First Faint in America
I didn’t know the song or any of the words. And I didn’t know what to do. I was the smallest in my class, stuck in the center of the front row of first graders—for all to see what I didn’t know. I was relieved to spot my mom and dad in the audience, their tawniness standing out in the sea of white faces of Wilder, Vermont, parents.
Obviously, I was to do what the class was doing, but I didn’t know how to form the words or carry the tune and release that creation of music through my mouth. The best solution was to do something with my lips—make them open and shut, open and shut—without sound and in approximation to the movements of my classmates’ mouths. But I couldn’t see their mouths. The teacher stood directly in front of me as she waved her pencil baton to and fro, keeping time and moving us along in the song. Her animated baton swinging, her effort to guide and direct, was of no help to me.
The sun was strong that day, an afternoon in the brief second summer of my first New England autumn. It was so bright that its light, a gigantic flash of white, bleached everything around me: the white faces that shone whiter, the trees drained of their radiant leaves, and the parked cars on the street dimmed to colorless apparitions. My mouth desperately gasped for air, a land-stranded fish. I opened and shut my mouth faster and faster, trying harder and harder to fake a song in a language I did not know. The warbling sounds of the kids became deeper and slower, until the melody dissolved—completely.
Under the heat of the gorgeous fall sun, my little body crumpled on the grass at the feet of the boy standing next to me. The song must have halted mid-sentence or mid-stanza. There were probably gasps, my classmates craning their heads to get a glimpse of me.
It was my first failure at imitating the white Americans in my new world. I got much better as time went on. The fainting, though, didn’t stop. It was the first in a series of increasingly longer bouts of blacking out, departures from reality.
I wonder if, on that warm day in Wilder, my body was trying to tell me I didn’t have to try so hard to do something I couldn’t do. Maybe that was the message my body meant to convey to my mind, but I didn’t absorb it. Instead, I focused on getting really good at fitting in with white Americans. My mimicry fooled people around me. I became so skilled that I fooled myself. Until my body would give out and short-circuit, and I would faint once again—my body demanding a break from the performance.
First Death in America
In the lazy, carefree month of June 1961, my best friend, Betsy, and I rocked on the squeaky glider swing. The lilac bushes were in their final bloom. The two-toned Chevrolet came up the driveway. I saw Dad and my oldest sister, Myung, through the windshield. Her eyes were so swollen I couldn’t see the whites. And Appa … he looked really sad. My other sister, Susie, wasn’t there. I thought of her in that moment, perhaps because I knew what was coming.
Dad didn’t give a long explanation. He told me Mom had died. All of us, stilled and silent, stood by the driveway: Appa, Myung, Betsy, Irma Abbott, and me. No one spoke, but what is there to say in such a moment? I will forever love Betsy and her grandmother for not speaking. There is little in life more intimate than the raw seconds when a child is told her mother has died by her father who must do this, fresh after the dying.
How long we stood there, I don’t know. Eventually, I climbed the steps to our second-floor apartment, remembering how hard Mother’s breathing became on the same stairs. I walked through the kitchen, the living room with her chair by the bay window, and into her bedroom. Opening the closet door, I smelled the scent of Omma and buried my head in the folds of the long quilted robe she always wore. The pattern of little pastel flowers had faded from the years it covered her body. I couldn’t figure out how my mom had gone—how she could no longer be alive—while the smell of her was so strong. I crawled into the farthest corner of the closet and sat among her dresses and shoes. It was the only way I could stay close to her.
I wanted to believe that America was a place where anything was possible. I wished for my mother to come back to life, like Snow White and Jesus Christ, whose stories I had heard after we came to this country. I wished for the magic of Walt Disney and the Resurrection: Mother returning to us, flying with her wings from a faraway continent of the dead. In my child’s mind, she was not totally unreachable. I thought America had the power to exorcise the bad and convert it to the beautiful.
Our family continued without her, but barely. Each of us withdrew into separate bubbles, breathing in the grief-saturated air. Grief is not neutral. Over time, it would alter the very cellular workings of our brains and bodies, affecting everything we did and didn’t do.
Even now, in the most unexpected moments—walking into a cobweb in an old barn or finding a dust ball under my desk—I am startled by the remnant of my old sorrow, lingering so long after Mother’s death. It crosses my path as it calls for my attention to catch and release it. Its familiarity tempts me to stroke it, the way children run their flimsy baby blankets against their cheeks. I know there is no real comfort in clinging to painful memories.
Yet, the wispy phantom of grief can still tug at me. I want to make this phantom show its other side, the one that came before the grief. I want to be reminded of love that was the precursor to sorrow. I want to remember the feeling of happiness in the arms of my mother when she was alive. I want to attend more fully to the living and not so much to the dead.