The Opposite of Fate
The Opposite of Fate Amy Tan
With love to Lou DeMattei, who knows the fiction and nonfiction of my life, as well as all that cannot be put into words.
Table of Contents
These are musings on my life, including the metaphors I used as an eight-year-old child, sensing books as windows opening and illuminating my room, and the thoughts I had as I wrote my mother’s obituary, trying to sum up who she was and what legacy she had bequeathed to me.
I call this a book of musings because the writings are mostly casual pieces rather than formal essays. Some are long, versions of conversational talks I gave at universities. Others are short, particular to the desperate hour in which I wrote them, for example, the eulogy for my editor, the incomparable Faith Sale; or the e-mail sent to friends after an unexpected disaster resulting in my near-demise made the national news. There is also a love poem to my husband, which counts as my most difficult exercise in brevity.
I have included such longer pieces as my ruminations about the making of the film The Joy Luck Club. A reporter had faxed me questions, and I sent back the answers, written off the top of my head, ending with my wondering what would happen next; in a footnote, I explain what did. I offer as well a portion of my journal entries from a 1990 trip to China in which I was smothered in the bosom of family and had to acquiesce rather than follow my typical American ways. I offer it here for fun, and because it shows how nearly everything in my life turns into obsessive observation, images, questions, and if I am lucky, the beginnings of stories, however ragtag they may be. The last reflection in this book was written only recently, and for a fateful but hopeful reason.
Some of the pieces have ignominious origins. “Mother Tongue” was written hastily, as an apologia the night before I was to be on a panel with people far more erudite than I on the topic “The State of the English Language.” The speech was later published in The Threepenny Review and then selected for inclusion in the anthology The Best American Essays 1991—leading me to wonder whether all my essays should be written at two in the morning in a state of panic. A version of “Mother Tongue” has also been used for the Advanced Placement SAT in English; this unanticipated development delights this author to no end, since her score in the 400s on the verbal section of the SAT made it seem unlikely, at least in 1969, that she would even think of making her living by the artful arrangement of words.
In gathering these pieces for the book, I made a new realization, so obvious that I was stunned I had not seen the pattern a hundred times before. In all of my writings, both fiction and nonfiction, directly or obliquely but always obsessively, I return to questions of fate and its alternatives. I saw that these musings about fate express my idiosyncratic and evolving philosophy, and this in turn is my “voice,” the one that determines the kinds of stories I want to tell, the characters I choose, the details I decide are relevant. In my fictional stories, I have chosen characters who question what they should believe at different moments in their lives, often in times of loss. And while I never intended for the pieces in this current nonfiction book to explain my fiction, they do.
Thus, although each of these writings came about for its own reasons, collectively they hold much in common, and at times they overlap in my mention of ideas, people, and pivotal moments. They are musings linked by my fascination with fate, both blind and blessed, and its many alternatives: choice, chance, luck, faith, forgiveness, forgetting, freedom of expression, the pursuit of happiness, the balm of love, a sturdy attitude, a strong will, a bevy of good-luck charms, adherence to rituals, appeasement through prayer, trolling for miracles, a plea to others to throw a lifeline, and the generous provision of that by strangers and loved ones.
I see that these permutations of changing fate are really one all-encompassing thing: hope. Hope has always allowed for all things. Hope has always been there. My mother, who taught me the many permutations of fate, was hope’s most stubborn defender. If fate was the minute hand on a clock, mindlessly moving forward, she could find a way to force it to go back. She did it often. She, who adamantly believed I would grow up to be a doctor, would later brag to anyone who listened, “I always know she be writer one day.” And in so saying, fate was changed and hope was fulfilled. And here I am, a writer, just as she predicted.
My mother believed in God’s will for many years. It was as if she had turned on a celestial faucet and goodness kept pouring out. She said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our way, only I thought she said “fate” because she couldn’t pronounce that “th” sound in “faith.”
And later, I discovered that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you’re in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possibility, good or bad. I was just saying, If there is a choice, dear God or whatever you are, here’s where the odds should be placed.
• The Joy Luck Club
Soon after my first book was published, I found myself often confronted with the subject of my mortality. I remember being asked by a young woman what I did for a living. “I’m an author,” I said with proud new authority.
“A contemporary author?” she wanted to know.
And being newly published at the time, I had to think for a moment before I realized that if I were not contemporary I would be the alternative, which is, of course, dead.
Since then I have preferred to call myself a writer. A writer writes—she writes in the present progressive tense. Whereas an author, unless she is clearly said to be “contemporary,” is in the past tense, someone who once wrote, someone who no longer has to sharpen her pencil, so to speak. To me, the word author is as chilling as rigor mortis, and I shudder when I hear myself introduced as such when I lecture at universities. This is probably due to the fact that when I was an English major at a university, all the authors I read were, sad to say, not contemporary.
What compels ardent readers of my work to ask me questions concerning my time-limited authorhood? In lecture halls and on live radio shows, I have been stunned by questions as deadly as these: “What would you like written on your tombstone?” “Which book would you like people to remember you by?” “Does it make you feel honored that your books probably will be in circulation at the library long after you’re gone?”
I don’t find those questions nearly as appalling as this one: “Are you loaded?” which is what a nine-year-old girl in Nashville once asked me at a book signing. I wondered whether the child might have just come from a school program on crime prevention or substance abuse and was now worried that all adults carried loaded weapons or were loaded on drugs. I said to her gently, “What kind of loaded are you worried about?”
“You know,” the girl snapped, “loaded like filthy rich.” I glanced over to her mother, expecting that she would reprimand her daughter. And the mother looked right at me and said, “Well, are you?”
I’ve grown accustomed to public scrutiny. Yet nothing prepared me for what I consider the ultimate reminder of an author’s mortality. It happened when I was at yet another bookstore, about to give yet another reading. I was waiting in the wings, as the store manager delivered a long introduction on my credentials as an author. Glancing to my side, I saw a wire book rack crammed with cheap and familiar booklets. They were CliffsNotes, self-proclaimed as “your key to the classics.”
As we all know, CliffsNotes have served as the midnight salvation of many a literature student, and if the sad truth be known, this former honors English major used them to write incisive papers on—dare I say it?—Ulysses, Lord Jim, and Hamlet.
Imagine: There I was, in a bookstore, recalling these past sins, about to read from my own published work. I gave a silent apology to my fellow authors Jim Joyce, Joe Conrad, and Bill Shakespeare, may they rest in peace. And then my eyes landed on another familiar title: The Joy Luck Club. I stared at those CliffsNotes, thinking to myself, But I’m not dead yet.
I flipped through the pages and found an obituary-like biography of the author, me, Amy Tan. I was shocked to learn that I once had carried on “a relationship with an older German man, who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime.”
Could this possibly be describing my Franz? True, he was older than I was, twenty-two years to my sixteen when we met. And yes, he was friends with a couple of Canadian hippies who sold hashish, but I don’t remember them being that organized about it. Whatever the case, does my personal history of having once dated a loser constitute the sort of information needed by “serious students,” as Cliff refers to them? Will this make them “secure in the knowledge that they have a basic understanding of the work”?
In page after chilling page, I saw that my book had been hacked apart, autopsied, and permanently embalmed into chapter-by-chapter blow-by-blows: plot summaries, genealogy charts, and—ai-ya!—even Chinese horoscopes. Further in, I was impressed to learn of all the clever nuances I’d apparently embedded into the phrase “invisible strength,” which is what a mother in the book taught her chess-playing daughter, Waverly. According to Cliff, I meant for “invisible strength” to refer to the “human will,” as well as to represent “female power” and “the power of foreigners.” It was amazing what I had accomplished.
The truth is, I borrowed that phrase from my mother, who used to say something like it to me whenever I was whining out loud. She’d say, “Fang pi bu-cho, cho pi bu-fang,” which is commonly uttered by Chinese parents, and which translates approximately to: “There’s more power in silence.”
What my mother intended that I understand, however, was precisely this: “No one wants to hear you make a big stink over nothing, so shut up.” The strict linguist might want to note that the literal translation of that Chinese phrase runs along these noble lines: “Loud farts don’t smell, the really smelly ones are deadly silent.”
Anyway, that’s the sort of literary symbolism I use with phrases like “invisible strength”—not the sort of analysis you find in CliffsNotes, I might add.
At the end of the booklet was a list of questions. I read one: “Which daughter in the book is most like Amy Tan? Why?” What luck. This very question was often asked of me in interviews, and I had never known what to say. Here in my quaking hands, just one page turn away, was the definitive answer. But one page later, I discovered these were just discussion questions, no answers were given, and thus I was left to ponder my existential angst in the usual fashion.
In spite of my initial shock, I admit that I am perversely honored to be in CliffsNotes. Look at me: I’m sitting in the $4.95 bookstore bleachers along with Shakespeare, Conrad, and Joyce. Now, I’m not saying that I’ve reached their same literary status. I acknowledge there is a fundamental difference that separates us. I am a contemporary author and they are not. And since I’m not dead yet, I can talk back.
One of the problems of being a contemporary author is that you are confronted with frequent opportunities to see what people have written about you in the way of reviews, profiles, or student theses. It’s all rather appalling. Good, bad, or ugly, there before your very eyes is an analysis of you, your intentions, and the deeper, more subterranean meanings of your books—say, the dichotomy between two cultures and two generations, or the sociopolitical concerns of immigration and assimilation—the subject matter that makes you sound high-minded when, really, your reasons for writing were more haphazard and personal.
The truth is, when I write, I begin with a simple question: How do things happen? Early in life, what I thought about that affected what I should hope. And in my family, there were two pillars of beliefs: Christian faith on my father’s side, Chinese fate on my mother’s. Picture these two ideologies as you might the goalposts of a soccer field, faith at one end, fate at the other, and me running between them trying to duck whatever dangerous missile had been launched in the air.
My father’s faith had been nurtured by his family. He was born in 1913, the oldest of twelve children, to a mother who was a Chinese traditional healer and a father who was a Presbyterian minister. My grandfather Hugh Tan had been converted by missionaries in Canton and educated in their English-speaking schools. His education was so thoroughly Western that he could read and write English before he could his native tongue of Cantonese. He wrote me a letter once, shortly before he died of a stroke in Shanghai. His English was impeccable, and he prefaced his remarks with Christian feeling: “We thank the good Lord we are still in good health.”
The Christian influence ran so deep and strong in the Tan family that all twelve children became evangelists of one sort or another. My father was a latecomer to the ministry, but at the age of thirty-four, he suffered a crisis of morals. A few years earlier, he had fallen in love with a beautiful woman who was unhappily married and had three young children. They started an affair, which led to the woman’s being thrown in jail for adultery. Shortly afterward, my father left China for the United States, where he had been offered a scholarship to study at MIT.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, he lived at a YMCA and joined the First Chinese Baptist Church on Waverly Street. At night, he wrote in a black leather diary, and sometimes he pondered his sins and weaknesses. He and the woman had committed adultery. Now the woman was being punished in jail, while he was in San Francisco taking square-dancing lessons. Oh, the terrible inequity of it all. He berated himself until God answered with an epiphany that he should devote himself to saving others. He gave up his scholarship to MIT, and joined the ministry by enrolling in the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School.
For the rest of his life, my father would place his faith in God to provide the right answers. His faith was absolute. Among most people I know, a bit of wiggle room is expected in how your prayers might be answered. You might pray, for instance, for the love of your life, and God will land you a volunteer position at the local animal shelter, where saving animals becomes the love of your life. God, like your parents, Santa Claus, and perhaps your psychiatrist or editor, knows best how to funnel your desires into more likely and beneficial outcomes.
But my father’s faith, as I said, was absolute. Through God’s prayer he could be granted exactly what he wanted. He prayed that his sweetheart be freed, and sure enough, she was released from prison. Then she cabled my father and asked whether he wanted her to come to America. Shanghai would soon be taken over by the Communists, and his answer had to be now or never.
According to family lore, he immediately cabled her back, saying, “Yes, come!” Yet I imagine he must have taken a few minutes or even hours to weigh his obligation to her and his future obligations to the ministry. Could he marry the woman with whom he had committed adultery? Could he, a moral example to his flock, bear to be reminded of their sin for the rest of his life? And what would his parishioners think if his wife was a divorced woman? And how could she, his pampered beloved, who was accustomed to servants, to a sable coat, to smoking cigarettes, take on the austere existence of a poor minister’s wife? I imagine him praying for God to “shine Your answer upon my face.”
He may have turned to God also for guidance on how to break the news of his impending marriage to the young women friends he escorted to church picnics and on private outings. Lucky for me, he documented those friendships well. He was an amateur photographer who prized his Rollei and spent hours in the darkroom. He liked to pose his subjects, telling them to lean against a wall and tilt their head up toward the sunlight, to drape an arm over a wooden rail and cross their ankles and point their toes—the same directions he would give me when I was a child. The photos were meticulously pasted into an album, which I would later peruse. Some of the pages, however, had no photos inserted in the black corner tabs. The photos had been removed and discreetly placed in a shoe box, which I also found—such as the close-up of a young woman lying in the grass, another one artfully running her fingers along her feet, encased in small embroidered shoes. There was nothing lewd about these poses, nothing to suggest that this outing was more than a simple photography shoot. Yet the expression in their eyes is pure adoration. I sense them holding their breath in anticipation as my father looks at them through the viewfinder.
What do they see? He is handsome, a snazzy dresser. He knows exactly what words to say to put them at ease. He is more than your basic nice guy. Despite the fact that he is an impoverished student at the divinity school, he is a good catch: a superb dancer, a witty conversationalist, a man given to romantic gestures and eternal pledges, plus he is about to become a minister, a man who will be certifiably of the highest morals, greatly respected, a leader. In the summer of 1949, when the minister of his church announced to the congregation that John Tan’s bride-to-be was coming from China, several young women gasped and fled the church hall in tears.
From time to time, I have wondered how I might have turned out had my father married one of these other women. They were single, had unencumbered pasts—no sociopathic husbands or wailing abandoned daughters in the background. They were also college-educated and spoke English as well as any other American. I must have met them among the various aunties who attended the same church for more than fifty years: accomplished, kind, levelheaded women now in their seventies and eighties.
My father sent the cable saying, “Yes, come!” to the woman who would be my mother, the Shanghai divorcee who had just been released from prison. And that was how my mother came to the United States and married my father. It was God’s will and some other woman’s bad luck.
According to my mother, though, God had less to do with it than fate. Consider how she and my father met, she would remind me. It was around 1941, during the war. She was on a boat, making her way to the city where her husband, a Kuomintang army pilot, was based. My father and his brother were on that same boat. She and my father chatted in a friendly way. They were attracted to each other, although they did not acknowledge this. The boat docked a few days later, and they went their separate ways.
That right there could have been the end of the egg and the sperm that would have made me. Instead four years passed. The war ended. My mother by then had tried numerous times to leave her abusive husband. “That bad man” was how she always referred to him. That bad man once put a gun to her head to force her to sign fake divorce papers. She gladly did this, no gun to her head was necessary, but immediately after she signed, he raped her.
Meanwhile, my father was gadding about in some other part of China, happily single. Many a pushy Chinese mother tried to engage his interest in her daughter. One mother had three daughters, all of them beautiful, talented, and photogenic. I saw the pictures. Because of his excellent language skills in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, my father was able to work for the U.S. Information Service. He wore a U.S. Army uniform and visited local newspaper stalls and bookshops, gathering any magazines or reports that made mention of the United States, good or bad. One of my uncles told me that my father was recruited by the United States to be a spy. He also said my father used to smoke and drink and was quite the playboy in China. My mother laughed off those assertions. (To this day I wonder who was right. What about the visa to the United States that I found among my father’s belongings? It said he was already married. Did he have another wife? Will I one day receive a letter announcing: “Surprise! I am your long-lost sister. Your other seven sisters and I arrive tomorrow and will stay at your house for a month or two, unless you would like us to visit longer…”)
But let us go back to 1945 and assume my mother’s version of the story is true. My father, now in his early thirties, is still single. He is working in Tientsin, in the north, thousands of miles from the southwestern river where he and my mother first met. My mother happens to be in Tientsin visiting her brother and sister-in-law, who are working underground for the Communists. She is going up the street the very moment my father is coming in the opposite direction. They bump into each other. They confess it was instant love when they met four years before, because that love has only grown stronger all this time they have been missing each other.
This was not chance that they met twice, my mother would tell me whenever she recounted this story. It was fate. Love proved that it was. So that is how I was born to a mother with a convoluted secret past. I became the daughter of a woman who believed I was part of her fate.
Thanks to my mother, I was raised to have a morbid imagination. When I was a child, she often talked about death as warning, as an unavoidable matter of fact. Little Debbie’s mom down the block might say, “Honey, look both ways before crossing the street.” My mother’s version: “You don’t look, you get smash flat like sand dab.” (Sand dabs were the cheap fish we bought live in the market, distinguished in my mind by their two eyes affixed on one side of their woebegone cartoon faces.)
The warnings grew worse, depending on the danger at hand. Sex education, for example, consisted of the following advice: “Don’t ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can’t stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.”
The consequences of not heeding my mother’s advice were grave. When I was six years old, she took me to the funeral of my playmate Rachel from down the street. As I stared at Rachel’s sunken eyes, her bloodless hands crossed over a Bible, my mother whispered to me: “This what happen you don’t listen to mother.” My mother went on to say that Rachel died because she had not washed her fruit—a health precaution I ignored too often. (Years later, when pesticides on fruit were proven to cause cancer, I learned that my mother’s warning had not been off base after all.)
I remember a day not too long after Rachel died, when I was sitting on the piano bench, sulking. My mother was scolding me for not practicing enough, for being lazy. She went on and on about how much the lessons with Miss Towler cost, how Daddy had to work overtime. And for what—so she could listen to me make the same mistakes? She then posed an important question: “What you rather do: play piano and become famous, or play outside and become nobody?” Guess what I said.
She was quiet for a moment and then said, “Okay, go play.” As I happily slid off the bench, I heard her mutter that from now on I could do whatever I wanted. She would no longer tell me what to do. If I didn’t want to play the piano, fine. “Forever no more obey,” she said. “Don’t matter. Soon, maybe tomorrow, next day, I dead anyway.”
By then, I knew what dead meant, or at least what it looked like. But I didn’t yet know that my mother’s mother had killed herself in 1925. I didn’t know that my mother had seen this happen, when she was nine years old, that thereafter she would see suicide as the answer to any kind of unhappiness, that she would routinely threaten to die, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, whenever she was displeased with me or my father or my brothers, whenever she felt slighted by her friends, whenever the milk spilled or the rice burned. I didn’t know that later her emotional terrorism would alternate between threats to kill herself or return to China and that this would lead me to think that China, like death, was an unpleasant place to go. On that day at the piano, when I was six and she first mentioned she was going to die soon, all I knew was fear.
Because of my mother’s moods, I lived in a state of high suspense. I often thought about death, about Rachel being lifeless, about my mother’s promise that soon she would be too. I also pictured in my mind the rat my father had recently shown us wide-eyed kids in the middle of the night: the rodent’s bloody body smashed in the trap, black eyes bulging. “See,” my mother had soothed, “now you no longer be scared what will eat you.” Until then, we had imagined the rat in our house resembled a cheery creature like Mickey Mouse.
Since death was on my mind a lot as a child, I naturally wondered about ghosts as well. In our house, we had two kinds. First, there was the one we could talk about in front of others; that would be the Holy Ghost. My father, after all, was an ordained Baptist minister. True, by the mid-1950s he had returned to electrical engineering so he could make a living wage, but his avocation was still the ministry, and he encouraged daily devotion in the family. We children were taught to believe the Holy Ghost sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food. We laid out chopsticks and a bowl for our unseen guest at every meal.
The second kind of ghost belonged to my mother. These ghosts were Chinese. We were not supposed to talk about them, because they were bad, of a different religion, and were specifically banned by the laws of the Holy Ghost. Yet they were there. I could sense them. My mother told me I could. One time when I was about four, I remember, she ordered me to go to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face. Guests had arrived and I didn’t want to go to bed, so I said, “I can’t go in there.”
Why, my mother demanded to know.
“I’m scared,” I lied.
“There’s a ghost in there.”
Like most mothers might do, she grabbed my hand firmly and guided me to the bathroom. Most mothers would have flipped on the light switch and said, “See, there are no ghosts here—now brush your teeth.” My mother stood at the doorway and said in a voice tinged with hope and excitement: “Where are they? Show me.”
Much to my distress, for the rest of her life she continued to believe I had a talent for seeing ghosts. When I was older, she recalled this same bathroom incident: “I never teach you this word ‘ghost.’ So must be true. You see ghost!” It didn’t matter that I insisted I could not see or hear or feel anything. She thought it admirable that I was lying to protect my invisible friends.
She had other proof that the ghosts came to me: the fact that I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know. I don’t remember what I said or did to her to make her think this. Perhaps it was the way I said a certain name. Or maybe it was my likes and dislikes of a certain dish she cooked. My mannerisms, my preferences, my tone of voice were exactly that of someone else—that person being dead, and having died in mysterious circumstances. My mother believed in reincarnation and she believed I was someone from her past, a woman she had obviously wronged. Why else had I come back as her daughter to torment her so?
I did not want to think of myself as a dead person. But I was also afraid to contradict my mother, for that would send her tumbling into one of her pitch-black moods, those times when she threatened to kill herself. I had already seen her try—as when she opened the car door while we were zooming down the freeway and my father had to yank her back. I was afraid that if my mother died, I would then see a real ghost.
These were matters I could not talk about with my father. I adored him, and he adored me, but he also both adored and feared my mother. He was much more easygoing than she, and not easily riled. He told multilingual jokes and roused friends into singing after dinner. He read bedtime stories to me and my brothers with great expression. He did the Reader’s Digest “Word Power” quiz with me, making it seem the most fun a body could have. He read his sermons to me so I could serve as his best critic. He showed me his engineering homework when he was studying for his master’s, as though I could instantly absorb the intricacies of symbols and formulas. He was hardworking and loved his work, which went on seven days a week. He was an engineer, a volunteer minister, a graduate student, and the entrepreneur of an electronics business he conducted in our family room, winding electromagnetic transformers the size of LifeSavers. Only twice that I recall did he take time off, and then for only a few days, to go with us to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, and he still managed to perform a wedding along the way and visit an electronics firm that might be interested in buying the transformers he built in his “spare” time.
As smart and strong as he was, he always gave in to my mother’s demands. That meant that every six to twelve months we had to move to another house. Whenever my mother became unhappy, she wanted to move. And once she locked on to an idea, she could not let it go, until her unhappiness permeated the entire house and she made us ill with her nonstop complaints.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had attended eleven schools. I had learned to lose friends, to remain the loner until I finally found new ones. Each time I started at a school, I had to sit back quietly for the first month or so and observe who was popular, who was not, who was smart, who was the smartass. I had to show my new teachers that I was a good student, that I knew how to draw realistically. But I also knew not to do anything to stand out in any other way, lest I join the ranks of the pariahs. I understood that I had to be a chameleon to survive, that I should fit in quietly, and watch.
In hindsight, I see that this was excellent training for a budding writer. It sharpened my skills of observation. It deepened my sense of alienation, which, while not a prerequisite for a writer, is certainly useful as an impetus for writing. Many of the great novels of our time are based on alienated narrators. And yet I hated those feelings of loneliness. I cried every time my father announced that we were moving. He may have prayed to God for general direction in his life, but he received the specifics from my mother to move to Oakland, Hayward, Santa Rosa, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale.
Throughout my father’s life, he remained devoted to his beliefs in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He practiced what he preached. He tithed ten percent. He didn’t smoke or drink or say “gee,” “gosh,” or “golly.” He prayed when he became impatient or lost his temper. He practiced charity to others. He made me feel good for giving away my best dolls to my poor cousins in Taiwan, the same cousins who today are millionaires. My father put his life in God’s hands, and he encouraged us, his children, to believe that if we had absolute faith, God would take care of the rest. Miracles would happen.
About ten years ago, I found some of my father’s diaries. In one of his last entries, written at the end of May 1967, he stated that he still firmly believed that God would grant him a miracle and save his sixteen-year-old son from dying of a brain tumor. He had absolute faith. By my father’s own handwritten definition: “Faith is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us even though we still cannot see it ahead of us.”
He wrote this less than two months before my brother Peter died, and shortly after, he stopped writing. But this was due to loss of ability rather than loss of faith. By then, my father couldn’t hold a pen well enough to comment on the strange coincidence that he too, the father of the son who had become a ghost, had been stricken with a brain tumor.
These days I realize that faith and fate have similar effects on the believer. They suggest that a higher power knows the next move and that we are at the mercy of that force. They differ, among other things, in how you try to cull beneficence and what you do to avoid disaster. Come to think of it, those very notions are the plotlines of many novels.
Throughout their marriage, my mother, the minister’s wife, publicly avowed her trust in God. The other day I came upon a letter she wrote to a family friend in 1967, in which she commented about my father’s faith during his illness: “Most of the time, he spent in search of God, trusting deeply that God would take care of him. We were both easily moved to tears, for we felt deeply and were warmly touched by the warmth of the love that so many friends freely gave to us. We know from this that it is a blessing that is overflowing from our Lord.”
The words are actually not my mother’s writing. They are mine, written as a fifteen-year-old girl taking dictation, rendered with almost as much repetition as my mother provided to me, her reluctant scribe. Our sessions would go something like this: “Amy-ah, put this down. Say you daddy all the time, searching searching searching God, why this happen? Amy-ah, you searching too? Why this brain tumor second time? No, don’t write this down, I just asking you. Why so many bad things happen? …What you mean, don’t know? You don’t think! You don’t care! And why you don’t cry? You daddy, me, we cry so much. But you—look you face—no feeling! What’s wrong with you, you don’t cry? And why you make you hair that way? You look like Japanese girl. Ugly …Okay, put this down …Friends they so good to us. You daddy and I, we cry, tears so much overflowing, for sadness, for thanks so much.”
It was torture to write those letters. I had to compose the thank-you notes to friends for coming to the hospital, the cards acknowledging them for coming first to my brother’s funeral and then to my father’s. Extra-long letters went to those who sent memorial donations.
After my father died, my mother no longer prayed to God. This was strange to me at first, because we had once been a family who prayed at every meal, before every important occasion. Now when the meal was served, we ate in silence. Or rather, it was silence if we were lucky. At times, my mother would go into obsessive monologues about our tragedies, about the curse, punctuating with her laments every bite we took: “Why two brains tumors? Why same family? Why same time? Who else die? If someone next, let be me.” (Little did my mother know then that she may have already had a brain tumor. We learned of it in 1993 after she fell and suffered a suspected concussion. An MRI showed that she had a meningioma, a benign tumor, which, the neurologist said, had been growing probably for twenty-five years, meaning since 1968 or so, around when my brother and father had died of their brain tumors.)
To counter the curse, my mother began to call openly on the ghosts of her past. She prayed to a painting of her mother. She hired a geomancer to inspect the spiritual architecture, the feng shui, of our suburban tract house. What forces were aligned against us? She sought faith healers who taught her to speak in tongues, a gibberish that convinced me she was insane. She blamed herself for not moving from our current house, the one we had lived in longest, two years. In that neighborhood, she now realized, nine bad things had already happened. She counted them out on her fingers: The man down the street had had a heart attack. This one lost his job. That one was getting divorced. Every day, my mother would count these disasters out, asking herself uselessly why she had not seen them clearly before.
When my father died, more phantoms sprang from my mother’s past: ideas about karmic retribution, reincarnation, and the presence of ghosts as signaled by our barking dog, a misplaced object, a door slamming when a certain name was spoken. My mother was sure that what was uncertain in the real world could be accounted for in the supernatural one. There the possibilities of what happened and why were boundless. And because my mother still believed I was sensitive to the other world, she often asked me to use a Ouija board to communicate with the ghosts of my father, my brother, and sometimes her mother, my grandmother.
I had never met my grandmother. In 1925 she swallowed a large amount of raw opium, and my mother, then a girl of nine, watched her die. Yet in another sense I saw my grandmother every day. She was in our living room, in the form of an oil portrait my mother had commissioned, based on a sepia-toned photograph. In this portrait, my grandmother’s face was larger than life. She was a beautiful young woman in her thirties with straight-cut bangs and a neat bun. Her dress was blue with a high collar. Her expression was enigmatic, her gaze ethereal, eyes focused on a spot beyond the artist, out into the future. The painting hung near the piano, where I practiced every day for one hour, with my grandmother peering over my shoulder.
This was the face I also saw in my mind as I sat before the Ouija board. My fingers would be poised on the planchette, my tearful mother opposite me. She was always hoping for one last good-bye, one more message of love. “Do you still love me? Do you miss me?” It was heart-wrenching even to me, the heartless teenager who would not permit herself to show any kind of emotion. I would give the answers my mother hoped for: Yes. Yes.
Pragmatic woman that my mother was, she would eventually seek advice about daily living. For some reason, she thought the ghosts had as much interest as she did in the Dow Jones. “IBM or U.S. Steel?” she would say, hoping for insider-trading tips of the best kind. And I, the supposed purveyor of these spiritual answers from Wall Street ghosts, pushed the planchette to whatever came to mind just to get the ordeal over with. Buy. Sell. Yes. No. Up. Down. Upon reflection now, I see that my spurious advice was probably no worse than that of most stockbrokers. My mother did amazingly well in building up her modest portfolio.
She turned to the ghosts for child-rearing advice too: “Amy treat me so bad,” she once said as I prepared to divine the answer. “What I should do—send her Taiwan, school for bad girls?” The planchette deftly scooted to the correct answer: No.
Another time my mother wanted to know whether she should open a Chinese restaurant. Everyone loved her potsticker dumplings, and she dreamt she could make a million selling them. I pictured myself washing heaps of greasy bowls and pans with burnt dough stuck to the bottom. Bad idea, came the Ouija’s answer. Lose money.
In my memory, which I admit can be subjectively poor and riddled with a wild imagination, I recall that our sessions with the Ouija board were often accompanied by eerie signs that ghosts were indeed in the room. It would suddenly become not just cold but windy. A flower would snap from its stem as if in answer to an important question. A sound would be heard in the distance—first by my mother, then by me—seemingly the voice of a crying woman. And once the board rose in the air several inches, my fingers still attached to it, then crashed to the floor. That is what I remember, although logic tells me it was the result of either hysteria or peanut butter stuck to my fingertips.
Besides using the Ouija board, my mother continued to find advice in other, less traditional places. One time she looked under the kitchen sink, where she stored cleaning products. She was cleaning the kitchen after dinner, and my little brother and I were watching TV nearby. I saw her pick up a can of Old Dutch cleanser and stare at it as if it possessed the lucidity of a crystal ball. “Holland,” she announced to us. “Holland is clean. We moving to Holland.”
A few months later, my mother, my brother, and I boarded the SS Rotterdam. Our mother had sold the ranch duplex, the maple colonial furniture, and the Plymouth, and otherwise reduced our worldly possessions to the contents of three new Samsonite suitcases and a huge duffel bag. Once in Holland, my brother and I realized our mother had absolutely no plan. We stayed in The Hague, then Amsterdam, then Utrecht. In each city, my mother used idiosyncratic sign language to inquire after the nearest Chinese restaurant. We would find these miserable way stations, and there she would eat with the hunger of the starved, Chinese food tinged with Indonesian ingredients and prepared for a Dutch palate. Awful, my mother would pronounce, and drink copious amounts of tea to wash away the bad taste. (This would be her pattern in every city, town, and hamlet we visited in Europe over the next year—this hopeful search for Chinese food, her disappointment in every dish she tasted.)
We located an international school in a small town called Werkhoven, as well as lodging in a woman’s house. This landlady did not allow us to keep our lights on beyond nine at night, making it difficult for my brother and me to finish our homework. Equally bad, her housekeeping skills did not satisfy my mother’s notions of Old Dutch cleanliness.
After two weeks in Holland, we took a train to Germany and landed in Karlsruhe, where we lived as guests of a U.S. Army chaplain, an old friend of my father’s. We attended an American school, where students thought it a fun prank to aim lit Bunsen burners at one another. This, I told my mother, was not the kind of education she had had in mind when she had envisioned us studying abroad. With that, she bought a Volkswagen Beetle and a handbook of English-speaking schools, and off we went, heading south, letting ourselves be guided purely by the twists and turns of European highways.
By such maps of fate, we wound up in Montreux, Switzerland, at the shores of Lake Geneva. In this resort town, my mother quickly found our new home, a fully furnished chalet, complete with cuckoo clock and feather-tick beds, renting for the equivalent of one hundred U.S. dollars a month. The largest room served as living room, dining room, and my brother’s bedroom, and its entire length was lined with mullioned windows showcasing a spectacular view of the lake and the Alps. Every day, I would stare at this amazing scenery and wonder how I came to be so lucky. I would then remember that my father and older brother were dead, and that was the reason I was here.
Half a mile from our chalet, down a cobblestone path, lay an international school. It was within eyesight of Château de Chillon, where the dashing Lord Byron was said to have chained himself to write his poetry in religious agony. By happy chance, there were two openings for day students. My mother weighed the benefits of a four-to-one pupil–teacher ratio, the mandatory ski outings as physical education, the private piano lessons and one-to-one drawing classes, the Spanish teacher from Spain, the French teacher from France, and English teachers from England, and decided it was all worth the extravagant cost of six hundred dollars per year.
This marvelous school was attended by the sons and daughters of ambassadors and company presidents, rich kids the likes of whom I had never known. One girl wore a lynx coat atop a bikini to class, much to the amusement of the young male teachers. There were two Persian kids in the lower grades, a six-year-old boy and his nine-year-old sister, who were followed everywhere by bodyguards. The girl who became my closest friend had also recently lost her father, and she had a clothing allowance of a thousand dollars a month—this was in 1968, mind you—yet she was forever broke and showed no shame in bumming cigarettes and a few francs off me on a regular basis.
The male teachers were handsome, not that much older than the junior and senior students. I promptly fell in love with one of them. I was by then a somewhat pudgy girl, usually blind because I would not wear my glasses. I had thick glossy hair that fell to my waist, which complemented my flower-power mini-shimmy. Whenever I had to go to the piano practice room, I would sit on the window ledge there and smoke cigarettes, watching the swans and geese at the lake, thinking my cynical and silly thoughts, most of which concerned ways to sneak off to meet my boyfriend. In America, I had been a dateless dork, the sisterly friend to boys I had crushes on. In Switzerland, I was an exotique, sought after by the regular customers in the café, the young drifter from Italy, the factory worker from Spain, the radicals from Germany. At last, I was a popular sex object. Life had begun! This, sad to say, was the quality of my thoughts.
My boyfriend was the “older man,” as CliffsNotes described him. Franz was, in fact, the first boy who ever said he loved me. He wrote me a twenty-four-page love letter, all in German, of which I was able to translate the first line: “My darling Angel, who dims the heavens above me …” Who wouldn’t fall for that? He was a frizzy-haired hippie whose father had been a Nazi officer. Franz had deserted the German army and fancied himself a revolutionary along the lines of Che Guevara. He smoked Gauloises incessantly, and he despised the small-mindedness of people who thought one had to work to have a worthy occupation. He, in contrast, occupied his time listening to The Rolling Stones. He had plenty of friends, whom he met at the café, where they played foosball, a form of table soccer operated by moving two sets of handles with rapid adjustments and twists of the wrist. Since Franz played for hours every day, he was spectacularly good, rather like an international soccer champion, had anyone been wise enough to honor people who play table soccer in cafés. To a teenage girl in the late 1960s, nothing could be more romantic than the combination of attributes that Franz possessed.
I found out later that my Liebling had deserted the German army all right, but from its mental hospital. Oh, well. Mental illness was romantic and even revolutionary in its way.
My mother was, shall we say, less open-minded. It didn’t help matters that Franz once flipped her off, which she misinterpreted as his showing his fist in a threat to beat her up. I thought about telling her what the gesture really meant, then deemed it better that she think he was merely violent rather than disrespectful.
For the months Franz and I were together, ours was a romance of stolen kisses—and kisses only, I might add, although my mother was certain he had defiled me. She wore my ear down, telling me how lazy he was, that his breath stank, that he had no future. My little brother chimed in to say that he looked like Larry of the Three Stooges. My mother took to yelling at me, locking me in the bedroom, and slapping me. She grew frantic, then hysterical, and talked of killing herself so she would not have to see me destroy my life.
One day, sick of my mother’s tirades, I decided I should break up with Franz. Or was it that I was weary of Franz and wanted to use my mother as my excuse? In any case, I remember that our breakup came on the night before some big examinations. Until then I had been a straight-A student. Though I was a junior, I was graduating early and applying to colleges, so these exams were very important. I was looking forward to college, for therein lay the means by which I could escape my mother. Having a ne’er-do-well boyfriend did not fit into my new life as a serious college student. That was not what I told Franz, of course. I blamed my mother for the breakup.
That night, after I made my announcement, Franz threw himself on the train tracks and vowed he would let the next train from Lausanne squish him to pieces if I did not immediately change my mind, hop aboard the next train to Austria with him, and elope. I pleaded with him for an hour and more to please not do this. Then came the warning call of the train. Whoo-whoo! Which would it be—marry him or bury him?
A minute later, after a tearful embrace, we both hurried to the station. While waiting for the train to Vienna, I had a chance to ask myself whether I really wanted to be married to a man whose sole occupation was being the unofficial international champion of foosball. I found a pay phone and called my mother. I did what was only considerate, and let her know I wouldn’t be home for breakfast. Why? Oh, didn’t I tell you? Franz and I are at the train station, about to elope. Before the train took off, bearing me to a fate of certain marital unhappiness, my mother and the police arrived. And so I did not get married, but because of sheer mental exhaustion from a sleepless night of high drama, I flunked my exams.
After this escapade, my mother decided enough was enough. She hired a private detective, who was also the town mayor. Unbeknownst to me, my mother confiscated my diary, which I had written in Spanish, and the detective-mayor had it translated into French. The unintended confession provided in novelistic detail all the evidence the detective needed for the biggest drug bust in Montreux’s history.
This is not to say it was that big—only a small stash of psychedelic mushrooms was found, in a Volkswagen van belonging to some Canadian hippies. The largest part of the illegal goods, four kilos of Moroccan hashish, had already been tossed into Lake Geneva, where, I was told, it was joyfully devoured by the resident geese, which later that day were seen to be flying high.
Franz and his friends were jailed, then deported. Because of my young age, I was not, but I had to appear before a magistrate in Bern and promise I would not do anything bad ever again in my entire life. I would not smoke, not even one cigarette. I would always obey my mother, give her not even one word of defiance.
A few months later I graduated from high school, in my junior year. I returned to the States and in the fall started my freshman year in college as an American Baptist Scholar, chosen for my high morals.
That was my childhood. Told as is, it would not make for good fiction. It is too full of coincidences, too full of melodrama, veering toward the implausible in both tragedy and comedy. But my life is, I believe, excellent fodder for fiction. Memory feeds imagination, and my imagination is glutted with a Thanksgiving of nightmares.
Looking back, I’m convinced it was also my mother who affected my imagination to such a degree that I now hear and see things that others do not. I see connections in coincidences, ironies in lies, and truths in contradictions, all sorts of things that others do not.
But I also see and hear—how shall I say it?—the inexplicable: noisy apparitions, mysterious electrical phenomena, prophetic dreams, bodiless laughter, and the abrupt disappearance of objects more significant than the mates to socks. How would you explain it if you heard the Jeopardy! tune being whistled behind your back when you were alone at home; if paper plates at a funeral reception wafted up and down whenever the name of the deceased was mentioned; if your television set turned on by itself in the middle of the night, tuned to a religious channel; if your phone disconnected, but only when you were talking to your mother?
I’ve had discussions with my husband about this. I told him about hearing footsteps running up and down the stairs, doors slamming, and what resembled the raucous pounding of a couple taking lambada lessons in our bedroom. My husband said our house was old, it had funny acoustics. I brought up the fact that electrical equipment often shorted when I talked about my grandmother. I reminded him that some of these mysteries had followed me across the continent, to Denver, Austin, Atlanta, and New York, and even across the ocean, to London, Amsterdam, Milan, and Munich, where tape recorders and video equipment had malfunctioned, TV and radio stations had gone off the air—all while I was being interviewed. To all that, my husband shrugged. (What do you expect from a man who is a tax attorney? It’s his job to write things off.)
My mother, on the other hand, assured me that I was not crazy, that it was not my imagination or bad structural engineering. There were ghosts in my house, she said, in fact one that lived in the computer. Her proof was the first book I wrote, TheJoy Luck Club. Contrary to what CliffsNotes and reviewers had to say, she did not believe that I wove “intimate knowledge of [my] culture into a Chinese puzzle box.” No such thing. The way she saw it, in matters Chinese, I was an idiot. Only after I was published did my status rise to that of idiot savant.
This is how and why her opinion changed: While I was writing The Joy Luck Club, I asked her to tell me more about her parents, both of whom had died when she was a child. My mother revealed that my widowed grandmother had remarried—a disgraceful thing to do, my mother said, but at least she became the first wife to a rich man. Later my grandmother gave birth to a son; two months after that, she accidentally died, from eating opium while having too much of a good time.
When I wrote the story “Magpies,” I changed the details a bit; the young widow is raped by a rich man and becomes his fourth wife, a lowly concubine who gives birth to the man’s first son, the result of the rape. The baby is claimed by a higher-ranking wife, and this so enrages the fourth wife about the worthlessness of her life that she dies, not accidentally while having fun, but with the vengeance of suicide.
When my mother read this story, she asked me, “How you know you grandmother really the fourth wife? How you know what really happen? Why you can write about things you don’t know?” And then she remembered: I had always been able to talk to ghosts.
As a result of the truth of this fiction, my mother came to believe that my dead grandmother had served as my ghostwriter. Sometimes she would greet my computer as if her mother were listening. “Hey, it’s me,” she’d call in Chinese. “Are you there? Do you miss me?” And at times I too have thought that my computer was equipped with a grandmotherboard of sorts, that my keyboard was a high-tech Ouija board, that I was simply downloading stories from the Nirvana Wide Web. Because I too have wondered why I can write about what I don’t know.
Yet I do know things. I have always known them, I realize. I’ve known them from childhood, perhaps from listening to my mother and my aunties gossip about their secrets as they shelled the fava beans and pummeled the dumpling dough at the kitchen table. They spoke in Shanghainese, a language I now, as an adult, cannot speak. I must have intuitively understood it as a child. I must have paid close attention when their voices lowered and the rush of shameful words streamed out. How else is it that I know their secrets?
Or is it that I’ve known things because of all those suicidal threats my mother made when I was a child? I paid attention to her laments, what she said she wanted to forget. I’ve known things because we had to move so often, and I had a mother who believed happiness was a place she had never been. I’ve known things from listening to her talk about dangers of every form, unwanted babies, a man who will kiss you and ruin your life. She helped me imagine fully the unhappy consequences in all their gory details—what can happen if you don’t have a mother to listen to.
Today my mother is gone, but I still know certain things. They are in my bones.
There is a morbid fantasy I play with myself from time to time. I sit at my desk, trying to write a story. How do things happen?
And then I consider that I may not be who I think I am. I am not this person Amy Tan in CliffsNotes. The sad truth is, my mother’s gruesome worries were fulfilled when I was six or so, when I ran into the street and was smashed flat or when I ate unwashed fruit, I forget which, but the result was that I died or fell into a coma—it’s hard to say which, and which is worse. Whatever the case, this is the state I have been in since, this cocoon of a world where I dream that anything can happen. In this altered reality, I have dreamt everything that I think has happened to me from age six to the present. And now I am only dreaming that I am a writer.
To convince myself that this is not true, that I truly am alive, I do what writers do to make the fiction come true. I begin to recount all that has happened in my life, the smallest details, as if this memory of the order of my life will prove it is a real life, a life so fraught with complications and the mundane that it could not be anything but real.
I see my conception, my father’s and mother’s DNA combining into a hybrid form of fate and faith held together by a suspension of disbelief. I picture this newly created genetic code as mah jong tiles lined up one after another, curving this way and that, standing precariously in place, always on the verge of falling over to reveal the whiplike pattern of a dragon’s tail. That is what I was born, a water dragon, to my mother, a fire dragon. Is this a coincidence, or is this fate?
I let the pieces fall. I look back at the pattern that was created, the whole concatenation of events. And then I begin to sort the pieces according to my own design, asking myself: How are they connected? Which pieces should I choose? Which ones should I discard? How does each piece lead to another, from a street in Tientsin, China, to this moment in San Francisco, where I am sitting at my wooden desk, in a wood-lined room, in a wood-shingled house, wondering how things came to be?
How is it that I am so lucky to be a writer? Is it fate? Is it a miracle? Was it by choice? Is it only my imagination? Yes, yes, yes, yes. It is all those things. All things are possible.
One August afternoon, soon after we met on a blind date, we drove fifty miles to San Juan Bautista, a time-warped town with a mud-walled mission, false-front buildings, and a former dormitory for unmarried Indian women. As we wandered, we became the ghosts, he the vaquero who slept on a cot in the stable, I the Mutsun maiden who had slipped out of the dormitory window, leaving behind her button shoes and pinch-waist corset. We ran freely, stopping to kiss in cool, dark adobe corners.
At sunset, we walked toward the dance hall and saw a crowded wedding party. The mariachi band was blaring, the bride and groom were drunk with happiness, and they shouted for us to join them, pulled us in. Arms on shoulders in a chorus line, we pranced and yipped like coyotes. Later we tumbled out and lay on the grass, staring upward. Eternity, we were part of it. As if to celebrate our joy, stars streaked across the sky—“There!” “There!” “There!” it was the Perseid meteor shower, a billion-year celestial event put on annually by the universe. It was also our proof that we had lain here before, when he was the vaquero and I the Mutsun maiden, lovers who believed their passion was strong enough to survive scandal, pure enough to bind them into the next lifetime, two hundred years from now.
We are they now, in love, in awe.
This is a true story. Hours after my twenty-fourth birthday, my life began to change with strangely aligned events that today make me wonder whether they did not spring from the fictional leanings of my mind.
It was the Year of the Dragon, when my life’s tide was said by Chinese astrologers to be at its most powerful, when change was inevitable. But all this was nonsense to me, for I was an educated person, a doctoral student in linguistics at UC Berkeley.
I tell you what my major was, because it reveals, I believe, what my mental inclinations were at the time. I was in a field of heady theories, seeking random and fortuitous evidence. As linguists we could not prove much in any terribly convincing scientific way, for instance, that grammar is innate and organized in the brain. But we could convolute ad infinitum on why that was possible and then search for empirical findings that suggested the science. Our methods were descriptive, the everyday use of everyday language by everyday people, the best examples being those that made one ponder such inanities as how the p sound came to be in the word warmth and what rules led people to innovate words like hodgepodge, hocus-pocus, and hanky-panky. Intricate convolution was also how I liked to occupy my mind when it came to worries about myself and, in particular, about how I showed my ineptitude when compared with other students.
Early that year, I had been married for nearly two years. Although I knew I was with the right person, I had the usual angst of a young woman who felt she had traded her soul’s identity for a joint return. Lou and I lived in Danville, California, in a brand-new two-bedroom apartment with gold shag carpeting, a burgundy velour sofa, and a rotating variety of uncuddly pets, including a bull snake that was an escape artist and a tarantula that required a diet of live crickets.
To help us pay the rent, we had a roommate, Pete, a young man who was around our age, a bioengineering student also at Berkeley. He had pale blond hair, an amblyopic eye, and a Wisconsin accent. We had met him two years before, when we all worked at a Round Table pizza parlor in San Jose. We continued to work at Round Tables in Berkeley and Danville, where we often took the closing shift and wound up sharing conversations over after-hours pitchers of beer.
Pete liked to argue about what was impossible to know, from conspiracies to eternity. His philosophical meanderings depended on how much beer he had imbibed, and were often related to the intersection of philosophy and science—the physics of infinity, say, or the ecology of ideas. He had a particular fascination with the I Ching, that art of tossing three coins three times and divining a pattern out of heads and tails. Pete would begin with questions: What determined the pattern? Was it random? Was it a higher power? Was it mathematical? Wasn’t poker based on mathematical probability and not just luck? Did that mean randomness was actually mathematical? And if the I Ching was governed by mathematics, hey, wouldn’t that mean the I Ching was actually predictable, a prescribed answer? And if it was prescribed, did that mean that your life followed the I Ching, like some sort of equation? Or did the I Ching simply capture correctly what had already been determined as the next series of events in your life?
And so the circular discussion would go. Somewhere in this mystery, mathematics always held the answer. Don’t ask me how. I am only describing what I remember, what I never understood. We had such conversations during backpacking trips, while climbing the backcountry in Yosemite. At night, when we were not arguing over questions of eternity, we read H. P. Lovecraft tales around the campfire, shooed away marauding black bears, and identified the constellations from our sleeping bags, our chilled faces to the sky. Those are elements that strengthen any friendship, I think.
I remember enjoying many long conversations about secular transcendentalism, that motley union of the psychedelic and the physical. We had the sense that we were talking about what really mattered, the hidden universe and our souls. But perhaps that was also the atmosphere of the times, the 1970s, when all things were possible, particularly after eating brownies laced with goodies other than walnuts, when unorthodox speculation could be answered sufficiently with a reverential “Wow.”
Pete also talked a lot about his wife. She was a poet, naturally intuitive, a sexy earth-mother type. They were separated, the result of his own immaturity, he said, his predilection for recklessness and his not thinking enough about the consequences. He expressed hope that his wife might understand that he was sorry, and that they’d be together again one day. Several months after we met, while explaining how he had lost his wallet and hence his driver’s license, he told us how he had lost his wife.
They had been traveling by car through Nevada on their first trip from Wisconsin to California. A nineteen-year-old hitchhiker offered to spell them from driving, and they gladly let him take the wheel. Just outside Lovelock, while they were speeding through the pitch-black desert, a rear tire blew, and as Pete turned to tell him to let the car drift to a stop, the hitchhiker instinctively slammed on the brakes, and the car began to roll over. It all happened gently enough, Pete told us, that first roll, the kind of flip you experience in an amusement-park ride, with the car landing on its wheels, righting itself. For a moment, it appeared that they might be able to continue their journey with the only alterations a replaced tire, a slightly dented roof, and one hell of an adrenaline rush. But in the next breath, the car flipped again, this time with the vigor of increased momentum and lift, and when it turned over, it crashed down hard, on its roof, bringing Pete to guess that the car was now totaled. If they were lucky, they might get by with a few injuries, although broken bones seemed likely. And then the car sailed into its third roll, crunched down with the certitude of finality, and slid belly-up into clouds of dust and uprooted sagebrush. When all was quiet, Pete patted himself and found that he was alive and, even more miraculous, uninjured. In the next second, he felt around in the darkness and ascertained that his wife and the hitchhiker were alive as well, breathing hard and fast. But then they let out a final exhale, first the hitchhiker, then Pete’s wife, and he was alone. When the police and ambulance crew arrived and asked for his driver’s license, he realized that he had lost his wallet.
Two years after the accident, Pete reconciled with his wife in a dream. In fact there were two dreams, a week apart. In the first, which he related to Lou and me, two men, strangers to him, broke into his room, overcame him, and slowly strangled him to death. He described the sensation of absolute terror and the pain of not being able to breathe, and then a tremendous release from struggle. When it was over, he found his wife waiting for him.
Pete went on to say that the dream felt like a premonition. It was scary as hell, but he was at peace with it. His wife would be there. If anything happened to him, he said, he would like Lou and me to distribute his belongings among various friends and family: his guitar to one brother, his camera to another …
Stop, I said. Stop being ridiculous. I thought that he, like Lou and me, was nervous about the death threats the three of us had received from a gang whom we had thrown out of the pizza parlor. Two attempts on our lives had already been made, knives and clubs had been drawn, punches exchanged, and my shin nearly broken by a kick with steel-toed boots. Pete had made the mistake of winning one fistfight and breaking his opponent’s nose. The gang was now doubly committed to killing us. When we called the Danville police for help, they informed us that our personal thugs had arrest records for dozens of assaults, but there were no convictions, nor were any likely. The best way to deal with future attempts on our lives, someone told us, was to equip ourselves with guns, learn how to use them properly, and make sure that the bodies fell inside our door. Outside it was homicide, we were told, inside it was self-defense. Moving to another town was also not a bad idea.
The latter advice was ultimately what we decided to follow. A week after Pete had the disturbing dream he told us about, Lou and I helped him move to Oakland, into a studio apartment in an art deco building. We were placed on a waiting list for a one-bedroom apartment in the same building; for now we kept the apartment in Danville. Pete had few possessions: a bed, a TV set and a stereo, a small table and a chair, his guitar and camera, books, and an expensive calculator that he had purchased with my credit card. There was also a .22 automatic, which he had bought to defend himself in Danville.
Lou and I stayed at Pete’s his first night in Oakland, in a sleeping bag on the floor. I recall Pete reiterating his feeling that something bad was going to happen, that someone might break in and kill him. We assured him that there was no way the thugs would know where he had moved. Nor were they industrious enough to want to follow us. Nevertheless, Pete placed the gun between the mattress and the box spring, within easy reaching distance. We kidded him for being paranoid.
The next morning was my twenty-fourth birthday. I can admit now that I was deflated that nothing special was mentioned or offered from the start: no profusion of beautifully beribboned presents, no announcement that plans had been made for going on a lark or winding up at a banquet. But perhaps this seeming lack of preparation really meant that an even more elaborate scheme was in the works, and I would have to be patient to see what it was. Lou suggested we go for a drive, and Pete declined the invitation. He was going to unpack, settle in, and nurse a cold he had just developed. A ruse, I thought. He would be behind the scenes, getting the surprise party under way. As we left, I mentioned we might stop by later, but we would be unable to call ahead of time, since he did not yet have phone service.
As it turned out, my twenty-fourth birthday was a cobbled assortment of activities, spontaneity being the key and “Why not?” being the answer. Lou and I had an impromptu lunch at a restaurant, a drive through the country later, and then we took up an invitation from a friend in Marin County to have dinner with her parents. We spent the night in their driveway, sleeping in our Volkswagen bus. So there was no grand party. The day had been pleasant, but not as eventful as I had secretly hoped.
The next day, back at the apartment in Danville, an acquaintance called. He lived in the building Pete had moved into—we had learned of the vacancy there from him. I greeted him cheerfully.
“Oh,” he said flatly, “then you haven’t heard the news.”
“Pete’s dead. Two guys broke into his place last night and killed him.”
“That is the worst joke I’ve ever heard,” I responded angrily. But later Lou and I learned that, indeed, two men had entered through the bathroom window; according to a witness’s report, they did not resemble our thugs from Danville. These men had used Pete’s .22 to bash him over the head, then hogtied him stomach down, the rope lashed around his neck and ankles so that the soles of his feet faced the back of his head. When he could no longer hold his muscles taut, he let go and slowly strangled.
In one imagined version—I’ve played them a thousand times—the robbers stand and watch as Pete struggles to stay alive. That’s the worst. In another version, they leave him while he is still struggling. The police arrive, but seconds too late. Actually, that is the worst. They are all the worst. As to what happened after Pete was tied up, I have only these facts: The two men ran out of Pete’s studio with his gun and went to pound on the door of the apartment manager, demanding to be let in. When the manager refused, they blasted the door with bullets, then ran out of the building toward their car. A man on the sidewalk had the misfortune of being there; they shot and killed him on the spot. A newspaper story identified the man on the sidewalk as a business student from India who attended Armstrong College. I don’t remember his name, and I regret that, for no one killed in that manner should be nameless and forgotten.
I’ve often thought of that young man from India, and of his family, who must think of his death, as I do, every anniversary of that February night in 1976. “Today,” I imagine them saying, “our son would have been fifty years old. Can you imagine? That’s older than we were when he died.”
The next day, Lou and I went to the Oakland Police Department to identify Pete on behalf of his family in Wisconsin. The police showed us only photographs, but what I saw is too obscene to relay in words. Since then, whenever I read stories of wars, or earthquakes, or murders, I have imagined those who have seen what I have, the face of a loved one, not in peaceful slumber as morticians might have devised, but as it appeared at the moment of death, a body unwashed, ungroomed, not prepared, in any conceivable way, to be viewed by another human being, let alone someone who loved that person.
After collecting the Saint Christopher’s medal that Pete always wore around his neck, we drove to his apartment to assist detectives in identifying what might have been taken. I remember seeing everything as in a TV documentary filmed in close-up, with no possibility of pulling away: the door, dusted for fingerprints, and the yellow tape; the opening of the door and my recoiling at the smell. It was the pungent scent of fear, a wild-animal smell of nervous sweat, and it was as potent as if Pete and his assailants had still been in the room, the torment happening in front of me. To the right was further evidence of who had been there, the powdery impressions of fingertips and palms on the doorjamb. Littering the floor were used tissues: so the cold had not been a ruse at all. On the table were the remnants of a dinner—a can of stew (what a poor last meal!)—and a bottle of NyQuil, half empty. Had he been too lethargic to hear the robbers breaking the bathroom window? Was he slow to react? Did he think it was Lou and I who were trying to get back in, looking for a place to stay after a night of birthday-partying? Why didn’t he use his gun?
Also on the table was a letter he had written to a friend. I read the page facing up. In it, he described a dream he had had, similar to the one he had recounted the week before: He found himself enmeshed in wads of thick cotton. Soon it became as light as cotton candy, and when he broke free, he saw his wife and others, people whom he did not recognize but who seemed warmly familiar. It was a good dream, the letter said. It felt like a premonition. So that was the second dream. At last, Pete was reconciled with his wife.
When I turned to the left, I saw the rappelling ropes that had been used to strangle him, the bed with a large bloodstain from the blow to his head.
Lou and I listed what had been taken: a stereo; a small television set; a $600 Hewlett-Packard calculator, the prize of any bioengineering student; and a .22 automatic. I wondered whether a birthday present for me must also have been stolen. We were good friends, after all, and so of course he would have bought me something. But whatever it might have been, it was not there, and it pained me that I would never know.
When we returned to Danville that night, we held a wake with a small group of friends. We sat on the floor, on the gold shag carpet, and because we could not talk, we drank. I downed a lot of vodka to block out the images of death, the odor of fear. Soon I vomited, and when my mind became clearer, I heard Pete’s voice. By that I mean that it sounded as if he were speaking out loud. It was no doubt grief preying on my imagination, drunken thinking taking voice. Yet I could not help relaying aloud what I had just heard: “The names of the guys who killed him are Ronald and John.” My friends stared at me. “Pete just told me,” I said. Cracked, their looks implied. She’s really cracked.
Four days later, two men were apprehended in a robbery in Oakland. In the backseat of their car were items that had been taken from Pete’s apartment, including the calculator that he had purchased on my credit card. The serial number on the receipt matched the one on the calculator. The police told us the names of the men in their custody: Ronald and John.
Lou and I were stunned to hear the names I had blurted the night before. The police guessed that the two had targeted Pete after watching him move into the apartment; robberies often occur around the time of such transitions, they said, as criminals size up victim and possessions. Other than that, the choice of Pete as victim was random, a bit of bad luck. Both men had long arrest records, for robbery, and assault and battery, and they had a nasty penchant for tying up people and beating them. The fingerprints taken at Pete’s apartment, however, matched only one of the men arrested. Because of what I had heard or imagined Pete saying, I was certain both men had been in the room. The police were too, but for another, more earthbound reason: A neighbor had heard two men’s voices in the hall just before they fired through his door. In the end, only one of the men, John, was charged with Pete’s murder.
The police said that I would be called as a witness, because I was the owner of the credit card. They cautioned me that I would have to take the witness stand during the preliminary hearing and the trial itself, and I would be required to look at the morgue photos and once again identify the body. I was sickened even to think of the prospect.
The night before the preliminary hearing, I had a fantastical dream, the first of a series that would occur nightly until Pete’s murderer was convicted several months later. The dreams may have been delusional, the result of emotional trauma at having seen the gruesome evidence of a friend’s death. Yet even if that is the case, it does not diminish the importance of those dreams to me or what I learned and did as a consequence. While I have always been a prolific dreamer, one who remembers up to a dozen dreams a night, I have never had dreams quite like these before or since. For one thing, these dreams followed a singular convention: I was always aware that Pete was dead and that I was alive, and that where we were meeting was the consciousness called dreams. In addition, each dream consisted of lessons in the form of metaphors that were obvious in their meanings.
In the first dream, I arrived at the place where Pete was now staying. It was—as dreams go—a surreal land with glorious green mountains, flowering meadows, and canyons flowing with waterfalls. Elephants, mastodons, and people flew about, as though a circus had been cast into a gravity-free environment. Only Pete and I were on solid ground.
“Hey,” he said, “let’s go flying.”
“I’m not dead,” I reminded him. “I can’t fly.”
“Oh, right. Well, see over there, that lady at the stand? She can rent you some wings.”
He took off, and I turned toward the stand he had mentioned and duly procured a set of plastic wings for the bargain price of a quarter. I slipped them on, walked to the edge of a cliff, and took off soaring, but uncertain as to what I should do next. With the wings I was weightless and could move toward whatever I wished to see. All at once, I had a disturbing thought: How can a pair of cheap wings enable me to fly?
The next instant I was plummeting, the weight of my body pushing down, the wind pressing up, and I knew that soon I would be smashed to pieces. How could this be? Hadn’t I been flying a moment ago? In the next instant, I was aloft once more, weightless. Relieved but still puzzled, I wondered again how I could be flying with wings that cost only a quarter—and abruptly, I was falling again. But I was flying a second ago, I said to myself. And immediately, I was aloft … At the instant I realized the meaning of the dream, Pete spoke: “And now you see, it’s your belief in yourself that enables you to do what you wish.” With that, the dream ended.
The next night, a monster was set on me and I began to run. This was the boogieman I had known since childhood. I ran up a long stairwell, I ran through the dark streets. All the while, Pete was urging me to stop and turn around and look at what was chasing me.
“I can’t,” I cried. “If he touches me, I’ll die.”
“Turn around,” Pete said firmly.
Finally I did. Before me was a monster, as I had expected, and yes, he was hideous in every respect: a huge, scaly creature with a venomous look. But he was also surprised that I stood there examining him. After a few seconds he started to shrink, and then he disappeared.
“You see,” Pete said, “it’s your own fears that give them the power to chase you.”
And so the dreams went each night, a visceral truth played out to heights of drama. I learned to make money come pouring out of pay phones that had been broken and never connected me to those I was trying to reach. I learned to fly down stairs in huge leaps, rather than being paralyzed with leaden legs and attempting only one small step at a time. I discovered that if I did not like what was before me, I had only to look at my shoes, then look up and walk ahead toward a fresher, more pleasant scene. During this time, my life changed—or rather, I changed my life, in ways I would previously have thought inconceivable. For one thing, I decided to quit my doctoral program.
This drastic decision was clearly born when the idealism of my twenties collided with the shock of tragedy. A valuable life had been lost, and to make up for it, I had to find value in mine. That was the gist of the feeling. The doctorate, I decided, would be a worthless appendage. Besides, there were no jobs in linguistics, and even if there were, how was I bettering the world by teaching others to examine the intricacies of dead languages and the like?
To leave academia was a terrifying idea, however. It meant abandoning the dream my parents had nurtured in me since the age of six, that I would become a doctor of some sort. Within that doctorate were all the embellishments of my ego, my sense of worth, my place in the world, and hence all my worries as well, the fear that I would never be good enough, that I would forever be struggling to hide that I was a fraud, doomed one day to fail and reveal how inadequate I truly was. But if I left the doctoral program, what could I do instead? What could I do that was worth anything to anyone, including myself? I could see nothing.
I remembered that Pete had once suggested that I apply my linguistics knowledge toward working with disabled children. He had said this a month or so before he died. He himself had intended to make computerized equipment for people with disabilities. At the time, his suggestion held no appeal for me. I was not particularly fond of children, except as objects of research, and I knew nothing about disabilities.
But once I quit my doctoral program, I found a job listing for exactly what he had in mind: a language development specialist for a county program serving children, newborns to five years old, who had developmental disabilities. At the interview, it was as apparent to the administrator as it was to me that I was both overqualified and specifically unqualified for this job. When the interview ended and I stood to leave, I heard Pete telling me that I should simply tell this woman my motivations in applying for a job with exactly these challenges and unknowns. And out came my story of Pete’s death and my pledge to do with my life what he had intended to do with his. Ten minutes later, I was hired.
It was my job to observe the children, informally assess their communication skills, and then work with parents and teachers to devise a plan and help them carry it out.
I remember the first talk on language development I gave for the parents. I mustered all my knowledge, prepared a detailed examination of the steps and processes entailed in language acquisition, and delivered an impressive one-hour lecture to a dozen parents, many of whom had just been told their babies had Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, or some rare congenital disorder that would lead to an early death. At the end of my talk, a mother came up to me and said, “You are so smart.” I never felt more stupid. You just have to learn how to learn, I heard Pete say.
After that, I would listen to parents as they discussed their hopes for their children, and then together we would cry before we set out to find new hopes. With the kids themselves, I learned to play, to discover what made them laugh, what they could not resist watching or touching or reaching for. I found myself observing not deficits but the qualities of souls. Over the next five years, I had opportunities to work with more than a thousand families, and from them I sensed the limitlessness of hope within the limits of human beings. I learned to have compassion. It was the best training I could have had for becoming a writer.
Of course, not everything about me had changed for the better. I still worried incessantly about every detail of my life, twisting the permutations of these anxieties into knots. I remember one day, some six months after Pete died, when I was fretting over money, or rather, our profound lack of it. I was driving across the Bay Bridge in our rickety VW bus, coming home from my job, which netted me barely enough for rent, utilities, and food. Lou was in law school, and what little he earned went toward his tuition and books. But now we had a crisis: Our recently adopted cat, Sagwa, had gone into her first throes of heat the night before, and in searching for her Romeo, she jumped out of our fourth-story apartment window. Luckily, she lived, but fixing the resulting broken leg was going to cost us $383. How would we pay for it? We couldn’t save that amount in a year. Why the hell did we get the damn cat?
I heard Pete say: “Come on, it was an accident. You worry about things over which you have no control.” By then, I had heard his counseling voice many times. In the weeks right after his death, I had believed he was speaking to me across the divide. But now, with the natural waning of grief and shock, I had returned to thinking it was merely my imagination conjuring what he might have said.
“Easy for you to say,” I responded. “You’re dead. I have real bills.”
I heard him laughing. “These things happen by themselves. They’ll take care of themselves.”
I was about to banter back when I felt something slam the side of the bus, and send me swerving across a lane of traffic on the bridge. I fought to regain control, finally pulled over, and got out of the car with shaky legs. A man rushed up to me.
“Are you all right? I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened. Thank God you’re not hurt.”
We went around to the side of the VW that he had rammed. At first I could see no sign of damage, but when we bent down and looked at the panel that curved under the bus, we saw it: a long gash, barely noticeable in a vehicle riddled with dings and oxidized paint.
“Get some estimates,” the man told me. “Send them to my insurance company and they’ll pay.”
“It’s not worth it,” I said. “Even though it’s not my fault, this will be reported to my insurance company and my rates will go up.”
“I see what you mean,” he answered. “Well then, just get one estimate and send it directly to me. Here’s my card. I’m the vice-president of this corporation. I’ll send a check to you directly.”
Fair enough. I drove to the first body shop off the ramp. Ten minutes later, I heard Pete laughing as I stared at the written total for the estimate: $383.
I will relate only one more dream. It was the last.
On Lou’s birthday that year, the trial ended, with a conviction on two counts. First-degree robbery. First-degree murder. That night, I dreamt that I met Pete in a garage, a rather prosaic location for a farewell meeting. He told me this was the last dream, now that the trial was over. I protested, “These are my dreams. I get to decide when they end.” Pete ignored what I said, and went on: “You’re going to meet my friend Rose—”
“Rose!” I sneered. “Fat chance. She hates me.” When I had called her months before to tell her Pete was dead, she had been curt almost to the point of rudeness. Then again, I had been the same with the messenger who delivered the news to me.
“Rose is going to become very important to you,” Pete said. “She’s a writer, and she’ll be helpful to you when you become a writer.”
“Who said I was going to be a writer?”
“That’s all I wanted to say,” Pete told me, and then, as if going down to the corner store, he left me there.
After that, I still had dreams about him, but they were different, nothing at all like the dream-lessons. The new dreams conveyed the full horror of his death, for in them he was not dead, as I had feared, but alive, as I had hoped. Having survived near-strangling, he was brain-damaged, confused and suspicious, preferring to live as a beer-drinking recluse, unsure of who he was and uninterested in finding out.
Each year for seven years, on the anniversary of Pete’s death, I lost my voice. It must have been a psychogenic gesture for the horror I could not talk about. And yes, eventually, Rose and I did connect with each other, tentatively at first, through brief letters, and then in lengthy missives, both of us grasping to understand the transcendental experiences we have had since his death.
If you’ve followed this story so far, you have already understood that Rose is indeed a writer, and that she was the first person to encourage me to write fiction, suggesting what I might read for inspiration and to which little magazines I might send my first attempts.
Enough time has passed that I can now more reasonably assess that period after Pete died. I have considered that those dreams were the subconscious by-product of trauma and grief, or the delusional thinking that enables a person to cope with horror. The metaphors were ones I have had all along, and through the need to survive, I brought out their meanings. Whatever they sprang from, the dreams were a lot more cost-effective than psychoanalysis. As to the counseling voice of Pete, guiding me toward the job with children, that was my own, pushed by fear of failure to the point that I made myself finally hear it. The coincidence of the $383? Well, that’s odd, and hard to explain, except to say that when you are looking for coincidences, you will surely notice them. There are rational answers for everything. Sometimes I think about what they might be.
And yet no matter what these dreams and coincidences were, everything that happened during those months from my birthday to Lou’s had a wondrous effect on me, on the shape of my life. It pushed me, enlarged my outlook, and sent me searching for what I should believe in. Does it matter what the origins were?
Today I am neither a believer nor a skeptic. I am a puzzler. I still puzzle over what Pete’s story presents: what I fear, what I dream, what I believe. I ask myself: What’s real? What’s important? What do I gain in believing one reality over another? What do I lose? And if we understand the mysteries of the universe, if they end up being explained entirely by mathematics, as Pete said they could be, will they still bless us with the same amazing joy?
These are remarks I gave at the memorial of my editor, the late, great Faith Sale, who died on December 7, 1999.
The first time I talked to Faith on the phone, I was a publishing neophyte. I didn’t know what serial rights were. I thought Faith’s remark about “interest from the clubs” meant that places like Club Med might stock The Joy Luck Club in their beachfront stores. The year was 1988, and after talking about the book I was finishing and other literary concerns, I told Faith I was interested in attending a national book convention with a friend who had invited me. Faith immediately cut me off: “Oh, no! You shouldn’t get caught up in all those publishing parties. They’ll ruin you as a writer.” Parties? I didn’t know that book conventions held parties. Frankly, I was interested in going because my friend said I could score a lot of free books.
It wasn’t until after I got to know Faith well that I realized how ironic it was that she warned me away from parties. Faith was, after all, the ultimate publishing party girl. And those who knew her well also know that I can say this without detracting whatsoever from her reputation as a serious and hardworking literary editor. In later years, whenever I went to the American Booksellers Association convention with Faith, it took us two hours to go from one hall to the next. She knew everybody, had to talk to everybody, and I felt like the recalcitrant kid impatient to make her way to the amusement rides. She was late to almost everything as a result, late even to her own passing from a disease that commonly took people much earlier. And thank God for that. Thank God for her stubbornness, for her need to control every last detail before she could let go.
If Faith had stayed with us longer, I think she would have been seduced one way or the other by the Internet, as had been my plot. I know she touched her fingers to the keyboard at least a few times, once to send me an e-mail, other times to play solitaire and Freecell. And had she dabbled further, I think she would have discovered eBay, the great cyber bargain basement. We shared that—the art of the cheap deal. We used to go around the corner from her apartment on West Eleventh Street to an outlet called SubPrice, where we could buy stretch-velvet tops and leggings for five bucks.
That love of a bargain was still very much in evidence the day before her final operation. I was telling her that I, a New York carpetbagger, was going to hold a fund-raiser in my SoHo loft for a certain political candidate, about whom Faith held, shall we say, ambivalent feelings. The fund-raiser would probably take place in March, some four months away. “Do you want to come?” I asked, and I tried to sound casual. In hearing her answer, I figured I could gauge how she felt about the upcoming surgery and her chances of surviving it. Faith immediately said, “Of course. But I’m not going to pay.”
In Faith, I had not only an editor and a cohort in bargain shopping but a mentor and a friend, someone who knew my best intentions and intuitions as a writer and how these fit in with the rest of my life. She knew all the details of what I did, whom I saw, what happened on my vacation, what my mother said, what she didn’t say. Faith also called me during the last hour that my mother was alive.
Whenever I gave Faith something to read, she’d ask me what I wanted from her as an editor. “Keep me from embarrassing myself in public,” was my usual answer. And she did keep me from exposing the glitches in my prose, but she also prodded me to go deeper, to be more generous in the story I had to tell, to not hold back, to show what was most important in my life and on the page. She had an unerring sense of what mattered—to me. She could help me find it, though there were many ways in which we differed in taste and opinions. Olives, for example. She could not abide any dish littered with canned olives, a favorite of mine. And music—who would want to assault his or her ears with anything less than classical music or Broadway musicals or the rocker Michael Parrish, her son-in-law? Then there was the matter of ghosts. I was raised with them. She was not. But here Faith was diplomatic. She indulged me. She listened with genuine interest when I told her about unseen visitors whistling in my kitchen, about the TV’s turning on by itself, about my version of ghostwriters, who, by the way, also provide research and editing on request. She was not going to argue scientific logic with me, since, delusion or not, ancestral spirits and reincarnation increased my material multifold. And for my part, I liked to remind Faith now and then that she, oh esteemed one, had after all served as editor for George Anderson, the world-famous talk-show host to the dead. And more than once I recalled for her benefit the time my mother had written her a note thanking her for “the book” and for helping her feel closer to “the other side.” Faith was quite touched; she thought that my mother was referring to The Joy Luck Club and that her own help in publishing it had brought my mother fond memories of her family. I had to break the news to Faith that my mother was talking about George Anderson’s book We Don’t Die. I’m not done tormenting Faith about this. I plan to have regular seances with her in which we discuss how and why she was wrong in her opinion about an afterlife.
She was also wrong in one thing about me as a writer. She believed for some reason that writing came easily to me, that words poured onto the page with the ease of turning on a faucet, and that her role was mostly to help me adjust the outpouring toward the right balance. That belief had so much to do with her confidence in me. And I guess that is the role of both an editor and a friend—to have that confidence in another person, that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt.
I remember the proudest moment I had as her friend. We were at a medical clinic, and Faith was having her blood drawn. The nurse looked at Faith, then scrutinized me and said without any hint of the absurd, “You two are sisters, aren’t you?”
And Faith looked at me without any hint of the absurd and said: “Yes. Yes we are.”
If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.
• The Kitchen God’s Wife
To the missionaries, we were Girls of New Destiny. Each classroom had a big red banner embroidered with gold characters that proclaimed this. And every afternoon, during exercise, we sang our destiny in a song that Miss Towler had written, in both English and Chinese:
We can study, we can learn, We can marry whom we choose. We can work, we can earn, And bad fate is all we lose.
• The Bonesetter’s Daughter
In the last week of my mother’s life, we were all there—my three half sisters and their husbands; my younger brother, John, and his fiancee; my husband, Lou, and I—gathered around the easy chair in which she lay floating between this world and the next. She looked like a waif in an oarless boat, and we were her anchors, keeping her from leaving us too soon for the new world.
“Nyah-nyah,” she moaned in Shanghainese, and waved to an apparition on the ceiling. Then she motioned to me to invite her guests in and bring them refreshments. After I indulged my mother these wishes, I began to write her Chinese obituary, with the help of my half sisters, daughters from my mother’s first marriage. It was a task that kept our minds focused, unified us, made us feel helpful instead of helpless.
“Daisy Tan,” I started to write, “born Li Ching.”
“Not Li Ching,” someone interrupted. “It was Li Bingzi.” That was Yuhang speaking, my sister from Shanghai. “Li Bingzi was the name our grandmother gave her when she was born.”
How stupid of me not to know that. I had always thought Bingzi was just a nickname my mother’s brother called her. Yuhang watched me write her important contribution to the obituary. She is sixteen years older than I, a short, ever-smiling, chubby-faced version of my mother. She speaks no English, but has read my books in translation.
“Born Li Bingzi,” I duly put down in English letters, “daughter of Li Jingmei …” And then Jindo, my second-eldest sister, chided in Chinese: “No, no, Grandma’s last name was not Li. Li was the father’s side. The mother’s side was Gu. Gu Jingmei.” Jindo, who most resembles our mother, proudly watched me write her addition.
By now, I sensed the ghost of my grandmother in the room. “Ai-ya!” she was lamenting. “What a stupid girl. This is what happens when you let them become Americans.” I imagined other wispy-edged relatives, frowning and shaking their heads.
My third-eldest sister, Lijun, picked up the baton and added to the list of corrections: “After our grandmother die,” she said in passable English, “our mother receive the name Du Lian Zen, to show she is adopt by Du family.” Lijun was the one I relied on for rough translations, her English being on a par with my Chinese, the combination of which sometimes provided hilarious if not miserable renditions of what was actually meant. Her husband, Yan Zheng, wrote “Du Lian Zen” in Chinese characters, with the English next to that in the precise block script typical of architects.
“For Ma’s school name,” Yuhang continued in Chinese, “she chose Du Ching, the same name she kept after she married Wang Zo.” I have long noted that my sisters never call this man “our father.” They knew all too well that our mother despised “that bad man,” as she called him, and they should act as if the paternal connection were accidental at best.
“Do you know why my father renamed her Daisy?” I asked my sisters. They were eager to hear. “Well, there was a funny song about a woman named Daisy and a bicycle built for two. In it, the man asks the woman, Daisy, to marry him.”
“So our mother liked to ride a bicycle?” Yuhang asked.
I thought about this. “No,” I answered.
“Did your father give her a bicycle when he asked to marry her?”
I laughed and shook my head. My sisters looked puzzled and confirmed among themselves that American names have no meanings.
I realized I had never told my sisters about the name Daisy Tan Chan—Chan being the name our mother took when she married for the third time, in her seventies; a year later she had the marriage annulled and reverted to Daisy C. Tan. But why bring that up now? As to her fourth “marriage,” to T. C. Lee, the dapper eighty-five-year-old gentleman whom our family in Beijing feted when he and our mother “honeymooned” in China, well, the truth was, she and T.C. never really married.
“What!” cried my sisters.
“It’s true,” I told them, to explain why I was not mentioning him in the obituary. “They were living together and she was too embarrassed to say they were lovers, so she made me lie and tell Uncle they were married.” My sisters guffawed.
My mother’s many names were vestiges of her many selves, lives I have been excavating most of my own adult life. At times I have dreaded that I might stumble across evidence of additional husbands and lovers, more secrets, more ghosts, more siblings. I had once thought I was the only daughter, the middle child, a position I took to have great psychological significance. I then discovered I was really the youngest of five girls, one of whom had died at birth. Our mother had three sons as well, one who died at age two or three, and another, my brother Peter, who died at age sixteen. With all taken into account, I was demoted to Number Seven of eight children.
There was also a great deal of confusion about my mother’s age. She had one birth date based on the Chinese lunar calendar. By that method, she was considered one year old the day she was born. My mother had further explained to me that when my father transferred her Chinese age to a Western one, he made her too young—writing on her visa that she was born on May 8, 1917, instead of May 9, 1916. The age followed her into her naturalization papers, onto her Social Security card, all her official records. This was not a problem until she was about to turn sixty-four. That was when she told me she was really almost sixty-five. She insisted she knew for sure that she was older than her American age, because she was born in a Dragon Year, 1916, just as I was born in a Dragon Year thirty-six years later. There was absolutely no way she could confuse whether she was a Dragon, none whatsoever. My mother fretted over this mistake day after day, until my husband untangled bureaucratic knots and set the record straight just in time for her to retire and start collecting Social Security when she truly turned sixty-five.
But even that was not the end to her ever-changing age. My sister Jindo said that the international Chinese-language newspaper wanted to report her as being eighty-six instead of eighty-three, to account for the “bonus years” she had earned for living a long life. All the confusion about her age, her three or four marriages, her many names, and the order in which her children, living and dead, should be listed led us to nix the idea of a Chinese obituary. It simply wouldn’t look proper if we told the truth.
In trying to write an obituary, I appreciated that there was still much I did not know about my mother. Though I had written books informed by her life, she remained a source of revelation and surprise. Of course I longed to know more about her, for her past had shaped me: her sense of danger, her regrets, the mistakes she vowed never to repeat. What I know about myself is related to what I know about her, including her secrets, or in some cases fragments of them. I found the pieces both by deliberate effort and by accident, and with each discovery I had to reconfigure the growing whole.
She had always been tiny. When she came to the United States from China in 1949, my mother recorded that she was five feet tall, stretching the truth by at least two inches. On the day she married my father, she weighed seventy-nine pounds. When she was nine months pregnant with me, she weighed barely one hundred—even more remarkable if you consider that I came into this world at nine pounds, eleven ounces.
By age ten, I was her equal in height, and I continued to grow until I reached an impressive five feet, three and three-quarter inches. Compared with my mother, I was a giantess, and this forever skewed my perception of myself. Although my brother John and I quickly grew bigger than our mother, she had never seemed fragile to us, that is, not until she began to lose her mind.
When failure to thrive set in and she began to lose weight rapidly as well, I offered her bribes: a thousand dollars for each pound she could gain back. My mother held out her palm in gleeful anticipation. Later, I raised the stakes to ten thousand. She never collected on a single pound.
In the last week of her life, she dwindled to fifty pounds, and although I had a chronic joint problem in my shoulders, my own pain disappeared whenever I needed to lift her from bed to chair or chair to bed. It seemed to me she was fast becoming weightless and would soon disappear.
Four years before all this, in 1995, my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was several months shy of her eightieth birthday. The plaques on her brain had likely started to accumulate years before. But we never would have recognized the signs. “Language difficulties,” “gets into arguments,” “poor judgment”—those were traits my mother had shown her entire life. How could we distinguish between a chronically difficult personality and a dementing one?
Still, I began to look back on those times when I might have seen the clues. In 1991, when we were in Beijing, she had declined to go into one of the many temples of the Summer Palace. “Why I go see?” she said, and retreated to a cool stone bench in the shade. “Soon I just forget I been there anyway.”
My husband and I laughed. Wasn’t that the truth? Who among us could remember the blur of tourist sites we had been to in our increasing span of years?
I recalled another time, a couple of years later, when we had gathered at the home of family friends to watch a televised interview of my mother, which had been taped earlier that day. The subject was the opening of the movie The Joy Luck Club. The interviewer wondered whether watching the film had been difficult for her, given how much of it was true to her life: “Did you cry like everyone else in the audience?”
My mother watched her televised self as she answered in that truthful, bare-all manner of hers: “Oh, no. My real life worser than this, so movie already much, much better.” Those were my mother’s words, but they were rendered into better English through subtitles. She was perplexed to see this. The son of our family friends called out to her, “Hey, Auntie Daisy, why are they translating what you’re saying? Don’t they know you’re speaking English?” He had the misfortune of saying this with a laughing face. My mother became livid. Forever after, she would speak about this young man, whom she had always treated like a dear nephew, with only the bitterest of criticisms about his character.
I wondered: Was her grudge toward him a sign that she was already ill? Yet my mother had always borne grudges. She never forgot a wrong, even an accidental one, but especially not an arrogant one. When her brother and sister-in-law who were visiting from Beijing told her they needed to return to China sooner than expected because of an important government meeting, my mother tried to persuade them to stay longer in California. What was more important, she cajoled, the Communist Party or family? Her sister-in-law, who had enlisted with the party in the 1930s as a young revolutionary, gave the politically correct answer. My mother was shocked to hear it. She took this to mean that her sister-in-law considered her to be worth less than a speck of dirt under the toe of her proletariat shoes. Later that day, my mother recounted to me what her sister-in-law had said. She added to that a number of slights that her sister-in-law had apparently delivered in the past week, and complaints about how, the last time she had visited them in Beijing, her sister-in-law had cut off the sleeves of an expensive shirt my mother had given to her brother, so it would be cooler. On and on my mother went, until her stream of injustices eventually did the long march through the fifty-five years of a formerly harmonious relationship.
If we, her children, did anything to suggest we were not one hundred percent in her camp, if we tired of listening and suggested with weariness—or rather, genuine concern—that she try to “calm down for your own sake,” she would become even more furious. “Not my sake,” she’d retort, “your sake.” Her face stiffened, her jaw quavered as she shouted and punched herself. Who cared what happened to her? Nobody! Her life was nothing. She was worthless.
Anger inevitably blended with anguish, and the helpless and lonely sorrow she had felt years earlier, during the illness and death of my brother Peter, and my father’s death seven months after that, both of them succumbing to brain tumors. My mother had both of them put on life support, and because of that, she told me years later, she had to do the worst thing in her entire life, and that was to take them off life support. “Don’t start,” she advised, “then don’t have to stop. No use anyway.”
This double tragedy of brain tumors was so horrific that the neurosurgeon himself, in trying to soothe my mother as she poured out endless questions of why and how can this be, simply said: “Mrs. Tan, it’s just bad luck, I’m afraid.”
That official pronouncement of bad luck then set my mother into a protracted search for the reason we were cursed. Were the rest of us doomed to die as well because of this bad luck? She believed so. Thereafter my brother and I learned to hide our headaches from her, to curb ourselves from saying we were “tired,” which was, of course, an excuse that all teenagers mindlessly blurt to get out of doing whatever they don’t want to do. Tiredness had been Peter’s earliest symptom that something was wrong. We had learned the consequences of saying we did not feel well: being hauled off to the hospital to undergo an EEG, an X ray, and later, once we returned home, being subjected to our mother’s endless and unanswerable questions. We saw her as our tormentor and not our protector against curses. Late at night, months after my father had died, she would moan, “Why? Why this happen?”
After my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I too was obsessed in knowing why. When did the disease begin? When had her logic become even more impaired than usual? It was important to know exactly when, for in that answer I would also know how much of her behavior, her tirades that had pained and inconvenienced us, her family, could now be viewed as illness and thus with a more sympathetic eye.
I recalled a Thanksgiving at her house when we had arrived late. It was my fault. I have always had a propensity for running at least forty-seven minutes behind schedule for anything and everything. “Why so late?” my mother said when I stepped inside. She took my tardiness as a personal insult, a sign of disrespect, tantamount to saying I did not think she was worth the time of day. She was sitting in her dining room, refusing to speak. This was the deadly silence we had known all our lives. The dark clouds were practically visible above her steaming head. Static was in the air we breathed. We told her to calm down—big mistake—and her silence exploded into threats to kill herself. There would be no Thanksgiving that year.
My little brother and I had heard similar threats all our lives. As a very young child, I also must have seen her try to cut her wrists with a knife. I assume this because I tried to do the same when I had a private moment of rage after being sent to bed. I was six at the time. Fortunately, I used a butter knife and was chagrined to learn that running a blade across one’s skin actually hurt.
My mother’s usual method of near-demise involved traffic. Her last attempt was typical. We were eating dinner in a restaurant, and she was obsessing about a family member whom she believed did not respect her. Lou, my brother, and I didn’t exactly disagree with her; the trouble was, we didn’t wholeheartedly agree. Her anger mounted until she leapt up from the table and ran out of the crowded restaurant with us chasing after her. Just before she dashed into a busy six-lane street, screaming that she wanted to die, Lou grabbed her, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her, kicking and sobbing, back to safety.
My mother’s threats to “do it” rained so often that I developed an emotional shield. As a teenager, I pretended to be unaffected. She could rant and beat her chest. She could shower her fists on me. My face would remain maddeningly bland, as inscrutable as Westerners have always accused Chinese people of being. When she was not looking, I would walk briskly to the bathroom and have dry heaves. At times, I privately wished she would carry out her word. How peaceful life would be without her. This thought was immediately followed by fear that my secret wish would come true, and then I would be as guilty of murder as if I had killed her myself.
As my brother and I grew older, we supposedly grew wiser. Yet it did not matter that we were twenty, thirty, or forty. Whenever our mother beat her chest with her tiny fists, we knew what was coming, and were reduced to small children who trembled with fear that this time she might make good on her word.
As adults, we commiserated in anger and frustration over the fact that our mother could still make us feel manipulated, guilty, and fearful. Later we confided that we had grown to have her same furies. Sometimes, I have sensed the inescapable rush of a geyserlike rage, which soon would drench all reason from my mind and leave me with a self-destructive urge.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I learned that my mother, at age nine, had seen her own mother kill herself. I felt sorry for that nine-year-old child. I could now see that in many respects my mother had remained stuck at that age of her abandonment.
I recently learned that in China today, a third of all deaths among women in rural areas are suicides. Nationwide, more than two million Chinese women each year attempt suicide, and 300,000 succeed. And in contrast to any other country, more women than men in China kill themselves. I pondered this. Conditions for women in China have changed for the better in the last hundred years, and life in the countryside may not be egalitarian, but is it really so bad that women are willing to down a bottle of rat poison? And why is ingestion still the preferred method?
More than two million reported attempts. How many attempts are not reported? China as a society is loath to make shameful events public, so the real number is probably staggeringly higher. I found this all strangely comforting, as if in this context our family was practically normal. In Western terms, we were a dysfunctional family. From a Chinese perspective, however, my mother’s urge to kill herself was understandable. It was part of a larger legacy passed from generation to generation, grandmother to mother to daughter. In lieu of the family silver, what was inherited was a suffering silence followed by sudden implosion, an urge to blot out all memory of existence.
My mother had always bragged about her memory. She never forgot anything. It wasn’t that she remembered just dates or facts and figures. When she remembered an event from her past, especially a traumatic one, it was as though she had boarded a time machine and had been transported to the moment she was remembering. She was experiencing it again as she spoke of it.
Psychiatrists might call that a posttraumatic flashback, but to me, her memories were gifts. In 1990, before she became ill, I set up a videocamera and had her tell her story. I was concerned she might be self-conscious. And at first, she did speak carefully, looking shyly at the camera. But soon enough, she had gone back to her past and was re-creating it for me, as someone might who is under hypnosis. She was recalling her own mother’s sadness after her husband died of illness, leaving her to care for two small children without any means of support. My grandmother’s young son would take clothes to a pawnshop so the family could have a little money. “Can you imagine?” my mother would say to me, as she told her story. She would repeat this question often, making me work harder to imagine it.
Later, she enacted a day when her first husband returned home roaring with anger so he could make a big show in front of his friends. It happens afresh in her memory’s eye: He pulls out a pistol and makes her kowtow to him. “What are you looking at?” he bellows to the friends, who stand by the door, their mouths dropped open. They kowtow too. She is looking up at him, at the wild waving of the gun, getting ready to duck in case he shoots. But then “that bad man” begins to laugh. It’s a joke, he made us do this as a joke.
In another memory, she is holding a baby in her arms, her first son. He has just died of dysentery, because her husband refused to interrupt his mah jong game with the doctor. I said to her as gently as I could, “What did you feel when the baby died? You must have been in so much pain.”
She looked up blankly. “No pain, only numb. I said, ‘Good for you, little one, you escaped. Good for you.’”
One time, several hours into one of her stories, she stopped talking and looked at me as if she had just woken from a dream. “Maybe you don’t want this part on TV,” she said. I was amazed to realize she was cognizant of the camera. “This part concerning sex …” The camera kept rolling, and she lowered her head to say conspiratorially, “He want sex, I go to bathroom, pretend use my chamber pot. Oooh, oooh, so sick, bad diarrhea. That night, no sex. So many nights, I pretend I go to my chamber pot.” She was laughing when she told me this. The camera caught it all.
The more I heard, the more I wanted to know. I could not believe I had once taken no interest in these stories she tried to tell me for years. Now I wanted to go back to the past. I wanted to be there with her, to be her witness, to agree with her, “Your life was terrible.” It was not too late to comfort her.
In 1991, I presented her with my second book, The Kitchen God’s Wife, a story based on her life, one she had asked that I write. She began to read the first page, then said with consternation, “Helen? I never knew Helen in China.” I reminded her that this was not that Helen, this was fiction and the characters were made up. “Ah, yes, yes,” she said, then resumed reading, before soon stopping again. “I never live in pink house in San Francisco.”
Months later, I asked whether she had finished reading the book. “No time,” she said. Even later, her excuse was this: “Why I need finish? That’s my story. I already know the ending.”
I saw more things that she could not finish: Half-knit sweaters. Bills she opened but had not paid. Food she had defrosted but had not cooked. Her apartment was becoming untidy, not just cluttered in the way it had always been, but dirty. She forgot to lock her door and the security elevator. She forgot how to go in reverse and dented her car backing out of her garage. She later bashed it again, running into the back of a truck. And even stranger, she didn’t seem very concerned that her car was full of dings.
I also noticed that my once fastidious mother was looking disheveled. She wore the same clothes every day, a purple sweater, a pair of black stretch pants. She was not bathing. Her hair was dirty and it smelled. One day when I suggested she wash her hair before we went to a dressy event, she commented that the shower knobs were broken.
I went to the bathroom to check. They were fine. It occurred to me that she did not know how to adjust them. As someone who goes on book tours and stays in a different hotel every night, I know how disconcerting it is to figure out how the water works without getting either scalded or doused with cold water. I turned on the water, adjusted the temperature, and ran a bath for my mother. Then I noticed that she was missing soap, shampoo, toothpaste. Why had she not bothered to buy these things? I made a mental note to do some shopping for her.
Sometime later, our family was gathered around the dining table for a Thanksgiving different from the disastrous one of a few years before. We were with my husband’s family. The conversation touched on sports, the weather, politics, and then eventually on O. J. Simpson’s acquittal. My mother had a comment to make there. “Oh, that man kill his wife,” she said with great authority. “I there. I see it.”
“You mean you saw it on television,” I corrected.
“No!” my mother insisted. “I there. He hide in bush, jump out, cut the knife on that girl’s throat. So much blood, you cannot believe so much. Awful.”
My mother’s English often left seeming gaps in logic. I frequently served as her interpreter, even in childhood, when I wrote my own letters to the principal, excusing my absence from school. I now attempted to clarify for the others what she meant: “Oh, you saw a documentary on what the lawyers said happened.”
“Maybe you see documentary,” my mother replied. “I see everything. I there.”
“What do you mean?” I said. Lou put his hand on my arm. Those around us had grown quiet, sipping wine or chewing turkey in embarrassment. But I couldn’t stop. I had to know what was going on. Did my mother think she had astrally projected herself?
She was oblivious of everyone’s discomfort. “I hide in bush too.”
“You saw him get in his car and go home?”
My mother nodded. “I follow.”
“How? How did you get to Los Angeles?”
I couldn’t shake her illogic. “I don’t remember. Must be I drive.”
“And you were in his bedroom when he cleaned up?”
She nodded confidently.
“You watched him get undressed?” I challenged, desperate to make her realize how crazy her line of thinking was.
“Oh, no!” she answered quickly. “I turn my eyes away.”
That was the moment I could no longer deny to myself that something was terribly wrong. She was certainly at an age when Alzheimer’s could be a possibility. On the way home, Lou and I agreed we needed to take her to the doctor.
To get her there would require subterfuge. I told her we were going for a checkup.
“I already checkup this year,” she said.
“We need another one,” I said, and then I took the plunge: “I think we should check out this problem with your memory.”
“What problem?” my mother said.
“Well, sometimes you forget things … It could be due to depression.”
And my mother shot back: “Nothing wrong my memory. Depress ’cause can not forget.” Then she started to recount the tragedies of losing her mother, my brother, my father. She was right. Nothing was wrong with her memory.
“Well, let’s just go to the doctor to check your blood pressure. Last time it was high. You don’t want to have a stroke, do you?”
A week later, we were in her internist’s office. He asked her a few questions. “How old are you?”
“Oh, I already almost eighty-one.”
The doctor glanced at my mother’s chart. “She might mean her Chinese age,” I said. The doctor waved away my explanation. What I wanted to tell him, of course, was the problem with her age, how it had always been a source of massive confusion and exasperation in our family. Her age was no easy answer. Even a person with all her wits about her would have had a hard time answering a question that sounded as simple as “How old are you?” But then I realized I was trying to protect my mother—or perhaps myself—from hearing the diagnosis.
The doctor posed another question: “How many children do you have?”
“Three,” she said.
I puzzled over her answer. The doctor, of course, had no idea what the correct answer was, but neither did I, unless I knew what context my mother was using. Maybe the three referred to the children she had had with my father: two sons, one daughter, though one son had died in 1967.
“What about Lijun, Jindo, and Yuhang?” I gently prodded, reminding her of her daughters from her first marriage to the bad man. She had been separated from them from 1949 until 1978, so in some ways they had been lost to her as children. When they reappeared in her life, they were “old ladies” by her estimation, not children.
My mother recalculated her answer. “Five children,” she decided.
And this was correct in one sense. There were five living children, three from her first marriage and two from her second. The doctor went on: “I want you to count backward from one hundred and keep subtracting seven.”
My mother began. “Ninety-three.”
“And seven from that?” the doctor asked.
My mother paused and thought hard. “Ninety-three.”
I remember feeling bad that my mother, the one who scolded me for anything less than straight A’s, was now failing miserably. While I knew she had a problem, I was not prepared to see how bad it truly was.
“Who’s the president of the United States?” the doctor posed.
My mother snorted. That was easy. “Clinton.”
“And who was the president before that?”
My mother crinkled her brow, before she answered, “Still Clinton.” She was obviously referring to the previous year, not the previous president.
The doctor did a brief physical, testing my mother’s reflexes, tapping her tiny knees, running his stethoscope over her doll-like body. The test was almost over, when the doctor made an innocuous remark, which I can no longer recall. Perhaps he apologized to my mother for putting her through so many questions, as if she were on trial. Whatever it was, my mother began to talk about O. J. Simpson’s trial and how she knew he was guilty because she had been right there when he killed his wife. And in her mind, she again was right there, as she had been at the Thanksgiving table. She reenacted the scene: how she hid in the bushes, how she saw the blood “spurt all over the place.”
The doctor gave me his diagnosis that day, although I did not really need to hear it to know it.
Some months later, I decided to throw a black-tie dinner in a nightclub for my mother’s eightieth birthday. I invited family and all her friends. I hired a professional ballroom dancer because my mother adored dancing. In the invitation, I wrote a note about my mother’s diagnosis. I explained what difficulties she might have, what changes might be noticed in the future. I said the best present anyone could give her was continued friendship.
I did not know the term for Alzheimer’s disease in Chinese, nor did my sisters. They described it to my aunt and uncle in Beijing as “that malady in the head that affects old people,” in other words, benign forgetfulness. I could tell by my sisters’ attitude that they had no idea how serious this disease really was. To them, it was an illness of guilt, their guilt for having been inattentive, that had caused our mother to become inattentive to the world. My sisters blamed themselves for not visiting her more often. They prescribed favorite foods as a cure.
My auntie Su said her sister-in-law’s mind had slowed because she didn’t have enough people to speak to in Shanghainese, her native tongue. She promised she would take my mother out to lunch more often and talk to her.
My sister Jindo sent Wisconsin ginseng, the best kind, she said. “She will get better,” she assured me. None of my sisters felt the numb shock I did in recognizing that our mother’s brain was dying and thus she would disappear even before her death.
Yet as I discovered, her memory losses were not always a bad thing. For instance, she seemed to forget what had happened to my father and older brother. She no longer dwelled on their deaths as much. Instead, she began to talk about happier days, for instance the trips she and I had taken together. She counted them out on her hand: China, Japan, China again, New York, China again and again. She loved to tell people about the year we lived in Switzerland, when I was so bad and so was my boyfriend Franz. “So much headache you give me,” she would claim proudly. It was astonishing how much she remembered, details about my misadventures that I had forgotten.
She recalled the night she drove my younger brother and me through the mountains in Spain: “You remember? We afraid to stop, because so many stories about bandits. So I drive, drive, drive all night, but too sleepy to keep my eyes open. I told you, ‘Start fight about you boyfriend so I can argue, stay awake.’”
Oh yes, now I remember, I said. She could summon the past better than I. How could she have Alzheimer’s? I fantasized that she did not have that dreaded disease at all. Her earlier confusion and delusions were due to a stroke or a tumor, perhaps vitamin deficiencies or severe depression. Soon, with medicine, she could be restored to her old feisty self, but as happy as she was now.
One day, she talked about the first time she met my father. What a joyful day that was. “You remember?” she said. “You with me.”
“Tell me,” I said. “Your memory is better than mine.”
“We in elevator,” she reminisced. “All a sudden, door open. You push me out and there you daddy on a dance floor, waiting. You smiling whole time, tell me go see, go dance. Then you get back in elevator, go up. Very tricky, you.”
Instead of being saddened by her delusion, I was choked with happiness. She had placed me in her memory of one of the best days of her life.
In part, some of my mother’s newfound ease may have been due to a pink pill, an antidepressant. Ostensibly the new medications she had to take were for her hypertension. That was the lie, the pill that was easier to swallow. Paxil was rolled into the lot, as was Aricept, various benzodiazepines, a changing assortment of antipsychotics, all of which in time lost their effectiveness or yielded peculiar side effects like the lip-smacking and foot-twirling of tardive dyskinesia. Her neurological tics were more exhausting for us to watch than for her unconsciously to do. I kept a journal of what she took and why, what her symptoms were and how she was changing as she lost bits and pieces and chunks. I often wrote that my mother seemed happier than she had ever been. I marveled over that. Was happiness in dementia true happiness?
Yet I was saddened to think that with proper medication, my mother could have been a different person. Clearly, she had suffered from major depressive disorder most of her life. She must have gotten that from her mother. She had bequeathed that to me.
At moments, I mused over what life would have been like had I been raised by a happy, depression-free mother. Imagine having a mother who was nurturing instead of worrying, a mother who would have filled my head with enthusiastic suggestions on what to wear to the dance rather than issue warnings that a single kiss from a boy would render me both pregnant and insane. Then again, if my mother and I had had a wonderfully happy relationship, I would have been wonderfully content in childhood. I would have grown up to be bubbly, well balanced, mentally stable, and pregnant many, many times from many, many kisses. Instead of becoming a fiction writer, I would have become a neurosurgeon and a concert pianist on the side, much to the surprise of my doting mother, the happy one who never would have foisted her expectations on me.
A new stage of my mother’s illness began. More delusions took hold. Sometimes she became obsessed with conspiracies against her by my half sister; Lijun, she believed, was trying to steal the starring role from her in a documentary about her life. Another time she believed my husband was having an affair with a Chinese woman at Lake Tahoe. She had gone there and seen the whole sordid mess, she claimed.
This was particularly sad to me, since Lou had taken care of her as lovingly as any Chinese son. He had purchased her home, had seen to her financial needs, had served her first at every meal, and was always available to accompany her to the hospital or to search for solutions for her care. But now, at our twice-weekly dinners at her favorite restaurant, she glared at him the entire time. Day and night, she called me every twenty minutes to tell me I had to leave him. After two weeks, I figured out what I had to do to make her stop. I could not argue with delusions. I had to acquiesce to them.
When the phone rang next, I answered with a sad voice. I informed her that I had kicked Lou out of the house. (Lou, who was standing nearby, looked at me with a puzzled face.)
“So now you believe me,” she said.
“You’ve always been right,” I said. “Only you worry about me. Only you can protect me from everything bad.”
Yes, my mother said.
“Everyone else, they don’t care. But you do, because you are my mother. Only you are this good to me that you would worry this much. You know me better than I know myself. You know what can hurt me. You are the best mother.”
“Now you believe,” she whispered in a grateful voice. Then she said what every good mother would say. “Okay, go get something eat now.”
“I can’t,” I answered. “There’s nothing to eat in the house. Lou used to go to the store to get food. But now he’s not here. And I can’t go out at night by myself. Someone might rob me.”
“But you hungry?”
“Well, only a little, but really, it’s okay. I won’t starve between now and morning. It’s all right if I’m just hungry.”
A good mother cannot bear to think her child’s stomach is empty.
“You scared, all alone?” she asked.
“A little,” I replied. “The house is so big now that I’m by myself. But I’ll check the doors often to make sure no burglars can get in. Good thing I’ll be moving to a smaller place.”
“You know, with the divorce, Lou will get half of everything. We’ll have to sell the house and cut up the money. And if I marry someone else and divorce that man, he’ll get half of that half, so then I’ll be left with one-quarter of what I have now. That’s how it is when you divorce your husband.”
My mother began to recall Lou’s better qualities. He bought me groceries, he drove me around, he was strong. She advised me to forgive him. Of course, I should punish him for a short time, tonight, but then tomorrow I should take him back.
“What good advice,” I told her. “Only you know how to save my marriage and my house so I won’t be poor.”
What had started as subterfuge on my part grew into an epiphany. I began to see how much I actually knew about my mother and myself. She was losing her mind, yes, but I was losing the defenses built up and fortified from childhood. The scars were dissolving and our hearts were becoming transparent. How could I have been so stupid not to know this all these years. It had been so simple to make my mother happy. All I had to do was say I appreciated her as my mother.
I now knew the answers to my mother’s impossible questions. “When you coming home?” was a common one because I was often away on book tours. If I gave her an actual date, she would ask five minutes later, “When you coming home?”
“We’re almost home,” I would say over the phone, no matter how long Lou and I would be gone. “Because we’ve missed you so much. We love you so much we can’t wait to come home and see you. You are the most important person to us in the whole world.” And she would stop asking. That was all she needed to know.
I found similar ways to help her remember. I used to tell her not to eat her regular dinner at five-thirty p.m. on days we would be taking her out to a restaurant. But she would inevitably forget and, when we showed up, act surprised and annoyed. “Dinner? You don’t tell me you take me to dinner.” The next time we wanted to take her out, I called and said in an excited voice: “Guess what! Tonight there’s a party at Fountain Court, your favorite. You know why? Because everyone who loves you will be there. You’re going to be the star! We’ll order all your favorite dishes—juicy prawns, and tender squid, and the fresh snow-pea greens with the little sweet sprouts you love so much. Wear your pink dress. You always look so pretty in that. You will be the prettiest girl in the entire restaurant.”
And sure enough, when we arrived to pick her up, she had remembered not to eat her regular meal and she had on her pink dress. Is happiness in dementia true happiness? Yes, it is. I know for certain now.
In the last week of my mother’s life, she began to talk to ghosts. “Nyah-nyah,” she moaned in Shanghainese, and waved to someone she saw above her. Then she motioned to me, indicating that I should invite this ghost to come in. She spoke gibberish in a shaky voice, yet it was understandable what she meant. I could still translate: “Sit, sit. Tea. Quick, quick. Coat, coat, best coat.” And I fetched the mink out of her closet and placed it where the ghost might have sat down.
My mother continued to chat excitedly to an invisible crowd of people. She grabbed my hand and pointed. “Yes, I see,” I said. “So many people.” At one point, I forgot about the pretense, and when a chilly fog wind blew through the open window, I took the mink coat that I had draped over the sofa and placed it over my mother’s legs. She grunted and protested with spitting sounds, then pointed to the bare spot on the sofa. Oh, right—how could I forget! Nyah-nyah was there, wearing the mink coat. I put the coat back on the sofa, marveling over the contradictions of my mother’s memory.
I finally thought to ask what Nyah-nyah meant.
“A Shanghainese nickname for ‘Grandmother,’” my oldest sister replied. And then I remembered a story my mother had once told me, of her being four years old, delirious and near death as she called to her grandmother to stop the pain. My mother had been horribly injured when a pot of boiling soup fell across her neck. Nyah-nyah had sat by her bedside, day and night, telling her that her funeral clothes had already been made but were very plain because she had not lived long enough to deserve anything more elaborate.
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