Knives

It’s Nata’s death anniversary. I go to bed feeling like there are knives in my stomach. I wake up feeling the same way. It’s hard to explain how this is, that the sensation of knives is there even if I don’t think anything. Even if I am just breathing. I can make it go away, but I know it isn’t really going away. I have just decided not to feel anything. It’s pure emotion. It isn’t emotion in response to a thought. It’s not creating more thoughts that spiral down. It is completely and entirely emotion, that I can allow to drift into thoughts that then help me process it and could, conceivably, make it better. But I can also just let it remain there without thinking anything.

Partly because of that, I couldn’t really sleep. I half did, but it was the lightest sleep imaginably except for maybe four hours of it. I think between 11 pm and 3 am I really did sleep. The rest of it, was a long cat nap I kept waking up from.

But also I am worried about C’s teasing situation. Actually, it isn’t teasing. It isn’t gossip. She just doesn’t know the word gossip. She keeps saying teasing. I told her yesterday to tell people she as my adopted daughter. Our relationship is interesting to students because it feels secret to them and forbidden, and also they have no category for it. It seems secret mainly because I am private, because I get insanely annoyed with Country X patterns of relating and I wish people would talk one at a time and I get fed up with their total lack of restraint of curiosity. It’s their culture, but it’s the thing I can’t stand, especially because talking across a language barrier involves an intense kind of concentration that is exhausting to do for 8 hours a day. So I talk to C alone a lot.

If it is public and if they have the right category to place it in, there’s not much that’s very interesting about it. They’ll shut up and move onto a juicier tidbit.

She won’t tell anyone though. She agrees to and then can’t bring herself to. So I am going to have to do it. It’s hard for me too, because it brings up all of these feelings of grief for me. This is my present. It recalls all this complicated grief for the past.

I think who I should tell. Who can I tell in a way that is natural? I don’t tell students personal things. We get as far as what I ate for lunch and what country I am from. I guess I can tell a few of her friends. I talk to them a bit more. It’s more natural. It might seem natural I talk to them about her. It seems insufficient. They aren’t the ones gossiping. She says the boys are the ones gossiping.

Anyway, I decide to post on her Facebook wall. Wider audience—she has 300 friends almost. I could be telling anyone, and maybe one of them has a mouth.

So I write this: C, I am so proud of my adopted daughter and happy you are in my life. If I went searching for a daughter purposely to find one, I could not find a better one than you. I know you are not perfect, but none of us are and you try harder and have a softer heart and a better character than most anyone I know. I will always be there for you and hope you will think of me as your mom forever. Please study hard and don’t forget education is your foundation for the future.

Who knows what that will do. Two students “like” it, but they are not at our school. I am not even sure who they are. I think I know one of them from last year. The other one, I am not even sure about.

So there’s that.

The goal for today is to get through it, really. If I can do something good, that’s a bonus.

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The structure

Yesterday was awful. I hated yesterday. It was a day I came home from and was happy to have over and done with.

It started off with a chat. First it came up that boys at school are teasing her. Then it came out that they are teasing her not just that she is some kind of teacher’s pet, but that we were dating.

So that’s one bit of information.

Then I ask her something very direct: Are we? Something like that. I don’t give anything away about how I feel. I just ask her.

First she says we are. Then that we aren’t. I don’t know why she changes her mind exactly. Maybe one of them is the right answer in her mind, and not the other one. Or maybe it’s thinking through what kind of relationship we have, that it’s mother/daughter and they are incompatible.

I have this conversation with her—a chat online—that’s totally confusing. I don’t know how much she understands what I am saying. She mostly says, “Don’t know.”

But I try to tell her feelings are okay—whatever feelings she has—but that to me she’s a little girl. More or less, that’s what I tell her.

It brings up all kinds of stuff though, because probably I’ve brought on the teasing. It’s how I act with her, and can’t help acting with her, that has done it. Not that I am treating her like a girlfriend, but there’s perhaps no other category in a teenager’s mind for a middle-aged woman treating a girl like someone very precious.

So I feel it’s my own punishment. I didn’t deserve C. I did something that is hurting her. I won’t get to keep her.

I grew up on a razor’s edge, where you lost everything if you didn’t do everything perfectly. And even if you did, sometimes you lost them anyway.

I feel a hundred kinds of guilty. In the patches when I get time to think, I consider that guilt.

Well, there’s this thing. I was considering it already anyway. It was what came to my mind first thing when I came up. I think I might have gone to bed thinking it.

I am the one who shouted for help—not Nata, but me. I said, “Spacite.” I shouted in the wrong language—not just in a language people in the next building wouldn’t understand, but that they wouldn’t care about. A language that marked us as being outside of the bounds of people you can care about…Just those Russian prostitutes.

It made me realize that sociopaths flock to these pockets of vulnerable people. They surround children and the elderly and sex workers and other groups that have less status or power. Society has to work extra hard to protect people who are vulnerable and have less power because of their own abilities, but sex workers are a human-created category. It’s not a developmental stage. My dad, I think, could prey on prostitutes—and I think he did pretty on prostitutes—because people cared less about their lives. We know immigrant lives are less protected in society. Sex workers lives are less protected. Non-English speakers are at a disadvantage anyway, and their lives matter less too.

We were at the nexus of all of this. And I put us there in the minds of anyone who might have come to help. So they didn’t.

And that’s my fault. But it isn’t my fault that society is like that. It isn’t my fault I didn’t sufficiently grasp the whole power dynamic of my culture well enough to act.

So I’m angry. I’m angry at the world. This is hard for a while. Anger is not allowed, I realize. I think because I would have been punished for it: I would have acted out. But also I saw how angry people hurt others and I didn’t want to be like that.

But I am. And if I can let that anger be there, I feel better.

Happiness

Mid-morning, I asked the principal if I could take leave and I came home sick. Actually, I am not sick. I think I went into shock. But I guess that’s a kind of sickness, and it’s easier just to say that I am non-specifically unwell.

I didn’t expect this. I completely didn’t. Things seemed to be skating along more or less, not easily, but moving forward. Then I was standing while they had a special program at school and I felt like vomiting and was cold and I began to shiver. I stood there as long as I could, and then miraculously the connection to the speakers broke and they couldn’t continue and I fled into the staffroom.

It’s because of daughters it happened.

In the morning, I gave C a letter asking her to be my adopted daughter. But it didn’t just say that. It was a love letter. A rather long one. I mean, it was a full page. It was a love letter completely unlike a romantic love letter. I told her I wish I had been there to see her take her first steps. I said a lot of stuff. I told her she makes me happy every single day just because she is alive and I get the chance to know her. I said she is a miracle to me.

I made her read it while I stood with her. I wanted to know she really understood. Mid-way through somewhere, she started to smile. And after she finished, she just looked at me and said, “Okay, ma’am.” She was still smiling.

I walked down with her to the gate—she was late for her junk food checking duty, and I had made her more late. I ran into one of the English teachers on the way there, and we made conversation a bit. C went down without me, not saying goodbye or anything, just leaving. She was thinking of being late.

But I have an adopted daughter now here in Country X. I am not really sure what this means or what it might lead to. I have only the very vaguest of ideas about it.

The last time I think I really thought about daughters was when I was 13 years old and miscarried mine. At that point, Natashka was dead. I couldn’t see any of the friends I loved. It was really, really the last and final unbearable loss for me, and it’s as though the lights completely went off.

I think that’s what I was remembering. I didn’t feel the pain of the miscarriage, but as I stood looking out at the students on the assembly ground, I had bits of memory float through my head while I felt cold and shaky and vomity and I think my body remembered being in shock and did it again automatically.

The thing is the lights are little bit on now. A lot of things still hurt. I mean, really, really hurt. I was mopping the floors yesterday and something about kneeling down set something off in me—it wasn’t precisely clear what, but it was something that hurt—and I realized the intensity of it was absolutely physical. It was a physical pain I felt and not just an imagined one. Sadness physically hurts. But the grinding hopelessness is not there anymore, or at least not there all the time.

I think having the lights come on again in my heart—not just because of the daughter thing, but really because of the honesty of it, because I am living authentically—reminded me of the lights going out.

It makes me think happiness doesn’t really take much. I thought it would be so complicated, but it isn’t. All it takes is a few fluffy clouds, one person who matters to me, and the hardest, sharpest parts getting worn off the edges my grief.

Daughter

Lately, I’ve been chatting with IT Ma’am. She is in Australia on a student visa, trying to study IT. She says she already knows all the material mostly. But she wanted to go to Australia. Anyway, maybe her English is improving.

One day, she says I should adopt C as my daughter. It hits me really hard, that suggestion. Daughter. IT Ma’am doesn’t know I adopted C as my sister. I wondered why C never told her—I thought they were close and the topic would come up. Then I thought there was some reason C didn’t feel comfortable mentioning it. So I didn’t say anything either. Eventually, C told me it just hadn’t come up , but by then, it had come to feel like a secret to me, or like a lie. And so I don’t tell IT Ma’am that C is already my adopted sister. I just responded to the suggestion of adopting her as my daughter.

Daughter has all kinds of layers to it.

I tell IT Ma’am that I don’t know if C feels that way about me. After all, you have only one mother. C is scared of her mother—it’s clear her mother is emotionally abusive to C—but that doesn’t mean C doesn’t love her. So IT Ma’am says she doesn’t know about C, but for herself she could go for two. Then she says I can adopt C as whatever I feel like, sister or whatever.

To me, they feel very different. Mother, sister. They don’t feel at all the same. One is immensely closer than the other.

But there are a lot of things about this that feel unreal to me about the whole thing, and I know some of this is that the idea of a daughter connects to all of these kinds of grief. My own baby, that never developed. Natashka’s baby, that had to be given up. The reasons both of us ever became pregnant. There is a grief about that too.

Then there is also the fact that I come home from school and I suppose the grief from many things is so great that C doesn’t always feel real anymore. Or at least the reality of the connection seems tenuous.

And then there’s the idea of “adopting a sister” or “adopting a daughter” like students are kittens. To me, it feels kind of like a fantasy or like a game.

It’s almost a week later when the reason for the weirdness of this finally hits me. Oh, this is a different culture. It’s not my own culture. It’s not any of the cultures I have lived in before. I got used to people eating cow leather and not washing their hands after going to the toilet, but the adopted relative thing still seems wonky to me. I’ve gone with it—it’s the medium through which C would understand how I care about her, and I do care. But in North America, this would be expressed in a different way. It would not probably be expressed through the use of family relationship term, or felt because someone has requested an “adoption.” It might be done more slowly, too. But it’s done here. It’s part of the culture. I met C’s adopted brother a few weeks ago, walking home with her. IT Ma’am adopted C last year as her sister. For them, it isn’t fantasy. It’s like eating cow leather. They do it sometimes. No one is making anything up. It might seem wonky to me, but it’s part of being here. It’s part of acculturating.

Last view

I have a picture in my head from the end of the day on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s important or not. It’s kind of burned into my head though, as if it must be.

C’s class is going on an all-day outing on Sunday. It’s a picnic. Picnics are very popular here in Country X, although I have somehow managed to never go on one ever, not with anyone. Not even one time.

Anyway, it involves a certain degree of money collection and shopping for supplies. C is helping out with this.

At the end of the day, she is in the car with her class teacher and I guess two other students. One of them I recognize, but the third one I can’t really see.

So they are in the car, and her class teacher calls to me. His son is in my class, and the son had not been behaving himself. I had to tell his father about that on Wednesday. The class teacher asked me if his son had said anything to me. What he meant is did he apologize. I told him he had. On Friday, the boy had stood up in class and apologized very sincerely.

I am saying this to the class teacher, and I guess I felt C looking at me. I felt eyes, I suppose. My gaze shifted to hers. She was in the back seat, leaning forward, trying to see me, and there was an intense look on her face, a kind of wishing. I think it was a wish to see me—perhaps in the back she couldn’t really see well—or maybe it was a wish to be seen. I said something to her about a poem I wanted her to bring on Monday. I had asked her to do that earlier, and was just reminding her. The class teacher, not noticing the shift in my gaze, was confused. “Me?” “No, C.” Everyone laughed then, and I went on.

The gaze stayed with me though, the nakedness of it, and something that might be longing.

Holland

So I think this is Holland. There may be other Hollands—life evolves—but there is a kind of “after” sense to right now. I think the feeling of arrival has to do with a diminishing in my degree of grief. Because, really, there are layers and layers of grief I have had to face in order to grapple with life now.

There are the people I loved who died or that I was separated from. There is the life I might have had if it had not been so overshadowed by trauma and the circumstances that connect it to trauma. There is probably also the grief for the things I never had, for a “real” dad, for a “real” mother, for a “real” sister: for family relationships that did not leave me terrified.

I know this is a different life than I would have had. I don’t know what my life might have been, but I can look back and see enormously important choices I made badly or not at all because I could not manage my grief for the people I lost. I know that’s that reason I don’t have a partner now, it’s the reason I don’t have children. I also know that part of the reason I am here is that I have struggled all my life with a sense of betrayal and also fear at not having been protected by mainstream society and I know when I meet people who code white, middle-class and North American, I automatically feel frightened. It’s not fair, but I can’t help it, and it has made it hard for me to connect to others in my own country all of my life. It is, in fact, easier to be here on the other side of the world than to be “home.” Because “home” is not home. It is this place of uncomfortable exile I am still figuring out how to grapple with.

I also know—and this is a mid-life kind of thing—that for some things it is now too late to make different choices. Not completely, but the cost-benefit sheet starts to make some radical changes in direction untenable or at least unwise. And I also am who I am now, in a way that might be more fixed than I ever imagined it. I might lose my fear of mainstream society, but I might always feel happier and more at ease struggling in broken languages. I don’t know.

But I am here, and it is Holland. It is a place of healing I never imagined I would get to and I never hoped to get to. Really, it is quite far from where I hoped to be. It is Holland, and I had planned a holiday to the Bahamas. Holland is nothing like the Bahamas. It is cold and overcast and very unsexy. There is an ocean, but it’s too cold to swim in. It might not even be safe. There is certainly not a beautiful beach to doze on.

There are tulips though. And museums with beautiful paintings.

I am in Country X. I struggle with flashbacks and having parts still. It takes me forever to process things sometimes, emotional things, and a lot of times upsets take me totally by surprise. Sometimes, they seem to pile one on top of the other until I feel like I’ll break inside and then I start to go into a tunnel in my head and nothing feels real. It isn’t sexy. It is not triumphant.

But there is this little girl I love. There are colleagues I feel I can really help. At night, I am starting to feel safe in my own bed in my own house when it’s time for sleep. It’s a really delicious feeling, just to be able to sleep. Today, I heard the whine of the saw cutting stones next door and I realized it is not the same sound as the saw cutting corpses into pieces that I heard as a child. It’s not at all the same sound. That was nice too.

It’s my life. It’s not anyone else’s. The good stuff in it is maybe not anyone else’s idea of what good stuff is. But it’s where I am. It’s okay.

 

Just now

We have a holiday today. I need one, so I am really glad. Next week is something called Special Dedication Week. I don’t remember this from last year. I don’t know if we had it or not, but it promises to be a busy week.

I had houseguests last night: six exchange students from the US and Canada bunking classes for a few days. And yesterday was maybe a bit dramatic. In sixth period, I went to C’s classroom—I had told her to come to me for ten minutes at the start of class for some work with sounds, because that is basically her weakness, but she hadn’t come. When I came in, she was crying torrentially, although not as loudly as when her class teacher scolded her for staying at school too late.

She had some kind of cramp in her arm. I don’t know why it happened and I didn’t know what to do, but a girl in her class who isn’t named Xiu Li (let’s call her that) was doing something with her arm that seemed intended to help, but was causing C excruciating pain. There were students clustered around C—one of them rubbing tiger balm on her arm—some of them just trying to figure out what to do. Oddly, none of them were the girls I thought were her friends in the class. They aren’t the girls she seems to eat lunch with. Those girls were sitting on the other side of the room with books in front of them, gossiping and not studying.

I went and stood behind her, kind of easing kids out of my way as I went, and I stood there stroking her hair while she cried and Xiu Li did something I hoped might turn out to be magic. I stood there until the pain finally subsided. I guess that was 40 minutes later. Then the bell was about to ring and I had to leave.

After school, I saw C standing on the steps by her classroom. I don’t know why she was standing there. Usually she walks in the other direction to go to the assembly ground for prayer. Maybe she saw me and was waiting. I don’t know. At any rate, she looked very fragile and not at all like her usual self. She met me there and said thank you. I asked if her arm was better and then whether it was because I was calling her out of class—a question I don’t know if she understood. But it’s something I have done three times. The first time, the substitute was teaching them, and giving extra marks in IT for answering questions correctly. The second time, she got a high fever very suddenly. Anyway, she said it wasn’t. She had had a history presentation that day. I asked her that went. She didn’t know. We went our separate ways to prayer then and didn’t speak again.