I am not ready to talk about their immigrant bones, or the difficult stories that each bone box tells. And besides, most are missing, disappeared on the wayward routes returning home, displaced even after death. Or they are in almost-forgotten fields marked by stones that don’t hold names anymore, nonetheless narratives. Sometimes just numbers, sometimes just the memory held by someone’s grandson who saw him bury them over there under there somewhere. And in there could have been my non-existence. As we peered into one unearthed bone urn, the top exposed to the sky cracked open by neglect, he said, there is the way into the underworld.
I need to listen.
I am aware that each word here is an act of listening, opening a new space for the next word. And of my failings of projections and memory and desire and convention, so that some words spill out overwhelmed by chatter and are already dead. Listening, like love, comprises a reverberation between self and other, where words and acts seem to fall out gracefully and illuminated and are received as a welcomed guest.
“It takes two freedoms to make one.”
Even if my grandmother has been gone for twenty years, she speaks to me in a certain way. When she was here she couldn’t explain anything about her childhood or her crossing to the United States, except that she had a favorite brother who died young, she didn’t know how.
By dint of so many unlikely arrangements to explain here, she brought me last week to a 700 year-old village in southern China. A group of villagers greeted me with their own generous hospitality to take what evidence I had and prove it was her home. Easily, she could’ve been from a village destroyed long ago, or one where no one could help. Instead, she knew somehow. What they wanted of her to want of me to know. So I could sit in front of her burned brick house with the gift of her brother in a bone box of a suitcase I brought from his grave in Chicago. So I could witness as nothing and everything took place. I had given nothing. In a long string of no’s, I just had to say yes.
(detail from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, Prado)
They asked me if it felt like my homecoming, and it didn’t. I don’t belong there in any way, or really anywhere these days. For now, I feel I belong to her retreating voice hurled through different time zones. Or when my sons resign their sleepy bodies near mine. It wasn’t my homecoming but it was his, and hers to give him. At the modest home’s ancestral altar, she had returned her sweet, young brother to where he had just left months before he died, at age 21. He knew of no other home. Even if that year was 1924, it was last week.
In that moment of offering inside my grandmother’s childhood home, and earlier on that slave mountain where we hiked for hours with that suitcase to their humble tombs, I asked about home. The calls of the flightless geese from the farms surrounding the village were deafening. Eventually, I understood that he belongs with my grandmother on her mountain overlooking this ocean. Some migrations are irreversible.
There is a lot of fear in listening, of unanswerability, of surrendering to silences too long to bear. In her words, it is the absence that the child can tolerate from the mother and no longer. It wants to choose a withdrawal into a security rather than the uncertainty of new countries, new losses, a new home. Maybe in those spaces created by fear is where unhousedness began, because security is a delusion we need to rest in. The beginning lines of a tragedy. But a great awakening is at the bottom of a tragic flaw. Tragedy reminds us of our human dignity, opening us up to all possibilities, whereas fear has us only hear what we don’t want.
In southern China where my grandmother is from, more people have left than live there today. Thousands of years ago, her earliest Han ancestors brought their family bones when they migrated from the north to the south. Still now they practice a second burial tradition, where years after the first funeral, bones are cleaned and moved to an ancestral tomb. During the first waves of overseas immigration, arduous arrangements were made for those who died abroad to have their bones returned to their ancestral villages, tens of thousands of bone boxes crossing oceans and borders. But then history changed and almost all of the bones don’t come back anymore. Some I visited are stuck in transit and have been for a hundred years. The odds they will go back to their ancestral homes are near-impossible, but they are a living-dead memorial that continues to cry out for all of us, I want to go home.
(Bone boxes in Tung Wah Coffin Home, Hong Kong, awaiting repatriation.)
So I can forgive those who won’t go, won’t listen, whether they immigrate or not. They don’t go, because maybe the risk is just too much unknown, too much disappointment, the fear that some pain is bigger than us. The greater the connection, the greater the vulnerability when it becomes absent. When I think of moments when I didn’t think I would survive, I remember the scary way my son was brought into the world, when I wanted to be nowhere near what I was experiencing. After losing a lot of blood, I asked my mom to not let me cross over. I discovered then that the over there is so close. Even though I bore it, it was too much to bear.
An angel appeared soon after and spent time with me.
I expected she would say, oh stop, you weren’t even close to going over.
Instead she said, you were close to there, and you could have gone over. But, she added, I know you would have returned. It wasn’t your time. And it shifted something and the nightmares ended, but I understood. We all have our mundane annunciations.
“The wisdom of love is that it isn’t always safe but it is always truthful.”
All of them, alive or in bone boxes, are telling me stories of un-home and home, and underwriting my own restless search for one. Home is certainly not in these small houses of cautionary being, toppled by each new intrusion of life. If so, my sons would not be here. I wouldn’t be here either, along with all the moments when immense gratitude and beauty overwhelmed me. Home seems to transmute from the relentless feeling of loneliness and displacement. Nathan said maybe we hover home, and reminded me that home, if it exists, enters only in the here and now and leaves. And it does seem to be a here of reception and not fear, even if the guest turns despotic or worse. “But without the gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.”
Who knows what I will hear next.
In leaving China back to my temporary un-home, I followed her original route over an uncertain ocean. And I could imagine their bone boxes passing, going the other way. They pass by me, holding things I realized I had also lost, maybe continually losing as I keep living, and they are returning to the spaces I just left.
The same man who taught me most directly about tragedy, and therefore the beautiful fragility of presence, gave me a life-long address for this route: In welcoming a guest, you have found your home.
“Such a caring for death, an awakening that keeps vigil over death, a conscience that looks death in the face, is another name for freedom.” — Derrida
Dai Wan Village cemetery, Toisan.