I was born the youngest of seven brothers. I was born at a time when the world of Laos was falling apart. Bombs fell from the sky. Earth shattered beneath our feet. The cries of battle resounded from the lowest valleys to the highest mountain tops. We survived only because of each other.
On the other side of the Mekong River, hungry now for a home buried in ashes, we nursed our families back to life bit by bit with our memories of togetherness, our shared visions of a united future on the other side of the world.
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We dreamt of a time when our sons and our daughters might rise from the craters of our despair. We had learned that homes built of sticks and stones would fall in an unsteady world. We each endeavoured to raise our children in houses made instead of hope.
In America, for a glittering moment, it seemed our brotherly dreams were coming true. In America, we raised our young families until the oldest children started their own. In America, our children, divorced from the tragedies of the past, fed themselves on the history and circumstances of their present. The moment dimmed.
How could any of us have known how the world would look once the light of loss had been lit?
My fourth brother died first. His kidneys failed him. He was placed on dialysis. He waited for a kidney that came. Seven years swam by. Then, one day he fell. He was unable to get up. At the hospital, there was nothing more to be done. In a rush, the winds had risen. We cried our goodbyes from different directions.
My eldest brother died second. Like our third brother, his kidneys had also failed him. He was on dialysis. He was under the care of his eldest child. One day that child saw that one of his eyes was red and irritated. He took his father to the doctor. The doctor sent the old man to the hospital. At the hospital, one small thing led to another. The imbalance grew until the equation became unwieldy and the situation scary. Near the end, there were too many forms of life support to sustain. Near the end, the winds that had been blowing grew fast and furious. We held on for as long as he could.
My third brother died next. He died in a global pandemic. He died this past December. On a virtual call, he told me, “It’s just a cough. Don’t be scared. The problem is that I’ve lost my appetite.”
I told him, “The body gets sick. The body can get better again.”
He said, “I’m already older than our father was.”
I said, “This cannot be how your story ends.”
He looked embarrassed by my tears. This little brother of his who was always so sensitive, so prone to pain. This poet of a brother whose tears lived close to the surface, whose heart was incapable of deflecting sorrow. I cleared my throat but I could not clear my fears.
When my third brother died, something shifted in what remained of our brotherhood.
My first brother talked about how he had lost his two life partners. How perhaps his time had come. A new loneliness had entered his world and beneath its weight, he stumbled looking for footing in a world where there was no more equilibrium to be found.
My fifth brother, struck with the same global virus, struggled to breathe through his own ordeal of hospital trips and treatments. When he surfaced his once dark hair had gone white. On another virtual call, his image froze when news of the third brother’s death reached him, his hands reaching towards the space of his heart. When he could blink away the immediate news, he took a steadying breath and offered it to us, “We are a family not because we all survive. We are a family because those who do continue loving each other forward.”
My sixth brother, teetering on the edge of the abyss of grief, shrouded his pain in layers of life yet to be lived.
And me? I stand unprotected for the first time in my life by the towering figures of my brothers. The wind is colder than it has ever been. The sky overhead is thick with clouds waiting to weep. The earth I stand on has swallowed the beloved bodies of three of my eldest brothers and I know it will open up for all of us sooner or later. The question I face is not how I will survive this world without my brothers but how I have. The reason I can no longer sleep through the night is not because of the things unsaid between my brothers and me, rather it is the things I want to leave my own children with when my eldest brothers’ love pulls me forward to that place of the unknown, the land of our ancestors, this mythical homeland of the Hmong people.
There is a tempered fire inside of me. It grows because it now inhabits the place where I used to store my brothers in my heart. Its flames lick at my throat, heating up words I want to enter the world as cool, calm, and collected. There is a transformation happening inside of me, a ticking clock that will implode if it cannot muster the courage to shatter the world with my hurt.
Our brotherhood has been dismantled. Not by the winds of war. The loss of country. The travesties of poverty. The challenges of being a newcomer to an old place. But because of sickness and disease. I am helpless in all of this. I have been helpless in my life among my brothers, unable to shield them from anything, unable to heal what their leaving will break inside their children. Our dreams of togetherness have come undone.
What happens to a man when he must learn how to stand at the end of a long life of learning? What happens to a human being when they have been pushed and pulled in so many directions, held taut by relationships borne of blood and bone? He is rendered a shadow of his former self, shifting with the direction of the sun. He is rendered a memory of the past even as he makes his way through the present, unsure of the large and looming presence of the future. He is a history unto himself, a humble reckoning with a life bygone, a year past, a pandemic not yet at its end.
Bee Yang, Hmong refugee and American citizen, as told to his daughter, Kao Kalia Yang.