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Death Rehearsal

Sheng-mei Ma

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1Living is dying, an unscripted, unconscious rehearsal for the premiere of death—one show only for each individual serving the life sentence, cyclical reruns for collective humanity.  

2A long, long time ago, on the Fourth of July in the year Two Thousand, the ceremony of (Un)Naturalization has rendered me an American citizen and, simultaneously, a ghost whose previous incarnation of the past century hails from Asia, specifically Taipei.  And it is to Taipei that my ghost returns nightly to the maze-like mandala of Chenkung xincun (Success New Village, one of countless compounds across Taiwan to accommodate the flood of mainland Chinese refugees in 1949), with a maokeng (northern Chinese dialect for “shit hole” or outhouse) at the center.  I am not alone in this idiosyncratic obsession.  Maokeng is evidently so searing an experience that at least two modern Chinese writers open their novels with its revolting stench and presence: Eileen Chang’s The Rice-Sprout Song (1955) and Wang Chen-ho’s Rose, Rose, I Love You (1984). In contrast to the two novels, however, my family’s outhouse is in the house, hidden at the rear of our rundown tenement room and the source of shame during my childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s: what if my friends and classmates would find out that my family had gone without a flush toilet and continued to relieve ourselves into this gaping hole of overflowing excrement and squirming maggots?  Night after night, my dreams, figuratively, drip urine, caked with traces of feces; I find myself wading through what is apparently bodily discharge in order to urinate, revisiting a shit hole of shame and . . .  eroticism.  Up in the crack of ceiling boards, I used to hide my collection of newspaper clippings of, invariably on that island under martial law, Western women in bikinis—a secret of love within a secret of abjection.  As I squatted down to defecate, I used to lean these semi-nudes against the foot of the wall, unable to pick my favorite. W. B. Yeats's poem, “But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement," is literal to this childhood. That shit hole has been the repressed genesis of my sense of self and will be the end of my self, as body, with all its desires, is bound to disintegrate into waste.  Although I have traveled far from that shit hole, I, in troubled, recurring dreams, sense it and am it, my beginning and my end.  From this personal mandala, I visualize the universal one, the dying shared by Asian ghosts in diaspora and by non-Asian Western souls, like me and you, amidst land and sea, home and globalization.

3Given our life as death rehearsal, we ought to hazard a “death” gaze on life, a gaze at the world of the living, from the cavernous skull, framed by the twin sockets and the toothy grin. “Utopian” perhaps since death’s point of view can only be imagined rather than acquired, this is, however, no different from any other perspective in fiction or scholarship.  Whereas one can never be the subject at hand, the distance between the writer and the subject widens considerably in death rehearsal in comparison to a dance or stage play rehearsal.  Wondering how to speak beyond the last words, this essay soon realizes that moments of silence between words have already rendered itself as much an essay of words as a wordless essay.  As words wrest themselves from the void, they often wind up as mere parenthesis for it.  One thinks of music, which communicates through notes as well as through pauses between notes.  Even after the last note fades away, music keeps ringing in our ears.  Unexpectedly in our daily life, snatches of a tune may abruptly possess us, an image chanced upon in the sea of memory, i.e., the sea of oblivion.   

4The literal end to life, death comes to us metaphorically in the form of cessations of rational self.  We live death while we are alive, death-in-life as opposed to the hypothetical, religious life-in-death.  “Every breath we take,” cautions Kyentse Norbu in his cameo appearance in Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), “we die a little.”  This citation from Buddhist sutras seems to suggest not so much that we move inexorably toward an apocalyptic end like John’s Revelation as death exists within the very essence of life, which is breathing.  Like the lull between exhalation and inhalation, a comatose (hibernating?) patient at a bustling hospital, we not only rehearse death but we die every moment of our life, although the dying are rarely conscious of it, unless one attends to one’s “daily dying” of feces, dead skin, menstrual blood, fallen hair, and dandruff (Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death [1959],294). Similarly, our cities are dotted with monuments to war dead and the like.  Our food disguises “death and decay with heat and seasoning; we serve the food prettily to distract us from our own mortality” (David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming [2000], 354).  Religiously and philosophically, life and death are not polarized; medically and ethically, one is disturbed by borderline existences, as in cases of life support and terminally ill: to let die with dignity or to let live in a dehumanized state. For all its elaboration on Heaven and the hereafter, any religion teeters, one-leggedly, on the sole footing of Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling” over individual annihilation, absolute and non-negotiable.  To amend, various theological scenarios portray life as death rehearsal, a view that, in turn, embalms death as rehearsal for next life.  The inextricability of life and death exists in art as well: in murder mystery and film noir, a corpse in the opening shot, William Holden’s, for instance, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), formulaically furnishes the raison d’etre for the story. From celluloid to real life’s endgame, either peaceful or violent demise—the slash across the throat, the bullet through the chest—instantly pops open the breathing hole for death to spit out the lees of life, death’s first breath sounding exactly like the last gasp

5A matter of predestined rerun, predictable and slightly boring to God as Nietzschean eternal returns, each death rehearsal, nonetheless, is always live and always for the first time for the dying.  The bird’s-eye view does not abrogate the validity of the land crawler’s.  This relationship of God and human is similar to that of humanity and individual.  To illustrate: whatever I have written and what I am about to write had most likely been written by someone, somewhere, sometime, as I found out to my dismay when I googled “death rehearsal” and several other of my “ingenious” formulations—invariably related to fringe rock bands, music CDs, and commercial products.  Yet the stuffs are mine, springing from my own head.  A reprise to God, a Tom Waitsian “used song” to the collective humanity, is, to me, a flash of lightning that pulls me back from the edge.  The cosmic plagiarism I commit as I t-y-p-e the next word resembles the next breath that shaves a hair off my reprieve, cliché to Him but no less of a rude awakening to me. Shall we then call the show “Death Rehearsal Live,” which is to be read in both directions?  On the one hand, death rehearsal is in real time, being staged every single moment of our life.  Read backwards, we live in order to rehearse for death. Short of this realization, we cling obsessively to blindness, deafness, muteness, and insentience.  Behold the tricks we play with our body to hide its paltriness!  Fancy dress, cool mannerism, studied persona, even innate charisma—all these and more free us psychologically, for a while, from our skin-tight (or sagging) straitjacket.  No trick, however, will absolve us of the bondage, nor prolong life.  The body is the falconer, from which the mind soars into the sky, swoops down for the kill, but must return in exchange for meager reward and a hood that blinds.

6Rehearsing for death conjures up the image of re-taking the hearse, the spelling of which evokes “hearth” and cooking: the rekindling of fire to prepare dead meat to sustain life.  The alphabetic “look-alikes,” perhaps born of the same etymological womb that only a linguist can track, would evolve to sound so differently reminds me of the fate of Asian twins adopted by two foreign linguistic communities.  Despite their resemblance, “hearse” and “hearth” no longer alliterate, attesting to the paradox of life and death: so close in kinship yet pushed so far apart.  Therefore, suffer me to rehearse the end (yours and mine, since we are to lie in the same earthy bed): this body of ours leaves the warmth and comfort of the family hearth, on a hearse, for a hearth of another kind, the crematorium where the body is transubstantiated into smoke.

7The Book of the Dying, August 2005

8After a prolonged illness robbing him of the ability to move, to think, and to swallow, my father bowed out of his rehearsal in 2006, a wisp of smoke from the crematorium chimney.  This book of the dying comprises my jottings by the nursing home bedside or late at night, with most personal references excised and most Chinese passages translated. Otherwise, the jottings are presented as they are, unpolished, sentence fragments and all.

98/14/05

10 We flew to LA on the 12th.  First visit since December 03 and January 04 and first visit since Ba’s calamitous falls on July 4, 04 and institutionalization in August 04.  Ba could neither move his body, except his hands, nor swallow.

11Whenever Ba is awake, he gestures for water.  No water can be offered since he has lost the ability to swallow, kept alive since last August by a G-tube, a tube into his stomach.  For a year, not a single drop of water has passed through his parched lips and throat.  He is dying of many things, but thirst plagues him most of all.  He despairs and weeps, the face scrunched up in wrinkles like a prematurely aging baby.

12Each pain tells its own story.  To relieve pain only risks not listening to it.

138/15/05

14 Coming to LA to wipe my parents’ asses.  The bed-ridden Ba literally has to have myself and Karen, the nurse’s aide at Huntington Memorial Hospital where Ba was sent on the day of my arrival due to pneumonia, rolled him around to change his diapers and clean him.  Here at my parents’ condominium, we have been scrubbing and scouring all the grease on cabinets, pots, walls. . . Again, wiping the grease of a life-long bad sanitary habit inherited from Northern China.  Parents give birth through penis and vagina.  They then become, ideally, the head to children growing up, providing sustenance and guidance in life.  In old age, they are the asses to be wiped clean by children, particularly us the sandwiched generation, adult children of mainland Chinese in Taiwan, having come to the New World as students first and then immigrants.  On the one hand, the sandwiched generation raises American children who will be devoted to their own families in the future.  On the other, the sandwiched generation is expected to care for their aging parents in the traditional way.  These mainland Chinese parents transplanted in 1949 to Taiwan and then to the U.S. in retirement are mostly without English or life skills such as driving.  They harbor unrealistic expectations because they have never provided care for their own parents, who were separated from them and died in Maoist China.  

15 On our way from LAX to the condominium, my brother advised us to clean Ma’s kitchen.  He lives in LA and sees her every week.  Why didn’t he clean it?  We flew here to clean kitchen and wipe asses.  City of Angels?  City of Asses.

16 Got to hospital around 1:30 p.m.  Ba just pulled out the IV tube and an IV nurse is being called, after three nurses failed to reinsert it in a dozen attempts.  Pulling IV out provides minor excitement at the dull end of a dull life.

17 Ba’s sense of time is all warped.  I may stay here three hours and he opens his eyes and thinks I just arrived.  I may have just arrived and he thinks I have not left his bedside.  Does he know this is a hospital?  He certainly doesn’t know the IV’s purpose, only that it’s an itch to be scratched or a pinch to be shaken loose.

18 Ba aiwan (loves to play), so let him play with himself, with his IV tube.

19 Ba wakes up and tells me to xiuxi yixia (rest up a bit), and then falls asleep.

208/16/05

21 Ba has pulled out IV three times and the G-tube once since I arrived on 8/12.  Consciousness: Is he aware of who I am, despite his now distinct questions of “have some sleep,” “[your] jacket thick enough—only two layers?” (All in Mandarin, of course.)  

22 Ba says Mama huhu (so-so), finally resigned to the soft elbow pads that I was unwilling to take off him to prevent any more pulling of IV.

23 In his sleep, he starts shaking and tries to take off the pads’ Velcro straps.  Discomfort to be rid off. Ba is discharged by a Russian-sounding doctor who wore a low-cut blouse and short skirt, with hair pinned back behind her left ear, as if she just stepped out of a night club or about to go to one.  She reviewed the X-Ray and suspected that there was no pneumonia.  Is it because of the proximity to Hollywood that LA’s doctors are so scantily dressed?  Ba is sent back to the nursing home, Atherton Baptist Home, today.

248/17/05

25 Desire is an itch.  Ba wanted to be up and about when I got to Atherton at 8:30 a.m.  We were finally out of the Atherton building around 10 after a series of delays, waiting for the nurse and the nurse’s aide to complete their routine.  For the first hour of sitting in the wheel chair, Ba was enjoying the scenery, commenting on the wonderful environment, the trees.  I often stopped and asked him about what color flowers were and how the tree barks and branches were shaped.  Then we went in when Ba complained of exhaustion.  We were kicked out by the nurse around 11.  From 11 till noon, he kept insisting to go back to sleep in his bed, constantly pulling out his shirt to pee.  Desire is an itch, at different parts of the body, one after the other.  Do we scratch one to get rid of it or do we chase the itch elsewhere?

26 Ba’s Atherton nursing home is blocks away from Edwards Cinema on Main and Atlantic.  Pushing Ba in the wheelchair, I see the multistory cinema parking lot, the reddish orange arch on its walls visible from Atherton.  Old age and youth entertainment side by side, without recognizing each other.  Atherton is nestled in a world of fun and pleasure.  Or is it a world ignorant of pain, until pain breaks out like laoren ban (age pigment) on the face?

27 Shopping at Jiujiu (Double Nine, a San Gabriel grocery store and shopping center) with Chinese customers all around only gives me the illusion that I’m back in Taiwan since I haven’t been among so many Chinese for over 20 years.  I came to the Midwest in the U.S. for graduate study and basically stayed there.  I was a young man in Taiwan and I thought if I turned abruptly at Jiujiu’s counter, I would find Ba and Ma at my present age.

28 Changing diaper for Ba now is amazingly similar to changing diaper for my daughter over a decade ago, only there are an additional penis and testicles to be reckoned with.  I arrived via that appendage, circumcised no less!  Was it circumcised when I took a bath with him at the public bathhouse at Success New Village?  I don’t recall.  I was perhaps too embarrassed to look, as I only stole a glance at his penis, the source of my life, today.

298/19/05

30Ba becomes what he has always wanted—a helpless orphan.  He must rely on others for everything—changing diaper, putting on clothes and shoes.  He can only take off life support devices that appear to annoy him—IV tube, G-tube, tapes, diapers.  He doesn’t like what keeps him alive.  But he surely doesn’t want to die.  He doesn’t like what he has always wanted all his life—total dependency.  If Ma is on call at his bedside, attending to every moan and whine, he would be in heaven.

318/20/05

32 Reverting back to infancy, Ba has only needs, insatiable needs.  A few days ago, he wanted to go out for a walk immediately.  Out for an hour, he wanted to go back in to sleep immediately.  He also wanted to pee immediately while he couldn’t even stand, nor pee on demand, I imagine.  Once put back in bed, he wanted water immediately.

338/21/05

34 Ba is trapped by his own body and mind, and by urges and needs, asking for water from everyone passing by his ward.

35 LA is a bad dream from which I will awake in 2-3 days.  Is the Midwest a better dream?  When will I wake up from the dream called life?  What happens when I wake up?

368/22/05

37 On the verge of return, a tinge of sadness.  My parents have been staying at this condo since 1991.  Ba has failed to prepare for aging and it’s already too late, now that he no longer has total control of his mind.

38 For the first few days of our arrival, Ma slept through most of the day, leaving it to me to visit and care for Ba.  Ma was at first very stressed out, sighing al the time.  Right now, she is more energized, watering her plants, and making dumplings and baozi.  Because of our presence, Ma has rebounded.  How do we find the resource for regeneration within ourselves, and not from others?

398/23/05

40 Since I arrived in LA, this is the first time that I brought Ma to Ba.  I guess I have been concerned about how Ba would react and how that would once again shatter the fragile calm we have been able to construct for Ma.  

41 I had to leave them by the fountain at the Atherton front door for a while.  When I came back, I observed that Ba had changed to a different person, weeping and moaning that no one cares for him and for Ma.  I later learned that Ba, in my absence, had accused Ma of playing around [with other men, I gathered] and leaving him alone for the past two weeks.  I also learned from Ma and my brothers in LA that Ba often accused Ma of living with another man. While I pushed his wheelchair, with Ma in tow, I repeated to Ba what I had been saying over the past two weeks that Ma had been sick with a cough and stayed home.  Ba never responded and never leveled his charge of Ma’s adultery.  All Ba said in response to Ma’s illness was that “Don’t lie to people” (bie pianren). Ba has great power of discernment, changing his attitude in relation to different family members.  Ba keeps his fatherly façade in my presence, while using the charge of adultery to control Ma in the absence of their sons.  Ba is manipulative, using his early orphancy  throughout the adult life to gain sympathy, especially from his wife and now from his sons.  He went on to blame his sons for abandonment.  He is quite articulate in accusing his sons and wife.  The refrain is meiren guan (no one cares).  It’s ironic since he has family visitors daily, whereas most of the Atherton residents go on with their day, even Sunday at this Baptist institution, unvisited.  He added that when I go home and find my children are not there and don’t care, then I’ll see how it feels.  I was so fed up at that point that I said: “wo buyao beirenguan, wu xezi guan” (I don’t want people to care for me; I’ll care for myself.)  Ba’s articulateness in this refrain, especially since his arrival in the U.S. and at Atherton this year, throws in doubt all my observations and reflections before today.  Ba has amazing discernment in that he saves the most cutting words for Ma, whom he could manipulate through a sense of guilt.  In my presence, the worst he exhibits is his thirst for water, rarely running the risk of incensing me with the accusation of abandonment.

42 Ba’s self-pity and Machiavellian calculation thoroughly disgust me, more shockingly revolting than his nakedness and emaciation and ground-down yellow teeth.

43 I neglected to report a farce.  After Ba’s complaint that no one cared, he asked Ma to stay with him forever, to stay every day.  Ma responded emotionally that, her right hand pointing to the sky, she duitian fashi (swear under heaven, or swear to God) that she would stay forever.  Ba raised his right arm to the sky, which eerily resembled a Nazi salute, to echo her vow.  Ba’s copy served as an act of applause.  Ma concluded that she would be struck by lightening (tianda leipi) if she fails to follow through.

448/24/05

45 Red-eye flight back to the Midwest.  Headache.  Exhausted.  A family vacation to the sunny California.

46 One can be so sick yet so manipulative, so close to death yet so clinging to life.  The end of life can be so intense with life’s intrigues.  After 12 hours on the road, we’re back from the other country called California.  Called Ma and she was in a hurry to visit Ba.  She had no patience to listen to me, a truck crashing downhill, slowed down for two weeks during our visit.

478/25/05

48 Incidentally, one day when I was pushing him around in a wheelchair, Ba mumbled that Xiaowu (Little Five, my milk name) is visiting and he is now waiting for

49X---  (the milk name for his perhaps favorite son who would be in a Buddhist retreat in Australia until the summer of 2008).  I don’t believe X--- has ever pushed him around in an Atherton wheelchair.  Only the stupid ones work with their arms and not necessarily appreciated for their labor.  Will our ass-wiping in LA be appreciated in the days to come?  Next summer, will it be expected that we return to wipe asses again?  That has been Ma’s job for a long time already.  Not long ago, my brother revealed to us reluctantly that one night before institutionalization, he saw Ma had to insert a finger to help relieve the constipated Ba.

508/31/05

51 Called Ma yesterday and she was, once again, terribly agitated over nursing home’s negligence of Ba.  Ma claimed that the nurse’s aide stuck two towels in Ba’s breasts to soak up the fluids that were supposed to go into the G-tube.  I told her that if it were wrong, then it’s the nurse’s mistake, not the aide’s.  The aide does not handle G-tube.  Something wrong with Ma.

52The Book of the Dead, October 3, 2005

53 We flew back to Taipei to attend my father-in-law’s funeral on October 3.  Hot, humid, dog poop everywhere.  Jet-lag and couldn’t sleep, nor shit.  But so much memory.

54 Controlling to the extent of tyrannical, my father-in-law exerted his last act of will in assembling everyone, in Taipei and abroad, to mark his passing.  The living gathered at the funeral to commemorate the dead and to assign the dead to the other realm.  The brief period of mourning severs the bond.

55 My mother-in-law was there and not quite there.  She played with her finger as if it were a toy.  Spent hours tracing a pattern on the cushion that we couldn’t see or scraping off invisible dirt on her finger.  The one who should mourn his death the most was oblivious to it all.

56 The ritual of death was to cover up the nothingness of death.

57 I found ten volumes of hand-copied correspondence from 1981 to 2001.  My father-in-law must have had copied these letters at this very desk beside this green telephone for the past twenty some years.  Pages were mildewed, nearly soaked with moisture—this is the tropical Taiwan, after all. By copying every single correspondence, he put his stamp on all communication and arranged the world according to his script.  Or was he practicing his hand-writing?

58 Waiting in the hallway of the morgue.  Asked to turn off all cell phones and all of us mourners in black robes took out cell phones and checked.  After a while, all put them away.  Uniformed mourners uniformly tuning out of this world to attend to the patriarch’s brief transition to the next.

59 Mourners in black robes huddled together for warmth, like crows.

60 The funeral home displayed numerous photographs, each with a toothbrush in front, along with other items.  A Taiwanese custom I was unaware of?  Or perhaps because this was the first time I had been in a funeral home?  How to say toothbrush in Taiwanese?

61 Open casket.  The makeup to mask the swelling and flattening, like a pie taken out of the oven too soon.  The swelling reminded me of a skinned pig at the open-air Taiwanese banquet, always with a fruit in the mouth.

62 At Taipei’s Second Crematorium, a line of ovens with intense fire, baking bodies into bones and ashes.  Cuisine of death.  Fire cooked food.  We ate food and thus fire.  Yet fire ate us in the end. From eating food and fire, we ended up eaten by fire.

63The crematorium staff tied a zijie (dead knot) with the scarf wrapping the cinerary urn.  No need to untie.  Sealed in perpetuity.

64On our way to the gravesite, my brother-in-law held the urn on his laps—the only time in his life to hold his dad on his laps and the last time.

65Finis

66 Culled from my scribbles during those days suspended between the dying and the dead, the two Books contain entries reflecting my thoughts at the time.  Some entries may sound unsavory, but, dear reader, they have already been beautified for your viewing.  The two Books resemble the underwater stem and roots in mud that sustain the lotus petals, that fleeting, poetic bloom on death rehearsal of the opening pages. Or perhaps the other way around: the two Books reveal the true face of the corpse, on which is worn the mask of a lyrical opening. At any rate, despite the focus on mortality, neither Zen satori nor Christian epiphany graces these pages, only the brute facts of life’s endgame observed by a callous son. Let it be the revenge against the two patriarchs, whose major contributions consist of two sperms, one for my life, the other for my spouse’s.  This transgression of mine is, in turn, being avenged, even as we speak.

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Bibliographie

Bertolucci, Bernardo, dir. Little Buddha. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Ruocheng Ying, and Bridget Fonda. Miramax, 1993.

Brown, Norman O.  Life Against Death: The Psychological Meaning of History.  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1959.

Chang, Eileen. The Rice-Sprout Song: A Novel of Modern China.  1955. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1998.

Louie, David Wong.  The Barbarians Are Coming.  New York: Berkley, 2000.

Wang Chen-ho.  Rose, Rose, I Love You. 1984. Trans. Howard Goldblatt.  NY: Columbia UP, 1998.

Wilder, Billy, dir.  Sunset Boulevard.  Perf. William Holden and Gloria Swanson.  Paramount, 1950.

Yeats, W. B. “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.New York: Macmillian 1950. 254-55.

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Référence électronique

Sheng-mei Ma, « Death Rehearsal », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2010, consulté le 17 août 2017. URL : http://cm.revues.org/460

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Auteur

Sheng-mei Ma

is Professor of English at Michigan State University in Michigan, USA, specializing in Asian Diaspora/Asian American studies and East-West comparative studies.  His four scholarly books in English are: East-West Montage: Reflections on Asian Bodies in Diaspora (Hawaii, 2007, nominated for the 2007 Association of Asian American Studies [AAAS] Book Award in Cultural Studies and for the Warren-Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Scholarship); The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity (Minnesota, 2000,supported by the Rockefeller Fellowship, 1997-98);Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures (SUNY, 1998); and Asian Diaspora and East-West Modernity (300-page manuscript accepted for publication by Purdue’s Comparative Cultural Studies series, forthcoming in 2010).  He co-edited and translated Chenmo de shanhen (Silent Scars: History of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military—A Pictorial Book, bilingual edition, Shanzhou, 2005).  Sanshi zuoyou (Thirty, Left and Right) is his Chinese poetry collection (Shulin, 1989).  He also published numerous articles and book chapterson literature, film, and global culture. A selected publication list is available on the English Department Web site: http://english.msu.edu/documents/MaSelectedPubs.pdf.http://english.msu.edu/staff/Detail.asp?_GroupID_3=3&AdvancedSearch=True&ContactID=22&RecPos=21then click on Publications.

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