• Lijing Cobb

A penny and a popsicle

How big was the king crab we ate yesterday as the main attraction for our New Year’s Eve meal? Gigantic. Looking at that crab spitting out its tentacles while it breathed its last few breaths reminded me of the alien creatures in sci-fi movies chasing its human victims relentlessly, unstoppable by puny human weapons. As we sat in that Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn and waited for our king crab to be butchered and cooked to our satisfaction, I thought about my only sister who’s thousands of miles away in China. A connoisseur exotic food eater, she would have drooled at the sight of the king crab and all the culinary possibilities it promised (the waiter said that they were going to cook the crab in three different ways). In fact when I sent her a picture of the king crab later, she did reply with a drooling emoji.

My only sister, who called us orphans after mom’s passing, when none of our dozens of cousins lost a single parent on both sides of my parents’ extended families. My only sister who shouldered the burden of living in the same town as my father for the entirety of their overlapped existence. My sister who got married in 1995 to a man with a bummed leg because of polio, had her only daughter in the same year at the age of 24, divorced about 10 years later, had an unhappy relationship afterwards, finally remarrying to the third man in her life about 7 years ago. My sister who worked in a hotel, labored at a clothing factory, ran a clothing store, had a prosperous career as an insurance broker, fell from grace, and at the age of 51 got her retirement pension and lost our mother. My sister whose life is a mystery to me: aside from sleeping in the same bed with her for 18 years until the day of her marriage, and the fact that she was born to the same set of parents, I really cannot say that I know her. We are so different.

I have no memory whatsoever about us playing together as kids. She was more of a parent to me than a sister because of our age gap of almost 5 and a half years. When I was born and my mom had to go back to work, she was my babysitter. When she started going to school I was babysat by my paternal grandmother, who was also watching two other cousins born in the same year as me. When I started primary school, she graduated from that school. When I got into middle school, she was already wrapping up her education in hotel hospitality, ready to venture out into the real world. While I breezed through school as a student and was the bragging point for my parents who otherwise had nothing to show off to all our relatives, my sister hated school and could not wait to get out.

One of my mom’s favorite stories to tell about my sister and me was about a penny and a popsicle. Once my mom gave my sister and me a penny to walk to our grandparents’ house by ourselves. The penny was for us to buy ourselves a popsicle and share it on our way back. Legend says that I promised my sister my half in exchange for a ride on her back to our grandparents’ house, but on our way back I said I was so thirsty that my sister let me eat the popsicle anyway. “The little trickster,” my mom called me with a laugh, pride in her eyes. I was able to trick my own sister to do something for free, how smart of me.

But somehow I feel like this was the way our relationship had always worked. The night before her wedding, we lay in our tiny bed together for one last time. Choked by tears and the frightening prospect of being left alone in that house by myself, without her shielding me from all the insults and terrors that were still waiting to be unleashed, I asked her if it was indeed necessary that she got married to that man the next day.

“Yes.” She said resolutely, turning away from me to get some rest.

I hugged her tight from behind, but more and more, I noticed that she stopped me from squeezing her too tight around her belly. The next day she got married, and walked out of the house with tears in her eyes, leaving me all by myself on that empty little cot, which suddenly seemed huge.

You see, whenever my father had a drunken fit, somehow the bulk of the rage was always directed to either shield No. 1, my mom, or shield No. 2, my sister. If you believe in the interconnectedness of the 5 elements according to ancient Chinese beliefs, it all made sense. My father was born in the year of the fire pig, my mom the year of the metal rabbit, my sister the year of the metal pig, and I in the year of the fire dragon. Fire, accordingly to the five element chart, inhibits metal. My mom and sister were doomed from the beginning.

My niece was born in the summer of 1995, just two weeks before I went off to college. My then brother-in-law, although lame in one leg, had a strong body, made good money, and was kind and generous. They lived in a really nice condo in a brand-new housing complex. My sister was finally protected by her own man, in the safety of her own house.

My 4 years of college went by, and family relations seemed a bit more improved. Every time I went back home we always played card games together. My then brother-in-law would invariably win, and my father would sometimes walk away in a huff and puff. Since there was no doubt that the younger man was stronger than the older man, the tension seemed to resolve, and I’d be back on campus continuing my higher education, not knowing that there could be any potential hazards threatening the integrity of my sister’s marriage.

In 1999 I boarded the plane to fly to the US for the very first time. I could not get out of there fast enough. My graduation ceremony happened on July 1, and my flight was for July 19. I was ready to leave all of my history behind and start afresh. Bye mom, bye sister, bye brother-in-law, bye niece, and good riddance, dad. My sister left my cot to live in a new condo 10 minutes of bicycle ride from us, and I was taking a 20 hour plane ride to go to the other side of the world, where they spoke a completely different language and lived a very different life. I was trying to wash my dad off like dirt on my fingers, and my mom and sister became collateral damage in that long rinsing process.

Like my father, I am fire that inhibits metal as well. By the time my sister’s first marriage fell apart, I had absolutely no idea about what must have been going on for years prior to the final break. My sister and I never talked about her life in any meaningful details, so their separation came as a shock to me. By the time I learned of their divorce, my ex brother-in-law had already remarried and was about to have another baby. What? I called him up and asked to meet that man who I once adored as a powerful source of protection.

“Yes, it’s irreconcilable.” He lowered his eyes and turned his head away. “She changed. I don’t know what to say. You better ask her what happened.”

That was the last time I saw him. My following attempts at finding out the truth met with conflicting sources of information from my mom and my sister. Nobody was on the same page. These people that were once so close to my life suddenly seemed so far away, like the distance that had been put in between our residing places, literally at opposite ends of the globe. I could not believe that my sister had thrown her life away just like that. She no longer had a steady job, lived in a rental apartment like a migrant worker but in her own city, cooked on a makeshift stove, and was running, according to my mom, a gambling den in that very apartment with her then boyfriend, who was a married man…

I did not know where to start to make sense of all of that. Her evasiveness during my short visit back to China led me nowhere closer to understanding, and as my plane took me back to the other side of the world, her life faded out of sight and out of mind again.

When my father got sick from cancer about 13 years ago, I was preparing for my own wedding, transitioning to a new job, and having my first baby. I guess I had enough excuses to not go back to China to take care of a man from whom I was fleeing the whole of my life. When I did go back for a short visit in the heavy armor of my then fiancé, now husband, my father had been sick for a while. Cancer had eaten all the flesh off of his bones and he was emaciated beyond recognition. It was only then that I believed that that man was really tormented by an incurable disease and was nearing the end of his life.

And my sister, who was alone again without a man to protect her, was back in my father’s life, full time, sharing every minute of the remainder of that unhappy man’s wrath with my mom. Somehow she never quit but saw it to the end. When she called me to book an immediate flight to go back and say goodbye to our father for the last time, I brought my husband and my 11 month old daughter. Even at his death bed, when the man did not even have the strength to sip water, I was somehow still fearing for my life. Could this really be the end of a man who once seemed like he would live forever and trap us in his personal hell along the way?

I don’t know how much additional suffering my sister endured while my father faced his mortal enemy. I could only imagine the daily grind, the soul-crushing dread she must have borne on her shoulders and in her heart for those 3 excruciating years. I did not offer to alleviate her burden. I had the excuse of my own family and career. I told myself that we were so different, and I chose right.

Dutifully she played the role of the sorrowful daughter, arranged everything for my father’s funeral, lit incense and cooked food for our departed father on every commemorating occasion, and remembered what she should want to forget. While my parents were alive, she was also the one who gave them what they wanted just as long as she had the means to do so.

“Why do you treat him so well when he was such a bastard to us?” Once I asked her indignantly, as if she had betrayed us from our trench of the maimed and wounded.

“He gave birth to me. He’s my father no matter what he did or does.” She replied with a practiced resignation in her voice, and then quietly added, “and how many years of life do we all really have?”

I wonder when I will see her next time. It’s been over 8 years since I went back to China. My 7yo has never been in my mother country, and the older kids have no recollection of their visit(s). Last time I saw my sister in person was 4 years ago, when she visited us for a month over Christmas and New Year’s and almost died of a diabetic attack, but that was a story for another time. Our relationship is strained at the moment, for reasons that I’m not yet ready to talk about. But in the quiet of our absences from each other she is still carrying on the role of the dutiful daughter. On the eve of the Chinese New Year she lit red candles for our mom so she could walk on a bright path, and she lit some for her on my behalf as well.

All our lives, I’ve been riding on her back with the promise of my half of the popsicle as a reward, only to eat the popsicle when the ride is over. Could that be true? Was I leaving it all to her to handle because it was too heavy for me? Was she taking it all and still giving me the popsicle not because she wasn’t smart enough like me, but because it was the right thing to do? How many years of life do we really have? Have I been too smart for my own good, having dodged all those bullets that were shot at her after I left her and my mom behind?

What is the right thing for me to do? I have no answers, but trust that all will work out in the end. Life has been an interesting ride. I hope that when my ride comes to an end, I'd be able to let go without the gnawing guilt that I had somehow cheated my way through. Where does smart end and brave begin?

My mom's first year candles: 3 from my sister, 3 from me. My half of the popsicle, no payment.

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