Memory is a capricious thing- it shuffles all of those cards that signify the days, weeks and years of our lives and lays them out in a manner that doesn’t necessarily cleave to chronology– or even the truth.
I cut the deck, turn two cards face up on the table- the Queen of Hearts and the Jack of Clubs. It is March 13, 2003. I say that with certainty even though I do not trust my memory.
I have finished zipping up my suitcase and am nervously walking around the house stroking the cats and staring at the art on the walls as if it were for the last time. I will be taking a red eye flight to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. My brother and sister have persuaded me that our mother is close to death. I would have one more chance at total denial of that indisputable fact.
My normal propensity for high drama was heightened significantly by the war drums that had been sounding for weeks, the rumblings that we were about to go to war, to invade Iraq. The sheer loathsomeness of Bush-Cheney had turned into something much darker, frightening and utterly incomprehensible. I was going to be 3,000 miles from My Beloved and my home while George W. Bush was explaining why war was necessary and inevitable.
So there you have the setting- The Queen of Hearts. The Jack of Clubs. But now one more card- The Joker. City Heights is always the Wild Card, the Joker, that becomes part of the mix. This place that I have called home for longer than anywhere else is a shape shifting character that looms large in my life, and so it was on March 13, 2003.
Just as I zipped up my suitcase, I heard an odd rustling sound on the front porch. I yanked open the front door, peered into the faint light and yelled “What the hell are you doing on my porch?”
A slender figure appeared to be on his knees, partially obscured in the shadows. A calm, quiet voice replied “The bamboo….I am praying.” My response was immediate– “Go pray somewhere else. Get the hell off my porch!”
The figure ran from the porch and dissolved into the night. I was completely unsettled by the incident, and after we packed up the car, we drove around the block once more to see whether the stranger had returned, perhaps to break into the house.
My big brother picked me up from the Pittsburgh airport a few hours before the sun came up, seemingly under protest. The sun glowered momentarily over the frost crusted hillsides and then disappeared behind a dingy grey rag of sky. Jackie tried to prepare me for Mom’s rapidly deteriorating condition during the trip to her house.
I walked into the house where I had grown up and Mom had lived alone the past three years since Dad died. I don’t remember much about that moment except that we were so happy to see each other. I folded her tiny 84 year old body into my arms and she felt like a small fragile bird.
I remember remarkably little about that two week trip, but what I do remember is still seared into my mind, particularly the constant low grade sense of foreboding that ate away at the edges of consciousness. There were so many things happening outside of my control.
My mother was left legally blind after a botched cataract operation on her one good eye. Although she could now only see dim shapes, she lived alone, with regular visits and support from my brother and sister who lived in the area. Television was her constant companion–it was never turned off until she went to bed.
She watched endless soap operas and exposés but little that actually constituted the news. I would commandeer the remote control throughout the day to find out where the war talk was heading. Almost a week after I arrived, on March 19, my mother was eating Hershey Kisses, which had become her steady diet, when the news came on. It came in the form of an eerie green background, as if filmed through night vision goggles, a male journalist speaking with a British accent and little balls of yellow light arcing and exploding against the green sky.
That is the Iraqi invasion that I remember– measured talk about Weapons of Mass Destruction, a cruel regime, Al Qaeda and a quick resolution to the conflict all while my mother, the color of ashes, sat curled in her orange television watching chair with her outstretched hand filled with Hershey Kisses.
My sister came in the following day and we basically ditched our dying mother to indulge in the all-purpose patriotic response of going shopping when times get tough. Beth made the mordant comment that we needed to be embedded in a shopping mall. We drove between the weeping steep hillsides that glistened with water trickling down their rough faces and parked between enormous mounds of ash sullied snow that had been dropped there by snow plows during the past weeks.
The prodigal daughters returned to a dinner of stuffed cabbages. Mom still cooked, still smoked and still singed her hair every time she lit a cigarette on the pilot light of the stove. We had all steeled ourselves in anticipation of tragic news from the local fire department. She had sent me into the garage the previous day to bring up the stuffed cabbages she had made and put in the deep freeze.
I was shocked when I opened the freezer. It was always crammed to the top with food she had bought on sale or had cooked up in a large quantity and frozen. Instead of the usual bounty, I found a single layer on the bottom of the freezer of what looked like green hand grenades.
My Depression era, first generation American mother believed that nothing should be wasted, including the green plastic sleeves that protected the morning paper. She had cancelled the paper a year earlier when she could no longer read, but a brown paper bag sat in the basement containing hundreds of those green plastic sleeves. The frozen food uniformly conformed to the dimensions of the sleeves and none of them were labeled.
I walked back up the steps. “Fergodssake, Gin, you didn’t label anything. How am I supposed to find the stuffed cabbage?” My mother didn’t miss a beat– “You don’t know what stuffed cabbage feels like? You can’t tell the difference between stuffed cabbages and pork chops?” I returned to the basement and palpated the contents of the freezer until I found a likely candidate for stuffed cabbage.
My brother, sister, mother and I behaved over the course of those two weeks as if things were more or less normal, but we knew that these were not ordinary times.
May 1st, President Bush declares Mission Accomplished! My mother is dead. Samsay returns to the porch… We had buried my mother a few weeks earlier. She died of aspiration pneumonia, just as her primary care doctor had expected. But she didn’t die until she had used up everything in the deep freeze, the pantry and within her own body and soul. Mary Virginia Daniels left this world wasting nothing, except possibly her own secret dreams and desires.
But this would not be a time of closure. It was soon apparent that the Iraq mission had not been accomplished; I was left emotionally shattered when She Who Would Outlast Us All didn’t; and the mysterious stranger reappeared on the porch one afternoon when I returned home from work.
The slender kneeling figure was turned away from me, bent toward the black bamboo in the yard. This time I was more composed and didn’t feel particularly unsafe in the daylight. “Excuse me. Who are you? Why are you here on my porch?” I asked in genuine confusion–and interest.
“I am praying. The bamboo. I am Samsay.” I am truly at a loss to explain how Samsay ended up spending so much time over the next three months on my porch and the odd deep connection, different than friendship, that developed between us. Samsay, a Cambodian-Thai- Hmong Buddhist who didn’t fit in anywhere, taught me to pray to my ancestors and told me stories about his life that had a fairy tale quality with dark troubling edges.
I would go to work for four hours, come home and spend another three or four hours studying Spanish grammar. I had signed up for an intensive extension class at UCSD, hoping that the demands of the class would keep my grief at bay. It did. And while I was studying, Samsay would materialize on the porch. He was a relief from my obsessive immersion in Spanish grammar and a frustrating distraction from it. He would always walk onto the porch, drop to his knees and begin to quietly, rhythmically pray.
He told me that the bamboo in my yard reminded him of his childhood home in Cambodia and that he was drawn to this place to pray to his ancestors. When I told him that my mother had died recently, he directed me to place a glass of water outside and kneel in prayer to my mother and the other ancestral spirits in my life. He painstakingly wrote down the phonetic pronunciation of a prayer that I should recite and repeated it to me. There I was, a mixture of cultures and ethnicities, none of which were southeast Asian, and an agnostic, kneeling on the porch, repeating incomprehensible words in a foreign language and letting the tears flow until they soaked the front of my shirt.
After we prayed, Samsay would answer my questions about his childhood and how he got here. His grandfather was a much revered shaman who received elephants as gifts. Samsay pantomimed for me how he would grab a snake, whip it around and break its neck and he told me that his father, who was in the army, paid his couriers with opium to keep them loyal. When his mother died, his father remarried a woman who became his cruel step-mother. He ran away from home during a great fire and somehow connected with missionaries and ended up living in Oregon with them, until things went badly when a gun fell out of his pants after the police had arrested a group of people he was with. Our conversations seldom conformed to linear exposition. It is no surprise to me now that my memories of them are a hopeless jumble.
I was concerned for Samsay. He could not find his way here in City Heights and I felt somehow responsible for him. He had told me that he had sisters in two different cities, and we offered to buy him a Greyhound bus ticket to take him to whichever one seemed the best place to be. And so My Beloved and I saw Samsay off one morning at the Greyhound bus terminal. I cannot remember which destination he chose.
Memory is a capricious thing- it shuffles all of those cards that signify the days, weeks and years of our lives and lays them out in a manner that doesn’t necessarily cleave to chronology– or even the truth. The Queen of Hearts. The Jack of Clubs. The Joker.
The deep wound created by mother’s death has been cauterized by the insistent demands of life in the intervening years. This is not the same as forgetting.
I remember the misbegotten Iraq invasion with bitterness. I will be incapable of forgiving or forgetting until the crafters of that war are brought to justice.
Ten years on, it is difficult to call up Samsay’s face, but I can still see his kneeling form on my City Heights porch, sending his quiet prayers into the expansive heart of the black bamboo.