• Lijing Cobb

Please bother me

Updated: Jan 17

Our vacation is over today. Every day as I opened my drawer to take clothing pieces out, I saw the sports bras (I packed 3 as usual) laying quietly there. Every time I walked by the closet of shoes, I saw the pair of sneakers I had brought obligatorily but hadn't used. In past vacations these items would have been used every day, without fail. This vacation, they rested.

Ever since I worked myself hard enough and long enough to look like a fitness trainer, with all the muscles and definitions you could see, and the aches and pains I hid from you, I'd been nursing this fear that one day I'd lose it. My chiseled arms and shoulders, looking like a Greek statue. I loved it when strangers came up to me on vacation and asked me if I was a fitness trainer, and told me that I looked great. My self-worth hinged upon the whims of people I didn't even know. In fact, the less they knew me, the more it seemed to please me. "Tell me you love me, damn it!" My muscles might have screamed at people on occasion, and some of those people, faced with such a wanton threat, capitulated and told me what I wanted to hear.

Yes, I'm trying to make fun of how I used to be to make a point. When Monday comes I return to my role of a fitness trainer, and most of my muscles had better still show up for the job, but on vacation, work no longer interferes with spending time with my family.

In place of the normal 1-2 hours of workout every morning in the past, I walked every stair I could find (what a boon that they gave us a place on the 6th floor!), played tag with my kids and husband, played volleyball with them too, swam in the pool, took latin dance and pool aerobic classes with my 7yo, ate lots of vegetables and fresh fruits and encouraged them to eat those too (alas, they chose pizza, pancakes, and ice cream over my recommendations!), and averaged 1 alcoholic beverage a day (ok, could have been two on some days but that's only because they were free).

In the past I've always marveled at my husband's ability to hang with the kids. They would play forever and laugh a lot. I imagined myself doing the same, in the middle of the family, laughing and playing with them, as I looked up from studying my choreography, only to sink back into learning how to teach others how to move their bodies and be active. My husband never complained. My kids stopped "bothering me." But I had a sneaky suspicion that I had missed a lot.

When I was little, I dreaded summer vacation. My parents worked all year long, and I don't know where my older sister was, but she was never around. For two months on end I was left to my own devices to while the time away. I had no books, no toys, only 3 or 4 neighbor kids who seemed to be available at certain scheduled hours of the day, unlike me who was open for play business all day long.

We also had no washing machine, as the keen reader remembers from a previous post. Our courtyard compound opened out to a river, and before we had pipes connected in our homes, everyone washed their clothing (as well as pots and pans, bowls and chopsticks, vegetables and meats, and best of all, the shit buckets that we called "horse pail"). You see, back then everyone had faith in the natural filtering capacity of the river. No one worried themselves about the co-mingling of certain materials in the same body of water.

So one day, at the age of 7 or 8, I went to the river to wash a piece of clothing by myself. The summer heat was suffocating, and the neighborhood was dead quiet. Everyone was either at work or taking a nap, I suppose. I walked down the 5 big stone steps to get closer to the water. The water was flowing pretty fast that day, but seemed harmless enough. I set the soap down on the step next to me, and lowered the piece of clothing (I don't remember what it was. Let's say that it was my father' pants) into the water. As the pants soaked and the river flowed, I began to realize that it was taking all my might to hold onto the pants so that they did not flow away with the water. My father had only two pairs of pants back then, as did all of us. The loss of half of his pant property would have unleashed what kind of hell? Unimaginable.

So it was unimaginable for me to let go. I held onto the heft of the pants as if I was holding onto life itself. It might have been life itself that I was holding onto, I'm not sure, because I never found out what would have happened if I had lost that pair of pants.

Before I knew it, I was in the raging river. And I didn't know how to swim.

As my heart sank with my body and the water started to choke me, my 7 or 8 year old self stared into the face of death for the first time. Those pants were too heavy for me, I confessed to death, I knew I should have known better.

Fast forward 3 decades to the time when everyone had a cellphone, someone might have had the wits to capture that moment of drowning right on their screen, and the hand that reached down and pulled me up from certain death just an instant later, drenched, shivering, and still clutching the pants that had just tried to take my life.

I wonder if the screen would have captured the man who saved me. When did he appear? How did he grab me that fast? What did he look like?

We lived in a neighborhood where we literally knew everyone. You see, what happens when you have no TV, no books, no money to do anything or go anywhere, you stay home and learn about everyone who lived on top of each other. It's everybody's business to know what you had for dinner, or that your kid almost drowned the other day.

But besides me and that man whose swift hand saved me from certain death, nobody knew the drama between me and those darn pants. All I remember is his back when he walked away after setting me back on the safety of that big slab of stone. If he existed in real life, he must have been a passerby (but what the heck was he doing down the 5 steps, right behind my back?), or he had a better hobby than gossip and never told a soul about saving a soul.

With trembling hands I wrung the pants as dry as I could, picked up the bar of soap, walked up the 5 steps, and then the 40 paces back to my own door, hung up the pants to dry. I don't think I ever told my father that he almost lost his pants. That would have been too risky. And I certainly did not get a hug from him for almost losing my life trying to save his pants.

At 7 or 8 years old, my youngest daughter's age today, I knew better than to tell my own father that he almost lost his pants because of me. My experience of his fatherhood had taught me to not bother him for my own sake. He was in his own world, and it had nothing to do with me.

In my own life, on vacation or not, my 10yo has learned to not bother me when I'm "working."My kids are happy hanging out just with their dad, but my two younger kids, thank God, still "bother" me freely when they have an argument, when they want to do something with me, when they need something, or when they are hurt. So I'm leaving my choreography behind and answering their calls now. For today, I know that they should not go down to the water with a pair of pants too heavy for their age. They definitely should not wash these pants for me. And I want to be the hand that grabs them out of the water in case they are foolish enough to take such a burden upon themselves and suffer the fall.

Your bothers are your gifts to me, kids. You only bother me because you still trust that you mean the world to me, and I would give the world to you.

Please bother me, kids.

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