The grieving never stops. That much I can tell you.
It hits you when you see their name…
on an old email, a saved text message, in archived news articles, a pen they owned…
or get a whiff of their scent…
on an old nightgown, hinted at by flowers, or carried by the wind.
I am back in China. My own version of hell.
And yet, it is where I remember my mother the most. It is where I am loneliest.
There is nothing but grey outside my window. The pollution trapping me indoors where the air is stale and dry. I want to flee – to breathe… but there is nowhere to go. I am imprisoned by the concrete smog that erases everything but her absence. Everything but the pain.
I was here the last time she was alive for my birthday. Away from her. She was an ocean away while I was here for a long, homogenous month of work that has blurred into a black hole. I don’t recall what “news” we covered then – at the end of the day, it all merges into vacuous memory. All I remember is that it was the last time my mother was alive on my birthday – and I wasn’t with her.
I sat in front of a small café on a side-street off the Forbidden City to treat myself to coffee and a bowl of noodles. For long life, and all that traditional Chinese birthday malarkey. What I got was dull caffeine in tepid milk, and a spoonful of instant noodles drowning in tasteless broth. There was one prawn in the bowl – that I remember clearly. It was the only splash of colour in an otherwise dismal dish.
My mother kept me company as I ate. I rang her on the phone. Across oceans just to chit-chat. It’s the clearest memory I have of ever doing that. Ringing my mother just to chat. I could hear the sadness in her voice – the sadness she felt because she instinctively knew her daughter was in pain. There were no words for it then – this “pain.” I was just suffocating in grey, and surrounded by loneliness. I cried like I hadn’t cried in ages. A solitary figure huddled on a dirty sidewalk, shivering in an old coat, sipping stale coffee and flat soup while an unintelligible world whirled all around. I held on to my mother’s voice then like a lifeline.
She was my lifeline.
And now, she is gone.
I cannot tell you what it’s like to be back in China – a place my mother has never been – but where each crowded corner reverberates with her overwhelming absence.
I am an orphan now. And China, at this moment – with its pollution, its noise, its cold hidden heartbeat, and its muted impersonal character – is my own version of hell.