Between the lines of an obituary: A personal essay

Photo of Jordan Harris' grandfather
Jordan Harris/Courtesy

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Lincoln, California. April 1, 2021.

 

Today is Holy Thursday, which means the end of Lent is near. “Lent” comes from “lencten,” an Old English word referring to the spring season — the time after a period of darkness, decay, death. Despite its name, the majority of Lent takes place before spring, during that period in the winter months.

It is then, through prayer and meditation, when millions remember the death of Christ. But I have been remembering yours, too.

 

When they remember your death, they will remember

the stories told by forgotten photographs

they will remember the way their chests tightened and

the way those strange lumps clogged their throats

they will remember their feelings after you crossed the threshold

into the mystery they will never solve with a human

certainty

 

What do you remember, Jeo-dee? I’m not sure if that’s what you would ask; the sound of your voice comes back to me distorted, a memory swallowed by static. Being unable to remember it is like moving my finger inside a hole in my chest years after the bullet’s been removed. But I remember you had your own little collection of nicknames for me, even if I can’t remember all of them. Jeo-dee. It’s not right, but it’s the best I can do. For you, I wish it was better.

 

 

when your starving lips curled toward the throat that could no longer swallow

when your bones burst into violet mountains rising under your spotted skin

when the numbers on the little machine descended with each footstep you took

toward the Answer, breathing slower, and slower, and slower

still …

 

But in these past weeks of fasting, I could still remember the before. It often wanders back to what you loved, that joy of feeding us, that small smile triggered by our joy as we filled ourselves. Isn’t it strange, then, how my memories of you are emaciated? Such is the heartless truth of my own carelessness, yet they are still there, even if they have holes in them, even if they are broken.

 

they will remember the tears the black the teeth from which

threadbare apologies escape

but I will not remember because

I did not cry

I felt without feeling their grief because

I knew you

still heard

my voice

 

The dining room table was wood, and it was an oblong shape, I think. The junk she collected was still in its infancy; the hordes of the jungle that would suffocate the house in that quietly aging suburbia were still far away. We have the chairs now, the ones that look like they’re from the ’70s, with cushioned seats the color of turmeric. And I remember how her voice stung.

 

when water invaded your lungs when your hands and feet became ice

when the yellow river ran red when the numbers rose and fell because

she could not let go of you nor the things that made

your organs slump in defeat

 

I remember the full-size bed and the weary white light in the blue grey black of that room, the one haunted by years of second place, unwanted, sirang ulo. I remember what it feels like to be greeted by fear first thing in the morning, I remember the fruitless desperation to build dams, something to keep everything inside. But I don’t remember you. You were only there. Even when she made me into an alien, all because my skin was darker than theirs, darker than hers, than yours. In my flooding foolishness, I asked about my birth certificate and avoided the sun for months. She’s only joking with you, Jeo-dee. I don’t know if those were your exact words, but I know you didn’t laugh.

 

they will remember the crying time

when chemicals kept you whole

so they could find their

peace and fall apart

properly

 

I don’t remember the acrid smell she wielded like cheap perfume. But I do remember how it was a weapon to taunt me, a violation of a child with slow-growing bones in deathlike sleep. I also remember the torture of holding back tears that sucked my little lungs dry. I remember how her violence perpetually obscured you from view, how her volatile fever pitches overrode your Tagalog, the language like a secret between you that I still do not know. And I remember the mountain of ground beef speckled with tender onions and spices I cannot name, placed on the bed of jasmine rice that was always perfect, in the ceramic bowl with the flowers painted on the bottom, sitting on the table, growing cold.

 

but I will remember the waiting

time when both of us

were suffering when

I saw you

clinging to life under

a fluorescent sun

 

In the summers, the PBS channel was our babysitter in the morning after they dropped us off. Egg omelet like a burrito, filled with your signature ground beef. In the afternoons, other shows watched over us. I remember “Reba,” and there was another sitcom that was made for adults, about another dysfunctional family, but I can’t remember the name of it. T-bone steak with broccoli, cooked to perfection, on the same perfect jasmine rice. We’d sometimes spend as much as eight, maybe nine, hours a day in front of the TV. Maybe more. I remember your mild anger, those little battles for the remote control so you could watch the news. Eight-inch pans of steaming puto, your crown dessert.

 

when She saw the Body

clinging to nails in wood

did you entrust her to our care

she who could not let go of you

as He entrusted the Virgin

to the Beloved?

 

I remember hating the smell of Seafood City. I remember how you never really bought napkins. She would always take too many from every place they were free. Sometimes, she would take what wasn’t free; I remember the tower of plastic dessert cups from HomeTown Buffet in the cabinet above the stacks of washed Styrofoam and takeout containers. I remember the soft light in your tired eyes when you would tell a joke in an attempt to explain her despotic refusal to waste anything. None of us were supposed to touch any of it, including you. In your melancholy stoicism you did not fight, with your words or anything else. But the cobwebs grew up with us and the dust spread like mold, and we wondered if it was one of the poisons that invaded your body.

 

for that was when we saw Her

Sorrow

while they tore into Him

with a hunger

for miracles

why does he not save himself?

 

The jungle was now on the verge of overgrowth, and there was no room, no space for any kind of child’s mess. In fact, there were no children on that street, or if there were, they were ghosts belonging to a bygone nuclear age. Sometimes, we’d open the sliding door to the backyard without your permission. I remember carefully dodging the corpses of nectarines on the ground from the trees you didn’t have the body to maintain. When I looked up, I saw that the paint on the pergola you built so many years before was chipping badly, a wretched mix of rough white and rotting brown.

 

and you, with your dying

hands, grasped by she who cried

to Him

why are you taking away my husband?

 

After the trip to Makati, you both brought back flags of different sizes and jeepney collectibles and a paperback copy of “Noli Me Tángere.” Touch me not. I asked you about Bataan for a history project on World War II. You said something about babies’ heads being torn from their bodies after they were torn from their mothers. You also said your father drove a jeepney during the war, I think. Or was it after?

 

that was the time

I finally understood

the difference between

death and endings

that was the time

me and you

the living and the dying

hold their breath together

 

I don’t know why I remember so little, but I also don’t know why I never asked you for no other reason than to hear you speak, to see as you saw. You were just always there. In the leather recliner before it filled with her clearance knickknacks and expiration dates, on the sofa that would soon also drown, in the film camera you stood behind so you could take pictures for every birthday and holiday before smartphones took over everything, on the wall behind the flatscreen in your abstract painting that I never asked about either. Touch me not.

 

the moment in the dark when

your struggle finally shudders

to a stop

the moment before the earth trembled

into Thy hands I commend my spirit

 

***

 

San Francisco, California. April 2, 2021.

Et inclináto cápite trádidit spíritum.

(Hic genuflectitur et pausatur aliquantulum.)

And bowing His head, He gave up the ghost.

(Here all kneel and pause a few moments.)

— From the reading of the Passion on Good Friday, according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite

 

Sometimes, I think of that photograph taken in the airport on the day you named this place your home, and I think about the promises that carried you away from the place they always forget unless it’s convenient to remember. I think of the American dream, how peculiar it is: so well-dressed in glittering exceptionalism, yet burdened by paralyzing exception: unless, until, not quite. What, then, is your pancit? Is it the golden offspring of a dream, or is it the silver lining of a nightmare? Or did you dare to dream at all — not for my mother or her brother or anyone, but for yourself?

 

as Death heard the sound

of your fading heart

and grasped the knob between

time

and

eternity.

 

***

 

Sacramento, California. April 3, 2021.

Today is Holy Saturday, which means tomorrow is Easter Sunday, the day millions commemorate the resurrection of Christ. Today also marks three years since your death.

I hope that if you didn’t dare to dream, I can still deserve to be among the last things you saw before you closed your eyes for the last time, even if I wasn’t deserving then, even if I’m not now. And I hope my brittle memories never fall off their overcrowded shelves and shatter into millions of pieces on the floor of time, because then I’ll never forget the kind of love that feels the cold of the knife seesawing quickly through green onions, the kind that bears the spittle flying like bullets from a too-fast-moving mouth, the kind that comes along and waits patiently, always, until it’s stolen away like a thief in the night.

Contact Jordan Harris at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jordxnhxrris.