Smog: Working through Heartbreak in Beijing

China Marga Ortigas Prose

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The grieving never stops.  That much I can tell you.
With certainty.

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.

About the Author:

Marga Ortigas is a journalist and communications coach who has worked for CNN International and Al Jazeera.

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  1. This is so sad. Each of us has our own hell. Reading this just reminded me of mine. Love how you write. Your mother is certainly smiling down at you.

  2. Intense feelings of loneliness and grief come through with such sadness. All of us have had these feelings of loss that washes over us out of nowhere at times. You have a beautiful way of putting “pen to paper.”

    1. Thank you. Appreciate your kind words and taking the time to read.

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