2011 Winning Story: Pour Qu'on N'oublie Pas - English Department Writing Contest
“A writer's problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” –Ernest Hemingway
Information about the English Department Writing Contest.
Pour Qu'on N'oublie Pas
by My-Linh Ha.
My mother and I have always been close. Unlike many adolescents growing up, I never felt like she was a liability, did not understand me, or other typical teenage complaints. "My little dear" is what she calls me, even though it's getting more and more obvious I'm taller than she is. I don't mind, though. I love my mother.
My mother is affected with Sjögren's Syndrome, which means that it is difficult for her to produce any kind of moisture. This meant, for the most part, water bottles everywhere, very little dry food at the table, and eye drops always within reach. Another thing it meant was that my mother did not cry. She had little reason to do so, anyway. My mother was strong, had many friends that supported her, and was a happy woman.
One day while picking me up from school, she said, "Ma chérie, I might seem a little distant today. You see, I got a call today from France, and my brother Elie is dead. He jumped out of his apartment window."
I did not remember my uncle Elie very much. Mostly I heard of him because my other family in France disliked him, and he got into trouble. One time during one of our visits, we took him out to eat at a Flunch, which was the only time I ever remember seeing him. I do not remember what he looked like, but I do remember dropping him off at his apartment complex. He had waved while we walked away, his figure illuminated by the sickly green light of the parking lot.
Elie was not an important uncle to me. This news meant nothing.
We drove down the street for a little while, and she added, "Elie and I were very close. He was my favorite brother."
But my mother did not cry. That was not something she did.
2009 was not a good year for my family. My sister was away at another school, my mother was stuck in a job she did not like with too many hours, and I was a senior in high school. The friends I had made in the previous years had either moved away or graduated. The one who didn't seem to be having a bad year was my father, who got a new job that sent him to Taiwan on a luxurious business trip.
My mother and sister, who had long been my greatest supports, were not often available. When they did come home, they were more than likely too occupied with whatever new bad thing had happened at my mother's workplace to pay much attention to me. I spent much of my time alone in the house, since I did not participate in any after-school activities or have any friends that would invite me to hang out.
I felt like I had been forced into a solitary existence. I would have fainting spells that interrupted my coursework. With my mother coming too late and too tired to make dinner, I ate poorly or not at all at some meals. Many little problems like this piled up.
A little while before June, my father invited my mother to come with him on his next trip to Taipei, which she accepted. I was more alone than ever. While she was away, all the sadness and hysteria and gloom that had been gathering in secret parts of me exploded, and I had to be taken to the nurse's office. I told my mother about this, and she dismissed it and said not to worry. Things would get better when school got out, she said.
I sought an end to the rat race. The end of high school only meant the beginning of university, where I would be working on something my father told me constantly I wanted to do in hopes of convincing me. I did not want to spend my the rest of my life going towards an education and being in a career that did not engage my soul. I began gathering ideas of how to die.
Before I would end my life, though, I would go to France with the rest of my family. I would not die so soon before the opportunity to eat my aunt's crêpes again. I wasn't that stupid. When I had come back from that beautiful land, I would take care of it.
The first few days, only my mother, my sister, and I were there, and we largely spent time with my grandmother. My grandmother filled us in on family doings we had missed while in the States.
One day she said to my mother, "Let's go see Elie. I remember you two were so close. Bring the little dears too." So my sister and I walked with my mother and her mother down to a cemetery a little ways away. I would run ahead, come back, then go down the road again in nervous cycles that puzzled me. It was like I was being pulled towards our destination in a yo-yo like fashion.
The front gate was closed. "Such a shame," my grandmother said. While she was puzzling over why the gate was closed, I had been watching another person approaching the cemetery. They entered through a little wooden door hidden in the stone wall.
"Come on, over here," I said, peering over the wooden door. The cemetery was like any other I had seen, but for some reason, I was very agitated. Perhaps I did not want my mother to see something that would cause her grief, but despite that, I hurried them towards the entrance and was angry that they were taking their time.
"No grave, or a tombstone," my grandmother said as she lead us to where Elie was. "That takes up too much space. There are too many people in the ground! We had him cremated and sealed up in a nice little slot in a shared tomb. You will see. It was all very lovely."
The tomb looked like a fountain, with a wide basin of stone and a pillar in the middle with inscriptions. My sister and I waited on some steps above while my mother and my grandmother went to the tomb.
"Ah, there he is," my mother said.
"No one can touch him now," said my grandmother.
My mother stood a long time staring at the tomb, her back to my sister and I. The gravity of that silence was excruciating. Then, without a sound, my mother brought a hand to her face, a movement I knew instinctively despite not seeing her expression.
My mother's tears made me cry as well. I learned then that the reason my mother didn't cry wasn't because it was something she "didn't do", but because it was something she couldn't do. To let tears fall was extremely difficult for her, so she did not cry even though she may have wanted to at times. Before I did not think that Elie's death was something terribly important because I did not see my mother cry or try to, but in reality, she was just holding those feelings inside.
I did not know Elie very much, cannot remember his face or his voice, but he touched me very profoundly that day. Like me, he had sought an end to his troubles. But what had he gained in doing so? "A little pit," my mother managed to say through her tears. "The ashes of my brother are in a little pit."
I heard that those that attempt suicide experience an undeniable urge to live seconds before their life is about to end. When I think about that, my heart breaks for those that succeed, like my uncle Elie. Visiting Elie was like that flash of wanting to live, or waking up. I realized I would accomplish nothing by dying, and my mother, whom I loved so dearly, would surely cry again. I believe that pull I experienced on that day was an influence of my uncle, who had something to teach me. Though I shied away from the pull, and though it seemed like we would not be able to see him after all, I found a way to his resting place. Perhaps that person who had entered the cemetery from the other door was a sign from Elie as well.
On that day, I told myself, "I must never make my mother cry." I also said, "I must not forget this day or the man we visited." My uncle may be nothing more than ashes tucked in a tomb where I cannot see him, but one day, I would like to give my thanks.