Immortality, lost and not quite found

Yesterday, I spent over two hours injecting cancer cells into mice, looking through a glass barrier in full, identity-erasing protective gear. As I did this, I listened to a Longform interview with Wesley Yang, of “Paper Tigers” fame. When the Longform hosts introduced him, they noted how unique he is among their interviewees in his convoluted path through journalism and writing in general.

As Yang describes it, when he initially became a journalist, he was not super set on that path or particularly ambitious. He just wasn’t good at anything else. What lingers with me most is the few minutes when he said that he was just always lost, still is lost.

Today, I went to the Asian Art Museum for its 50th anniversary celebration. There was an exhibit on the use and symbolism of gold throughout the ages. The placards noted its association with prosperity, divinity, and immortality. As I read this, I thought what strange creatures we humans are, to desire immortality with such fervor. What drives us to construct tombs containing thousands of warriors, to build pyramids on the bones of the unfortunates, to create and collect records of civilizations? 

As a species, we are existentially lost. Like Yang, we have always been lost. 

How, we wonder, do we reconcile our quest for meaning with the inevitable terrifying void? How do we make our tiny, individual lives matter?

I feel like since my mother died, I have been obsessed with this theme of immortality. I suppose this happens whenever mortality becomes personal. When I think of her life, my chest aches a physical, pulsing ache. It’s not just that I am grieving for my loss of her. I am also grieving for her loss of opportunity, of meaning.

My mother lived such a difficult life–the backbreaking labor beneath a scorching sun; legs savaged by so many leeches in the water; and then in America, years and years working 16 hour days, partly to make ends meet but perhaps more because she could not turn off her ambition regardless of how much she hated what she was doing. I’m essentially doing that now, and only now do I understand how exhausting and soul-crushing those days must have been.

And then, she died just before she got to the good part. When I think about it, I want to scream until my voice gives out. She was finally getting along again with her husband, their only child was at college and had not used their savings for it, and they’d paid everything off. This was their chance to relax, maybe retire early, see the world, her chance to have the career she had always wanted but could never afford.

My mother wrote two books in Chinese and published one before she died, but maybe with more time, she could have learned how to navigate the publishing industry. She could have published the second book. These books, which were described as deeply moving by the handful of strangers who read and reviewed them, could have reached more people. We could have finished translating them together after I’d stopped being a pissy, existentially lost teenager. But we can’t. She can’t.  

Every accomplishment, every new and exciting thing I see or do now is bittersweet. I can’t turn off the thought that goddamn it, this is the good part. You are missing the good part. You are missing your daughter becoming more mature and self-aware and nuanced, your husband becoming more patient and willing to try new things, the entire nuclear family finally starting to get along. You are missing this restaurant in San Francisco with delicious noodle soup and dumplings. You are missing my clear adult skin and half marathon and voluntary purchase of a Chinese workbook. You are missing my newfound passion for this beautiful, ugly world. You are missing me slowly turning into a more fortunate, privileged version of you, made more fortunate and privileged because of you.

And yet, maybe this is the only way any of these things could have happened.

All I know is that because of this, I am trying to live my life twice as furiously, twice as courageously, as if that could make up for the life she didn’t get a chance to live. Logically, I know it can’t, but still, I am trying. I am living my life as a race to be won, struggling to leap over all the hurdles before I run out of time.

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