A Good Life

I remember when I was an adolescent, my aunt (my mother’s sister) who had just recently immigrated from Vietnam, would take my un-roughened hands in her well-worn ones and say in a slightly wistful tone, “Seng, you have a good life.” To her, it was a statement of fact and perhaps aspirational prophecy. My hands had never known the harshness of working in the fields or making abrasive soaps to sell on the streets or even cooking or doing chores, all things that my aunt and mother had spent most of their lives in Vietnam doing. My youthful hands were pale, clean and smooth, unblemished by sun, heat, grime, labor and the brutal realities of a life that could have been. I once asked my father, during one of our many hours sitting in the car through Los Angeles traffic, why he had left Vietnam. I could not and still cannot fathom circumstances that would make a person so desperate as to leave the country that had been his home since birth and for thirty-something years thereafter on a rickety fishing boat with an unclear destination. His pithy response, “You don’t understand. You eat rice and I ate salt.” My father loves his cryptic Chinese and Vietnamese sayings. No, I guess I will never understand the suffering that compelled my parents to emigrate halfway around the world, risking their lives and their children’s lives for the nebulous promise of a better life, a good life.

I have stared at my hands a lot lately. They are ugly now, the fingers blackened and unnaturally wrinkled, the cuticles overtaking the bottoms of my fingernails, the fingernails themselves oddly pale in comparison to the darkened skin. My hands look strangely tanned (as does the rest of my skin). Fissures that are various shades of pink, red and black (from dried and old blood) adorn the skin right along the edge of my fingernails on the backs of my hands. There are open cuts and the remnants of those open cuts along the creases of my fingers and palms. My ravaged hands are evidence of what the drugs have done to me, symbols of the toll that cancer has taken on my body and my life. I find myself looking enviously at other people’s hands and even my own hands in photos that predate my cancer diagnosis. Seeing those before-cancer photos are especially poignant and even heartbreaking. Every photo, every memory is always now automatically identified by my mind as before or after cancer. Would my aunt today still look at my after-cancer hands and tell me I have a good life? I daresay not. More