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Your Brain on Books: The Book of Life and Death

Ever since I left the Philippines to try my luck overseas, I’ve been lugging around a series of mismatched plastic-covered photo albums and scrapbooks I call the Book of Life and Death. When I start a new album, I tape a ribbon to the center page, splitting the photo book into two chapters: life and death. I fill the pages of each album with snapshots of those who have just taken their first breath and those who have taken their last.

Without my mother’s help, my collection would be incomplete. Whenever someone is born or dies back home, my mother grabs the elbow of the person with the camera and begs, “Don’t forget reprints for Marybelle.” Then she wraps the photos in plastic and sends them to wherever I’ve been working—Lebanon or Saudi or Hong Kong.

At first she didn’t understand my albums. But many years ago, when I brought Volume Two home during my annual visit, my mother plopped down onto the milk crate by the kitchen window and studied each page. After a while, I blurted, “Say something, Ma. Don’t just sit there and cry.” She flipped between a page in Death, then turned back to Life, back again to Death. She grimaced a smile, “It’s too beautiful.”

For the life chapter, I accept entries of baby’s first photo only. These photos are always the same: a blue or pink knit cap, eyes puffed into slits, head slightly pointed at the top. I’ve instructed my family not to bother me with photographs of baptisms or first Christmases or the endless parade of children’s birthdays. My own daughter, Anne, appears in Volume Five. These are the pictures of lives waiting to happen.

For the death chapter, there are variations on a theme. Sad, smiling children and widows pose next to caskets. Displayed behind the family on wooden easels are birds-of-paradise and sampaguita, its white bells ringing fragrant jasmine. Silk banners, the kind that beauty pageant contestants wear, cross the bereavement wreaths, but instead of Miss Massachusetts or Miss Guam, the painted letters read, Beloved Father. Devoted Husband. Loyal Brother.

Over the years, some patterns emerge. The baby photos are split equally between male and female, but I’ve noticed more men fill my death pages. It was all their bad habits: the cigarillo breaks every half hour and—without the pressure to maintain their figure—the breakfasts of fried rice, eggs, and spicy longaniza sausages with cubes of pork fat in each bite.

Some deaths were sensational and noteworthy enough to be written up in the Times or Bulletin, and I saved the corresponding newspaper clippings inside the plastic photo sleeves. A handful of family members appear in both sections of the Book of Life and Death. In the 11 months of the year I was working abroad, my sister’s daughter Uta lived and died before I even met her. My uncle’s ninth child, Francis, was crushed under a crowded jeepney during the Manila rush hour.

After making these books for 20 years, I know that despite the best and worst, life goes on. Widows remarry. The mourning laugh again. We try so hard to be happy despite life’s most depressing news of all: one by one, we will lose those we love until that inevitable day when we lose our own life.

After a long day of anticipating the needs of others, I relax by reading from either the Book of Life and Death or my special-edition box set of Anne of Green Gables. I always read my Anne books in order, starting when orphaned Anne arrives at Matthew and Marilla’s farm on Prince Edward Island, then continue through her school years, her friendships, and romances. When I’ve finished the last page of Rilla of Ingleside, when Anne is older than I am now, I return the book to its space in the box. I press my palms flat against the container, my left hand against the first book and my right against the eighth, feeling the span of Anne’s life between my hands.

For the past decade, I’ve worked for the Chows, first in Hong Kong and now in the States, where three years ago, Professor Lincoln Chow was offered a teaching position. Now we live on the first floor of a triple-decker that has been renovated from its former life housing three generations of an immigrant Italian family, and thankfully, my room is down the hall from where my employers sleep.

When Jing Chow first interviewed me, she said, “The Professor and I plan on having too many children for me to handle alone.” Ten years later, there are still no children, and I know better than to ask why.

Working for an economist has inspired me to think about the world in numbers. If I wait my turn with American immigration and petition for my daughter Anne once I get citizenship, she will be 43 before she can legally join me. However, if I work three hours every weekday, sneaking out while Jing takes her nap, I am able to earn extra money while the American women have their careers. These dollars will pay the government officials who have the power to move Anne ahead in line. And while college is in session, I earn even more, as the fraternity boys hire me on weekend mornings to clean their basements of crushed red cups and spilled beer.

More numbers: Both Jing and I turn 40 this year. My female relatives live an average of 74 years. Tipping the balance in my favor: daily bowls of oat bran cereal and regular physical activity in the way of housekeeping. I’ve calculated my lifespan at 80 years. As my age clicks over this year, I estimate that I’m halfway between my days.

It’s midnight and my bedroom door creaks open. I squint beyond the yellow glow of my bedside lamp. The whites of Jing’s eyes shine at me. “Marybelle, the Professor is snoring again. Can’t you hear it?” Jing doesn’t wait, but steps into the room. She’s wearing her nightgown printed with the blue flowers, a newer version of the one I’m wearing now. Jing and I share the same tube of drugstore Midnight Black to rinse through our gray. We paint our faces with the same makeup, mine from the free samples that Jing receives like a prize every time she makes a purchase over 20 dollars at the department store.

Jing swipes the Tiger Balm from my nightstand, and sighs, “I was looking for that.” She walks to the other side of the bed and crawls in beside me. She unscrews the hexagonal container and presents it to me, the ointment’s odor of camphor, menthol, and spices familiar and pungent. I raise my eyebrows at Jing, blink down at my reading material, and stare back at her. Jing takes it for granted that I will minister to her every need. On TV, the sitcom mothers say, “Do it yourself. What am I, your maid?” But I can never say that.

Jing ignores my annoyance and slides her feet underneath my calves. “Warm like oven bread,” Jing says. “Oh, Marybelle, your album of death. Any new pages this month?” Jing always forgets the life part of the book, but I don’t correct her.

Hay, naku,” I say. “Your feet are ice.”

Jing shrugs her nightgown from her right shoulder, then takes my hand and places it against her back. “Marybelle, it hurts.”

I dip two fingers in the Tiger Balm and sear the ointment into Jing’s skin, feeling her back muscles, as hard as bone. Jing sighs, “There’s no one like you.”

My irritation melts and I ask Jing, “Remember my cousin’s missing husband, Boyet?”

“So, did he run off with another woman?”

“They found him pulled over on the side of the road. He was stretched out in the back seat. The windows were rolled up, and the air-con used up all the fuel. He was two weeks in that back seat. By that time, the car was covered in vines and banana leaves and palm fronds. Imagine the odor.”

“Imagine!” Jing grins. “No other woman after all.”

“Heart attack. He was just lying there with his hands behind his head as if he expected to wake up twenty minutes later.”

Jing repeats something she’s said before, “You Filipinos, with your passion and Spanish blood. Always so much drama and emotion. Not like us Chinese.” Jing always forgets that my father was part Chinese.

When my mother was 15, sewing soles into designer shoes, she was impregnated by the factory owner’s son. He was 19, the rebellious college dropout of a wealthy Filipino Chinese family. He didn’t believe that I was his. When he was still alive, my mother would mail me newspaper clippings about him from the society pages of the Manila Times. The last items my mother sent were his obituary and the accompanying article, “Shoe Baron Drops Dead in Manila Hotel.” The article described how his young mistress had lain beneath him for an hour as she waited for paramedics to remove his body. Under the headline, my mother had scribbled, “Finally, the other shoe drops!”

I pass Jing the album and point out the grainy newspaper photo of Boyet’s car, which is a casket of sorts. “I think those are his feet,” I say.

Jing asks, “Is everything ready for the party tomorrow? All those economists make me nervous.”

“It’ll be fine,” I tell her. I soften the wings of muscle in Jing’s back with the heel of my palm. “I’ve even created a special appetizer for the occasion. Imagine a pink pork peony. It’s an assortment of deli meats arranged into the shape of a giant flower. Professor’s guests will love it. A piece of resistance.”

I peer over Jing’s shoulder and stare at the snapshot of my cousin. She is posing in the funeraria next to Boyet’s closed casket. My cousin’s eyes are mapped in red lines and her face is splotchy pink. But a camera points at my cousin, and she, nine months pregnant with her husband’s first and last child, can’t help herself: she smiles.

I’ve thought of changing my situation many times, but one year turned into five, and suddenly, seven. And when Lincoln offered to arrange my visa to the States, how could I refuse?

Lincoln said, “Change your luck, Marybelle. Give your daughter opportunities, the American ones.”

I didn’t answer right away because I couldn’t believe my fortune. America. The States. Growing up in my parents’ squatter hut, I understood that I needed to make my own luck. I sold bottles and scrap metal to earn my trike fare to school; I won a scholarship to a small Catholic women’s college. But no teaching job paid as well as overseas domestic work. Now, college grads stay home and work for call centers, but those jobs are only for the elite. At last, here was my chance.

“Alright, alright,” Lincoln said. “I know it’s far from home, but look, I’ll raise your salary twenty percent. I need you to come with us. Jing needs you.”

By that time, I’d already given up any notion that I could ever find work in the Philippines. I’d already hired a domestic to raise my daughter. “Of course,” I told Lincoln. But now that I’m here, I often fantasize about making my escape.

During Jing’s dark days, when she doesn’t get out of bed and barely eats, I want to leave even more. Once, I was reading a magazine and came across one of those quizzes, Do you suffer from depression? I realized that Jing would’ve gotten an A+ on that exam. Professor brings her to the psychiatrist appointment, but sometimes I notice Jing dropping her tiny pill into the sink. I don’t say anything. Who am I to criticize Jing for keeping secrets?

Every month, I visit Western Union to remit my salary to home. I know Lincoln would cringe to learn how much of my pay goes to wire transfer fees. He would faint if he knew that my life’s earnings are wrapped in plastic, stacked in the old refrigerator in my parents’ kitchen, earning no interest. But I’ve seen what’s happened, how over a weekend, the peso will devalue and a person will find himself significantly poorer on Monday morning.

The money from my side job is tucked under the sofa cushions, hidden behind books on my bookshelf, and stashed under my mattress. I dream of leaving every day. But if I left, what would become of me? I would become TNT, tagot na tagot, and literally ‘hide and hide’ from immigration the rest of my life.

Americans show up to parties right on time, some even early. In the Philippines, you wouldn’t expect anyone to arrive until at least an hour or even five hours past the invitation time. And when they do show, smiling sheepishly with eight or ten of their relatives and neighbors in tow, you wave them all in.

I’m ready when the first guest, Kevin, arrives at our dinner party at 12 minutes to six. He seems nervous as he storms past the shoe rack and bin of guest slippers by the door.

“Sir,” I start. “Your shoes.”

But Jing pinches my waist. I bite the inside of my cheek so as not to imagine the grains of salt and sand, remnants from the winter’s snow, shedding from the man’s shoes and being ground into the floorboards.

I offer Kevin red wine. He drinks it in three gulps and smiles at me with Merlot-stained teeth, “Where’s Lincoln?”

With my lips, I point to the backyard, where Lincoln grills steaks. Kevin exits through the sliding glass door.

By half past, most of the guests have arrived. A knot of graduate students huddle around the grill with Lincoln and punctuate their points with amber beer bottles. Two faculty members, Ben, a statistician, and Linda, an ecological economist, sit back against the sofa, their heads turned to each other. They whisper softly to one another, while their spouses, who are both in advertising, lean forward, discussing the merits of the midseason network lineup.

I know the guests’ professions because what they do for a living is the second thing Americans say about themselves, after their name. In the Philippines, kin counts. Upon introduction, we want to know which province your family is from, who you belong to.

No one accepts my offer of pork petals. I’ve sorely miscalculated the popularity of my creation and each rejection makes my head bend lower. When I present the platter to Linda, I barely shrug the platter at her. Linda takes a slice. As she dangles the piece of ham in her mouth as if she were a baby bird, I realize my mistake. “The bread,” I say. I dash into the kitchen and return with the bag of rolls and cocktail napkins.

After making a finger sandwich, Linda clasps my wrist. She is the first person to look directly at me. Her hair is gray, cut neatly against her neck, but her face is smooth and flushed with wine.

“I’m Linda. And who are you? You have gorgeous eyes.”

I’m embarrassed by the compliment. “Linda,” I say. “Pretty.”

“Excuse me?” Linda slurs.

“In Spanish, linda means pretty.”

“No,” she says. “I spell it with a y. So I guess I’m not pretty.”

Suddenly, I smell Jing. No matter how hard she tries to mask it, Jing always smells of Tiger Balm. “Marybelle is our domestic,” Jing offers.

Lynda stares at my eyes and nose. “Hawaiian? No, don’t tell me. Thai. No, Filipina!”

Jing slinks away as Lynda fires questions at me. “What dialect do you speak? Which island do you come from?” She asks how I came to work in the States, how I got a visa, whether there was fierce competition in Hong Kong for employment, whether I had gone to college.

I dutifully answer.

“Jesus,” Lynda says. “You’re an English teacher? How did you end up doing this? Serving ham and wine to a bunch of boring academics?”

“No jobs back home,” I stutter. “And I have a daughter.”

The other guests in the room are shifting in their seats and finding pieces of lint to pick off their shirts. Ben whistles quietly.

“I’m sorry to be so nosy, but I just read an article recently about this very subject,” Lynda says. “Anyone catch it? The Sunday Times on overseas Filipino workers?”

“I read it. A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves,” bursts Kevin. I hadn’t noticed his return from the grill.

One who leaves. Kevin and Lynda summarize the article to their audience in the living room. It’s an odd experience. I’ve become invisible again, listening to them tell a story that is and isn’t about me.

Lynda continues, “So the parents leave the country to make money and they feel so guilty about leaving their children that they buy them a bunch of crap. Video games, cell phones, things like that.” “Depreciable assets. Material goods,” Kevin says.

“It makes you wonder if it’s all worth it,” Lynda says.

“It’s ironic,” Kevin says. “First-world mothers hire third-world domestics who in turn hire native domestics to care for their children. Ah, capitalism.”

The guests don’t notice how my feet sink inches into the floor; how my head buzzes with flies. I’m furious; I want to tell them that they don’t understand. Sure, I’m not physically raising my daughter, and yes, I’m guilty of buying her designer fashions and even jewelry for her cell phone, but my absence also buys Anne’s future, a little bit of land and a private school education. What I started overseas will change my family’s luck.

To my relief, Lincoln appears in the living room, tongs in one hand and a heavy platter of meat in the other. “Dinner is served.”

During those empty days in Hong Kong when Lincoln was working for tenure at the University of Hong Kong and Jing couldn’t get out of bed, I’d read aloud to Jing from Anne of Green Gables. When Anne is in the depths of despair, she asks Marilla if she’s ever felt this pain. Marilla answers, “No. To despair is to turn your back on God.” No matter how many times I read this scene, Jing clucks her tongue as if hearing it for the first time. Like me, Anne was a servant. Like me, Anne went to college to study education. Except Anne became a teacher and I stayed a servant. Later in the first book, when Anne meets her best friend, Diana Barry, her kindred spirit, I always imagine that Jing and I are kindred spirits, too.

Jing wasn’t surprised that I’d named my daughter after Anne of Green Gables. For years, my parents mailed me cassette tapes with Anne’s voice. Anne would parrot my parents. “Ma,” she would repeat. “See,” my mother would say on the tape. “Anne knows who you are. She knows her mother.” But I couldn’t see how Anne knew me, so I bought my parents a camcorder. Then they sent me videocassettes of my Anne, but it didn’t solve the problem. As I played and replayed moments from her life, Anne was forever growing up without me.

The wine glasses are filled and the guests are stuffing themselves full of steak and salad in the dining room. In the kitchen, I dump the platter with my pink peony into the trash. The flower slides from the plate, clumping together. It hasn’t fooled anyone into believing it is anything but what it always was: supermarket deli meat.

I wash dishes as quietly as I can. Lynda sets a wine glass on the counter.

“Sorry about all the questions,” she says. “I really put you on the spot. I apologize.”

“Ma’am, you don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

“I used to be like you,” she says quietly. While she was in high school and college, Lynda tells me, she worked summers cleaning toilets and washing windows with a maid service. “The managers would drop us off at clients’ homes in pink cars, and we wore pink uniforms. I don’t know why they bothered—no one was ever home to see us.”

I nod.

“I couldn’t wait to peel off those pink clothes. Talk about motivation to get an education. Not that you didn’t get an education—you’re a teacher, after all.” She places both of her hands on my shoulders as if we were new adolescents at their first dance. Her breath smells like a fraternity basement and her eyes are full of tears. “It’s just the luck of the draw. I had the luck to be born here, and you . . .”

I finish the sentence in my head. I slide my shoulders from Lynda’s grasp and blot small puddles from the counter.

“What I’m trying to say is—”

I notice Jing in the doorway. Jing has heard it all. “Lynda,” she sings. “My dear husband wants your expert opinion on sustainable growth.”

By the time I’ve finished cleaning after the party, Lincoln is snoring. Jing’s slippers flap toward my door, but pause, then pad downstairs. The water runs for tea and then the microwave beeps. I hope she’ll drink her chamomile tea and return to Lincoln’s bed.

I am under the covers, flipping through Volume Five of the Book of Life and Death. I find Anne’s Polaroid snapped 10 minutes after her first breath. Then, my eyes drift to my bedside table and the framed photo of Anne in graduation cap and gown. It used to annoy me when the old folks would grab my wrist, lean close to my face, and say, “Life goes by before you know it. Be sure to enjoy it while you can.”

But now, I understand. When I look at newborn Anne’s face, still puffy from the journey through my body, I enter that moment like an attic room and I’m back there, full of hope and overwhelmed with love. The pain was so raw, my body was a stranger. But I had done something big.

I’m yearning for Anne and soon I’m crying. Then I hear the tap of one finger against my door. Jing. She taps my door open. Her eyes are wide and bright.

“What.” Jing acts as if my face were always red and tear-stained.

“Marybelle, our luck is turning.” Jing holds something behind her back. “You won’t believe it. This is a sign.”

“Oh?” A quick shock of electricity pulses through me; my scalp sweats.

“Why aren’t you excited?” Jing asks.

“I’m just tired from the party.”

“This will perk you up. Look,” Jing unhooks her arm from behind her back and thrusts a rectangular packet at me.

“What is it?” I stare hard at the packet so Jing can’t see my eyes quiver.

“Money. Cash. Dollars.”

“Gosh, there must be hundreds,” I say flatly. It’s four days’ worth of housecleaning clients and three Sunday mornings on fraternity row. Exchanged for Philippine pesos, those dollars alone would pay two years’ tuition, room, and board for Anne at the University of the Philippines.

At least Jing hasn’t found all of it. It’s not a fortune in American terms, but enough to start a new life. Enough for my own place.

Jing is giddy. “Thousands.” She spreads six other packets onto the bedspread. “I found them behind the pots and pans in the back of the pantry cupboard.”

“What were you looking for?” I’ve lived with these people for years; I know their habits better than they do. Jing was never one to stick her hand deep in a dark cupboard.

“My red kettle, who cares?”

“Maybe it belongs to the Professor?”

“No, no, no. He invests,” Jing says. She slaps one packet against her palm. “I think someone in the Italian family was saving up, secretly. Maybe the teenage daughter was pregnant and planning to run away. Or the husband had a mistress. Perhaps it was one of the grandparents—those people from the Depression never trust banks. I bet the person died without ever revealing his secret.”

“Are you going to find whose money it is?”

“Was,” Jing answers. “Finders keepers. I could buy a leather couch or a widescreen HDTV or several pairs of designer shoes before my bunions get too big.”

“Sure,” I say weakly. I calculate in my head how many hours it will take, straightening other people’s magazines and wiping their toilet seats, for me to make up my loss.

Jing gathers the envelopes and stacks them. They are as thick as a paperback book. Despite my exposure, I’m impressed with my ability to turn hard work into dollars, which turn into opportunities for my daughter. “Marybelle,” Jing says to me. “Our luck is turning. This money is a sign. A good luck omen.”

“Jing’s eyes are serious as she takes my hand and presses it between hers. “Stiletto heels? A couch made from a cow? Foolishness.” Her lips are dry. “Marybelle, this money—and any more that we find around the house—I want you to have it. It belongs to you.”

“I can’t take it,” I say. “You should wear Jimmy Choos. If that’s something you want to experience.” I really mean it. I want Jing to feel stylish and beautiful for once in her life. And it’s in that moment, imagining her hobbling through the hallways in Jimmy Choos, that I understand that I love her.

Jing snorts. “This is for your future. And I’ll ask Lincoln to invest it so your money grows.”

“If you insist. Thank you.” Jing’s gesture makes her feel good. And by accepting her gift, I allow her to feel large and good. Isn’t that how life works best—when we trust give-and-take, when we’re not afraid of generosity?

I hold Jing’s gaze as I take the money from her. I touch my finger to the corner of my eye and feel Jing’s Tiger Balm, always on my fingers, stinging.

Sometimes it feels as though Jing and I have spent a lifetime waiting for Lincoln to return from work. Afternoons, Jing lies on the couch, and I sit in a chair behind her head. As I pluck stray hairs from her chin or scratch itchy spots on her head with my thumbnail, Jing shares a thought or an observation; or sometimes she reminds me that I need to pick up tea or milk. When Jing’s not depressed, she narrates the stories of her life. We’re bonded in our losses, our buried hopes: for Jing, her brood of children who never materialized; for me, my Anne who knows me as well as she knows Santa Claus. We spend our days together like an old married couple.

One afternoon a few months ago, while I was kneading her feet, Jing broke the silence and said, “Marybelle, promise you won’t ever leave. I don’t have a child like Anne who will take care of me when I’m old.”

“You and I are exactly the same age.”

“I already know that I’ll go before you. And when I do, include me in your book of death.”

Oo, yes,” I said. I wanted to tell Jing that we can’t predict the future, despite Lincoln’s calculations, theories, and projections. The future hasn’t happened yet, and there’s always the possibility we might change it.

“I’ve seen it all in a dream. Me, slowly dying in the bed upstairs. You, feeding me meals through a straw and wiping my emaciated body down with warm washcloths.”

“You make it sound so romantic. And where’s your dear husband in all of this?”

“Long dead and gone. Men have shorter life spans.”

We laughed nervously about it, but Jing made me promise. I crossed my fingers behind my back as if I were a schoolgirl again and said, “Yes.” Later, as Jing napped on the couch, lying stiffly on her back, her hands folded across her belly, I had a guilty thought, This is how she will look.

GRACE TALUSAN, J94, is a lecturer in English at Tufts. She was awarded an Artist Grant in Fiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and has published in literary journals and anthologies, including Creative Nonfiction. For more, see www.gracetalusan.com.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155