Sunday, February 25, 2018

Not a Post About Death

I realize I've been writing a lot about death and dying lately.  In fact my last three posts have mentioned it.  Maybe it's because a lot of my friends and acquaintances have lost family members in these last few weeks.  Maybe it's because I myself was deathly sick these last few weeks.

But if you back up to the summer, I was writing about mosquitoes and keys and icebergs.  I want to talk about things like that again.

I want to think about things like that again.

Because I'm healthy again.  And I have friends and acquaintances who had babies in the last few weeks too.


And it was 80 degrees in Nashville yesterday.

So here we go, I promise, a post with no mention of death.

I know, dear Downtown Diner customers, I know.  Too late.  Sigh.

So, welcome to the Year of the Dog!  

That is the Chinese New Year, of course.

As is our tradition, my kids flew to China to celebrate the holiday with Buddy and his family.  The family gathered together, warm and cozy, in Buddy's Beijing apartment on New Year's Eve and ate homemade dumplings that his parents made.

In the first days of the New Year, they went out to eat, reuniting with friends and extended family and high school classmates.

There were giant, deafening fireworks, although due to new government regulations this year they were allowed only on the outskirts of the city.  Grant was very upset about this violation of his human rights. 

I was looking forward to Chinese New Year too because when the Year of the Dog starts, the Year of the Rooster ends.  And I would finally get to take off the obnoxious red thread I'd been wearing around my waist all year.

You see, the Year of the Rooster is my 本命年, or Chinese Animal Year.  There are twelve animals and twelve years in the Chinese Zodiac, so every twelve years you celebrate your Animal Year.  You can find yours here.

You would think your Animal Year would be a special and fun year, sort of like your birthday.  But in fact it's the opposite - your Animal Year is a dangerous year according to Chinese tradition.  There are three things you can do to protect yourself during your Animal Year:
  1. Wear something red against your skin all year along.  It can't be something you bought for yourself though - it must be something that a friend or loved one gives you.
  2. Wear jade all year.  
  3. Spend a lot of time facing due West, which is directly away from the God of Age, Tai Sui.
Granted, it's a tradition most modern-day Chinese don't put much stock in but I thought it would be fun to wear something red against my skin all year long.  So when Audrey and Grant went to China last year for Chinese New Year, I had them buy me a red thread to tie around my waist.  The one they bought me had bits of jade woven into it - two protective elements in one.  Clever.

And it annoyed me from Day One.

In the mornings when I showered and got dressed, that red thread felt like a damp earthworm wrapped around my waist.  Often during the day my finger would catch on the thread and I would be reminded that this year was a dangerous year for me.

While it started out as a fun thing, the red thread got into my head as the year wore on.

In the early months of the year I thought of the thread as a helpful reminder to be cautious.  This is a good year to wear my seat belt at all times and wash my hands after being in a public place.  Those are simple, common sense things that everyone should be doing every year.

But as time went by, the red thread crossed from being a friendly reminder to an ominous presence.

My thoughts progressed from

"Take good care of yourself, this could be a dangerous year" 


"Watch out, this is a dangerous year."  

Do you see the difference?  It's subtle.  But even subtle messages can leave their mark on your mind over time.  Even the lightest green snake will leave tracks in loose topsoil as it zig-zags across the garden. 

And then when I got sick in late November with strep throat and then bronchitis and then a calcified granuloma, the red thread sent me into an internal dialogue that I could not resolve.  The cycle went something like this:

"Good thing I had this red thread around my waist this year.  If not, all of this could have been a lot worse.  Maybe I would have died."


"Did I bring this on myself this year?  Did I, with constant worrying that something bad was going to happen, actually make something bad happen?"


"Maybe I just focused on the bad so much that it's all I could see.  I had a sore throat after Thanksgiving and the only reason I went to get tested was because it was a dangerous year for me.  And the strep throat diagnosis was the beginning of a long series of medications and tests and scary diagnoses.  What if I had never gotten tested for strep?"

You see how this got exhausting after a while.

And then one Saturday morning before the CT scan which was to determine if I had cancer or not, I was lying in bed wondering how to explain the red thread to the tech.  Should I offer to take it off for the scan?  It was still four weeks before I was "supposed" to take it off, and just before a CT scan seemed like the very worst time to let go of my protective talisman.

And yet, what if the thread showed up on the scan and whoever reviewed it didn't know I was wearing it and didn't know what to make of it?

What if the bits of jade embedded in the thread showed up on the scan as something that looked like a tumor?

Or even worse, what if there was a tumor hiding just behind a bit of jade and the scan didn't reveal it?

The only thing worse than a false positive is a false negative.

My thoughts circled and turned left and right, folding in on themselves like a labyrinth.  And then, just like in a labyrinth, I reached the center.  I stood up, went to my bathroom, pulled a pair of scissors out of my top drawer, and I cut the red thread off my waist.  I held it up over the trash can and let it fall in like a boa constrictor I had just beheaded.

I felt free.  I felt like I had liberated myself from a 5,000-year-old Chinese curse with the slice of one sharp blade.

Although the red thread was in a coil at the bottom of my garbage can, the tape on my internal dialogue had not run out yet.

"Do you think you'll regret this when you do your CT scan?  What if the scan says you do have cancer?  Will you wish you had kept the red thread on?  Maybe it would have helped.  Just maybe?" 

I put my hands on my now un-yoked waist, 

turned due East, 

and looked Tai Sui straight in the face.  

"Nope," I said.

Because this is not a post about death, Tai Sui.  

It is not.  

I'll deal with you again in twelve years.  



Unknown said...

Sorry to hear you got so sick, Melanie.

You are really taking this too seriously. For me, 本命年 is just something I can blame on whenever something bad happens in that year, so it's his fault, not mine :)

And, I would settle for a red underware, nothing more LOL

Melanie Gao said...

Exactly! It was time for the red thread to go. I tend to take things to an extreme. :)