Today I cleaned the house. It had become my beargarden in the last fortnight, a bedlam for wild feelings and reckless ideas, a haven for unread newspapers, scummy coffee cups, wine and vomit stains. What have I become, I wondered, noting a tiny snail that had snuck in, affixed to a windowpane in a spare bedroom. My own Upside Down, I suppose.
A friend rang, interrupting my meditative labor. Her mam died of cancer several years ago, and she was buried on the hottest day that year, beside the Atlantic, waves lapping the edges of the graveyard. Afterwards my friend kept a grief journal, writing thoughts and questions and answers to those questions until she no longer needed it. When enough time had passed.
We both agreed: Grief for a parent is very different than grief for a friend or an uncle. Your parents represent the foundation of your becoming, even when they are absent. Dad's history was his real legacy. The sum total of his experiences in life, in Cambodia and the US, as son, husband, and father, as refugee and immigrant. How it shaped me as I grew up, only half-understanding this secretive, quiet man.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit notes, “The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle... [T]he butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is “psyche,” the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.”
The decay began before I was born, and continued into my childhood and adolescence. Perhaps it never ended. Before he entered the state of instar, he is a young sailor and engineering graduate, posing for a friend-held camera on the US army base with his navy buddies, all of them in striped shirts and flared jeans. Lean and brown, the young man grins, full of mischief it seems, all potential. But he's just about to find out he can no longer go home. He's on the verge of losing the future he had planned before he arrived in the US. He will live the life of a perpetual stranger in an often hostile country