Published in 17.3/17.4
What Doesn’t Kill You
by Pia Massie
No regrets. I hear you Edith Piaf. Just trudging through a cold swampy bog of grief stretching out over the decades. As a child tough enough to survive, vigilance was my armor; this weight that has been so hard to cast off as an adult. I feel the slag heap mountains of disappointment, a swarm of humans crawling through the stench looking for usable parts, lost bits, shards worth bartering and I shift my gaze. I sing myself to sleep. I would rather be at this place of seething heartache, alive and awake, then the empty castle of denial that is my family’s inheritance.
My ‘new’ grandmother’s shame: ‘Stay out of the sun, you are too dark.’ Now I understand these words as fear, fear that she would lose her place, her standing, and her entry in to the club – if the authorities discovered she was not the pure thing that she knew she was not.
When my father re-married, every night I prayed for a sister or a brother. I thought that we would be a team, a scrappy pile of puppies, and a way out of loss. When my sister arrived, she was such a fragile looking package; I secretly swore to protect her. I wasn’t allowed to carry her or pick her up although if I sat still on the couch I could hold her; I talked to her all the time and very soon she could talk back. She was all speed – scooting across floors and lawns, flashing looks of triumph.
One time when I was working as an assistant editor, my sister came to visit me. She arrived at the end of the day and the tech boys who ran the studio had installed Doom in the suite that I was working in because it had three large screens and a couch. She had never seen a video game before but when they threw down the challenge, she played her pure self. At first they were complimenting her, saying how different she was from me, who always left rather than compete. (I had no interest in doom, virtual or real.) Then they were cheering and hooting as she broke through to new levels they had never seen before, dodging hailstorms of bullets and leaping over rivers of toxic waste.
(This is the girl who fought so articulately to bring her case to the Supreme Court a decade later that she won against a table full of lawyers in suits.)
When the game ended, the boys fell away from her in awe for amassing the largest arsenal the machine had ever recorded. What I remember when I came back to the darkened room is not the weapons but the trace outline of the avatar’s body on the screen. There was nothing solid left; it had all been blown away in battle. The only piece of her body that had stayed with her to the end, that was still visible on screen, was the trigger finger of her right hand.
I flew out to hear her present her closing arguments at the Federal Appeals level. The courthouse was mobbed. They didn’t like the baby stroller going through the metal detector and the court clerk didn’t want the baby in the courtroom so I handed him off to one of the young innocents of BAMN and crawled over the bar and sat in the jury box with the media because they were rotating the people in the general seats out on an hourly basis to another room with closed circuit TV. No matter what I was staying put to watch this live and ringside: the battle of my sister’s life.
She talked about Ruby Bridges’ sacrifice: how she had been escorted to school every day by US Marshalls through a mob of screaming hate. Ruby’s mom always made sure that she shone with love – hair and dress and posture perfect – because she knew she was carrying the hope of a nation on her tiny frame. My beloved sister Miranda put the racism of the United States on trial, adding testimony and test score duplicity, building an arsenal of words, bricks of fact, to strengthen the future laws for the fights to come.
And then she fell in to bed, too exhausted to lift a spoon to her lips. Convalescing in the dappled light of my father’s home she slept and read her way back to life.
As an infant, she was moved away from her mother to a separate room facing the street and I was moved out of the apartment entirely. This was a really bad situation for both of us. Not only were we alone and apart when we could have been together but to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I had to have two keys to lock and unlock doors and manage flights of stairs. I was 9: she was 1. It was the beginning of the apartheid in our family.
How do we know where things actually begin? The cosmic pool game of action and reaction, angles and drive is delivered to us only in fragments. Like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle we can know our position or our momentum but it is impossible to contain both simultaneously. Our beliefs are formed and carried by our drives – boats on a flowing river. But our desires, motivations, urgencies – all the languid or rapid drift of the water beneath the boat – are given direction, coordinates and cohesion by the belief itself.
My sister’s compromised immune system, my step-grandmother’s racism, my brother’s marriage to an abused and abusive wife – these events and realities which have impacted my life and theirs can be seen as larger patterns – coordinates on a grid of life – but only when we zoom out and look at them in stillness, in the zero gravity of forgiveness. Up close and in the flow, their tragedy overwhelms.
If, for example, my step-mother wasn’t an alcoholic who smoked while she was pregnant with my sister, would my sister have been physically stronger, would she have been able to avoid an eating disorder, would she have been able to have a kid herself? Would that have made her happy? The chicken and egg loop of causality. How do we break these chains and become free?
Seated in two matching high wing-backed chintz chairs in the ‘morning’ library, so called because the other library which was mostly leather and bookshelves was where cigars were smoked in the ‘evening’ – on a clear summer morning the day after I had arrived and my few clothes had been inspected and hung in the huge closet (larger literally than my room at ‘home’) I see my legs sticking straight forward choosing the deep throne-like pushiness of the florid chair over the ability to bend my knees at its edge, which would only have resulted in my feet dangling in the air above the soft carpeted floor (obviously not as comfortable!) I watch the mystery of my new grandmother with her small thin pencil and her gilt-edged monogrammed notepad.
She coughs and a small brown girl wearing a neon green sleeveless dress with even more flowers on it, albeit smaller, than the ones on the chair whose arms I am now clutching, walks through one doorway, does a quick pirouette in front of my grandmother and disappears through another doorway.
I thought perhaps this other child had been brought to the house to be my companion, to play with me. After all, my grandmother had promised me a treat “after breakfast.”
My confusion mounts and doubles back on itself, falling uphill in an unknown culture.
The other Asian girl returns over and over again, pirouetting like a jewelry box ballerina in the mirror of that moment, each time in a different outfit, or maybe it is a dozen girls so quickly do they appear, exit and re-appear, all courtesy and deference to the queen who is making neat check marks on her golden pad with her elegant thin whisper of a pencil.
When the ritual is over, this tiny fragile, fearful woman – so frail, so pale, so privileged – hands a note to what I now understand is a servant, saying, “Two of number nine, in chartreuse and daffodil and I think number five as well.” That afternoon when the dresses are delivered, does she feel happy? Does she think her fledgling granddaughter is beautiful? Or just properly attired, safe finally, to bring to the country club – where I am told to sit under the umbrella and wait a half an hour after I have eaten to go in to the pool or I will get stomach cramps and sink.
That summer I also see fireworks for the first time: spinning wheels of sparks to music and flowers of light rocketing off the lawn, while we sit in long chairs, the tinkle of ice in tall glasses and the intermittent crickets. They are long gone these wealthy relatives who showed me such beauty and horror all inseparably fused together. Did they ever pause in their acquisition to wonder about the meaning of it all? This grandmother loved yellow roses. She grew many different breeds of them. Or rather her Japanese gardener did. Did he wonder what I was doing there, wandering around, looking, smelling, and touching his work? He never spoke to me. I never saw him speak to anyone. He just produced exquisite flowers.
Shyoko’s dad – my real grandfather’s older brother – was thrown in a secret prison for sedition, for the crazy pride of trying to keep a Japanese language newspaper running during WW2. When the government returned him to his family, years later, without a trial, he stayed at home and cooked for the children rarely venturing beyond the borders of his backyard where he too was a gardener.