Nonfiction from NER 42.4 (2021)
To begin depriving him [death] of the greatest advantage over us . . . let us converse
and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.
—Michel de Montaigne
very night after I turned off the light, my son would stare at the ceiling for the longest time. I wondered if he was a normal four-year-old. What could be on his mind to cause him to stare into the dark for so long? Sometimes after thirty minutes of silence, he asked shyly if he could hold my hand, if he could be told a story. Yes, I replied, even though I knew he would constantly interrupt me, his eyes glinting with mischief. If I said for example that Cinderella’s clothes turned into a beautiful gown and she climbed into a golden coach heading for the ball, he’d say that Cinderella wanted to sleep after having spent the whole day sweeping the floor.
All right, I’d say. She decides to go to the ball the next day instead. The fairy godmother warns her—
But the godmother doesn’t show up the next day, my son would say. She has to visit other godchildren or they’ll be jealous.
The morning after that, then, I’d say. Cinderella sends a bird to the fairy godmother to tell her to come. That evening Cinderella puts on the beautiful gown for the ball—
But there’s no ball that day. There’s only one ball a year.
And so it went with Tom Thumb, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. My son would either make up the details or use the ones I had told him earlier, so he could contradict me. His main pleasure was just that—to interrupt my tale. One night I thought, Why not ghost stories? All Vietnamese children loved them, and my son, being half Vietnamese, should at least half appreciate a ghost story.
I’d grown up in a haunted house. Whenever I was alone, I’d hear and see spirits. Feet shuffling down the stairs. White shapes appearing and disappearing. Sometimes the ghosts pretended to drink and glasses would clink on the table. Or they used the bathroom and the toilet paper holder would roll lách cách lách cách. There were so many people killed in so many wars in our country, so many ghosts, that no one could deny their existence.
Here’s what happens when a house is haunted, I told my son. The walls pop and the floor tiles click and the windows squeak. You want to believe that the wood in the walls expands at night, the tiles are loose, the wind blows through the windows. Then the noises become human. A voice calls your name. You don’t see anyone at first but you sense their presence. You feel very cold. You pretend to sleep but you can’t fool them. They want you to open your eyes. Their hands reach out. They might touch your neck, like this. Or sit on your chest. Or shake your bed. You want to cry out—
My son panted. His eyes were wild with fear. Mommy. Stop it. I don’t like it.
When I laughed and hugged him, he pushed me away. I should have realized then that my son and I were very different.
Even now, I’m disappointed whenever he refuses to tell me the nightmares he had the night before. It’s too scary, he says.
The more something scares us, I say, the more we should talk about it.
But my son won’t let himself be persuaded.
When my son was five, I suspected I was dying. Every few days I suffered from bouts of diarrhea. My intestines were twisted with cramps. My skin flaked from dehydration. After several inconclusive lab tests, the gastroenterologist ordered a colonoscopy. What would happen to my son if I had cancer? If my intestines were perforated during the procedure? If I never woke up?
I decided I should prepare him for my eventual death.
Everyone dies one day, I told him. I’ll die. I may or may not become a ghost, but even when you don’t see me, I’m there and I’ll still love you. I’ll still know how you live your life and I’ll want you to be happy and I’ll want you to be kind to others. I’ll come to you on the day you die. On the day I die, I want you to laugh and play a song you like, because it’s a good day, because death frees me from my body.
I wished I could believe that it would be a good feeling to die. I couldn’t tell my son that before death, there was dying—definitely not a good feeling—and that after your heart stopped, perhaps you remained conscious for a while. I had always imagined this consciousness: to be blind, mute, paralyzed, and yet still able to hear. My loved ones’ wailing. My loved ones’ grief.
My spirit will fly away, I continued. Don’t feel bad if for some reason you cannot be with me when I’m dying.
My son was quiet. I couldn’t even hear him breathing. He must have fallen asleep, I thought. When I sat up and looked, he turned his face away. His cheeks were wet with tears.
My mother began telling me bedtime stories when I was six. One story was of a horse feeder.
Several horses die. The horse feeder, a Vietnamese man, has stolen some grain to feed his family and, to replace the missing grain, he has mixed sawdust in the fodder. So, the soldier slits one horse’s carcass, disembowels it, and makes the horse feeder crawl inside. Once he’s in the horse, the gash on the carcass is sutured.
That’s how cruel the Japanese soldiers are.
I was lying next to my mother on a wooden bed in our house on Cao Thắng Street in Sàigòn, listening intently even though this particular story didn’t impress me at all. Being stuffed in an animal’s belly meant nothing to my six-year-old mind. I didn’t understand then that the man was left to die. I didn’t ask Ma how a cut on the stomach, with a man inside, could be sutured. I never asked my mother any questions about her stories and perhaps that was why she liked to tell them to me, usually in the evening when the weather was cool and we had snacked on some roasted peanuts. Roasted peanuts always loosened my mother’s tongue. Every so often after dinner Ma would decide that we needed a treat, maybe a beer or a hot sweetened bean soup or peanuts, so she’d send our maid out to buy the food or drink from the street vendors. If it was peanuts, the maid would bring them home raw. Ma would roast them in the wok without oil or salt, and the delicious, earthy smell would take Ma back to her childhood in Nam Ðịnh, North Vietnam, where her own mother roasted peanuts on nights so cold that your skin cracked. I loved that, the cold, the cracked skin. Sàigòn nights were sometimes cool but rarely cold, and always humid, so my skin never cracked. But I’d seen cracked cement in our yard. Dry, hard, jagged fissures that revealed translucent, pale pink baby worms in the soil underneath, which fascinated and disgusted me, the same way that my mother’s stories disgusted and fascinated.
Some airplanes drop bombs on the city. The passersby jump into the trenches on the street that have been dug for shelters. An old man is so scared he poops on the ground and the soldiers make him eat up his poop. The Japanese are the worst, but they are disciplined and tall and handsome, their skin white like the Westerners’, while the Chinese soldiers are ragged and dirty and smelly. They steal chickens, ducks, pigs, soap, doorknobs, dragging along their wives and children, their legs swollen twice the normal size, stuffing themselves with rice, noodles, whatever they can lay their hands on. Because they haven’t eaten for a long time, their stomachs explode after a big bowl of phở.
That’s how many of them die.
For days I imagined the stomachs making little bụp bụp sounds like kettle corns, their insides turned out; the old man pulling down his pants to reveal his white behind. Or perhaps the man had had no time to pull them down. The feces filled the seat of his pants and he tried to hide what he had done, but the stench was too strong to ignore.
At first it was the sensory details that drew me to Ma’s tales. A sutured horse. An old man’s smooth behind. Exploded stomachs. As I grew older, the real theme of my mother’s stories—death—became quite clear. No doubt they have influenced me and made me the way I am. But I must also have a predisposition for morbidity, because I don’t ever remember any of my siblings lying around to listen to Ma, which was quite unusual given that it was bedtime and we always slept twos or threes to a bed. Or perhaps Ma had decided that I was the one to hear her, just as she’d decided that I was the one to take to the bookstore on Saturday nights, to be given a copy of the fairy tales Cendrillon, Peau d’Âne, Le petit Poucet, Le Chat botté.
It was in 1962 that my mother began her bedtime stories. Our first president hadn’t been assassinated and the Marines hadn’t landed on the Đà Nẵng airfield and American aircraft hadn’t bombed the countryside. Soon, however, I could hear the distant sounds of mortar fire, I could see flares like star clusters in the sky. The nights were bright and festive. The faraway popping of guns, the booming of artillery were better than any lullabies, better than the monsoon raindrops on the roof, the lamenting love songs on the radio. When the earth rumbled, when the house swayed, I was lulled to sleep, safe, with no knowledge of what was going on outside of Sàigòn.
Even much later, I still loved the roaring and rolling of the earth, the shaking of walls, windows, doors. My mother’s tales—of foreign soldiers, airplanes, and trenches—had prepared me too well for this war.
When I emigrated to the States in 1974 for college and settled in California, I didn’t realize at first how much I missed the gunshots and bombs and flares in my old life. But every so often a shrill whistle of bullets in a drive-by shooting or the rattling rumble of an earthquake would suddenly make me feel euphoric. At home. During the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, I ventured out while others cowered, drunk with my childhood excitement of billowy smoke and flames. I’d lived through coups d’état, I’d lived through fires that were started by accident rather than by the war. Anything that breaks the monotony and is reminiscent of the past brings out the child in me.
My son once told me he was afraid that our thirty-story apartment building in Santa Monica would collapse on us in a big earthquake.
It’ll be loud and fun like a roller coaster, I said, and you won’t have to go to school.
I don’t think my son believed me, at least not about the fun part. How could a child who never dared read any book from the Goosebumps or Animorphs series find pleasure in earthquakes? Growing up, I had spent hours poring over the pictures of diseased and dying people in my mother’s medical encyclopedia even before she started telling me her bedtime stories.
My morbid mind, however, is not really interested in death itself, but in life surrounding death, this life as we know it. I’m not philosophical or spiritual and I’m not much interested in hell or heaven or God. But I’m fascinated by ghosts, for ghosts are a continuation of our consciousness of this life, and I’m especially fascinated by the moments lived right before death.
I had a glimpse into such a moment during the Tết Offensive, when I was twelve. The fighting finally came to Sàigòn. At night, yellow, green, and pink tracers and parachute flares lit up the sky. The neighborhood kids always tried to catch the parachutes. Good strong parachutes, America number one, they said. I couldn’t catch anything. I would watch the parachutes drift down, rocking back and forth, smoke trailing, then float out of my reach. One night the fighting must have been very close to my house, because I heard a voice ring out amidst gunshots, a young man’s voice. Ối trời ơi, tôi chết rồi. Oh my God, I’m dying. I could tell from the man’s clipped, precise accent that he was from the North. He had pronounced tôi instead of tui.
I sat up, startled. For hours afterward I tried in vain to listen for his voice again. Even at that young age I was surprised at how illogical, how incongruous dying was. Why, in his moment of shock, had the man not screamed or groaned, at best emitted an Ái or an Úi, but uttered words instead, and not only words but a complete sentence? Why had he used the first-person pronoun, when we Vietnamese often avoid it? When I talk about myself, I use con (Child) with my parents, em (Younger Sister) with my older siblings, chị (Older Sister) with my younger siblings, my name (Hạnh) with my friends. I will never tell my mother, I want to go to the market with you, but instead, Child wants to go to the market with Mother. If I want to say goodbye to an aunt, I will say, Venerable Aunt, Niece is leaving. Even with strangers, address forms change, depending on one’s age and sex relative to theirs. If the stranger is a woman slightly older than me, I will address her as Older Sister, and myself, Younger Sister. In our speech, pronouns are suppressed, for social ties are more important than the individuals. So, imagine my surprise when I heard the soldier’s utterance. How did he know, in that split second, that he was completely alone in his moment of death and therefore decided to use tôi, which means I, a word he had probably uttered only once or twice a month, and only with some embarrassed self-consciousness?
Two years later, when I almost drowned while playing in the South China Sea, I was told that, as a friend pulled me out of the waves, I had said again and again, Ối trời ơi, tôi chết rồi. The exact same words the soldier had uttered.
I had been terrified. I can’t breathe, I thought. I’m dying and no one knows, my friend thinks I’m playing, I was pinching her leg, I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying. I kept thinking lucidly while panicking, hence the complete sentence.
I believe the last thoughts in sudden death, while similar among people within the same culture, differ greatly from one culture to another. I’ve read that often the last words recorded in black boxes of downed American fighter planes during the Vietnam War were not I’m dying, but Mommy, Mommy. This, from men who had been forced to sleep in cribs in separate bedrooms at two, three months old, while children in many other countries slept with their parents, relatives, or siblings until they were ten or even older. This, from men whose scared cries at night for their mommies had been ignored, until their cries died, their little-child terror of their version of death—alone in the dark, facing the unknown—suppressed.
Why, then, a reversal at the end? Why did the Americans, whose culture exalts independence, call out for their mommies, while the Vietnamese, whose culture requires constant awareness of the community, withdraw into themselves?
I see a logic in it: Before we die, the soul claims what it has been denied in life—the self in the Vietnamese culture, the emotional connection in the American one.
What could be worse than this life? my mother said when I asked if she was afraid of death.
I am terrified of death. It was foolish of me to believe that what had worked for Montaigne (who learned to die by imagining death in every shape, even amidst “jollity and feasting . . . in the company of ladies, and at games”) would work for me. The more I think, the more scared and less prepared I am, and I wonder why it has taken me so long to realize this, when my son already knew how to protect himself when he was four.
And Benito Mussolini and the blue meanie and Cowboy Curtis and Jambi the Genie, Robocop, the Terminator, Captain Kirk, Darth Vader, Lo Pan.
My son liked to make noise when he bathed. Now he spewed out all the names as he splashed in the tub. He was happy for the moment. Only ten minutes ago he had flitted and thrashed about on the ground, screaming, You’re a meanie. I don’t like you. I hate living with you, because I had ordered him to stop his computer game.
I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to take care of a strong-willed child. Before my marriage I’d been financially independent, with no responsibilities to anyone but my cats. Then I married a man who wanted at least one child. I got pregnant, quit my job, moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco to follow him.
My husband left me when our son was three. It was during the separation that my fear of death was at its worst. I realized then that the fear of death is actually the fear of living: If I were happy and in charge of my life, I wouldn’t obsess about death, but here I was, suddenly noticing that I was middle-aged, with few friends in the new city and all my time taken up with child-rearing. I could never have my carefree life back. There was no one to help me, not my son’s father, not my family, who disapproved of my American ways.
The obvious answer to my fear was to live well. Yet five years after the divorce, I still didn’t live well. I was with my son in a student apartment that didn’t allow pets, earning a paltry salary as a teaching assistant and working on a doctoral degree in creative writing. I was incapable of living in the present: I wrote with the aim of becoming a successful writer sometime in the future; I accumulated degrees so that I’d get a better job sometime in the future. And with this future mentality, I couldn’t help thinking of death, the ultimate future in everyone’s life.
My son stayed a long time in the bathtub. Spock, the Rock, Doc Ock, and Hulk Hogan all came out of nowhere lightning fast.
Was he speaking to me? What he said sounded like a list, and my son loved to give me a list of things to choose from. Then he gave me a quiz to see if I had listened well. A typical question of his: What weapons would you use if you played Runescape? I could never remember the right answer even though he had explained to me a hundred times the many weapons and ways of killing in his favorite computer game. So, I’d stall and ask what weapons he would use.
Scimitar, because I can slash fast, he’d say. Also battle-axe and magic and maul. But there are lots of others for you to pick: salamander, mace, flail, staff, halberd, two-hander, noose wand. Different weapons are good for different modes of attack. You can strike, spike, impale, pound, special attack, special quick. Which ones do you want?
The same as you, I’d say.
By then, he’d have suspected that I was not very interested in his conversation. He’d stop smiling and eye me sideways. What are they? How many?
Let’s see. Didn’t you say you like axe?
Mom, it’s battle-axe, not axe. And what else? Name three.
I flunked his quiz again. I couldn’t relate to the violence in his world, and he couldn’t relate to the violence in mine. He said the stories about my youth were too sad and they were often about death and he didn’t want to hear them.
My son’s voice rose and fell and I realized he was singing. They kicked Chuck Norris in his cowboy ass. It was the bloodiest battle the world ever saw, with civilians looking on in total awe, and their fight raged on for a century. Many lives were claimed but eventually the champion stood. The fighters had met their better: Mr. Rogers in a bloodstained sweater!
When he came out of the bathtub, he was different. Two-thirds of the day he was rotten, then he was sweet the remaining third. He usually asked for a hug, and, if he found me sitting in bed reading, he would climb in, naked and still dripping wet, place one cheek on my lap, and tell me in the high-pitched, babyish voice he used when he wanted to be cute, Mom, you may clean my ears. He didn’t care for clean ears, really. He thought I loved to pick his nose and clean his ears and he was just trying to be nice.
And sometimes he even talked about death. Mom, it’s okay if you die before me. But please come for me when I die.
And, Mom, don’t worry that no one will come for you. All your dead cats will be there.
Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that? ■