighbors' houses are shrouded in darkness. The moon is down. The only light comes from a feeble star in the north sky.

The door of the hearse swings shut. The driver is already warming the engine. His partner turns and our eyes meet. "God bless you," he says to me quietly.

"And you," I say, half-believing my words.

 

Once, long ago, my father sang me the song of a great Northern general, sent by the Emperor to fight in the South. He yearned for his homeland but did his duty, fighting for many years with dignity and distinction. When he finally fell, miles away from home, the familiar landscape of his birthplace rose up before him, his family appeared, and, while the battle raged on, the general smiled and stretched out his arm to greet them.

"Home is just a memory," my father said. "Home is just a dream."  Like the flowering plum, my father's bones are now jade, his soul ice.