Buddha’s first teachings started with the Four Noble Truths
But the first of my four noble lies started with pig’s blood.
The pig’s blood sat in a white bowl in the center of the table on a spinning glass disk. The soup was thin, but the blood thick and cubed, amidst other shapes I did not yet have the words for. The insides, you explained to me. I could barely hear you over the clatter of the dim sum restaurant. Vietnamese, Cantonese, English.
You looked at me, the wrinkles below your eyes moving like cat whiskers. “This is the good stuff,” you said, picking up the pig’s blood and putting it on my plate. Impermanence, I would learn, looks like pig’s blood and a grandmother-shaped emptiness at the dinner table.
“It’s the good stuff,” I lied. Fifteen years later, I’ve grown to enjoy the bitter taste of pig’s blood.
My blood is the second lie I remember smelling. In the bathroom of my childhood home, blood spilled down the length of my leg in red ribbons, pooling into a puddle at my ankle on the broken tiles. In a spur-of-the-moment desire to cross the threshold into adulthood, I had taken your 99 Cents Store plastic pink razor and tried shaving my hairless leg. It ran across my skin cleanly for a few good glides until a long gash also ran down the entire length of my calf. The pig’s blood smelled like gingered broth, but this smelled bitter and metallic.
I floated away on the white pain to the ceiling’s lightbulb and my non-self watched the tall five-year-old prop her leg up on the counter. I watched her, with fingers that seemed too clumsy, wad up a whole roll of toilet paper, douse it in the sink, and clean her bloodied leg. I watched the girl, with an expression too calm, dispose of the bloodied toilet paper and wash her hands.
When the blood stopped gushing, she made sure to wipe down the crime scene, flicked off the lights, and limped out of the restroom. Impermanence, I would learn, looks like white pain and a scar that fades into white veins.
When you saw the slash in my skin, I told you that I had tripped and fallen onto the razor. My second noble lie.
Your face only comes to memory in three instances.
The first is with the smell of bún, when the aroma is so sweet and overwhelming that I’m hugged from all sides by your spirit in the form of dark broth and steam. The second is when I pass my reflection in the right angle, at the right speed, in the right light, when my face looks less like my own and more like yours. The third is every day when I pass by the family altar and see your framed picture, when your face, my face, our face, stares back at me through dusted glass, as if that were the only thing that separated us.
My father tells me stories of you that I can’t possibly remember but can see so clearly. You had a penchant for chihuahuas and card games. You had cravings for only one seafood noodle booth in the heart of Saigon. You had married a man twenty years older than you.
All I remember about you are your square glasses.
You passed away when I was six. I’m standing by your hospital bed with my brother and my younger cousins, the adults stiff behind us like gates. Your square glasses are gone and you are asleep.
“Đi chào,” my mother murmurs into my ear. Here my memory fails me.
In Vietnamese, the word for greetings and farewells is the same. Chào.
Did my mother tell me to say hello or goodbye to you?
I walk slowly to the bed, releasing my younger brother from the crook of my arm. My uncle is grumbling in the background, my father silent next to me. For some reason, my memory of the hospital is warm. The room is bathed in a yellow, the same warm yellow I would see Saigon enveloped in thirteen years later.
My father tells me to hold your hand. I know it will be the last time. A heavy jade bracelet circles your thin wrist like a cuff. Thirteen years after this day in the yellow room, I would return to Vietnam and your eldest daughter would bless me with cẩm ngọc — jadestone, my namesake.
“Bà Nội cho Cô Hai mười ba năm trước,” my aunt would tell me when I was nineteen. “Nó rộng quá. Cô Hai giữ nó ở đây mười ba năm rồi.” Bà Nội, your grandmother, gave this jade to me thirteen years ago. It doesn’t fit anyone, so I’ve been keeping it in my dresser for thirteen years.
“Giử đau,” my aunt would warn me as I held the jade band in my palm for the first and last time. Accept the pain.
Come to terms with the suffering.
Buddha’s first teachings started with the Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth: all life is suffering.
Sitting on the white tiles of my aunt’s kitchen in Saigon, my aunt and mother would soap down my left hand, preparing my skin for the pain. My mother would squeeze my hand down until my thumb would press against the middle of my other fingers. Their hands would begin to drag the band down. The jade would pass over my fingertips, and then my joints, and then over my knuckles before it would begin to scrape against my skin. Their hands would be gentle, but steady, unforgiving, resolute. The pain would be white, but impermanent.
My aunt and my mother’s hands would ground me to the earth as they would grind the stone over the bone of my thumb. It would hurt the most at the bone where my thumb connects to my palm. My mother’s hands would hold me down so I wouldn’t float away with the white pain. Through the white pain, Saigon’s thunderstorm would fade into a hum and I would stare at my aunt’s wrist and the jade band that circles around it. Her jade would look more slender and delicate than my own. The surface of the jade would be a softer green like sweetened coconut milk in chè.
The Second Noble Truth: the cause of suffering is craving and attachment to impermanence.
Jade bands are a lifelong promise. There’s no way to slip it off your wrist unless you break stone or bone. A promise in stone and bone. Jadestone. Cẩm Ngọc. My namesake. When you gave me your name, when I took your name, did you know it was a promise? You have made this promise for me since birth. I have made this promise since birth.
For a life of promised impermanence, jadestone has felt like forever.
My mother and aunt would let out dramatic groans as they dragged the jade across my skin and bone.
“Ouch,” I would say with a laugh.
My aunt would smile, rubbing the water into my skin. “You’ll have to wash your hands with water.”
The water rises.
“Lên nước,” my mother would tell me. The water rises. The phrase refers to when jade changes color if it matches with its wearer’s spirit. Fake jade, stone injected with a sick green dye, does not lên nước. Thirteen years after your jade is buried with you, I would inspect my own and see the waters of the stone change greens. Half of the jade turned an ink green, a shade that Americans valued. The other half turned a foggy white, a shade that Vietnamese valued. Fitting for a Vietnamese American.
Thirteen years ago, did you ever imagine that this jade would change colors for me? You must have bought it from someone you trusted, one of your favorite sellers in Vietnam who is probably now with you or soon to be with you in the next life. You bought it for my aunt, your daughter. But wouldn’t you have known it was too big for her wrist? Too heavy? Too wide?
I’m selfish because sometimes, when I’m spinning the band to check for new greens, I think you bought it for me.
I imagine you crowding over a plastic table in the home of one of your trusted sellers. Your hair, covered in a white scarf, is neatly pulled back in a braid that reaches your waist, and your silk clothes are pristine despite your ride through the morning thunderstorm. You’re beautiful. Elegant.
“May I?” you ask the seller, and he nods eagerly, quick to please you. Your demeanor demands it. You pick up the jade band from the table. It is as heavy as it looked. It’s not a slender band, but as you weigh it in your palm, you realize therein lies the charm.
Harder to break, you think, satisfied, but your expression remains thoughtful for the sake of striking a decent bargain. Good for a girl that’s always moving, you think, and then you think of me. Too big for her now, but I will give it to her when it’s time.
But before it is ever time, your time fades to a cessation.
The Third Noble Truth: the cessation of suffering is the cessation of craving.
Jade is said to only ever break to protect you from suffering. My aunts have stories of their jade shattering in accidents or falls that left them unhurt, save a small scar from where the jade broke. I guess jade cannot protect you from impermanence, but I hope that your jade is still serving you well in your next life.
Thirteen years before I make my vow to my own jade, I reach for your jade hand in the yellow room. I can see my reflection in the foggy water of the band, the veins of the jade and your wrists inseparable.
I open my mouth to say goodbye.
This is the last time I can clearly remember seeing you.
The next time I saw you was my third noble lie, hidden somewhere in the fog of a child’s grief and Target’s clothing aisles. The third noble lie feels so real that I’m not sure if it’s a lie or a misremembered memory. It was within the 49 days after your death, when your spirit was still wandering after the trail of the incense smoke we lit for you every seventh day.
After a trip to Target with my mother, I found myself in tears. I moaned and wept, tears running down my cheeks and snot dripping from my nose. After a period of heavy, chest-heaving sobbing, my mother asked me why I was crying. I felt a frustration bubble from the inside of my gut when I couldn’t think of a reason. A frustration too big for my six-year-old, gangly body to handle.
“I saw Bà Nội today,” I burst out between gasps as I dry-heaved for air. My third noble lie. My mother gave me a hard look, unconvinced and unsympathetic. To my own surprise, I continued with my lie, spinning it with an extra flare. “I saw her today at Target. Mama, she was looking at me. She was standing between the clothing aisle and waved her jade hand to tell me to go with her.”
You never said goodbye to me.
The night you passed away, you visited my mother in a dream.
It was all black, my mother told me, fourteen years later.
You said goodbye to her in a dream. Was it hello or goodbye?
What are you doing here, Má? You should be in the hospital.
I am healthy now. Tell my son I won’t be sick anymore.
There was a presence behind you in the dream. My mother cannot see them clearly, but she knows that they’re standing behind you. Maybe it was craving, attachment, suffering. Maybe it was the cessation of suffering.
Maybe it was cessation.
Maybe it is rebirth.
The Fourth Noble Truth: there is a path to the cessation of suffering.
Buddha says that attachment keeps us in a cycle of rebirth, suffering, and death. But when we understand the truth about impermanence, we reach enlightenment and the cycle of rebirth ceases into nirvana.
Maybe it is not Noble of me to ask for rebirth and not cessation or enlightenment or nirvana. Maybe it is folly of me to wonder if the cycle is suffering. Maybe it is naive of me to wonder if suffering is not the truth.
Maybe the truth is that I just want to see you again.
As I’m sitting on the white tiles of my aunt’s kitchen, the smell of Saigon’s thunderstorm sticky in the air and the jade slick against my skin, I accept the pain. For a moment, there is no craving, no attachment, no pain. This moment of their hands around mine and my hand around yours and the ghost of your hand around the jade is suspended in time, free of attachment, of craving, of suffering. There is only cessation. The path is in the lines of their palms around mine, in the creases of their knuckles around the jade, in the green veins that connect our jade to our wrists. The path is there and their hands guide me to it, the hands that brought me here, the hands that hold me here, the hands that lead me forward.
The jade passes over my bone and settles on my heartbeat.
My mother and aunts let go as I flex my hand carefully. The jade is as heavy as I had imagined, like an extension of bone. An extension of you.
Permanence is to accept a ghost’s gift.
“Remember this date,” my mother says. “July 24, 2019.”
I am reborn.
In the yellow hospital room, I slip my hand into your jade hand.
“Chào Bà Nội.”
I did not say goodbye.
My first truth.
Agnes Cẩm Ngọc Trần is a senior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, but she otherwise lives in Southern California. Her other creative nonfiction work has appeared in LA Times, The College Independent, and Visions Literary Magazine. Currently, she is working on a memoir that documents her family’s immigration in a collection of ghost stories. When she gets hit with writer’s block, she can be found dancing, gardening, or crocheting.
Beautiful! I love it.