This evening I’m aiming for a Western meal. Baby spinach with sliced strawberries and crushed roasted almonds and walnuts with a homemade vinegrette dressing; frozen lasagna that is baked until the edges are browned and crackling; and a warmed Italian loaf with grass-fed butter, presented on a wooden cutting board.
As Danith and his mom unenthusiastically cut into their lasagna, Danith brings up our goddaughter, a 10-year-old who is warm, generous, and bright — in both the head and the heart. He has agreed to partake in an interview series that her school is participating in. He is excited to do this for her. He tells his mom and me that he would do anything for our goddaughter except teach her how to climb a tree because he knows of a more equipped teacher for that lesson. His mom and I let out a knowing laugh.
Before moving in with us four years ago, my mother-in-law lived alone. As such, she accomplished home maintenance on her own. She crawled under her house to locate vexing raccoons. Once she dragged one out into the daylight by its tail. She rearranged the furniture. She fixed the toilet. She also climbed a 30-foot tree to saw off some of its unwieldy limbs. She did all of this in her mid-sixties and with no one to assist or spot her.
At dinner, my mother-in-law exclaims, “You should have seen me!” She goes on to recount a time during the civil war in our native country. Tamarind dangled in bunches from a massive tree, and she scaled its trunk for the tangy fruit. She says that she was skinny back then, as though her thin frame alone in her younger years allowed her to swiftly climb the tree. The lift in her voice shows pride in her skill.
“You also had physical strength. You wouldn’t have been able to go up the tree without that,” I say.
Jabbing the fork into the spinach salad (she enjoys this more than the lasagna), she agrees but adds, “And because we didn’t have anything to eat.” She meekly chuckles, acknowledging that hunger was her motivation to reach the top of the tamarind tree.
My mother-in-law wanted to live, for herself but especially for my husband, and, ironically, she risked her life for this goal. During the war, food was either scarce or unavailable. On the bank of a river at one time, she located a rat and dove after it; the rat won the struggle, though, having bitten her on the ankle and causing it to swell to the size of her calves. At another time, her eyes landed on a snake whose rings were of yellow and ebony colors. It hid its head and tail in a hole near the water, and my mother-in-law studied it for a long time, contemplating the best way to kill it. She decided that she would pull on the reptile by its midsection and then she would beat its head with a nearby log. Similar to the rat, the snake that was as thick around as a grown person’s arm put up a fierce fight. As she continued to tug on its body, the snake struggled to bury itself deeper inside the hole. “Stop! Stop now! That is a king snake!” a man on the hill hollered at my mother-in-law. She froze. She found her breath. She admitted defeat. More importantly, though, she was now fully awake and fully aware of the animal she had been battling. She exhaled, and understood that her life had been spared. And a few years later, with my husband, who was about ten years old at the time, and a couple of his cousins in tow, she led herself and them through a jungle laced with armed men and thieves, into a refugee camp. She protected herself and her family from these men. She faced what she could and dodged what she could, and not once did she push aside the goal of survival.
After Daffy passed away, a few people said to me that I was strong. “You are so strong.” They meant well, but their words caused me to cringe. What was I doing out of the ordinary that exhibited my strength? More than that, I didn’t want to be strong. Even more than that, I didn’t want to appear strong. Instead, I wanted to appear haggard.
One day at work I surfed the internet after I had heard a story about a gorilla whose baby had died. The mother gorilla was cognizant of her deceased baby, but she continued to cradle it against her body, anyway. She did this for two weeks. The zookeepers allowed it. I tried to zoom in on her child, wanting to see its deteriorating form. I wanted to be its grieving mother. If the people around me saw me as strong, then I was not presenting myself accurately. My authentic self was a mother gorilla who did not want to let go of her dead child. I would have liked to pace back and forth, with my knuckles scraping the ground and my unkept hair blurring my vision, and with my baby’s fading form in either the crook of my arm or between the grip of my teeth. I would have liked to guard my baby’s body from anyone who threatened to take her from me. It wasn’t that I wanted pitiful eyes to linger on me; it was that if I were to be seen, then my real self ought to be on display.
Every spinach leaf and strawberry slice is cleaned from our bowls. The lasagna is not as well appreciated. Most of the noodles with its meat sauce remain in the baking pan. Danith reassures me that dinner is good but that he isn’t very hungry. And to prove how good the meal is, he picks up another slice of bread and bites into it. His mom laughs, and I do, too. My husband wants rice this evening — the boxed lasagna is not sufficing.
I still don’t view myself as strong. I survived my children’s deaths. I had to, though. They did not get to live, so the least I could do is live, and live with deliberation. But nothing I am doing is outstanding or remarkable. I am not having to risk my life to get to live it. I have to only live it.