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Jiu Ma

Jiu Ma

Death is the thing

that nestled beneath my great-aunt’s wiry frame

when the last strand of hair had long fallen from her scalp

and her eyes were hollow with an unnamable absence.

It snuck into the room when my great-uncle was asleep,

a light yet fitful dream seizing him by the collar.

As his head drooped down in the stuffy ICU unit,

Death crept on all fours, leaving trails of smoke and ash

tip-toeing across the granite floor.

It placed a claw at the side of the mattress,

tugging ever so lightly.

When she didn’t respond, Death tugged once again.

She stirred only once,

but that was enough:

Her back lifted just a bit

and in that second, Death squirmed beneath it

and planted itself there,

a cold pillow for a soul departing this earth

Jiu ma, great-aunt:

I never knew you too well.

I knew you in my childhood as the wrinkled woman

with fraying dark hairs and crinkles around her eyes

that deepened when she smiled

Always smiling:

you saw me

and your grin bright as the red envelopes—the hong bao—you stuffed into my hands

never failed to welcome me,

effulgent, with a slight sheen of age

that dissipates when your relatives are near.

Na, giu jiu po!”

“Now, greet your great aunt!”

This is the closest I can translate this phrase

because 叫 is something I can’t find in English.

It does not mean to greet,

but rather to call.

(Who was calling you, great-aunt?)

I babble something vaguely resembling those sharp tones of Cantonese

and regardless of whether you understand it,

your thin arms,

wrapped in a gentle purple long-sleeve,

wrap around me and pull me towards you.

You squeeze my cheeks and gush in Cantonese

(words I cannot understand,)

always pinching and poking and prodding.

All I hear is “Wa, nei fae zho, wo!”

(Wow, you got fat!)

I stalk off to my seat across the circle table from you,

pulling out my tablet,

always making sure to avoid eye contact

with the lady in the long-sleeve.

You emigrated here from Malaysia

to be with great-uncle, jiugong,

a busy-busy-busy man juggling a restaurant here, a business there.

You have three children,

two sons and one daughter.

You treasure those sons

with their rotund faces and obnoxious laughter,

always roaming about the house and taking what was yours.

The daughter you send to your mother’s home when she is a child,

only seeing her on holidays and through the wrinkled pictures ama sends you.

(You never knew the hurt she felt.)

But eventually, your precious sons grew

and grew until they became young men

and demanded you give them money for their houses,

for their own children.

They promise to come back,

to give you money whenever you need it.

They swear it with a hug and a peck on the cheek:

Dozhesai, ama!

Thank you, Mom!

(You give them all your money.)

You first notice your aging

when you find yourself forgetting

the people in the yellowed picture frames by the front door

(High school friend? Perhaps college.)

and the locals at jiugong’s restaurant

(Yes, you think you remember… the one from Chicago, no?)

It is nothing to worry about, your husband says,

nothing that some traditional medicine cannot fix.

Your sons have not called you in weeks,

so they must not know.

Yet you can feel it,

age slipping deep into your bones,

rooting itself there, creating cracks in your memory

that spread like midnight across a late sunset.

Branches curl out, unfurl themselves

and suddenly you are stumbling on the name of your daughter

as she kneels in front of you in the hospital room,

eyes melancholic, and you realize how beautiful she has grown up to be.

The doctor says that you have terminal brain cancer

and you don’t know what that means, but your husband is weeping

and he hasn’t done that in years, not since the birth of your last son

(My god, was that thirty years already?)

I wasn’t there for that last hospital visit two years later.

I was in school, probably taking a geometry test, when you passed

But when I got home,

the forlorn expression on my parents’ faces told me everything.

Jiu ma,

perhaps you still exist somewhere in a liminal space

viewing all your past memories at once,

a kaleidoscope of spider vision

encasing echoes of your life in eternal glass:

grass slipping beneath your feet in a small village in Malaysia;

the ship headed west, creaking over the thrash of the ocean;

your husband gazing up proudly at his new restaurant;

your sons running through the sprinklers in your front lawn;

your daughter,

backpack on one shoulder and college brochure in the other,

looking back anxiously before closing the house door one last time.

From the day you sailed to the promised land

to the day you lay in that hospital bed for the last time,

maybe you did see Death, jiu ma,

sidling up to you, gazing curiously

ensconcing itself quietly in your being

just as you had in this life.

And I think you went quietly, too.

Editors: Amelia Pinto, Marie Hong, Lang Duong

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