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“Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”
I had to go back, you know, and oh God how I didn’t want to. But when you grieve, life winds its straps around you and carries you off, whether or not you are willing.
From Syracuse I took the train into Manhattan where I was supposed to meet up with Olivier for a couple of days before flying out. He was back from France after the holidays – there, in part to support me, but mainly to tie up loose ends before moving his things back to France. He listened to me try to express some of the horror, but he didn’t ask any questions. His relief was palpable when the topic moved on to other things, and he quickly turned his attention to soaking up as much of the City as he could before having to move on to the next stage of his life.
So I flew back to Taiwan alone, and while on layover in Seoul, I remembered the woman who had flown back to Asia after attending her brother’s funeral – the woman whose brother had committed suicide just like mine had. And the ghost of our conversation superimposed over my reality, her sorrow over my sorrow, as I sat there in the nearly-empty terminal.
When I walked into the school for the first time after two weeks, the entire schoolyard of small children and teachers erupted in cheers to see me back. This was not the reaction I wanted or needed, and I had to turn back outside to control my tears and my anger. I was angry that people thought I would be ready to move on with my life so soon. I was angry that they were happy to see me, and that their lives were going to keep going forward gaily when this horrible loss had just turned mine upside down.
I had changed again. Whatever positive steps I had made to heal and grow stronger following the car accident were quickly thrust aside as I was hurled down by my grief. Everyone noticed how negative and defensive I had become, and I permanently alienated many of my friends.
In those winter months – the bearable season in a tropical Taiwan – I spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time sleeping. And I had terrible nightmares. Sometimes I would wake up so terrified I could see the veins in my chest pulsing underneath my skin because my heart was beating so fast. I had this constant sense of foreboding, a feeling that would often jolt me out of a deep sleep and leave me gasping for breath.
The thought of eating meat repulsed me for the first time in my life. Matt took me on his motorcycle to the vegetarian Buddhist stand in a market a little further away than our usual haunt. There we would sit at the crowded, outdoor tables, eating a wide variety of delicious tofu and dogan (the chewier “skin” of the tofu) dishes. With him, at least, I could have easy conversation. And he was always able to match my mood – reckless, despondent, falsely gay, meditative. He was always attuned to what I needed.
My students wanted to know what happened. They asked questions, which I couldn’t answer and which would evoke haunting visions that momentarily staggered me. They didn’t understand this shadow of a teacher of theirs who never smiled anymore. Ada, my Chinese Assistant, worried about the wrinkle that was developing in the middle of my forehead, and would smooth the skin with her thumbs to try and take away my wrinkles – and by doing so, take away my worries. She soothed me with her affection, but she could not reach me in my emotional isolation.
One night I had a dream. Oh, it was such a vivid, real dream. I was at the very top of a tall tower, and all around me were glass windows overlooking a city at night, giving me a 360° view. It was pitch black out and I could hear loud explosions, all around me. When I peered out the window, I saw bombs exploding all over the place below me, lighting up the dark streets and the horizon. I was alert, aware of the war that was going on down there, and I knew that I was in danger where I was. I had to get out. I had to find a way to enter the war zone, as impossible as that seemed, and find a safe place to hide there.
Something caught the corner of my eye, and I looked over to my side and saw Mark – my brother Mark. He was real! He was right there! I grabbed him and clung to him, so overjoyed to see him again. I didn’t want him to go away, and I almost felt like I could keep him with me simply by the force of my will, but somehow even in my dream I knew he would have to leave.
I asked him, “What’s it like there?” I was talking about the afterlife – I knew it and he knew it. He shook his head, and hesitated before saying, “Scary.”
That silenced me for a moment and I looked down. I felt it in my soul that he must be right. It had to be awful and scary because I was already filled with dread from the war that was going on where I was.
But I took him by the arm and said, “You have to come with me. You have to come and visit Dad because he misses you so much.” All the longing of my heart poured into my words and my urging. I wanted to be able to erase the last vision my father had of him, and fill the terrible hole that was left in my family. I knew that my brother was the missing element that could fix everything and make it right again.
Mark shook his head slightly at my words, as if to imply that he couldn’t, but he came with me into the elevator just the same. We started the long descent to the bottom together, not looking at each other, but staring straight ahead. My shoulders slumped as it dawned on me that there were no more words to be said between us.
In the very last instant before we arrived on the ground floor, I turned my head to look at Mark, and that’s when I saw that he was gone. Suddenly the sound of an explosion rocked me sideways off my feet. My eyes flew open and I found myself in my own room, sitting bolt-upright in bed with the sound of firecrackers skittering along the alley outside my window.
It was Chinese New Year.
The first year I lived in Taiwan, one of the teachers convinced me to go to church with her. It was a forty-five minute bicycle ride away, and we were the only two American teachers interested in going. When I returned to Taiwan, I continued going from time to time by myself because I liked seeing other Westerners there, and I suppose I also went because I thought it was the right thing to do.
But I can’t really say I was seeking God or anything. I don’t remember ever praying or thinking about him outside of those brief church services. And after Mark died, it didn’t occur to me to pray even once. In the personal hell that I was dwelling in, God was definitely nowhere to be found.
The first time I attended church after Mark died, I sat in the back of the tiny sanctuary, away from the prying eyes of people I didn’t know very well. My heart was so raw, I cried the entire service. When it was over, the girl sitting in my pew who was about my age, asked with concern if she could help me with anything. Her name was Coralie.
I tried to keep it together as I told her about my brother’s suicide, my words getting caught in my throat with the tight control I was trying to keep over my emotions. She listened with a grave expression, her eyes full of compassion for my naked grief.
When I had finished speaking, she said hesitatingly, “There is a Christian psychologist who is doing mission work here in Taiwan for a couple of months. He goes to the church over at the American school.” She paused to judge my reaction. “If you want, I can put you in touch with him – if you think it might help to talk to someone.”
I nodded my assent, and whispered, “Okay.”
The first time I took a taxi to see this psychologist was on a regular school day, and I went over my lunch break. I was mortified at the thought that someone might find out about it so I tried to think of some excuse I could say to the other teachers for where I was going in case they asked. “I’m going to meet a friend for lunch who works over on the other side of town,” I practiced in my head.
It was hard to be there with him, to open up. I wasn’t used to counseling and didn’t know where to begin. But as I started to talk, I could hear someone shuffling papers in the office right next to the room I was in. It shocked me a little bit, because I thought there was some protocol about patient privacy concerning psychologists.
“Um. Can you close the door?” I asked. “I don’t want anyone else to hear what I’m saying.”
“Ah. That’s my wife next door – she works in the office during each of my sessions,” he said, almost apologetically. “This is part of the protocol we follow in the missions program I’m part of, and it’s to avoid being alone with someone behind closed doors. Are you okay for us to proceed?”
I struggled with it, but didn’t see any choice. This was not what I expected counseling to be like. In the early sessions, I would trail away when I heard movement in the next room. But eventually the extraneous sounds faded away as the counselor really listened to me. I could sense that his entire attention was riveted on me.
I saw him for a few months before his mission ended and he went back to the States. I don’t remember much about our sessions other than the kindness in which he embraced the outpouring of my venomous pain, but I do remember him giving me a Bible during our very last session, with a passage highlighted in it.
It was Philippians 1:3-6 “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
We read the passage together, and then he said, “I have been praying for you, and I will keep praying for you.” He gave a nod and continued, his smile full of kindness, “I am confident that God has begun a good work in you and that he will carry it on to completion.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept that someone I barely knew was praying for me. Why would he even care about me enough to do that? But I was very touched. I was also astonished at how easy it was to read the Bible and how directly it spoke to my heart. So I began to read this Bible that he gave me from time to time, curious by the things I read.
Coralie proved herself a true friend and came to spend time with me once a week, riding her motorcycle an hour each way, sometimes in the pouring rain. We just talked, and at times I would ask her to explain something I had read in the Bible. I had all sorts of prejudices against religion and against God, but she answered me with a humility I have never been able to acquire. When I asked her things like how God could let such cruel, cruel things happen, she answered in her soft Australian accent, “I don’t know much. I don’t know how to answer you. But I know that God is good.”
It didn’t bother me that she had no answers. Her humility was a perfect match for my pride because I had no one to fight against. And something resembling faith started to penetrate my heart.
My beloved class in the school was taken away from me. All my students left to go to Chinese school full-time, and now had their English lessons in the afternoon as an extra-curricular activity. So I was given an entirely new class that was twice as large, and which met in a space little better than a hallway. The students were all complete beginners, and rowdy due to the less favorable teacher-student ratio. I began to get desperate, counting down the days until I could leave and go to Paris. I tried to push away the thought that without my class I didn’t belong in Taiwan anymore, without Olivier’s whole-hearted welcome, I didn’t belong in Paris, and without my family intact, I didn’t belong in NY. I didn’t belong anywhere.
My old Teaching Assistant, Elva, was still in my life, although she had left the school and moved to Taipei to start working there. One weekend she visited and proposed to take me into the mountains on her motorbike – we could make a day of it and bring a picnic lunch. I loved riding the motorbike. I felt so free, whipping past the people and the sights at an exhilarating pace. Helmets were not required and I didn’t care whether or not I survived a fall, so I let the wind tug at my hair freely, and brace against my body. I wanted the wind to rip the pain out of the clutches of my chest.
At first we drove and saw the familiar busy streets, loud vendors pushing their wares at every turn. We stopped at the lights, lost in an army of motorbikes, the thick white clouds of exhaust reaching up to the first story of the buildings nearby. And then the roadways opened up and became larger as we saw more and more of the countryside. We rode on for over an hour like that and then, there in the distance – the mountain.
We drove onto the path that would bring us there, the straight, wide road that crossed the rice paddies on either side, and that would eventually lead to the base of the mountain before winding its way up. The curves in the road pulled our bodies to one side and then the other as we climbed our way to the top. When we got to our destination, we found a little dirt semicircle off the side of the road where we parked our motorbike under the hedges. As soon as we switched off the motor, we noticed how still it was; no one else was there but us.
We walked around wall of hedges, baskets in hand as we chatted lightly. We began to pick the wild litchis in the tall bushes, reaching higher and higher to get the largest, juiciest ones above our head, and we stopped to peel off their purple cardboard skin and taste the cloying sweetness of the fruit, before spitting out the smooth brown pit, our fingers sticky from the juice. When we had filled our baskets, we returned to the road and drove a ways until we found the large stream winding its way down the mountain. In the center, there were two broad, flat rocks that jutted out of the rushing stream of water, as if the dry smooth surface was beckoning us to settle on it.
Smaller rounded rocks formed a pathway in the current, and we were able to hop across them to reach the middle. There we sat talking and watching our empty litchi shells float downstream. We stayed there until the sun started to set, until we started to feel the chill in the early evening air. And then the fading light finally shook us out of our reverie, and we stood up to get our balance before hopping back across the stones, and collecting our things to go home.
I’ll never forgot that day on the mountain, the day when the sights and feelings were so foreign it was like someone else’s life momentarily juxtaposed mine – the day I tried to outrun my pain.
I remember how we turned towards the mountain, coasting freely over the crisscross of yellowed roads with their large grids of golden rice waving in the glaring sun almost as far as the eye could see. And the image of that hot sun, blue sky, the golden rice, the green and brown set of mountains ahead, and me, flying, flying across it all … I think this scene will flood my vision with its brilliant colors in my last days.