I read this piece as a part of Amazing Babes at the Emerging Writers’ Festival on 19 June 2017.
When I was a little girl, my Bà Ngoại would play a game with my sisters and me. Her hand spread out wide, we would point our fingers and jab her palm quickly as she sang a Vietnamese song which stopped abruptly at the end, marking the point where we’d pull away as quickly as possible to avoid being caught by her closing fist. We would always laugh at the end of the game, no matter the outcome, and she would laugh too.
Bà had a funny way of kissing me, the same way my mother still does – pushing her nose and lips right up to my cheek, then inhaling sharply. It felt like we melted into each other every time, like we were becoming the same person.
She had a smell, an instantly comforting one that enveloped her bedroom in the house where we lived – the one where I stayed until I left home at 23, when she’d been gone for years and we’d had so many renovations that I sometimes forgot she’d ever been there at all. The bedroom had an armchair where she’d always sit, and a chest of drawers full of tiger balm, beaded bracelets and all of her secret treasures. Bà wore a jade Buddha around her neck. She was the picture of old world sophistication and elegance, with beautiful scarves and soft, mottled hands that glided around the mah-jong table as the tiles gently clinked.
We used to tease my mother for not being able to roll up her tongue, and one day we had the brilliant idea of seeing if Bà could do it. She sat there, silk scarf wrapped around her head, and slowly her tongue protruded in a perfect roll. What a strange image – this prim and proper elderly woman sticking her tongue out. We laughed until we could not breathe.
Bà couldn’t speak a lick of English, but she loved to watch Home and Away, and she’d regale me with all the scandalous gossip about which character was sleeping with which other character. I guess her understanding Home and Away wasn’t so different from me understanding her – I knew nothing about her fears, her past, what it felt like to leave her home behind without a backwards glance for a different world, and yet she made perfect sense to me.
I have only now begun to put those pieces together, but I was a child then, and I never thought to ask. She was just Bà – someone who had always been, would always be, there. Maybe I was selfish, or maybe just young, but she existed in the context of my world and I couldn’t imagine her outside of it, in the past or future.
I don’t remember when Bà got sick, but I remember that she did, and all of a sudden she was different. She went from a spirited, chatty woman to someone who lay perfectly still, eyes closed like she was always dreaming. She would smile weakly when I went into her room, and once, when I got the highest mark in the grade for the English competition, I took the medal I won to her, tucked away neatly in blue velvet. “Look what I got, Bà!” I said excitedly, except she could barely open her eyes to see me or the medal, and then I was ushered away again.
And then there were the days and weeks when she wasn’t home at all, and we were in and out of hospital rooms. The walls were so bright that they hurt my eyes, and my little sister and I raced around the hallways and skipped across the brick walls outside, singing Don Spencer songs at the top of our lungs. The nurses would yell at us to stop. Maybe people who are dying don’t want to hear two little tuneless girls singing songs about elephants and walruses. We didn’t know that, because we didn’t know death. It was something that happened to our guinea pigs and pet fish – not to Bà. How could anything exist without her?
Everything is a blur, now. Maybe that’s because it’s been so long, or maybe I’ve just tried my hardest to forget. I don’t remember the last time I saw her, or what the last thing I said was, but one night my parents were gone and we were all bundled up at home, and the phone rang and suddenly my older sister was crumpled in the corner of the stairs, folded carefully in the carpet, and her face took on a shape I’d never seen before, and I didn’t have to ask why she was crying.
For 49 days, we mourned, as Vietnamese families do. We put on white headbands and we sang, we cried, we burned. I’d never seen my mother seized by grief like that before, and it is a grief I came to crushingly understand. It wasn’t too late for me, but for her, the thought of being a careless or thoughtless daughter in past lives haunted her long past the day of the funeral.
That day was long and confusing and strange. We walked, hands clasped, past an open casket containing my beloved Bà, except it wasn’t her at all. She was pale white, ghostly, asleep like I’d seen her so many times before, but in a way that scared me. I stood over the coffin and gazed at her, with my auntie next to me, when suddenly I saw her move, and my heart leapt. Had there been a terrible mistake? My auntie saw the same thing, and we grasped each other’s hands in holy terror as we stared, transfixed.
But it was just a trick, someone’s leg nudging the bottom of the table and shifting it ever so slightly. For a moment, I thought she was coming back to me, and then reality took over again.
The house was quiet after that – one less voice, one less body. Her room remained there, exactly the same with the chair in the corner and her drawers full of miracles, but there was no one there anymore. Eventually, it became a guest room. None of them were her, though, and so I didn’t care.
Sometimes I’d lie in bed and whisper to her about the things that were happening that frightened me, or the boys I liked, or the grades I wasn’t getting. She was never there, of course – she’d been dead for years – but I felt a comforting glow, just saying the words out loud. We never had those conversations while she was alive, but we have had countless in the weeks and months and years since she left me.
I wonder what she would think of me now. She knew me when I was barely myself – I hadn’t become anyone yet, or I was a million different people, just trying them all out to see which one fit best. Would she like my writing? Would she like my friends, my lovers? Would she be proud of who that nine-year-old girl became? Would we continue to love each other in wordless silence, like we did at the very end?
My mother always talks about the afterlife; about what happens when we die. She believes in cycles – that what we do when we are on earth now will inform the way in which we are reincarnated. I don’t know if I believe in that, but it’s been 20 years since Bà left me, and I still see her in everything.
Is my mother right? Is she in the flowers that I admire in the gardens, smiling at me through pink-hued cheeks? Is she a new born baby, full of wonder at the world? Is she the people I walk past and as our eyes meet, a flash of mutual recognition – but neither of us knows where from?
Or does she only live up in my memories now? Do people really cease to exist in any physical form when they die? Can I handle that as the truth of it all? Do I romanticise everything too much? Does it even matter?
Sometimes all I want is to touch the palms of her hands again. I would let her catch me every time.