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Lions Roar : January 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2012 55 distillation of ideas. Pay attention, there’s someone talking here, they tell the reader. I love the earnest authority of the quotation mark, the conviction that by repeating some- thing word for word, text without context, that the reporter can get it right, capture exactly what was said, as if what is being quoted is actually nailing down some slippery bit of meaning. In argumen- tative writing, college freshmen are urged to use quotes sparingly, with paraphrase showing a more thorough synthesis of the material. Professors urge students to save quotes for texts so tied to their pri- mary source that they cannot be transmuted. WHAT HAVE I BORROWED from this refer- ence material, from the texts of my mother? My own body is a paraphrase of hers and my father’s, though I do find phrases lifted verbatim from her: my nose bridge, a gesture, an intonational contour, the shape of my mouth. All through her illnesses— breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and leukemia—I could feel my own body’s defenses mobilize to pro- tect my own breasts, my own ovaries, my blood. Looking at her medical charts, I feel the alarm rise again in my own body. I reflexively insert my anatomy into them. If it is possible to study some- thing without looking at it, this is what I want to do with these documents, assuring myself, that was her body. I look for clues of difference: “Menarche age 14.” I reason that I didn’t start my period until I was sixteen, so shouldn’t that mark a genetic distinc- tion? I’m trying to build a genetic fence, but I’m on the wrong side of it. Still, I look for a crack—what does that word, “predisposition,” really mean? Can I slip through my own DNA? Maybe I can cultivate a life that does not engage that predisposition. Reading her records, the rosters of procedures, I feel convinced that if she could have taken one good breath, she could have come through it. What is a good breath? One you believe you deserve to breathe. In the years after she died, I looked for her in my hands, waited for her apparition in me. When you are trying to manufacture a presence, here are some of the tools available to you: the dream, the coincidence, the likeness, the familiar object, and something that will mutate and loop out, scouting the perimeter of your understanding: grace. I accli- mated myself to the absence of her body, learning not to rely on the convenience of her voice, finding her instead in gesture, a transitory uncanny like- ness in a friend, even imposing my model of her onto my dog’s unflagging presence. At her funeral, I read a poem I wrote in the days following her death. Hardly anyone has compared me physically to my mother, yet on that day, in the church lobby, this was the consensus: Neni, I never noticed how much you look like your mother! I could feel the likeness they were seeing, my skin with her light behind it, my lips her shade of red. I held onto this confusion for whatever derelict consolation it afforded me, and those around me. The last time I sat next to my mother was on the night she died, in the hospital room where the faculties of her body closed down slowly, a sentence trailing off into a long pause. Even as it was fail- ing, maybe especially then, her body seemed to be all I needed to have read to know my own. Going I’m trying to build a genetic fence, but I’m on the wrong side of it. Still, I look for a crack—what does that word, “predisposition,” really mean?