“Lessons” by Karen Chen is the winner of our Fall 2016 Non-Fiction Contest.
It was 7 A.M. August morning. My mother called home. She spoke too loudly, the way she always did over the phone, as if I couldn’t hear her over the U.S.-Canadian border between us.
She was quiet for a moment. “Your aunt passed last night.”
The word for passed in Mandarin is outwardly deceiving. The words literally meant that Aunt walked away, but I knew what my mother really meant and that this sort of walk was something people didn’t return from.
“Okay,” I said stupidly. “When are you coming home?”
“Soon.” She hung up. It was the first time she answered that question with something other than “I don’t know.”
My father wandered into the kitchen, bleary-eyed with his shirt untucked. “Who called?” he yawned.
“Mom,” I said. “She said Aunt Anqi passed.” My voice grew quieter with every word, until “passed” was only a semblance of a whisper.
He paused for a second with his hand on the coffee maker. “We knew it would happen soon,” he sighed, letting his arm rest on the counter as the rest of him slumped against it.
I nodded with dry eyes and sat down at my desk. It was my birthday. I was finally sixteen years old. Neither my father nor I mentioned it.
My father has a sister as well, but Aunt Anqi (pronounced ahn-chee) was the aunt I saw the most often and spent the most time with. On paper, I just write her name down as Aunt, because to me, she is the most important one.
My family stayed at her house whenever we took trips to China. She would often feed me cookies and fruit gummies from the local market. At six years old, I proclaimed during dinner that Aunt’s cooking surpassed my mother’s, which left Aunt jubilant and my mother disgruntled. “Eat more,” Aunt encouraged happily, pushing plates toward me. I always did. Later, for dessert, we would break peanuts out of their shells and talk. I would tell her about school back in America; she would try to teach me quicker ways to remove the peanut shells and nag at the way I sat in my chair. “Sit up straighter. All young ladies need good posture.”
Aunt kept her curls perfectly coiffed each day, and when I stayed with her, I found her in the bathroom combing black dye into her white hairs on a regular basis. “She cares too much about her appearance,” my mother would say dismissively, carrying the gray and white in her own hair proudly. “Who cares if she has some white hair? She’s in her sixties.”
Aunt would swat my mother with her arm. “It’s important for a young lady to always look presentable,” she sniffed. “You should teach your daughter that as well.” And she would turn to me, the corners of her lips lifting into a satisfied smile. “Isn’t that right?”
It lifted my spirits to see Aunt driving my mother to speechlessness, a feat I’ve never accomplished. “Yes, of course you are right,” I had said. I let Aunt smooth out the wrinkles in my shirt and push my shoulder blades back as my mother shook her head. I never thought about why Aunt treated me the way she did, only that sometimes she stood up for me when no one else did.
That same year, Aunt and I made egg tarts together for the first and last time. She demonstrated how to whisk the eggs, leaning her bowl to the side and aggressively whipping the chopsticks against the porcelain edges. “Your mother never taught you? Well, it’s about time you learned,” she grumbled. “Six years old and you still don’t know how to do anything in the kitchen.” I mimicked Aunt’s smooth motions as perfectly as I could, but still she leaned over to clasp her hands over mine. “No, more like this. Yes, good, you’re learning.”
When the egg tarts came out of the oven, they tasted bland and lacked a sufficiently firm texture, but they were the first things I had ever baked. I glowed with pride. Aunt clucked her tongue and reprimanded, “Hold the tray with both hands; it’s going to fall.”
The Last Trip with Aunt happened thirteen months before she died. I had wanted to go to math camp instead.
Even though I pleaded for my parents to let me spend my summer upstate surrounded by shapes and formulas, they forced me to go on a summer trip with them, Aunt, and my cousin. “We bought tickets months ago,” my parents argued. With regret, I tucked away my math camp application forms and got ready to go on the road.
These summer trips together were a tradition; the same group of us traveled together annually to places all around North America – a tour of Yellowstone National Park, a weeklong stay on a small boat in Toronto. That summer, we went to Vancouver and the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Aunt walked along the roads with me, admiring the mountains high up in the distance. Right before the trip, the doctors in China had reported that she was fit enough to travel with us. Her cheeks glowed as she trod along the path.
In the middle of the Last Trip, my mother injured her arm carrying too many suitcases up to the hotel rooms. She sank into an armchair and winced with pain. The medicine patch on her arm smelled like chemicals and the remains of something that had broken apart.
When my mother had fallen asleep, her injured arm resting over the other, Aunt took me aside. “Do you see what happened to your mother?” Her voice was serious and stern. “All because you didn’t help her with those heavy suitcases.
“You are going to be the reason your mother dies early.”
For hours, I hugged my knees, shaking uncontrollably. I was an ugly crier, the sort that cried in rushes and storms.
I told my cousin, who screamed at her mother, “Why would you tell her that? That’s going too far.”
“She needed to know,” Aunt barked back. “She’s constantly ignorant and unaware of what’s happening around her.”
“You always say these sorts of stupid things!” my cousin, who was an adult in her thirties, shrieked. “How tactless can you be?”
When my mother woke up, she rubbed my back and said it’s okay, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. That night at dinner, my aunt and my cousin sat on opposite sides and ignored each other as they reached across the table for food. That was the first time I noticed the rift between them. But I began to remember all those times, months earlier, when my aunt and cousin had refused to eat food the other had cooked, each silently declaring the other’s food to be inferior to her own. There were all those times when my cousin screamed at her mother, “You stay in my house and do nothing, but you’re still unsatisfied with everything!”
“I can’t do anything because you’re always unsatisfied with everything I do.” Aunt’s voice was as stiff as the curls in her hair.
When I saw my cousin and Aunt together in Canada the next summer, Aunt was already in the hospital. There was no one left at home to bear the brunt of my cousin’s explosive anger, which had been whittled away by fear and despair. I was sad to see it go.
When Aunt went for a checkup right before the Last Trip, the doctors gave her the same diagnosis as always: she had high blood sugar but was healthy.
Eight months later, she went for another checkup. This time, the doctors told her she had cancer, and that it had spread to her liver.
There had been no visible physical symptoms of her illness. Everything thought she was healthy, including her, until it turned out she wasn’t.
She flew to Canada so that the doctors there who specialized in liver cancer could give her treatment. They all said, It’s too late. I’m sorry, it’s too late.
My mother and cousin had always complained about Aunt – little things, like she’s haughty, she’s vain, she’s so stubborn. That didn’t change after Aunt was admitted to the hospital in Canada, but their insults were more blunt than barbed. “She didn’t want to take a walk outside her hospital room because she didn’t want the other patients to see her in her hospital gown,” my mother said half-heartedly after returning from visiting Aunt one day. “How typical.” I had gone with her, but I said nothing.
It was early August. The whole family knew Aunt didn’t have more than a month left.
After being discharged from the hospital, Aunt came home for a little bit. She spent all her time in bed, drifting between sleep and wakefulness. The room smelled like illness – an expired, bitter smell. My cousin and I made chicken soup and brought it upstairs to her.
Aunt was getting thinner every week. Her veins protruded from her arms, which had become a sickly yellow and shook as she held the spoon. “Too salty,” she rasped. For the first time, my cousin bit her lip and said nothing, just headed back downstairs to remake the soup. I stayed with Aunt. She opened her mouth, as if to say something to me, but she only coughed. Her small hand sat like stone in mine, her fingers fluttering like a heartbeat.
Aunt had never lived in our house before. I had lived in hers, and we both had lived in her daughter’s house in Canada, but she never had the chance to stay with us.
Two months before Aunt was diagnosed with cancer, my mother invited her to stay with us the coming summer. “Come to New York,” she offered. “It’ll be fun.”
“Sure,” my Aunt snarked. “I’ll come and see just how poorly you do housework.”
Of course, she never did. By early summer, she was already thin and bedridden. By late summer, she was already dead.
Aunt passed away in her sleep. It was August 2015. She was only in her sixties, everyone murmured. How regretful.
I never cried over her death. Instead, I began to stand straighter. I pushed my chest out and my shoulders back. Whenever my mother cooked dinner, I hurried over to help her with the easy tasks, like sauteing the vegetables or beating egg yolks. And I kept my hair looking presentable; I didn’t have Aunt’s coiffed curls, but I made sure to brush my hair daily and use water to pat down loose strands that stuck up before I left the house. For me, remembering Aunt was remembering the lessons she taught me, no matter whether they were right or wrong. They were little things, but I performed every small task meticulously and methodically.
I was the only one who acted differently after Aunt’s passing. My cousin conducted her business as she always did, occasionally exploding into fits of anger and sharp-edged words. My mother continued to let her white hairs grow. I alone mourned by changing.
During the long winter months following Aunt’s death, I thought about how Aunt taught me those lessons as a way of teaching me how to grow up. How to become a woman. I tried to do both of those things for her, because it was all I could do, because I was the only person left to do them.
Slowly, she began to vanish from my memories. I relied on pictures to remember her face, the way her hair was shaped, how she smiled with tight lips and no teeth. I became confused, unable to discern what exactly I had felt for her: grudging respect or annoyance, melancholy or apathy. Or maybe it wasn’t confusion; maybe I had just never known in the first place.
In February, six months after she died, I realized that the image of Aunt in my mind solely consisted of the things she told me. A lot of things that should have been obvious were question marks in my head; whether she was a good person, whether I loved her. She wasn’t the kindest person, I thought. But I liked her. I liked eating with her, talking about school with her, having her pay attention to the way I walked and the way I did things.
I had tried to honor Aunt’s memory the best way I could, the way I thought would please her most – one adult carrying on another’s legacy as a remembrance of their familial relation. But every time I completed an action the way she had taught me, it felt methodical to the point that it felt meaningless. Between the two of us, I was the ghost, wandering through each task aimlessly. Aunt had never been transparent to me, because I was the one who never tried to see through her.
Sometimes I stopped, the brush still stuck in my hair, wondering if that was the right way to mourn. It wasn’t the manifestation of longing or desolation or an emotion I felt I should have been consumed by. I didn’t feel what my mother and cousin must have felt, as a sister and daughter respectively. I had learned and memorized Aunt’s lessons, thinking I was becoming an adult, but I was still just a little girl wrapped up in her own world, unable to see what was happening around her.
Still selfish, I thought. The words were bitter in my mouth. Aunt tried to help me change, but she was an adult and I am not and I am still waiting to grow up but she’s not there to help me. I knew her lessons but I didn’t know her, and now it was too late.
For months, I wondered why I was the one Aunt imparted her knowledge to, and now I think I found the answer.
These were the harshest words Aunt ever said to me: “You are going to be the reason your mother dies early.” Maybe that is the way Aunt spoke to her daughter and younger sister their whole lives. Perhaps those words formed the backdrop of their childhoods.
I remember my mother and cousin’s complaints. My cousin and aunt’s constant fighting. You’re vain, you’re picky. It must have stemmed from something deeper. Perhaps the cause was Aunt’s morals, which she stuck so closely to but ultimately drove her away from her loved ones. And then I think about how serious Aunt had been whenever she spoke to me, how her eyes had lit up when I complimented her cooking over my mother’s.
Oh, I think. She must have been so sad. She must have been lonely.
The room is silent. It is 8 P.M. on a warm summer night in New York. I am peeling peanuts at the dining table by myself. It is July, which means that my seventeenth birthday is in a few weeks. The one year mark is rapidly approaching, and with it comes a memory – one of the lost ones.
“Anqi, where are the cups?” my mother asked.
“Anqi, we are going outside for a walk,” my father called.
We were staying at Aunt’s home in China. I was six. “Anqi, Anqi,” I chanted. “Anqi, can you pass the bowl of cherries?”
My mother smacked me lightly upside the head. “Hey! You can’t call your aunt Anqi,” she reprimanded. “That’s her first name. It’s Chinese etiquette that only adults call other adults by their first names.”
Now I roll the syllables around in my mouth, tasting them. “An-qi,” I say aloud. The words sit awkwardly on my tongue, but they don’t feel foreign. A strange feeling tugs at my heart – the knowledge of something lost, something leaving – but the words seem almost visible and tangible hanging in the air, almost as if I could peel away their shell with one stroke to reveal what hides inside. I watch my aunt’s name even after it disappears, drifting away in a gentle breeze, passing by, passing on.