Friday, December 21, 2012

Simple Things

Last night, we snuggled up under thick blankets and watched movie classics like "The Princess Bride" and "The Polar Express".

It has gotten very windy and chilly lately, especially at night. So the long, sloppy and loose strands of our holiday lights resembled cartoon Christmas trees in the dark.  We ate left over dinner from the previous night, when a few friends and family member came over to have a (very early) holiday get together.  The lack of theme in the menu became evident when Risottos emerged next to a terrain of Bouillabaisse, dishes of pot roast, a basket of french loaves, and a plate of sushi. Guests brought over Korean and Chinese dishes and we drank Hawaiian beer along with a bottle of Shiraz (Australian Wine).  The holiday cookies in the end, store bought, was a crowd pleaser.  It was not a night of hearty laughs, but plenty of food, warmth and togetherness.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pop

Although the weather man called for "a clear day", it was gray and slightly misty this morning.  So instead off walking, I drove the boy to school and asked for a hug.  He was surprised by it but complied, running off soon enough though to join his friends.  A list of a million errands awaited me so I made room for other parents' cars as quickly as I could, driving away with nary a glance in the direction of his steps. 




http://m.wsj.net/video/20121214/121412specialshooting1/121412specialshooting1_167x94.jpg "I won't have a tree this year",  I wrote back as a friend showed me hers, all via mobile phone messaging.  The annual scene of dad carrying the boy overhead to place the angel made me smile with an ache.  Or perhaps I never truly adopted this holiday at heart to muster enough cheer and tackle the tasks of lugging, propping, sweeping, untangling and trimming. 

Lunchtime found me at a cafe meeting some important people, half a million errands still shouting for their place in line.  As I waited, the TV screen grabbed my attention, announcing one horrific words after another,  "children..., elementary school..., shooting..., shock..., Obama..., tears..., half mass..."

It had darkened outside, turning clear noon sky into the color of an angry flat face.  Rain seemed imminent yet temporarily stalled, all the more oppressing and menacing.  Invisible needles worked their way around my eyes, and I felt sick in the stomach.  "Schools..., elementary schools..., father, every parent, grief, will mourn..."  they repeated these words over and over again, until I needn't listen any more.   I kept still until the important people returned with their food.  "It seems the time of each shooting has become compressed, and it is shorter and shorter now from the last shooting to the next time it will happen..."  one of them commented.  He was always a very precise speaker, never more than this moment.

Rain came down hard after lunch, making a popping sound on roofs and windows. The news woman had said that was what the shots sounded like, "pop", she described.  Children reported as such, "not like real gun shots...".   I couldn't make sense of this but I couldn't help imagining what that would be like, if every pop I heard were "not like real gun shots" but really were real gun shots and people were dying next to me or squishing me in a tiny bathroom scared.  I wanted to reach over and pat them gently on the head, to tell each one of them they "did a good job".  They inspired me into that mental picture, though in the end I accepted that the only thing I could do was keep thinking and keep praying.

Yet they continued to inspire, all over.  Somehow those children (or children in general) had this way of reaching out to the world and grabbing it by the tail and spinning it around, wide eyed and fearless, even while staring squarely in the face of evil.  They noticed and remembered the important things, like "Christmas..., someone to play with..., and he saved me!" 

And their courage saved me.  Heartbroken with grief so new the words today had threatened to rip away all the band-aids I had so carefully put in place.  Yet I could not help but finding hope in their hopes, and wanting to join in the leagues of wide eyed staring and spinning and remembering about the important things -- the moments at hand, the moments that counted, the Christmas memories to cherish.

I had read somewhere yesterday that a child's memory has created a movement -- "Pay it Forward Jayden Style" -- I believed it was called.  The child who inspired this had died of cancer recently but told his dad just before that 'God needs me more. I was your angel before I was born'.   "He loved to help people and this would have made him so happy", his father had commented upon learning about people's random acts of kindness in Jayden's honor.  I could imagine no parents wouldn't be torn apart by the loss of a child, no matter what.  But this story too made me smile, though with an ache, it was the good kind.

So the day maybe all chilling and darkening, rain pops, leaden clouds and temperatures aside, I held on and I stared wide eyed for hours; until one by one, I saw millions of candles alight, lighting up the world, one small pop of hope at a time.






Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cooking Class

I broke new grounds last night, finding myself in an odd sort of cooking class with a friend -- P.  Cooking was the last thing on my mind then, so it was to my delight and P's dismay, as she loves to cook, that the class offered lectures rather than hands on practice.

I hadn't seen P for a while.  She had come along with our small and odd group of four friends for that long and confusing funeral a few months ago.  The whole thing was conducted in Chinese though my mind was too foggy and numb to even utter apologies about it.  Hours after everyone had left, the four of us had stayed and sat together in an abandoned corner next to nearly emptied platters of fruit and biscuits, chatting on and on about nothing and about everything, none of which I can remember now.  But I remember the sea of white flowers that had caused a small family feud, the sharp unfriendly smell of the funeral parlor and the sensation of staring into their familiar faces, speaking familiar words and feeling masses of heavy tight knots loosening in my chest.  We talked until the place was ready to close and I was tired enough to try sleep again.

The cooking class was setup on the patio of a small Italian Bistro with twinkling lights and a big white tent. There we found a babbling chef - Sergio cooking up a four course Italian feast.  He smiled at and talked to us without ever stopping to check that the knife dancing between slices of vegetables hadn't gotten one of his fingers.   He smiled mostly at P as she had charmed him immediately with smart questions showing ample knowledge as well as curiosity for more.   Their dialogues quickly livened up a timid group and some even accepted Sergio's invitation to participate.  I was weary from another sleepless night, yet grateful for P's energy and enthusiasm.  It was always a small miracle to pry her away from work at proper dinner time but tonight (Thanksgiving Eve) even more so, as she had spent a long day (and week) on cross continental calls in preparation for heading out to a mini thanksgiving getaway with her fiancĂ©

The garden was filled with sweet fragrances from herbs planted along the sides and the ginger spiced butternut squash soup bubbling on the stove.  Mauricio served wine accompanying each courses while announcing them in sonatas of Italian phrases.  We closed our eyes to be momentarily transported to Tuscany, to where our risotto traced its humble yet delicious origin.  Food and wine sank into us while we sank into a relaxed silence, though Sergio still chanted instructions and waved his hands about steaming pots like a budding magician.

Tuscany would have been wonderful, I drifted in my thoughts.

Yet my limbs and my lids grew heavy, and as time went on, my belly and heart full.  Maybe there was magic brewing in those pots after all.   To me, comfort food had spelled out its magical power by squeezing out cool indifference and pretensions, replacing sadness and misery with the fragrance of friendship and acceptance.  

"So how are you feeling now?"  P finally asked between bites of deserts.
"Extremely full."  I said.
"Yeah?"  She started to smile again while raising an eyebrow.
"Yes,..."

The night wore on, somehow finishing as suddenly as it had started, leaving no room or time for more words.  The night sky fell into a deeper velvety blue as the air cooled and tables and chairs around us cleared, yet memories of warmth and fragrance lingered.

So did a dozen other overly filled bellies, carrying that many more smiles out into the cooling night.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dusk

The boy is invited to a birthday party on Sunday evening, where I drop him off and drive to the beach.

The wind forces me to zip my jacket all the way to my throat, and pull up the hood over my hair.  A pair of father and son walk by me, looking into my shape with questioning eyes, which I ignore by looking down, without the usual polite greetings or a smile.  I let the cold breeze brush against my cheeks, relishing in the familiar salty and musky smell.  The sun is setting, or has set, I can't be sure.  Clouds has erased the thin blue line between the sky and the sea, save for a few patches of light blue peeking through.  The sun may be long gone, but smears of coral light stubbornly blush through layers of grays and blues, declaring a war on the night and putting off dusk's impending departure.  Yet as I walk, light retreats further and darkness creeps in, making the air thick, hard and cold.

I reluctantly prepare my goodbyes, to light, to dusk, to loud and happy gatherings on the beach and to the fleeting weekend.  A few long shadows, lone beach walkers like me, come along and pass me, pushing through the rising wind and around the growing tide.  We sigh in unison towards departing shades of red, blue and darkening silhouettes of waves, without speaking to one another.

 The scene has me wondering, thanking and regretting. Should I have dropped off the boy so carelessly?  How could I have put off visiting my grieving and aging mom yet another day?  The sunset reveals a different kind of beauty and finality, sped by the darkening powers of marine layers.  What evidence do I have on things returning to normal?  I suddenly can't remember and can't imagine leaving, without watching that last kiss between the painted sky and the darkening sea.  The sense of loss imprisons my thoughts, confining me to a small wet patch of sand screaming out my lungs begging for everything to stay, to be still, if for one second longer.

The beach is deserted for all but a few scattered figures now.  No matter the loss, no matter the onset of the night.  Everyone escapes into cocoons of artificial warmth and light, with the knowledge and assurance that the sun will rise again, soon.  In the meantime we climb the depth of darkness we must endure by holding hands with those nearby, by remembering the certainty of our assurance, and by not paying too much attention to the freezing temperature of the night.  Or despair will surely rip us apart.

A ship come onto the horizon just now, blinking brightly in lights that outline its shape, gliding through a far away surface so smoothly like it was one of those toy boats running on rails at Lego land.  Real or imagined, more ships glide onto the scene, dancing and drawing bright dotted shapes onto murky surfaces.  Together with the stars, rising high and blinking bright, they paint away tears, with light.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Winter Clouds - Two

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.   -- Psalm 56:8

*       *       *

Cloud (Dongyun) sat on that green wooden bench by her front door, peering out into the courtyard as I walked by.  I did not know what to do.  Should I stop and speak with her or pretend that I was too much in a hurry?

I decided to stop in, then immediately regretted it.  I could smell the dirty chamber pot brewing in the corner and crusty dishes lining the few patches of floor space in the room.  A tattered quilt was on its way sliding off the side of the bed, and peeling newspaper hung as if on half mast solutes to show the mournful gray surface of the wall beneath.  I wanted to run away but she spotted me.

A school book lay open on a wooden table next to her, deserted.  Her eyes were gray and empty, as if all the dreams inside had drained away during the last storm.

Like the one from last night.

We had barely finished dinner when I heard the shouts.

"... Useless! .... no!... no good!... such a burden! Why? Why????"   
Bang!... Bang! ... Bang!  Something wooden knocked, cracked then splat against something hard.  These sounds punctuated Mr Shen's rants.  Cloud's house was but a few steps from mine, crammed between other little homes the sizes of large tool sheds.  Once the home of a wealthy family, this historical courtyard now wore the split personalities of thirty makeshift homes like a poorly stitched patchwork quilt.  This quilt of togetherness, its lumpy, frayed, frail, shabby, fragile, leaky and well worn warmth was all we had, besides each other.  So day by day we watched each other's comings and goings, our downcast shoulders, flat faced weariness, and not so occasional outbursts.

But last night I only heard Mr Shen. No screams, sobs or pleas from Cloud escaped at all.  When I pressed my ears to the window, peeking out through the gaps in the curtains, nothing but frozen shadows and dark corners leaped into my view.

She must have sat just like this, taking in the world and washing it away again with the abundance of gray rain gathered in her eyes.

"Are you doing your homework?" I asked.
"....."  she murmured something to herself, curling her body inward like a bowl.
"What?"
"..., no good, go away..." several murmured words finally slipped from the tight circle that had become her body while I pressed close to her head.

She raised an arm to push her hair away from her face, and I caught glimpses of red scratches and marks. My heart tightened, seized by something cold and dark, pressing in and needling me more than the cold winter air.  I labored on my breathing, but my legs carried me nowhere.  So I sat down next to her, asking if she had something to eat, something from Shanghai perhaps?

She only had  one last "White Rabbit" candy left, so we each took half.  Huddling close to the weak ring of warmth by the stove, we chewed on the sticky lumps until milky sweetness covered our tongues.  There were no need for words, but an occasional "useless..., dumbest..., waste!..." couldn't help themselves but escaped from my friend's mouth, in between sounds of our gums smacking.  She rocked back and forth gently, as if held by invisible arms, in an invisible chair, rocking her all the way back to Shanghai.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Winter Clouds - One

This is the story about a childhood friend.  She had eyes the color of clouds, and perpetually gray expressions. When she told me her name-"Winter clouds", I choked on my words.

*  *  *

"Hello!"  I stopped in my tracks, noticing the door to the infamous "black room" had opened, and a girl my age, seven, or eight at the most as she seemed even smaller than me if that were possible, sat by the threshold.

The "black room" wasn't really black at all.  It had a green door, flower patterned curtains and red brick walls.  But a thick layer of moldy grime covered everything, giving them a dull gray appearance.  No sunlight ever reached here, not with taller buildings all around it and a pathway wide enough for only one person in front of it.   Yet there was a sort of an awning over the door frame. 

The girl turned a bit at the sound, revealing the translucent color of her eyes, the color of rain clouds, teary yet devoid of emotions.  She appeared to have floated away in a day dream, her eyes transfixed into mine yet many miles away from where I stood. 

"Are you new here?"  I tried again, hoping she would respond this time. I rather liked her scarlet colored jacket, with a cinched waist and round pockets.  With her face pale and smooth, dark hair pulled neatly into braids, she looked rather cute and stylish.

"I am not new.  But I just moved here to live with my dad."

"Oh your dad must be Mr. Shen, I know him."

She tilted her head, a puzzled look clouding up her delicate features, as if surprised and bothered slightly at this.
 
"But I've hardly ever seen him. He seems to always be working or going out of town."
"He was coming to see us, my mother and I, in Shanghai."
"Oh,  that must be it.  Is that where you came from then?"
"Yes, that was it. Yes I miss Shanghai and my mom. It is too cold and too dry here." She said.

"Beijing is better than Shanghai, it's the Capital!" I wasn't sure why, or where had I heard of this emotionally charged line of declaration, but it came out of me like a shell flying out of a lit canon.  (Later I would learn that this was a long and widely held debate between the residents of these two great cities, and that) Firing without aiming was to be my lifelong specialty.

"That's not possible." She said a-matter-of-factly. "Shanghai has every kind of great food, biscuits, cakes, sugared plums, and lots of candies.  There is hardly anything except cabbages here."  she twisted her mouth to the side, and giving me a side-way glance of victory, knowing I'd have no come back to that.

She was right. My mouth was too busy watering by then to speak.

*   *    *

The next day Mrs Wu's Math class almost exploded.  It was ten minutes past bell rang and no one was there to teach.  At first there were just a few whispers from the naughtiest and boldest kids.  Minute by minute, whispers grew louder and spread wider. Soon the classroom was more like a tea room, with all sorts of things knocking and nearly every kids shouting. Liu Bao was starting to aim his newly minted paper airplane at the back of Gao Luo's head when the teacher walked in with my new neighbor. 

"Everyone, we have a new student today, her name is DongYun (winter clouds). Please welcome her to our class. "

No one clapped or said welcome.  We stared instead.  Was this the same girl I met yesterday?  I could hardly recognize her.  Her neat braids were falling apart, with strands of hair hanging over her face. Her eyelids drooped and pulled her eyes into strange triangles.  Tears had run down her cheeks some time ago, dried and left tracks of white lines across her otherwise ashen face.  She shifted her feet - her pretty red jacket rustled with her movement, bulging and gaping because a button was missing and the rest were misaligned.

The wind screeched, blowing through the gaps between the window panes and their frames, beating down bear branches of a row of young trees against the high panes.  Nothing lived outside at this moment, not even birds.  The teacher told us they had moved to the warm south last month where there would be plenty of food and warm shelter for them.

In this dead of winter most kids wore rough homemade cotton jackets made with cheap yardages from the corner store and even cheaper cotton stuffing sold in the street by farmers carrying them on the back of their bicycles.  Our hands were often so dry that the skin cracked and bled, our lips chapped beyond repair.  But no one looked as dirty and disheveled as Yun did that day.

I heard whispers behind me.

"She has triangular shaped eyes. That's what we should call her..."
"What a pretty name - clouds - too bad it's all wasted on her..."
"What's that on her face?"

My ears burned and the heat traveled to my cheeks.  I wanted to turn around and shush them but I couldn't move or open my mount or even raise my head. Instead I hunched over my desk, pretending to read my books. 

"Jade, Yun will sit by you so you can help her catch up on homework and lectures until she get used to our new school."

I shifted my weight and turned my face away from her.

*     *     *

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Champagne Brunch

Fog draped all around her that morning, like thick curtains.  She drove onto the highway overpass and glanced to her right.  The hills seemed asleep under the fog cover, dreaming of soaring pine trees and crashing waves.  She wished for a moment that she didn't have this early morning class, so she could revisit the familiar trails on that hill, count the blooms that had faded and the leaves that had changed, and catch a glimpse of dolphins playing in the ocean just below. 

She sighed as the car took her away from all that and into the depth of the morning city traffic.  A sea of red lights, and a sea of silent thoughts.  No horns.  No sounds of nature either.  Just gliding pass time, stepping, breaking and repeating the morose code of commute.

*   *   *

There was no sign of people at this hour on the street. Except for an occasional car gliding through the single lane on the opposite side.  The fog followed her off the highway like a persistent stalker, blurring outlines of trees, buildings and bends farther down the street.  She stopped at a light, her mind stilling to the silent and timeless scene.  Radio seemed too loud, and phones just didn't belong.  So she took a good look around her.

Uncle Leo's restaurant sat on that corner, occupying one of the largest lot between the laundry mat and Best Sushi.  The door was closed and parking lot deserted, so she could see the tiny faded red and green facade clearly.  An once orange banner hung above the crumbling windows on the right.  "Champagne Brunch", it said in large black cursive.  How many of those had she have?  Dozens if not more, always with her group of friends at a chic restaurant near their fancy neighborhood by the ocean.  Never at a place like this though.  Red and green?  What were they thinking?   She looked again.  The lot ended where the bench began, the bench for the number 23 bus, that is.  He sat on the bench with his legs crossed, reading a tattered paper.  Even from across the street, she could see his bones protruding under his loose fitting T, forest green at one point, now dingy greenish brown.  His long beard shook as he read, as if murmuring. Then she saw his hands and arms shook too, rustling the paper involuntarily.   She couldn't see what he was reading, but she imagined it was something about food.  She realized then with a twist of irony that that's what she would do whenever she felt hopelessly hungry, like when she had to sit through one of those three hour evening classes. She would read about food, to allow herself to imagine, and to give herself hope.

Or perhaps he wasn't really hungry, there was something relaxed and, ..., content about him. The way he crossed his legs while leaning his back against the bench reminded her of those people she knew who were content with little, like her father.  The tanned and deeply lined face, the silvery gray strands escaping from the brim of his knit cap spoke to her as signs of worldly experience and a certain sense of grace.  She closed her eyes, and opened them again.  He was still there, reading, relaxing and shaking all at once..., hungry, yet content, perhaps.  She'd never know.

She checked her watch, it was still hours away from the time any restaurants would open.  Her class on the other hand would begin in ten minutes and the prof had a zero tolerance policy on late arrivals.  She moved on, promising herself that she would check on him tonight after class.  She had seen him standing at the road divider begging before.  She hadn't had any change then.  She never had any change, nor time, nor courage, nor power of decisions ("to give or not to give?") to open the window and make a connection.  But she would that night.  She looked again just before she drove pass the intersection, at the old man, and at the sign that said "Champagne Brunch".  Plans ballooned in her head then, perhaps she could buy him a whole meal, can soups for later, crackers and sodas in case he needed something soothing sometimes,... perhaps.

Perhaps... , she dreamed. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Remembering


The weather is still hot, though on my early morning walks, the breeze has gotten cooler.  The sun rises soon enough, so the neighbor's AC can resume its endless hums and the pool can be spilled over with wet swim suits and the smell of Coppertone sunscreen. Autumn is ready to steal the stage, you can feel it, but summer hasn't given up the fight yet.

School has started.  The little lane just outside my window is once again filled with the clatters of children at eight the dot.   My own class schedule fills up the once blank calendar, and I can't help but wondering where did all the time go?  I have barely had a summer day off, and I've not made it to the beach even once yet.



Memories of the end of the spring came back then.  The rush of exams and semester ending parties did not fill my mind as I learned of my father's terminal diagnosis.  I rushed to the hospital but I would've rather run away, not facing that moment's terrible truth -- one that I didn't feel equipped to face.  I put on a smile and listen to the treatment options, or lack thereof, somehow finding ways to believe things will work out, letting hope and fear have their turns with me, twisting and choking me inside and out.

I ran when I could, to cry in solitude, to let the tears out of their prison of pretense.   I held it together in public for the most part.  But there was a guilt, for every smile smiled, and for every tear shed.  A door closed inside, slowly at first, rapidly shut soon, whenever I walked into the audience of the world.   I did not want that, but I did not know how else to walk so it became a new habit in a way.

I spent the summer, alone but not, in hospital rooms.  For a while I focused on his face, one that I knew for years as a symbol of strength and character.  But then all I saw was tubes, jaundice, and fatigue.  He saw me cry once.  He let me go on until I was done.  Then he told me he was fighting but he was also ready.  Be logical, he said.  You tend to look at things too emotionally, don't be.  He was ready to fight or die and he was not afraid.    I nodded when he said this, I believed him and wanted to fight with him.

It was almost Father's Day when I visited one Saturday, perhaps a week or two from it.  I caught him listening to music on TV with a picturesque background of the ocean.   I want to take you to the beach, I said.  Get better soon, at least get rid of these wires so I could take you to the beach.  We will go on Father's day,  I said.   You need to eat something and keep it down, then we could get rid of these wires and go to the beach together, I will push your wheel chair and walk with you.

I won't need you to push me, he replied.  I will be better before then and I will walk there myself and walk faster then you.  You are a slow poke.   He looked at me when he said it, eyes full of mischief.  Eyes full of spirit like I remembered.

That night he refused the "pain management" medications and got up five times to feed himself the alternative medicines I got him.  The medicine promised to remove the pressure on his stomach from the tumors and allow him to digest something.  He ate a small meal or two the next day without throwing up and I started to cross off the days on the calendar.

But the relief was short lived.  The next two weeks were as long as two years.  As doctors confirmed repeatedly the extent of his cancer and pushed harder for his move to the hospice, his condition deteriorated rapidly.   The hospice allowed an extra bed for family to stay overnight, so I stayed there and realized one morning when I woke up it was Father's day.  I went to the garden below his room to gather some fresh blooms and sprigs of herbs to replace the faded ones by his bed side.  He woke in good spirits, and once more seemed the father I knew.   The room overlooked a beautiful stretch of the city, with a golf course on one side and a bustling cluster of shops on the other.  Bands of highway overpasses were filled with endless streams of cars, dazzling with purpose as they ran busily from one place to another. 

Can you see the beach?  He asked once I finished describing his "fantastic view".  His words choked me, as I remembered my promise and his once fighting spirit before "pain management" took over.  He seemed to be remembering also, propping himself up for the first time in an eternity, stretching his neck toward the window, and peered from those once distant and then once familiar eyes.   I took a few moments to compose myself, to come up with an answer, to peer as far as I could see, to smell and inhale as heavily as I could muster, for a scant scent of the ocean..., but failed in the end of all my efforts.  

No, I shook as I told him.  The ocean is just beyond the golf courses and the buildings of the shops though, do you recognize them?  We had lunch there once.  Perhaps if you squinted towards the lowest and farthest blue lines of the sky, you could see the edge of the ocean.   Of all these I told him.

He fell back down on his back at once, and asked for more pain medication.  It was as if the few moments of stretching and hoping and wanting for something raw and fresh and real from a world that had been shut out to him for over a month had cost him all the strength and endurance he had saved up for that morning.  I offered to move his bed toward his window, to talk to him some more about the family that still lived in China, the sister he missed, the time we spent there, but it was no use.   The light that shone in his eyes for a few moments earlier that morning was gone, and I would later found out that I would never see it again.   I sat by his side as the nurse administered the drug that put him back to a quiet haze, wishing and wanting to say something, to offer to take him to the ocean again.  To say the hell with the wires and tubes and all the other gadgets that had tethered him to that god forsaken place, and let's go to the beach, one more time.   But I was as afraid to admit all that would be worth it because it may as well be the final time as I was to say anything more at that moment, afraid that his frail bones might actually break if we moved him, afraid he may not make it on the way, afraid that his hours, however brief, will be shortened even further if I went with my foolish, overly emotional ideas.

So I watched him sleep, occasionally soundly, often fitfully, altogether wretched and accompanied by pain and a choking cough now and again.   I watched him until that day, when his final sleep arrived, in a morning just like any other, without fan fair, with no more tears, or the sound of the waves to keep him safe.  The summer had left me with much and little, thankful and sad, afraid of nothing and everything.




I wonder where has all the time gone this summer, occasionally when I wake to the strange yet familiar sound and smell of fall.  I wonder why I have not made it to the beach even once, then I would remember, afresh.


 *           *             *            *              *


 Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
    ...    
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Storms [ Continued ]

Storms, Part I
Dennis stood at the edge of our circles, watching.  He wore the same yellow green shirt and dark blue shorts he did yesterday or the day before, his face covered in patches of dirt and streaks of sweat stains.

Could you share your thoughts?  Lori paused in her stories to asked the children, eying Dennis deliberately.  No.  He shook his head gentle and stepped just outside of our circle in silence that spoke volumes.

I waited and watched until circle time was over.  How old are you? I chatted as if I didn't care about his answers at all.  He fixed his eyes on me, giving short but straight answers.  He was ten though he looked so much smaller. 

"Did you like the stories?"  I pursued with some interest.  He shrugged, if only a little bit.  Then he looked at me with those dark and sparkly eyes, and retold the story word by word.

"Can you read another one for me? I can't understand all the words in Spanish".  I handed him a book with a pleading look.  He stood up straight as he read, so slowly and clearly that even I caught every word.  We chatted about school, about whether he wanted to attend regularly.  He shook his head, and pointed to the direction of a nearby construction site.  He was there to be with his father only. 


The staff told me to leave him alone.  His father worked at a nearby construction site, so he hang around but he didn't "belonged".  The word stung and hit a nerve with me, as I couldn't tell what they meant by it or how it was defined.  Perhaps they simply wanted to say Dennis wasn't part of the program.  But I was glad to see him around, absorbing what he could.  He gladly joined a game or two of soccer later.   His dark skin stood out against a cloud of white uniforms, all of them quick as wind.  Dennis was faster and quieter.  He flashed across that white clouds of thunderous defense against him like a sudden bolt of lightening.  Then they roared in unison, such music to our ears, thunders and joy.  Some of looked up momentarily, half expecting chorus of real thunders to complete our happiness with relief from heat.

Don and Lori, our mission leaders told me later that Dennis wasn't yet sponsored to come to the school.  The sponsorship paid for their meals at school, uniforms, books, the staff's salary and more.  "Is Ruth sponsored?"  I asked immediately.
"I don't think so.  Let me check...  Oh, she lives with her step father and mother and four siblings... Would you like to sponsor her?"
"Yes."
"OK.  I will check on that and let you know as soon as I can."


*   *   *

Ashley and I sat at the edge of the door steps, chatting about nothing while we helped Cara making "the big fish".  As soon as we were done, she got up to climb into my lap.

"Is this your last day here?"  she turned to me and asked, dark eyes flashing.
"Yes..."
"When are you coming back?"
"Well, hmm, good question.  At the very least, next year."
"When?"
"Next year, next year this same time.  I think"
"That is a long time, isn't it?"
"Um, yes.  I will miss you, but I will be in school and try to learn a lot.   You will be in school too won't you?"
"Um, yes, I don't know."


This had never occurred to me.   I had imagined that the children's life would be no different after we left, but Dennis and Ashley had made me realize there was more to the story.  And Ruth still hadn't returned, for what seemed like forever.   A group of kids interrupted my thoughts as they swept over us with parched lips and too much excitement accumulated at the soccer camp.  I scrambled to feed them tamarind juice, refilling each cup three or four times before their calls to me subsided.  Ashley had gone home with Cara by the time I sat down again. 


I talked to Don and Lori the next chance I got, about their year long stay in Honduras before starting this mission team.   They had a connection and understanding with the locals beyond what I could grasp.   What happened to the children before we came?  I finally asked Don.  He turned to me, every white blond hair stood on its end and a face so serious it startled me.   He waited until we were alone on the bus before he began.

"I got called into a police station by the staff here one time.  That's when I found out some of the children had gotten arrested."
"For what?"
"They were begging in the streets.   See,  many of the homes on the Bordo have at least five or six children each.  The father would start the day in a hammock, and send his kids out, asking them not to come home until they had 100-200 Lempiras."
I felt numb in my limbs, blood was rushing in my ears while my brain ground to a halt.  
"But they weren't arrested for begging were they?"  Lori added.
"No, they weren't.  Don't ask me what were they arrested for..."   Don replied darkly.

The sound of blood draining from my face was making me deaf and dizzy.

Don continued after a while.  "That is why we sponsor the children.  It gets them off the streets."

Ruth!  Where could she be?  I was afraid to ask then.  Lori had been checking on her yet nothing concrete had turned up.


*    *    *

Our projects stood complete as we stood exhausted and ready for home.  As we piled onto the bus one final time the children came after us, running on the sides waving and shouting our names.  I saw a flash of red - it was Cara running with Ashley.  Dennis stood in a corner of the street, hands on his waist, eyes sparkling but motionless otherwise.  He smiled when he saw me, lighting up that dark corner of his street and my memories.

As we turned onto the main road something caught my eye, a child running by herself.  Others noticed it too, some standing to get a better look.  Somehow we made the driver stop to let us off.  I stepped down first and immediately saw Ruth and heard thunders exploding on the bus.   The young missionaries had roared at the sight of her, jumping off to pat her head and give her hugs.   Suddenly everyone was in tears, fat drops falling heavily like rain unleashed from the prison of stuffy clouds.  There was nothing to do to stop it, like the summer storms, these tears came and went as they pleased.  So we let it, drinking in the scent and tastes of salty sweat stains, of tamarind juices,  of sun baked sweat marks and of joy, friendship, laughter and memories. 

*   *   *


Ruth was sponsored by another church, we found out eventually. Her program allowed her certain days of the week in school only.   There are many more (2000) families like hers live on the Bordo of Rio Blanco with no choices but sending their children to the streets to beg.   They dance between the edge of starvation and risks of being arrested.   The sponsorship program allow these children to attend school and receive meals regularly for their families.

Storms, Part I 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Storms

San Petro Sula sits in the valley of Sula, surrounded by blue green tropical mountains.  The mid August sun brings air to a boil, while clouds steep lower and lower.  We sighed when the locals told us that there is normally no rain in the summer.  I had hoped to see some amazing thunder storms.

Our mission was to connect with the children of Cristo Centro via lessons, sports camps, a building project, and medical assistance.  But as the hot breath of the valley sank deeper into our eyes, our hair, and our shirts, we couldn't help but wishing we were inside and sheltered by air conditions.

*  *  *

The storm brewed all day and raged all night, lulling us into deep slumbers.  I woke occasionally to hear the rain fall heavily on our roofs and windows, only to realize that sleep was falling more heavily onto me.  So I only dreamed of watching fat drops of rain cooling down the oppressive summer air.  I had caught a taste of the storm earlier, while dinner was being served. From the corner of our eyes, we caught visions of lightening bolts flashing across the clear blue sky.  By the time we cleared the dishes, the air had dampened and developed into a gentle breeze, delivering promises of rain by lifting strands of hair off of our faces.

Nate had nonchalantly shaken out some laundry on the clothes line earlier, nodding when I praised "your mom would be so proud".  Chase followed him with a few pieces of his own, covering and weighing the line down to nearly half of its original height.  For a moment or two, I watched the fabric taking shape and catching light in the early evening breeze, as if sails ready for the open sea.  The boys stood over six feet tall next to their clean laundry, joking and horse playing like the kids they still were, voices heavy and low like the adult they would soon become, eager and ready to navigate the ocean of life themselves.

The storm must have ravaged those beautiful laundry, it occurred to me in my half sleep.  Not exactly a world class problem or mine for that matter, but I couldn't help wishing they stayed dry somehow. Clean (or just dry) clothes were a precious cargo then, as the days carried so much physical labor under the blaring sun, let alone the fact we would shower in sweat minutes after walking out into the day.

We would later learn that the summer storms in Honduras simply came and went as fast as they pleased (arguably a temperament resembling that of an American teenager), so there was no rescuing  anything once the rain was set to arrive.  So we stayed inside, listened, read and inhaled the scent of rain-soaked-air sipping through windows and door jams.

*  *  *  

She ran up to me as fast as a streak of lightening, knocking me off my feet with the speed of her embrace.  Ruth was six and all dimples and long lashes plus a head of blond bob.  Within minutes of meeting us, she became fast friends with everyone.  We learned immediately that photos, songs, missionaries and a game of chocolate (pronounce each syllables as in Spanish) are her favorite things.  She despised having to wait for anything.  She adored both taking and posing for photos.  Although gentle and docile looking, she had a fierceness that came across the lens and punched through the frames.  She went around and engaged all of us in photos and laughter, games and activities in no time at all, leaving us wondering who was in charge after all.  But her charm won us over in the end and no one minded being bossed around by Ruth even a little bit.

She called me "Chinita".  She would come around and circle her arms around my neck to get her daily does of hugs and kisses.  She whispered questions in my ears at first but once she got going she stared at me intently.

"Are you a missionary?"  she asked in her sing song Spanish.
"Yes."  
"Really?"
"Yes."
"Oh I love you, I love missionaries!" 

She would then pull out her hands to cup them around my sunburned face, cooling them for a minute and breathe a sigh of relief.  Before I could blink, she'd be off to join another circle of game again, leaving behind a trail of giggles.  One day I asked (for no reason that I could fathom then or remember now):

"Ruth, where do you live?"
"On the Bordo."   she was suddenly serious, if only for half a second, before smiling again.  I would have missed it if I'd blinked.

"Where are your parents?  Is mama working? "
"She is at home with my brothers and sisters."
"And your dad?"
"he is dead."

She was suddenly quiet but without sadness, carrying a calmness unusual for a girl her age.  I noticed she went back to whispering again for that last sentence, so no one could hear it but me.  I felt her lashes flutter but no tears rolled down either of our cheeks.  She hugged me like that for a few seconds, then she leaned back to make sure I understood.  I must have looked dumbfounded or just dumb,  standing wordless while my thoughts scaped at the edge of my Spanish.

By the time I lunged to hug her, to say "I'm sorry", she was gone.  She ran to tell the others something important sounding in rapid Spanish.  Then she was back to more games, leaving a trail of giggles behind.
Ruth playing "cho-co-la-te" with another missionary

*    *    *

The Bordo sat on the steep right bank of Rio Blanco.  The only other "right bank" I had experience with would be the one in Paris, you know, the one sprinkled with the Louvre, the Concord and the expensive designer stores.   Rio Blanco was quite a different river with quite a different bank.

I hadn't seen Ruth for days.  We all missed her but no one thought of asking.  We dashed from projects to projects, always surrounded by heat, children and their boundless energy.  Some had started to feel tired, home sick and heat exhausted.  Yet there was no shelter from the heat no matter where we went, and nothing stopped the team in their tracks of completing yet more projects.

But I had hoped to find her in the rows of shacks on the Bordo, made hastily from spare sheets of tin and plywood scraps.  Colorful washings hung in the front like flags, declaring a heritage of self sufficiency from harsh circumstances.  An old man stood watching us, his skin as brown and shiny as sun dried coca beans.  I watched his tobacco smoke rise,  exuding an air of lazy contentment and quiet confidence.  He returned my waves by puffing out more grayish smoke rings, holding his gaze steady, reshaping his mouth for a sharp whistle.  My group urged me to move on and I complied grudgingly.   My heart sank at the sight of each home and each tired and weathered face blinking from misshapen doorways and windows.


I walked down the slippery slopes to the river,  keeping pace with the thin snake line of the group formed both before and after me.  I heard a voice calling my name off and on, from a distance so far it couldn't be real.  But as I followed "the snake" in its twits and turns the voice persisted, high and immature, the voice of a little girl.

I turned around to see a child waving and jumping, her red skirt flying up like flames of a small fire. I couldn't see much else except that her hair was dark and curly, her face shone under the hot sun and her smile was as bright as the white light beating down on her.  I did not remember her name then,  but my heart leaped at the sight of someone I possibly knew; or rather, someone who knew me in this jungle of gravel, sand, plywood and tin. 

Cara caught up with me, both that day and in the days after, as my student, my shadow and my protector.  As many four year olds at the school, she leaped into my lap whenever possible, and came after me to make crafts with her.  I still missed Ruth, but Cara and the others she brought around kept me busy.

*   *    *

The storm, a hurricane this time, raged all night again, harder and longer than ever before, leaving our laundry soaked and our spirits lower than the cloth line.  Besides the washings, we were skimming over water and food, not for lack of supply, but for lack of a will to eat.   The next morning no children came to school though we rose early to meet them.  No Ruth, No Cara, Max, Orlando, Ashly or Clarissa.  We stood with tired blank expressions towards each other, staring at a suddenly too white, too empty and too quiet world.


The staff explained that since all the children lived on the Bordo, their homes became flooded when it rained as hard as last night.  In fact last night two people had gone missing from the heavy rain as the roads were also flooded.  So they anticipated the children would have a hard time getting to school this morning.    We listened, not processing this information completely while quietly finishing our building projects,  breaking early from the day to allow the team to recuperate.

I stopped on my way out and asked could I visit the Bordo again? No, they said, it would be too dangerous to go alone, and that was that.   I rested without sleep, picturing kids in pristine white and gray uniforms treading knee deep mud in their homes (with dirt floor), their playgrounds (the high dirt bank outside the shacks), and the roads to school.


The edge of the "Bordo" before the flood

Storms, Part II

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Band-aid of Sorrows

We, my son and I, sit on the high steps nibbling on our frozen yogurt.  Below the steps are ground level fountains that surprise toddlers and babies who come across with sprays of water.  The childrens' delights splash and spray across also, like damp and silvery drops of summer, leaving us all glisten and sparkle a little in the setting sun.

Earlier mom had told us that the burial of dad's ashes will be at 1pm on Friday.  The boy had looked confused.  We have had a fairly formal funeral, where he formally said goodbye to his grandpa in front of family and friends.  He had also said goodbye with just the family at the hospice a week earlier.

"What's a burial?"  he asked. 
"We put away grandpa's ashes." mom replied, trying to be as brief as possible.
"But we already put his ashes in the box I picked out for him, didn't we?  You don't like the box?"  The boy needed to be clear.
"Yes. But now we need to put that small box in a big box."  Mom tried to put it in terms he could understand.
"But I don't get it. Why do we want to do things like putting a smaller box in a bigger box?"

He couldn't let this last point go no matter what the explanations, and his questions repeated a few more rounds like this, louder as he got into each round.  Not until I told him we would go get fro-yo later did he return to quietly finishing dinner.
 
Now he seems to have forgotten all about the big box, small box problem, having a tub of frozen sweets to fill his busy mouth.  I squint into the crowd, grateful for the blaring afternoon sun which offered me an excuse for dark glasses, and for splashing dampness all around which allowed me another reason to wipe my face.  An evening breeze sets in, as I take another bite and let out a soft sigh.

"Mom are you ok? Why do you look so sad?"  The boy turns and sees, suddenly alarmed. He grabs my shoulder, shaking it lightly to get my attention.

My voice is calm.  I call him by his name.  "Listen, I know the burial seems confusing, but we need to say goodbye to grandpa this one more time. Besides, don't you want to know where he rests?"

"I know where he is, he is in heaven playing with Jesus, I can see him and he told me himself! So whenever I'm sad, I just picture him having fun..."

"That's true.  I'm so glad he told you.  But for grandma, it's a little different.  She has been married to grandpa for over forty years.  When two people get married, it is like gluing two pieces of paper together, and the longer they are married, the more glued together they get.   So imagine tearing them apart again, ...  When grandpa left, it was like tearing him apart from grandma after they've been glued together for forty years, and it hurts her so much..., we call that grief."

The boy listens, forgetting to eat, or talk, for once.

"Remember that time when you cut your chin so badly we had to take you to the hospital?" I asked.
The boy nodded, starting to talk but kept quiet again.

"But I bet you don't remember the last time I had to put a band-aid on you right?"
He confirmed quietly again.

"When you have a small wound, the kind that barely scratches the skin, we can just put a band-aid on you and that's enough.  But when you cut your chin on that big piece of play structure, we had to take you to the hospital to have the doctors glue your wound back together.  You had to get some shots, some medicine and a really big cover for your wound, and it was a lot more steps than putting on a band-aid, right?"

More nods from his dark and prickly head.

"That was because the wound was so much bigger, and if the doctor didn't carefully treat it you'd get an infection, and the wound won't properly heal, you might even get sicker in other places."  I continued.

"When my friend Max broke his arm, he had to get a whole cast and not use it for three months." he finally piped in.

 "That's right, because he hurt his bones, a really deep wound that needs even more steps to properly treat.   Grandma's grief is an even bigger wound, because when grandpa left, she got left... with.. a lot of holes like that piece of paper that got torn apart again.., one way that helps her mend, is saying goodbye to grandpa with us around her, as many times as it takes.  From crying together and praying at the hospice, to the funeral with our church and friends, to the burial and maybe some other ways, she needs to layer all different treatments on her wounds, so it is properly cleaned up and bound up together."

I pause to watch the boy's yogurt melt and drip down his spoon, forming a pool of milky puddle in his still half full cup. 

I continue.  "This is true for you and me too.   It is a blessing that our family is together to say goodbye to grandpa however many times it takes.  When I was little, I didn't understand how to say goodbye to people who left either, and several times..., that did leave some wounds in me that surfaced again years later.  When it did, it was so much pain all over."

"I know!  Was this the friend you wrote a story about?"  He sits up straighter, an I-know-what-this-is-about look on his face.

"It was her and some others..."  My voice started to trail away.

Heat from the departing sun reddens one side of my face while early evening breezes cools the other.  Life splashes on around us, soaking me in their palpable joy and the ebbs and flows of my memories.  No longer teary, I left my cup of creamy confection alone on the steps to do the crying for me. 

The boy finally broke the silence.  "So it's like a band-aid for her loss, when grandma put a small box into a big box."  The boy concluded, suddenly years wiser beyond his age.

"Yeah, its our band-aid of sorrows",  I added, knowing there are lots more to say but perhaps yet more time and occasions to say them.  And that no matter the time, these words, this clarity, would heal but not outlast the scars as a reminder for our losses, our pain and what once felt like insurmountable grief, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Words

The afternoon sun washed onto us as we leaned onto our chairs, tired and out of things to say. The waiting room was quieter than before, most families have left with the happy news that surgery went well for their respective family members.  We dared not hold equal hopes, albeit after endless prayers and tears. Exhaustion took hold of us all at once and our lids grew heavy with the weight of the warm air pressing into us.

"Hey folks!"  I look to the sound of the greeting and first saw a mass of green scrubs then the tall figure of Dr B.  He stood next to my chair and attempted to sit on its thin strip of wooden arms but gave up as soon as he began the attempt.  I stood up, and he gave me a grateful nod before sitting down, so he could face my mom.  He took her hand into his before he began.

"I am really sorry, there was nothing I could do for him. His stomach wall is covered with cancer." He shook the hands he held in his slightly to emphasize, and continued.   "If I removed it in one place three more will grow out in another.  They covered his intestines, preventing movements."

"Can you remove a small section to help his intestines move?" Mom asked.  She had held hopes that a temporary measure could help father digest something, anything, water, liquids, a fraction of the medicine we tried to give him.

"It wouldn't do any good..." His voice trailed away, his face intent and eyes fixed on moms.

"How big are the tumors?"   Mom tried again.

"The smallest are the size of this," He made a line across the top of his pinky to show us a pea sized fraction. "the biggest are like..", he curved his palms together to form a grapefruit.    I drew back my breath and retreated my body away from him at this.

"The tumors are pressing on his organs, twisting his intestines and stomach, which is why he has been vomiting and feeling nauseated. There are also a lot of fluid.  I removed about 3200cc during surgery.  That should make him feel better for a while. I also connected a tube to allow the fluid to drain as it is collected.  This will replace the tube in his nose, and will make him feel more comfortable."

Mom continued to ask about dad's condition, the nature of the prognosis (2-3 weeks), and what are the remaining options.  I did my best to interpret and translate, as words and expressions became confused as they tend to between people from different backgrounds, culture and expectations.  I made myself still, letting the words slid off my tongue without further processing, without adding the tint of emotions swelling inside of me.

Someone once said: "A writer is someone who lets go of painful things by preserving them forever in stories."   

But as I saw words form in my minds eye then, I stuffed them back down in the clusters and clumps as they came until they reached deep inside me and latched onto my organs.  They started to form bigger clusters and clumps and wrapped membranes onto themselves, growing and shrinking, or perhaps creating a breathe of life all their own.  They pressed onto my heart, lungs, and stomach, until every ounce of air, nutrient, and life is drained from the cell that formed my once healthy internals.  I saw my own cells shrink, fade and starve into oblivion as more and more them take over the very space mine used to occupy.

And fluid, there is so much fluid, with clusters and clumps swimming in them. Thick yet translucent, the yellow green liquid traveled around my veins, carrying and depositing an unwanted yet relentless cargo.   I listened with earnest to the conversation around me, my eyes fixed onto their lips, eyes and muscles that moved to let those poisonous words depart from their bodies, while they carelessly stayed lodged into mine.  Slowly words and clumps of pulsating clusters were drowning me both inside and out, until I couldn't breathe or see, as tears began to blur my eyes again.  I looked up to the ceiling to press them back down, without knowing why.  No one was looking at me.  But I couldn't stand the feeling of release any more than the feeling of drowning, so I kept on pressing inwards, drowning in the mounting pressure, until words, inside and out, stopped flowing altogether.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Breakfast at Starbucks

When I sit down to watch a movie at home, I often need to press the pause button so I can get up and fetch more coffee, another piece of candy or a new glass of wine. The moment I do, I'd notice how the mess of on screen characters suddenly freeze, struggling so hard to rush forward that they leave motion streaks across the silver screen.

*             *             *

When I don't have morning meetings, conference calls across the pond, or morning classes at it is the case more recently, I'd sometimes try and sneak away to Starbucks for a moment of stillness amidst all the commotions in my life.

Not that Starbucks doesn't have its own commotions. Far from it.   This morning, I had only a place to stand outside on the patio.  Most of the seats caught some of the morning rain, and the tables inside buzzed with discussions or meetings of one sort or another.  So I stood by the fountain they recently put up, nibbling on my chocolate croissant and stared into glasses, sidewalks and people. I felt a bit like Holly Golightly as she stared into much more expensive windows, even though nary a single pearl encircled my neck and my outfits were not nearly as black.  A slight mist settled in just as I did, along with a small crowd.

Like that pair of students, middle school or maybe younger, walking side by side sharing an ipod with one ear bud each.  They walked with the confidence and synchronization of a single spokesperson, all black outfitted with bright white wires outlining their contour and their steps.

Or that runner, pushing a baby stroller of twins.  Her babies were no more than a few months old, but she looked to be ready for her next marathon. Her friend, an office worker in a neat pinstripe shirt and gray slacks, gave her a hug and an admiring look.  Their walked in nearly one after another, but they parted soon after in opposite directions.

The white haired retiree struck up a conversation with the older couple sitting on the outdoor chaise.

"Hey did you hear about this new show they are doing in Huntington?"

His tiny black terrier sniffed the couple's pug and made nervous but cheerful circles amidst the tiny new group.

"No!  When is it going to be?  ....  You know, we did hear about this new wine tasting venue up there, it's supposed to be really neat."

Their faces lit as they talked, even under the shadow of the giant umbrellas directly overhead.  It was a typical morning in coastal San Diego, gray, misty, and cool.  The sun hid just beneath the surface of the marine layer, so you can still stand outdoors and see without squinting.

I stood there observing them, noticing how they moved with a speed of fullness and yet a stillness that left a mark for those watching.


*               *                 *

I often wondered what Holly was thinking in that opening scene of the movie, watching an empty street before Manhattan woke up and joined her in the daily rush. In a way, she was standing at the start of the movie, "play" button not yet pressed, all were hidden and the promised unfolding of a great story lying just beyond the lift of a finger tip, or two.

I supposed she might also have been thinking about other things - glamorous things and those not so much - like parties and hang overs, changes and the future, or about panics and desires, or hungers and loss. But in movies or in real life, I'm glad they left some things unsaid; so my imaginations can fill in the blanks.  I stood there, crossing the threshold of wishing and hoping, admiring at the peak of thanking and believing.

The sun finally rose, unleashing an abundance of light onto the canvas of life, illuminating both stillness and motions in me.  Dreams recede and hopes rose, along with those cool breezes in the morning mists.  In the light of the day, grayness revealed itself as a calm and pleasant background for all things vivid, lively and momentous. 

And just like that, I rushed forward again, leaving a streak of motion behind and no longer on "pause".


Monday, April 9, 2012

A Tough Boy - Lou's Story



I woke up with a jerk.  It was dark, cold and noisy. My body moved, vibrated and shook, and I couldn't stay still though I tried.  I told myself that I wouldn't get sick, that I was a tough boy, just like mom always told me.

The smell of chicken filled the train cart along with that of onion, garlic, spice and ripened fruit.  Earlier when the train stopped, everyone crowded underneath the open windows, their bodies pressed against the grimy exterior of the train and against each other.  Merchants with little more than a bicycle and a basket of food pushed things up through the window, trusting whomever catching it will render payment upon consumption.  I thought about grabbing something but I decided against it eventually.  I was practically covered with shoppers hovering and stretching over the window anyway.  So I pretended to sleep until I really did drift off under that cave of bodies.

The night air had long chased away the heat and stale air surrounding me earlier. I was so hungry my stomach felt pressed into my ribs.  I rose to sniff the air, filling my lung with the oily scent.  But it made me gag, and I shivered from the chill which made my teeth chatter.  So quickly I shrank back into a tight ball and retreated into the dark corner against the window.

I remember vaguely that I waved away aunt Lana yesterday.  She was in such a hurry, so I could barely catch a corner of her face, and a patch of her scarf, before the crowd surged into the cart like disturbed waves swallowing a tiny raft.  I didn't know her well anyway, but grandma was sick and grandpa was busy, so she got the task to see me off.  We drove for miles to get to the train station on the border of the city.  Our county was too small to have a train station.  She had errands to run, chicks to feed and pig pans to clean, so she was off as soon as I turned into the cart and gave her an over the shoulder glimpse.

I was excited to be going home, to see mom and dad.  I wasn't a fan of my annoying little sister Sophie, but I didn't mind her too much either.  I didn't mind much of anything, because I was a tough boy, just like mom always said.  When they put me on the train last year to go see grandma and learn Korean, I was happy as a clam.

What five year old boy wouldn't be excited for a chance to live in the country!  I ran with the dogs, filled up on fresh eggs every morning and enjoyed the pampering of aunts and uncles and cousins.  I didn't remember much about the train ride here,  but that just meant it must had been OK.  Maybe I was cold and hungry too, but hey it was pretty short and I got to see outside whenever the daylight came around.  I also got to see lots of people, carrying everything with them.  From roosters in a straw cage, canvas bags and cardboard boxes, to children with thin fingers and tiny wrists like mine trying to grab onto anything that kept them from flying all the way to the head of the cart.

So I feel pretty lucky and luxuries to be sitting down. Uncle Bob must have pulled some strings to get me a ticket with a seat.  I would be in Beijing in just one more day, and then mom would bring my favorite dishes to make up for the trip.  My mouth watered at the thought of mom's tasty soups.  My eyes watered too, at the thought of mom and her soft voices.

But oh, I wasn't crying.  I was a tough boy, just like mom always said.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shadows

We rounded the corner and lifted our heads to see the moon leap into our view.  It was round and full, fooling me into thinking I might be able to touch its glossy surface, if I climbed up high above the branches nearby.

The moon always carry my thoughts home.  No matter how far away I had drifted, in body or soul.  On a night like this, years ago in Beijing, we'd sometimes step out onto the street for a walk.  The dinner dishes had been put away,  and there would be a breeze that invite even the most languid member of the family - dad - to venture out.

Chess players and a crowd of onlookers would often line the street.  Both sides - the players and the prospectors - observed the silent rules of mutual respect.  But they would smack the cap sized pieces against the board to make a move, and the crowd would inhale sharply, as if finally letting go of the magic of suspense. Dad would sigh, exhale loudly before moving on.

The moon would glaze over us then, draping a silvery cape over our shoulders and backs.  The old drum tower in the far corner would usually frighten me with its menacing black shapes, sharp corners and tall shadows.  But on those nights with a bright moon and few clouds, its corners would turn a soft silvery gray, giving out an air of soft grandfatherly warmth.

And so tonight we walked on, imagining the world shrinking to the size of the patch of garden around us so we could be transported with the touch of a thought.  London, Paris, Bangkok, or Rio.  We walked into the quiet of the night, imagining the palpable stress weighing us down melting into a land farther than we can reach.

Then we saw, around dark and shadowy corners, a familiar warmth glistened in silvery sparks.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sending Off

They arrived at the door when I was still packing. As usual, I first heard them argue, then I turned around to see their clumsy figures moving into view.  Mom bumped into things like the gate left ajar or the tiny step leading to my front porch.  Dad watched her in hopeless distress, as if the twists in his eyebrows alone could reverse time and remove the harms done to his wife.

They rang the door bell, as if the rhapsody of pots and pans knocking onto the patio floor wasn't enough to get everyone's attention.  I opened the door to help them inside.  They carried a full meal with them, that is just how they traveled, especially to visit me. Over the years, I'd learned to be grateful when that was all they brought.

The smell of dumplings, vegetables cooked in ginger and garlic, and salted beef filled my tiny apartment and made my stomach growl.  I rushed to finish packing,  stuffing the last items along the sides.  I was sure I packed everything, but sometimes that still didn't seem enough, somehow.

We ate quickly.  Mom asked me whether I had this and that, panics growing in her voice with each item she was sure I had forgotten.  I reviewed their locations in the suitcase with her, throwing everything out of orders.  Dad paused and checked my travel documents and made copies to keep with them.  He walked briskly between the printer and my bags, stuffing everything neatly wherever they belonged.  I watched him without knowing how to help, my heart quivers at the sight of his legs bent from age while walking the stairs. His salt and pepper hair drew streams into the space before my eyes, back bending up and down like an arched bow.  I got up to wash the dishes, letting the gushes of water slip through my fingers as I scrub and rinse.

We walked outside to find another sunny California day.  I ducked into the sun warmed back seat and closed my eyes.  Dad was at the wheel but mom was driving.

"Slow down, you are gonna kill that person."
...
"Oh my god, why did you just do that?"
...
"Stop!"

We got the driving coach side of her, commanding and snappy. She threw up her hands and took over the steeling wheel once, then the emergency break.  The short ride to the airport jerked along, and I feel breathless and dizzy. 

The commuter terminal was the size of a petri dish.  After checking in at the counter, I hugged them goodbye at the start of the security line.  It was an awkward western gesture for them, but they tried pleasantly to accommodate me. I could feel the frail frames of their shoulders shrank to childlike proportions under my arms. The years had slipped by all of us unnoticed,  cruelly taking away their statures while mine grew.  Was it not yesterday, when their arms held me and the world still on the first day of kindergarten; when I waved them away through hair and tears both fighting to get into my eyes.

That bit hadn't changed perhaps.

As I stripped for the security scans, I looked back to see them standing just at the other side looking on. Somehow we've found ourselves in the land of the giants, and they shifted, constantly to keep me in view, two dark gray heads bobbing in a sea of tallness.  Each time I made another turn in the winding snake lines I turned to check and I'd see, there they were, hands waving at the sight of me turning.
Photo courtesy of the Internet - you know, Google etc.


For a while I saw a too small child held in their arms again.  Me, and this too big world.

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