Authors: Frances Hwang
Philip’s face stiffens. He has heard this before and is sick of his mother’s talk.
“It’s terrible to think that everyone will still be here when I am gone,” my aunt says. “I’m afraid that all of you will go
on living, you will all forget me— yes, you will forget me. Even now, all of you are living. I am the only one who is not
living ...” My cousin does not look at her as he steers himself up the ramp. When his mother makes the motions to assist him,
he replies stonily that he does not need her help. But he comes to a dead stop when he gets to the door. My aunt stands in
front of the door, gloating. “You don’t need any help, huh?” she says.
Well, you could open the door, Philip says.
“You need my help,” she replies, opening the door for him.
I sleep in the afternoon, my will folding in upon itself. When I wake up, I feel drained and without desire, wanting only
sleep, as if it were some narcotic.
My mother calls me into the kitchen to eat, handing me a bowl full of noodles. She wonders if I have anemia, which she says
is caused not only by poor diet but deficient kidneys. When I sit down at the table, she takes the bowl away.
It’s probably not salty enough for you, she says.
She opens the refrigerator and takes out the soy sauce. You know, she says, I just want to tell you that salt causes stomach
cancer. She tilts the bottle carefully and lets a drop fall onto my noodles.
I snatch the bottle away from her. I don’t want to hear it, I say. I’ve always been vulnerable to what my mother says. No
one has as much influence over me.
One day, I hope you will remember what I say, she tells me.
Please leave me alone, I tell her.
You’re stubborn, just like your auntie. All those years she smoked. Always eating spicy, salty food. A terrible diet! I told
her a few years ago she should have a thorough checkup. She didn’t want to. Too lazy. If she had listened to me— My mother
stops herself and looks at me sadly. Well, she says, I guess it’s all fate. Your aunt is an unlucky person. A fortune-teller
looked at her hand and told her she would live a short life.
How could someone say something like that?
This fortune-teller was blunt. Your aunt was very upset, and I told her not to worry about it. I never said anything, not
even when she moved to her new house and the front door was black. Then last year, she accepted a clock for her birthday.
Do you know that? It means “” but also “going to a funeral.” You don’t ever give a Chinese a clock, all right? I wouldn’t
have taken it, but your aunt laughed. She said she wasn’t superstitious.
What are you trying to do, my mother says when she sees me pouring more soy sauce onto my noodles. Are you trying to kill
In the mornings, I drive my aunt to Baltimore. It takes over an hour each way, and my aunt usually sleeps in the back of the
car. I remember once during a road trip playing cards with my sister over my aunt’s lap, how we smirked at each other whenever
she snored. When my aunt woke up, she looked at us smiling at her. “I hope I wasn’t snoring. Did I snore?”
No, I said.
She looked relieved. “You never know when you’re asleep. It’s so embarrassing, all the noise you make, your mouth hanging
open. People tell me I snore, but I can’t believe it. I don’t think I’m the type of person to snore.”
Yet my aunt could never hold anything in. Even buttons popped off her clothes. She would be pumping gas for her car, and her
skirt would burst open at the waist and fall to the ground.
Today my aunt sits beside me because it is no use sleeping. She blinks at the sun’s glare, her face and hands bloated and
pale, as if she were drowned. I drive in silence, without turning on the radio. The road stretches before us like a monotonous
dream. The windshield vibrates with light, burning my eyes. I forget that I am turning the wheel, my hands following the shape
of the road.
“Last night, I took thirteen sleeping pills,” my aunt says. Her voice quavers, rising from inhuman depths. I’m afraid to look
at her. If I look at her, I will be pulled under, unable to breathe.
“The doctor told me to take one, and if I was still awake to take another in twenty minutes. But I kept taking them. I was
so miserable. My hand kept reaching out for them, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I walked up and down the stairs, I sat
on the floor making strange noises, I was like a monkey—a monkey!” She pauses. “It’s so sad to me.”
What is, Auntie? I say.
“I was thinking of your grandma. You know, she was addicted to sleeping pills. When she couldn’t go to sleep, she would hit
her head against the wall and cry, asking for her mother. A forty-year-old woman still asking for her mother! She didn’t want
any of us, even though we were living. When I was a child, I loved her more than anyone in the world. Just the thought of
her dying would make me go crazy. Now I know how hopeless she felt. Every day trying to get better.”
She looks at me. “I feel closest now to your mother. It’s because we share the same blood, the blood of our parents mixed
together. Our blood is closer to each other’s than anyone else’s.”
I remember visiting my aunt when we first learned about her cancer, how she came down the stairs to greet us, looking only
at my mother and smiling. My mother smiled as well. When they stood in front of each other, my mother took my aunt’s arms,
clutching her by the elbows. They stood like that for a while, holding each other by the elbows. Then my aunt rubbed my mother’s
back gently, and said, “With you here, I feel secure.” I had brought roses for my aunt, and she seemed genuinely pleased by
the sight of them. After learning her news, I had rushed out to the backyard, where our rosebushes stood, and in the dark
I had cut every red, yellow, and pink bloom I could find. The roses were overblown, already dropping petals, but my aunt smiled
as she gazed at them, lifting the bouquet to her nose.
But don’t you feel closer to your children? I ask her.
“Not as strong,” she says. “They have only half my blood. Even though they came out of my body.” My aunt sighs. “I know now
what my life is. My daughter is a doctor but would rather treat her patients than her sick mother. My son has no emotions
and shuts himself up in his room all day and ignores me. I would have been at their side to comfort and take care of them,
but they don’t do that for me. I am sure they love me, but not that much. Even though they have only one mother. Only one.”
At the hospital, my aunt hesitates, wandering down the wrong hallway. She walks slowly, bumping into people, an open door,
the water fountain.
Mrs. Yu, the nurse says. It’s this way.
My aunt ignores her, studying the physicians’ names listed on the directory. When she hears a doctor talking on the phone,
she moves toward him and waits expectantly. The doctor glances up at her.
Mrs. Yu, the nurse repeats as she takes my aunt’s arm.
“My son is a quadriplegic,” my aunt says. “The doctors said he couldn’t live when he was seven, but now he’s twenty-eight.
We won a lawsuit a few years ago, so now he’s rich, and I’m going to find a wife who he can have sex with. Isn’t that wonderful?”
The nurse tells her how happy she is for him. She squeezes my aunt’s hand. Now you sit right there, Mrs. Yu.
I sit beside my aunt, pretending to read a book. My aunt sighs loudly, stirring in her chair. She is waiting for me to look
up. I stare mercilessly at the page, the words tunneling into my mind, then dropping away. My aunt is silent, but I feel her
presence burning, insisting, without touching my skin. Her personality is submerged, or maybe it is magnified, I can’t tell
which. Somehow, though, she has become inseparable from her disease. She reminds me of an insect scurrying along a slippery
edge, trying to keep abreast of water. I can’t bear to see her frantic motions.
My aunt stands up and slowly paces to the other side of the room, her arms pressed against her stomach. She moves toward an
older woman sitting quietly with folded hands. My aunt smiles at her. “What are you here for?”
Oh, the woman says, gazing at her for the first time. She did not notice my aunt creeping toward her with such fateful intention.
It’s not me, it’s my husband.
My aunt looks at her blankly.
He’s getting his radiation now, the woman says. It’s near his throat.
“Me, colon cancer.”
Oh, the woman murmurs.
“Yes. They took a large piece of my colon out two years ago.” My aunt nods as if she is trying to understand all this herself.
“They stapled me together and said I was completely cured. No need to worry, they said.” My aunt nods again. “Now it’s come
back, growing in my spine. The size of a grapefruit. But this time, it’s inoperable, they say.”
Oh, I am so sorry, the woman says.
“Yes. They don’t seem to understand this is the only life you have.”
No, they don’t.
“That is my niece over there. She just finished her first year of college.” The woman looks over at me and we both exchange
a weak flutter of smiles. “She’s always reading books.”
“She’s so good, driving me here each day.”
That is nice of her, the woman says.
I wrote my aunt a few times after I returned to my university in the fall. In one letter, I told her I had always imagined
we would have lunch together someday when I was older and could pick up the check. She wrote back that she liked that idea
and wondered what I would be like when I was older. I remember the person I was in college. I was naive and had a keen sense
of my own importance. When I wrote her that letter, I couldn’t quite believe our conversation would ever come to an end.
I looked through her old photographs not so long ago. My uncle allowed me into his library and invited me to sit down in his
chair. There was an unusual softening in him. He had little patience for people of my generation and often said we were spoiled
and didn’t appreciate everything our parents had given us.
There was one photograph of my aunt and uncle sitting on a bench in Washington Square in New York City. My aunt’s face is
as round as an apple, and she is bundled up in a soft brown coat with a fur-lined collar, her shoulder resting against my
uncle’s. My uncle wears a dark winter coat and tie, and they look like a happy, elegant couple, sitting close beside each
other, with their hands in their laps, and smiling.
You both look so young, I told my uncle.
We took a lot of pictures then, he said. Not so much later. He picked up the photograph and gazed at it for a moment before
he shook his head and put it down again. When you’re young, you have the energy to take pictures, he said.
I wake up, and it is four in the morning, the windows still dark. I have just met my aunt for the first time in several years,
and my mind is still tingling from her presence. I had felt such hope seeing her again.
In my dream, I am walking along a sloping field toward a group of strangers, and I see my aunt talking and laughing with a
glass in her hand. She is wearing the beautiful rose dress that we buried her in. The grass glows unnaturally against the
darkening sky, and I walk toward my aunt with an expanding sense of unreality, my lungs filling with cold, fragrant air. When
I look down, there is the pink shimmer of her dress, which I am now wearing, her pearl necklace looped around my wrists.
The last time I spoke to my aunt, it was near Christmas. It was snowing, and the whiteness outside seemed symbolic. Everyone
said that if there was a miracle, it would be today. But you don’t believe in God, Philip said to me. So there can be no miracles.
My aunt was asleep from the morphine, and when she woke up she was surprised to see all of us standing around her bed. “All
of you are here because I am going to die,” she said. She told us that she had been dreaming of Grandpa. “We were playing
mahjong together, and I was two tiles away from winning.” All of us looked at my grandfather, who seemed bewildered. He didn’t
understand what she was saying. “I was dreaming, and I felt no pain,” my aunt said to him in Chinese. “No pain. It’s nice
to dream like that.” She closed her eyes to go back to sleep. “I don’t mind dying,” she said, “if death is like a dream.”
If death is like a dream. I’m afraid it’s a more absolute disconnection. The closest knowledge I get is when I wake up at
three or four o’clock in the morning. Or maybe that time I was unconscious and they pulled out my wisdom teeth. It was a snipping
of the wires, no images at all, no sensation of time passing. One moment, they were covering my mouth with a mask and I felt
my body growing heavy. The next moment, a nurse was touching my arm and I realized that my mouth was full of cotton. No memory
of the space in between.
But four o’clock passes. The sky begins to lighten, and I feel my blood rushing inside me.
On July Fourth, my aunt hosted a celebration on her deck. She wore a green silk Japanese robe embroidered with gold-red chrysanthemums.
There was something ceremonial about her presence as she sat quietly in her chair. Her face seemed to radiate the peculiar
glow of the dying. People circled and brushed clumsily against her like huge, errant moths. She smiled at them, yet remained
calm and untouched. During the fireworks, everyone’s gaze wandered toward her. I lit a fuse, dodged quickly away. The deck
brightened, a lurid fluorescence, and I looked at all the illuminated faces. An agony of wonder. What secret things passed
in the dark between us? Streaming colors, the crackle and hiss, and then darkness as everyone stared at the spent fuse. In
all the pictures we took of that day, my aunt is the focal point. Her presence quietly overwhelms the others. She gazes at
the camera with clear, shining eyes as if she is staring into her future.