MAST awards its 2019 People of Earth Grand Prize to Reflections, a story and photograph by Allison Merrill.
The Child's Palace
The fire devoured Mama whole. Ate everything. Her silky black hair. Her willow leaf-shaped eyes. Her almost-amputated, diabetes-swollen legs.
In Taiwan, when I was little, my family lived in a traditional Japanese house—a minka—that had been a government official’s compound during the Japanese Occupation Era (1895-1945 A.D.). The washroom in this house was an all-tiled-in, underground space that looked like an empty swimming pool, as big as three king size mattresses combined. This place was purely for bathing and cleansing. A faucet on one wall remained on, icy groundwater ran like a waterfall into a kiddy-pool-sized tin tub, about a foot deep, that sat right under it. It overflowed, causing the tiny floor drain to make a perpetual sucking noise. The washroom was separated from the higher dry ground by two sliding panels like a farmhouse door. On the end of the wood-plank hallway, behind the farmhouse door, there was an immediate three-foot drop to the washroom floor. Unlike a swimming pool with a ladder for getting in, the entrance to the washroom was . . . well, for the three-year-old me, a leap of faith. Literally.
Every night at bath time, Mama carried a bucket of boiling water from the kitchen to the washroom. She poured out some cold water from the tin tub, and then filled it back up with the boiling water. Her hand circled the tin tub wall, as if stirring soup in a pot, until the bathwater turned lukewarm. I undressed myself and sat at the washroom entrance, my bottom on the cold wood floor, my legs dangled over the edge of the three-foot drop, hyperextended. To get down to the sunken water world of the washroom, I aimed to leap, and hoped to land, on the footbridge that was a wobbly, moldy, wooden shop stool.
One time, the shop stool slipped from under me and I nosedived right into the tin tub, breathing in bathwater. I frantically swung my arms, trying to grab anything to hold myself up. My eyes were open under water and I saw nothing but rippled reflection of the silver tub bottom. In that brief moment of panic, fright, and physical pain from being out of breath, I thought I was alone. But then Mama pulled me out and patted me on the back. My nose was blocked with water and it stung. I couldn’t stop crying and coughing. Surprisingly, Mama couldn’t stop cry-laughing. I’d never seen her so delighted; it stopped my tears. I admired her amusement over my misfortune, and immediately wanted to fall again to keep her laughing. When she finally stopped, she said, “You’re doing it wrong. You should climb down into the washroom with your back to it. Like going down a ladder.”
I was so mesmerized by her rare, soft tone of voice, I didn’t have the heart to break her mood by asking, “What’s a ladder?”
In the following nights, even with the best intention to please her, and no matter how hard I tried, I didn’t have the courage to make myself fall. Instead, I cautiously reached for the stool with my toes, carefully climbed down to the washroom floor, my back to it, and safely arrived by Mama’s side. I wiggled my toes, rubbed my tummy, and waited for her nod to get wet. She didn’t look at me or talk to me and I wondered if I’d disappointed her.
One night when I was splashing, kicking, and giggling in the tub, I tapped at the hole in my tummy with my index finger and asked, “What’s this?”
“Belly button,” she said. “There’s a cord that ties your belly button to a place in my tummy. You can’t see it. But it’s always there.”
I looked down but there was no cord. I didn’t understand.
Another time as she bent over to scrub my face, I noticed a bead-like mole on her right brow. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
“A gift from my Baba and Mama.”
Ah, a gift. On the face.
To honor their parental love and to show her fierce gratitude, Mama vowed to keep all her organs. No extraction for teeth with cavities. No laser removal of moles. No hysterectomy. She chowed down painkillers for the never-ending toothache; let hair grow out of the brown moles hanging on her brow; tolerated decades of heavy bleeding, menstrual pains, and bloating. A thankful daughter, she said, makes a virtuous woman. And what would a woman be if not virtuous?
At the annual check-up, on her forty-seventh birthday, Mama fought her doctor’s advice and insisted on keeping her uterus—the Child’s Palace, as it’s called in Chinese. “I carried my girl in water here. A special gift.”
Her argument shocked me. Did I cause her pain and sorrow?
I sit on the examination table in my OB/GYN’s office in Salt Lake City, waiting for my test results. Even if the doctor speaks my native Chinese, I’ll still be lost with the medical terms he uses.
“What’s—fib? What? That word you just said.”
I stare at him. I can feel tension rising between my brows, a headache. I wish someone were here with me. There’s enough space in this room for an interpreter and a trusted friend. They can each take a chair under the poster of fetal development. One of them can talk comforting words while the other holds my hand. Some women say their mother is their best friend, who accompanies them to their OB/GYN appointments. Mama died when I was twenty-four, before I married. Before I knew what it was like to have a cord connecting my baby’s belly button to my Child’s Palace. She passed away on her fiftieth birthday. On a rainy night. On an ambulance. Alone.
The doctor pulls out a pen from his shirt pocket and draws an upside-down triangle on my patient file folder. “Uterus.” Then he adds small circles along the perimeter. “Growth. Fibroids.”
“Can—uh—cancerous?” I know that word. It stings my tongue to say it.
“No. But I strongly advise that you get a hysterectomy. Your fibroids are HUGE.”
I stare at him again, my mind blank.
“Take out your uterus.” He yanks an invisible object out of his abdomen. “You’re done having kids, right?”
I nod, thinking of my three teenage sons.
“Well, the uterus only serves one purpose. Yours has done its job. Take it out. Throw it out.”
Take it out?
I look at the drawing on the file folder: three simple lines touching one another to represent something that’s not simple at all. This is where, for twenty-seven months of my life, I carried my boys in water. Where they splashed and kicked and—maybe—giggled. Where I became a mother. My uterus isn’t three simple lines touching one another; it’s where three precious lives touch mine.
Throw it out?
I’m not afraid of surgery, even though I’ve never had one before. I’m afraid that if Mama were in this room right now, she’d leap out of the chair and slap me unconscious. “How dare you!” She might yell. “I gave you that Child’s Palace. My gift to you!”
A gift. In my tummy. How can I throw it out? Am I an ungrateful daughter?
I’ve always wanted to live a long and prosperous life. But mostly, I want to be healthy. I want to be around for my children. Go on family vacations. Go to superhero movies together. Cook them dinner every night. Watch them graduate from college. Get married. Have children of their own. Spending time with them is my way of loving them. My gift to them. There’s no treachery in being a mother who gives her children time.
When I was fourteen, my parents divorced. Mama moved out and lived alone. Ten years later when the doctor sent her home to die, Mama tearfully begged the men in her family, her younger brothers, the decision makers, “Give me a soil burial. No fire. Being burned is dying twice. Who would curse the dead like that?”
The only day the surgeon is available to operate on me is the day my husband goes on a business trip to San Jose. I drive myself to the hospital before the sun rises, my children still sleeping.
I sit on the edge of a stainless steel table, my stocking feet dangling. The open-back hospital gown exposes my spine for the anesthesia injection. When the surgeon asks if I have any questions before the procedure, I plead, “Show me my uterus when you take it out. Please don’t throw it out. I want to say a proper good-bye.”
The surgeon smiles. The nurses giggle. “That’s cute,” they say in one voice.
“I’m serious. It’s called the Child’s Palace in Chinese. A gift—”
Someone rubs my bare back with what feels like a piece of moist cotton. Then a cold liquid sensation pinches my lower back. I glance at the wall clock. Seven-thirty. My boys . . . my boys are driving . . . themselves . . . to school right now, while I sleep . . . for the surgery.
Take it out. Throw it out.
I wake up in a white room, wondering why I’m alone. The wall clock reads nine-ten. I grow impatient and push the call button for a nurse. When a middle-aged lady in a blue scrub comes to my bedside, I ask when the surgery will start.
“Oh, it’s done. You in pain?”
“No. The surgery is over?”
She nods, and then checks my IV.
How is it possible? I was—what was I doing? How did I get here?
“I didn’t get to say good-bye to my uterus,” I said. “I asked—”
“Well, we showed it to you. You just don’t remember. Want morphine?”
“NO! Where is my uterus?” My voice shakes a little, I can’t help it. “I didn’t get to see it. It was part of me. A gift—”
“We showed it to you. If you must know, it looked sick.”
I roll over, my back to the nurse. I’m nauseous. I feel a migraine coming up. My ears ring with the raging pulse in my head. We showed it to you. You just don’t remember.
Ridiculous! How can I ever not remember saying thank-you and good-bye to my Child’s Palace?
In the hospital’s dark, damp basement, Mama’s body was placed in a stainless steel freezer, water droplets dangling from the glass lid. It looked like she lay at the bottom of a pool. Her eyes closed. Her breath gone. For months leading to her passing, Mama’s failed kidneys had caused her internal organs to submerge in her bodily waste. Which forced her to sit on the bedroom tatami floor every night, leaning against a wall to fall asleep. Her head drooped, her breath labored. She wept and whimpered. “I’m so tired. When will I be able to lie down on my back again? . . . ”
Finally, finally, finally, she could rest in peace.
Mama’s brothers denied her wish for a soil burial. Cremation was quick and cheap, they said.
I flew back to Taiwan. In the crematorium, the funeral director led me into a wide open lobby with marble floor that looked like it could be used for a dance hall. There were six furnaces along one wall. Plenty of natural light flooded through the huge windows on two opposing walls. Six young muscular men in white shirts carried Mama’s casket in and rested it in front of one of the furnaces on a chain conveyor belt. They were quiet. The room was quiet. The only audible human sounds were a group of six monks’ chanting in the back of the room and the undertaker’s instructions:
I knelt and sprawled into the Child’s Pose on the floor, before the furnace.
I kowtowed again.
I was jetlagged. I was nauseous. I felt a migraine coming up. I heard the fierce roar of metal doors open on squeaky hinges. I heard the conveyor belt rolling. I was in the same lobby with Mama’s body, repeating the kowtow motion while she burned. Each time my head touched the cold, hard marble floor at the command of the funeral director, the monks chanted more energetically, louder, faster.
Suddenly the chanting stopped. The monks bowed their courtesy, respect, and condolences, and then walked away. The funeral director gestured for me to get up from the floor. He pointed at a spacious alcove off the lobby and said, “Go rest.”
The architectural pattern of the crematorium lobby continued into the alcove. A sand box was on a rectangular table at the center of the alcove, and a row of chairs was pushed against one wall. I sat for a few minutes in silence before I dozed off.
When the funeral director woke me, I saw the undertaker push a metal cart toward us. On the top tier of the cart was a metal box and an urn. With his gloved hands he set them up on the table, as if preparing to do a live demonstration.
With horror, I watched the undertaker do what he did for a living—handling the dead.
He reached into the metal box and picked out a piece of white, brittle bone and left it on the table. Then he bent over to fetch a hammer from the bottom tier of the cart. He was gentle. With a soft blow to the bone, it shattered. With a few soft pounds to the shards, they pulverized. He sifted the bone powder slightly in his cupped hands and poured it into the urn. Then he lifted a skull in the air and studied it with interest. “Aw, so beautiful. Your mama was a beauty.”
I’d seen plastic skulls at Walmart during Halloween season, but never a real one. Now I was looking at Mama’s skull, perfectly intact and pure white. A dome. Hollowed eye sockets. Upside down heart-shaped hole for the nose. High cheek bones. Teeth. This was her head, where her brain and mind were shielded. Where her lifelong thoughts and memories were stored. It was in a stranger’s hand now. He held it like a volleyball. I could almost hear my heart drop.
He hammered the skull. Once, twice, thrice. The sound of the pounding reminded me of the sound I made when I repeatedly knocked my forehead on the marble floor earlier, each time with belated gratitude for each thing Mama had done for me. Changed my diapers, washed my dirty clothes, breastfed me, bathed me.
The skull was destroyed. What was left didn’t resemble a human life. No flesh. No bones. Being burned is dying twice. Who would curse the dead like that?
The fire devoured Mama whole. Ate everything: her compass-drawn round face, her heart-shaped smiling lips, her elephant leg-like arms, her thick waist, her flooded lungs, her hairy moles, her cavity-teeth, and the diseased Child’s Palace she dutifully, painfully, respectfully kept all her life.
Behind my closed eyelids I saw the washroom in our minka. My three-year-old self splashed and kicked and giggled in the tub. Tapping at the hole in my tummy with my index finger, I asked, “What’s this?”
“Belly button,” Mama said. “There’s a cord that ties your belly button to a place in my tummy. You can’t see it. But it’s always there.”
That cord that tied me to her Child’s Palace, I saw it now, and I understood. She gave me a gift. In my tummy.
I opened my eyes and caught my reflection in the stainless steel furnace door.
Motherless . . .
Allison has participated in photoshoots that highlight the diversity of Chinese culture. In her winning piece, The Child’s Palace, she incorporates the image of herself in indigenous Chinese dress with her essay about the beauty and truth of a traditional Chinese mother’s love. Her intention is to bring her modeling and writing lives together to share the poignant story of the loss of her mother. Allison plans to use this unique way of storytelling to write a photographic memoir. And she hopes to share more of her work with the MAST audience.