It's funny the things you remember, times like these, places like these.
It's hard to sort out the scene in front of you: the bed, glimmering metal hospital bed, the soft mounds of her body, you see wires snaking in a medusa tangle around her, an IV hanging behind, you see black monitors with green lines and green numbers, tubes feeding into her nose and it's hard, hard to find Mai in all of that stuff. Fluorescent lights, making her skin look paler and grayer, catching in sharp sparks on all the cold metal. Walls painted hospital green, lights flashing green, and it's late in the evening and the whole place has the feel of night, of daylight extend falsely by these glaring lights. Lights strip it all bare, strip the situation down to this elderly woman fading fast in a room full tubes and wires and sharps and sterility like a sickening cloud polishing it all. In the midst, a face floats, so small on the white pillow. It looks the woman lying there is a very sick person. You don't want to think of her as being a very sick person.
She always smelled like things from the kitchen, like pasta or basil or hot bread in the basket under white linens to keep it warm. You always saw her cooking. Stirring things in the big pots on top of the stove you couldn't reach. And later, you were older and you and Mom would walk the two blocks over, sometimes your feet crunching dead brown leaves, sometimes your feet crushing prints into the white flanks of snow, she would serve you dinner every night. Mom always hated to cook, and Mai always loved to. She would tell stories always. Sitting in the old blue armchair, she would tell stories. It's funny how. It's funny how she was always so nonchalant about her death. She knew it was coming, she didn't seem to care. The mystery of life, the nut inside that hard shell we're all pulling at with bleeding fingers, was warm in her palm. She knew she'd lived. She knew she was old. It was always much harder for the rest of us to accept. Is this the end, you find yourself asking. There's a nurse in front of you in ugly turquoise scrubs, checking tubes and wires. Is this the end?
She is lying on the bed. Her chest rises and falls, slowly, painfully. The monitor beeps. You watch her heart beat for a second on the monitor, you think about how each little swell in that line is her heart, her heart pulsing, her blood struggling, struggling through those old, old veins. You think maybe you'll pray. You don't believe in God, do you? But what is there to do here, but pray?
She's lying there and not moving. Her head is on the pillows, lying back. Her face is so small in all that mess. Her eyes are so dark. They look at you, but don't see you. They are dark eyes and they don't see you. You don't know what to say. "I love you, Mai," you say. You say it again, but it's so soft. You don't know if she can hear you, if she can understand you, if she can even see you. "I love you, Mai," you say again.
Time passes. Her chest is rising slowly, falling slowly. Time passes, but you are in stasis. You do not think. You just look at her eyes. Dark eyes. Your heart feels too big for your ribs. You want to crack yourself open and give her your heart.
The nurse taps you on your shoulder and says it's time to leave. You can't believe when you realize forty minutes have past. And you just standing, staring at a woman who does not see you. You, only speaking three words. No, you think, no no, not yet. Look at her lying here, not yet. No. You turn and look at the nurse, thinking you'll say something, but then you see her face. You see her face, you want to scream. You look at her bored gray eyes, her face, weary, impatient, her hand gesturing to hustle you out the door. God, and you see how she looks at Mai like some sort of thing, some job she has to deal with. Anger burns, and fear. You realize that this is just one more old lady to her, just one more sick sack of bones and wire decaying on that bed. You want to grab her shoulders and shake her and cry at her, this woman who doesn't realize the sky is falling, is caving in. You need to make her understand. How could she not see? This woman- this woman. This is a woman who will show you doors and pathways you never imagined and whisper you the names of all the flowers. Look at her, don't look at the gray in her cheeks and the faded irises of those eyes, don't you dare look at her and not see. This woman, she's had tea with the queen of England, she's smoked joints in the cafes of Amsterdam, she's picked fresh pineapples off of heavy trees in Brazil. She had three children in a trailer while her husband studied history at the university, and never told him he was chasing wild dreams and she didn't want to live this sort of life- because she was always ready to live any sort of life, she was always ready just to live. To breathe. This is Mai. In Argentina, in the 1960's, the government went through three revolutions and her children were fed and clean and never missed a day of classes. In Chile, in the 1970's, her friends became los deseparecidos, and there were always fresh flowers in her dinning room. She's bribed Brazilian police, she swam in Lake Titicaca. And when she was a kid she bought ice cream cones for nickels in Canton, Ohio. She can solve your problems just by running her soft old hands over your forehead, so gently, and smoothing the downy blades of hair back from your face. This woman, this woman holds the world and all its intricacies in those grand old hands, those old hands that curl like tree roots, she sees the world and its horror and its beauty and she faces it with incredible braveness, that incredible braveness of hers. You want to grab this nurse and make her see, and tell her that there are women who would never dream of taking her children to a place where there was no peanut butter or ice cream or television at the height of the Eisenhower era, but that this women lying here not only did that, but she made it work, she baked cookies and waited out the hot afternoon rains that washed over Trinidad and she taught her children life and love and silliness and strength. That she took a grandchild in her hands and held her safe, so tight, so gentle, so safe. That there are women who live in ignorance, and women who know the world but only ache, but that this woman, this woman knows and she knows, she's neither dumb nor sad, this woman is everything anyone could want to be. You want to hit this nurse. You do not hit the nurse. You turn away from the nurse, this nurse in her ugly blue scrubs, who looks at Mai and does not see. Who gave her the right to look at Mai? You look at Mai yourself, lying sick, fragile and frail on that bed. Your anger fades into pain. Oh Mai, oh Mai.
You lean forward over the bed. The black eyes. The darkness in them. The light behind them. Her breathing is loud through the tubes, like Darth Vader, heavy breaths that fill the space around her frail body. Her face looks so small lying there. You want to cradle Mai's face in your arms. You want to lie beside her on that horrible bed and feel her chest rise with each breath, and know she is alive. You bend and kiss her, kiss her cheek, kiss her cheek goodbye. Her eyes are dark and soft, you press your lips beneath them, on the powdery soft cheek, the colorless soft old skin. Kiss her goodbye.
Walking out of that room, you are overcome. Linoleum tiles feel unsteady beneath your feet. The need spirals in your gut, the need to make this matter. To make Mai matter, her life matter, who she is matter. Not just to you, but to the whole world, to all these people who are walking blindly in and out of the hospital rooms and not seeing, not knowing, that there is a woman in one of these rooms who is everything you could ever hope to be. You feel so helpless, not only because you cannot heal Mai like she healed all your child's aches and pains, but because you can't give her something, something.... something great and worthy, though you're not quite sure what that something is that you want to give her so bad.
You walk down the sickly sterile halls with Pai, Pai who is stooped and shuffles his old legs slowly. You wonder if he feels like this too. Wonder what it must be like for him, if he even can bring himself to feel anything at all, because this, this woman has been everything to him for so many, many years, and she lies there now and doesn't recognize his old lined face. You remember seeing the old picture of Mai he carried in his wallet in The War, how he wrote his name in pen on the collar of her shirt, how she was so young and lovely in that picture, and kept him company with those smiling black eyes as he crouched in the wreckage of bombed-out cities. You can't imagine this kind old man without his Carolyn by his side, without her. And harder you feel that urge, because how can you make this pain matter? How do you make Mai matter, lying there on that bed so cold?
How can you create anything, say anything, ever, that can convey the value of a human life? Of a life like Mai's, a life so beautiful that you ache for it, that you cry to think about it? How do you fill the void that a life like that leaves when it's gone? How do you ever create enough goodness in the world to fill the hole that that she will leave behind her? How do you stretch her goodness, her flavor, her love, her smell of linguini and face powder, stretch it out far enough to last you forever? How do you do this?
You think maybe you can live without her, that life can continue if it has to be like that. You begin to prepare yourself for this death, that may not come now, but God, she's old, and it will not be a long time coming. You imagine her not being in the kitchen and not framing old pictures in her basement. You imagine her never sitting in that old blue chair, telling you stories again. But it doesn't seem like enough to simply be able to live without her. This death is too big, too sad to slip away like that. It doesn't seem like enough, as long as even the gray-eyed, pinch-faced nurses in this city don't even realize what the world is losing. You feel so small and you want to do something, you have to do something, but you still don't know, don't know what. You wonder how any life can ever be a great life if Mai can fade away in that hospital bed without the whole world crying. You wonder what Mai would say to you if she was herself, here right now, and you were crying to her. She'd know what to say, she always understood the world, understood it so simply, took its weight so gently, she always knew what to say when you couldn't keep your balance. What do I do now, Mai? What do I think? Will you be okay? What does a life mean, Mai? What does your life mean? To me? To the universe? Mai, oh Mai, oh Mai. Did I just, did I just, did I just kiss your soft cheek for the last time? Oh Mai, did I? Is your life a handful of water, pouring between my fingers? Is your life nothing but sand? You ask these questions to the woman who can no longer answer, and the fact that she can no longer answer them is cold and twisting in your chest. The downward trajectory of your heart is stabbing, stabbing at unanswerable questions, at so many uneasy, unnameable wants. The ache begins behind your eyes, cold like death, and spreads out until it fills to the tips of your fingers and toes. You stand behind Pai in the cold snowy parking lot, stand and stare up at a sky full of stars that will live so much longer than her, than you, than all of us. And you do not know, and your eyes fill with hot, weighty tears that overflow, that fall and fall down your cheeks.
It's funny what you remember, times like these, places like these.
Mai sitting in front of you, on 37 between Bloomington and Indianapolis, pointing out the plants growing by the side of the highway in the bath of alkaline dust. You can see her face reflected vaguely in the glass of her window, her old eyes. "Oooh, that's some wild mustard growing there," she points, her index finger wavering against the glass. "That's Queen Anne's lace. You know, I always thought that was the most beautiful weed. It shouldn't even be a weed, it looks far too nice." You say something in agreement. You love it, too. She smiles, and you can see it in the glass, can see her eyes glitter. Her hand pointing again. "And there, that's bittersweet."
Bittersweet. To think of this woman, her heart, her mind.
It's bittersweet, bittersweet, Mai, bittersweet.