by Karen Lauritzen
I've looked forward to this trip all summer, my return to China, a country that fits my skills and my nature like a good marriage. I'll be working in a hospital in China where no kin of mine are in pain. No relatives of mine are dying or needing to live with me for rehabilitation or find housing in an assisted living center.That's all behind me now. The family cemetery at the top of the hill on my property has five graves where I've buried one family member every two years for the past ten years.
The next fourteen hours on a jumbo jet will be my mini vacation, my respite before ten hour work days begin. I've gathered this gift of idle time with no tasks, chores, no obligations. It's my party and I intend to begin celebrating as soon as I board. The next fourteen hours are gifts. I'll spread this time like presents on my lap, open each package slowly, let the pleasure of this time wash over me like a balm, enjoy the minutes of each hour anonymous to fellow passengers. I'll open the bag of comfort items placed on my seat, 7F, remove my shoes, pull out the socks, drape the blue lap blanket over my legs. I'll recline my seat, slide the window shades down, close my eyes and fade into a hazy place where dreams surface.
On my way to board I pass a girl in a wheelchair near the gate. I try and avert my eyes. But, it's too late and I see her and her image and is stuck in my mind. A small grey cloud floats across my sunny day. I try and blink away the sight of a young Chinese girl confined to a wheelchair. Not your job. Not going there.
A man and a woman circle this Chinese girl who is dressed in jeans, a tee and sneakers. These adults hover above her chair, their bodies taught, brittle, as if they've stretched their limbs too far, are veering on a precipice. Their faces are drawn, made raw with chafing of the girl's wounds. That was me last year. That was me with the wild, panicked look I see today in the woman's eyes.
The girl has slipped down in the chair leaving one pant leg pushed up revealing a tube filled with urine strapped to the exposed leg. A newsboy cap on her head is skewed on an angle, quite possibly to hide her face from stares and public humiliation. From what I know of Chinese culture these people with her are family members. Probably her parents.
I blink again. Not your job. I see other passengers walk past her wheelchair, avert their eyes. I hear my mother's voice cautioning me, when as an eight year old child tiny buds of compassion were flowering, “Don't stare. You'll make them feel uncomfortable.” I try not to gape or gawk and be my mom's child, but I cannot deny my own wounds and mom's long dead. I'm stuck with my ache as I walk forward in the line to board. I continue to move forward but my feet sink into the tightly packed clay of despair just below the surface of my past. I blink and see my oldest son, just one year ago, in a wheelchair at this same gate. I see his nightmare and mine: no recovery, no progress, no change. It's dead calm inside this memory and I can't look at the lovely, broken Chinese girl who is just my son's age without sinking further. My mouth is dry, a kind of dread dry no water can quench. My tongue thickens as years of my son's pain work its way up from my gut. I'm walking into my son's life or what's left of it after the seizure that caused the fall broke his foot and led to complications that left the rest of his life shattered, and mine, too. He left his job, his apartment and school at 25, to become his mother's child again. Then after years of failed treatments for pain, a desperate trip to China.
The line to creeps forward. I step inside the plane and smell the stale air of my son's closed bedroom, his closed life. I reach my designated seat, turn on the air vent above me, suck in cool air.
The Chinese family boards accompanied by a stewardess who speaks Chinese. They should have boarded first, so I see that this process of flying on an American airline is new to them. They seem overwhelmed and look up and down rows trying to find seat numbers, lost in a maze of American engineering. I wonder if the girl's illness is also new to them. They don't have that resigned look yet. I watch the mother and see the girl's face as the cap comes off and notice how alike they look. The relationship is clear. She was a looker, a charmer, a dazzler, a knockout. Now she's just a throwaway, damaged goods. I blink and see all the failed drugs and treatments in my own son's life.
Wouldn't you just know it? This aircraft seats 400 passengers and this family is seated in my row. I feel a sly smile form on the surface of guilt that floats across my consciousness and I hear a small voice say, Talk with them. Tell them. But another voice does not want to let them know I'm a medical social worker going to China, does not want to tell them that I'm the mother of a disabled child. I want my time. My version of this trip, not this.
I close my eyes and pretend disinterest. I hear the words nu er, Chinese for daughter, uttered between the man and woman as they busy themselves covering her to up to her neck with blankets. I hear the doctors at the hospital cautioning my son when he wanted to crank air conditioning way up in the summer, “Don't chill your chi.” The parents reach above the girl's head and turn off the cold air jets. I reach up and turn mine down.
The mother replaces the cap on her daughter's head, pulling it low over her eyes, whispers something I cannot hear into her daughter's ear. The father stands in the aisle above the girl's seat, his face a mask, save his eyes, which look like two black holes of grief. The mother speaks softly to the daughter, takes one of her daughter's listless hands between both of hers, rocks the hands back and forth making a cradling movement. She blots the daughter's face with wet cloths, offers her orange juice from a cup, holds the straw in her daughter's mouth so she can suck. The father looks warily up and down the aisle, sees that the aisle is clear, reaches below his daughter's pant leg, drains the urine from the tube into the empty water bottle in his hands, his face as sour as the task. I try to look away as he slips into the bathroom to empty it.
I settle into my seat, reach for the novel I've wanted to read all summer. I open it and the words float off the page because I'm not reading it, I'm hiding. I place the novel in my seat pocket. I burrow in my blanket and pretend that this tiny lap blanket is doing its job and will comfort. Yet the pain this family is feeling has been dangled before my consciousness and I remember wanting something to get me through when my son was flying half way around the world for treatment.
I slide further down in the blanket, turn on my side attempting to face away from what's next to me. I want to slide away, sleep. They won't want to speak with me, a stranger, an American. Chinese are private especially about family. They aren't like Americans who splatter their personal lives across channels of reality television dying to confess their faults believing public confession is some contemporary form of prayer. I shift in my seat unable to find a comfortable position. What are you afraid to lose by speaking with them? If I ask for my seat to be relocated I'll violate something sacred inside me. I think about my son, better now since he went to China for healing. This year, for the first time in his adult life, neither of us is bound by his pain.
“I'm going to need a translator,” I hear myself saying in a voice I barely recognize to the stewardess as she passes.
As soon as the stewardess explains that I'm a medical person on my way to a major teaching hospital in China, the woman becomes undone. She reaches across the armrests between us, hugs me to her. Her mask of control crumbles and she weeps and chatters rapidly in Chinese. The stewardess tells me her daughter was a graduate student at an American university, a scholar, straight A student, until she developed a mysterious fever following an infection, and now the paralysis. But it really doesn't matter the reason. The woman continues to cry and hug me. Our faces are pressed cheek to cheek, her tears spill onto my neck and down my arms. My own eyes fill. I feel her body shudder with grief. I hold her for nearly an hour as the pain she must have held back for all of her trip to America flows like a untapped source of fresh spring water baptizing us both. I peer over to her husband and see the edges of his mouth curl into the smallest of smiles. He nods. I nod in return. I still my body and I'm an asylum for this woman, holding her, not daring to move, barely daring to breathe. I want to absorb this elegant gift, this moment of grace I do not deserve. She is me. I am her. We are each other. She is my mirror.
The stewardess fades away. We no longer need words. We're just two mothers unbound, loosening ourselves. We're simply two moms, comrades, friends.