She Had Always Been a Religious Woman, My A-Ma
My earliest memories of her involve presbyopic eyes squinting against the morning sun as she maneuvered a dilapidated Bronco II through the light Sunday traffic. My brother and I are held prisoner in shirt-and-tie, wondering at the fear, faith or love that drove her to pack us all twisting in sleepy protest into the truck, then into the pews. Yes, she alwasy drove, despite years of glaucoma that had decimated her peripheral vision, this little old lady holding off the encroaching darkness by force of will, or faith, I never could see the difference, I could only be amazed.
Today when I see her, I am amazed again. Always a thin woman, she is now skeletal. Always reserved and quiet, she has now contraced, quite literally. Her slender limbs are twisted, folded in; her hair lies limp and flat against her head; even her ears seem to have withdrawn into her head. She is silent, lying flat on her back, hands clutching at an antiseptically white sheet. Her eyes, almost blue with age, dull and flat, turn imperceptily toward mine. I can see her pupils, their rhythmic contraction.
“Hi, A-ma, it’s me.”
“Do you know who this is,” my mother asks. Her smile is tight-lipped, her eyes shiny. “Yes,” the old woman manages. She smiles beautifully, triumphant.
“Who?” I ask.
She blinks, surprised. “Michel,” she states. Michael is my uncle.
“No, I’m Daniel,” I say gently. “Your grandson.”
“Oh,” she smiles. She does not repeat my name or greet me, does not realize her mistake. “A-ma?”
She remains silent.
My mother putters around the room. She opens the curtains, then draws them closed. A-ma’s bipap machine stands in the corner. Mother fiddles with the mask, picks it up, turns it over in her hands. I am sitting on the bed, holding my grandmother’s cool, dry hands in my own.
We are here today because my mother has medical knowledge. A-ma has stopped eating, and the doctors here want to place a tube in her stomach to feed her. It is a difficult decision. She will probably tolerate the procedure well. With it, they say she can live another year, maybe two. She is perfectly healthy otherwise, they say. I think my mother needed to see for herself before making a decision, and so she has dragged me halfway across the globe to this small town by the sea in Taiwan, because she did not want to fly alone.
“She took care of you whenever you were sick when you were growing up,” she said. “The least you can do is visit her once.”
I begged off. I need to study. I am in the middle of a lot of things: the middle of school, I am in the middle of my class at a fair-to-middling university in the Middle West.
“This may be the last time you see her,” she cries. “The last time you see her alive.” And so here I am, holding these cool, dry hands in my own, noticing the translucency of her skin, the wrinkles criss-crossing angry purple veins – noticing, for the first time, the smell.
When I was twelve, our dog, Doug, suddenly began to cough up blood, splattering the kitchen with dark purple clots. My grandmother and I heaved this St. Bernard into the aforementioned Bronco II and drove to the animal hospital.
“God, what’s wrong with him?” I wondered.
The vet didn’t know, and the dog didn’t say. He sprawled on a metal table, dying, his last breaths sweet, fetid and warm. My grandmother smelled like that now. What’s wrong with her, I wonder.
“A-ma?” I try again.
She turns toward me, saying nothing.
“How are you?”
She smiles vacantly. My mother continues to putter. I ask her what she thinks, whether she thinks it is a good idea to go ahead with the surgery. Neither woman responds. So I continue to sit and want my mother to say something. I want her to decide one way or another, to consent or not. But she doesn’t, and I begin to speak. I am telling A-ma about my life, about class, about my girlfriend, about the professor I knew who is the son of a woman who went to the all-girls school that my grandmother was the dean of forty years ago.
The conversation is one-sided, since even if A-ma were responsive I am speaking in English, and her grasp of the language was always tenuous, more so than my command of Fukhein, but this silence, this barrier is far more than any imposed by language, it is as if my grandmother is not even present, and soon i wonder to myself: what a change!
Though she spent her time traveling between Chicago, New York, L.A., Taipei, she was an unshakeable presence throughout my childhood, a formidable aura, ubiquitous through ritual, the grace-before-meals, the night-time pleas for-soul-to-take, the twice-weekly service first in English, then at Lombard Christian Church for the Taiwanese version. Every phone conversation ended in her urging us to pray every day; every Christmas or birthday card was a reminder that Jesus Loves Us.
How I hated it. How I wanted to ask why, why, and how I imagined her response!
Perhaps she would go Pascal’s Wager on my punk ass. “What do you have to lose?” she would say. Hell, damnation, these were eternal. Pleasure, persecution, these are of this world and hence temporary. Rationally, when one weighs the benefits and risks, the choice should be an easy one.
But I would be ready: Of course, the assumption behind this argument is that no empirical evidence can sway judgment oone way or hte other; there is nothing in this world that can confirm or disprove God’s existence.
But, likewise, there can be no information from this world that can elucidate what actually constitutes God’s will. That he wants us to be good, or even believe, then, is using empirical evidence – the Bible, to be specific – as a guide for our thinking. The argument for good Christian behavior is therefore circular.
But how do you say “begging the question” in Taiwanese? My linguistic skills were inadequate. Such spiritual convlusions took place in silence.
And so it was in my mind we had our debates. How is it that we are members of the Dutch Reformed Church? I am having some problems reconciling Christian eschatology with the existence of evil, can you comment on this? Faith alone, would she say, or words to that effect? Would she stand abashed as I perverted the Reformer’s doctrine to its far-reaching but logical conclusion, asserting that, as good works do not promote salvation, so neither do evil works hinder it: Take that!
Of course I would never say such things aloud. What would my poor A-ma do? Just imagining it caused the hairs on my neck to rise. While the theology never took, I embraced the Judeo-Christian ethic of guilt. And hence, my great apostasy took place in silence, unidentified, while the old lady blathered on about Christ’s love, original sin, grace and everlasting salvation.
Now, the old lady sits in silence, and I am the one blathering. Finally, my mother moves with purpose, joining me on the bed, taking A-ma’s other hand. She begins to talk as well: the troubles with her husband, her junior partner who refuses to work now that she is pregnant, my brother’s friends – she suspects that they are using drugs! And I sit and watch, and A-ma sits in silence.
My mother and I leave late that night. We are staying with my father’s sister, somewhat uneasily as my parents have recently separated. I am sitting at the kitchen table pretending to read. We have decided to have the G-tube placed. I try to remember this afternoon, but there is only this smile, this thought that A-ma will endure whatever transpires with Epicurean tranquility.
On the stove, water is boiling. My mother, inexplicably, has decided to soft-boil eggs, and she slides them into the water one by one. They clatter in the boiling water, wobbling, legless and bald.