My name is Jiniku but everyone calls me Joey, including my parents. My father is American but my mother is not. My mother grew up in a country whose name I cannot pronounce correctly. She was educated in French and Latin, Spanish and German, and when she went off to college, she did not learn in her native language. She went to college in Paris, studied in Berlin. She spent a year in Rome and visited Madrid. She wrote letters home to her parents in an alphabet that I cannot read. I believe once her parents died, she never spoke in her native tongue again.
My mother wrote all day, but never showed anyone what she wrote. She had notebooks she would write in, and a typewriter to straighten out the final copy. Once a page was typed, she ripped it from its notebook and lit it with a match. She left it on a flat stone to burn.
When she had typed pages, she put them in a box. This box was deep under the bed that she and my father share. Once, many years ago when I was very young, I went into their room when they were not home and pulled the box out from beneath the bed. I lifted the top and found two neat piles of typewritten pages. One pile was poetry. I lifted the top page and held it before me. It was written in French.
There were many poems and stories in that box, some in Latin, some in Spanish, some in German. I searched through both piles carefully. There were none in her native tongue. There were also none in English.
I closed the lid and never looked in there again.
My mother never spoke in her native tongue after boarding the train that would take her to Paris. At home, she spoke only in English. Who knows what language she thought in.
There were only two words that she ever said in the real voice, with her real accent, real tongue. I heard her say them only three times in her life. She taught them to me one might as I lay curled on her lap, sweating with fever.
“Jiniku,” she whispered, stroking my forehead with her cool hand. “Jiniku.” I focused on her voice through my fever, realizing that something had changed. She was speaking from a part of her that she had not opened for a long time. She took my hand, unraveled my fingers, and placed my palm over her heart. “Juriszu.” She stared out the window. There was a long silence. I could feel her heartbeat, which was calmer and considerably slower than my own. “My name,” she said at last, speaking once more in English, “means ‘dark ocean.’ And you, Jiniku, my precious little one, yours means ‘life.’” She looked out the window again. “‘Ji’ is the word for a happy birth. One where everyone lives and there is little pain. ‘Ni’ is a tree that had its roots spread far and whose branches shelter all. ‘Ku’ is the essence. The spirit. You have this all-encompassing life.” She placed her hand on my heart. “The first and last letters of our names are the same,” she said. “Don’t forget that, Jiniku.”
At that point, my fever rose and I lost the sound of my mother’s voice. I could faintly hear ambulance sirens but could not remember anything of the three weeks I spent in the hospital.
I remember nothing of those weeks, but my father said my mother never left my side. She slept on the chair and she bathed from the sink in my bathroom. At night she would stand by the window and look out at the stars. She could feel my face and place her hand against the cool glass leading outside.
When my mother became ill with cancer, I took a vacation and flew home. We had never been what you might call close, but we both understood that we loved each other fiercely. So when I heard that she was dying I left without a moment’s hesitation. I called, asked a friend to watch my apartment, and obtained up a leave-of-absence form from the office. I had the kind of job where you could take a vacation and not have it matter too much, except that you wouldn’t get paid. When I filled out the leave form, next to the blank that asked for an amount of time, I wrote “three months.” That’s how long the doctors had given her to live. I was back at work in less than nine weeks.
The second time I heard my mother say something in her native language was when I was sixteen. I was in my sophomore year of high school, and though everything seemed to be going well, I felt like it was all sliding out of my grasp. I felt in control and then something would happen—a breakup, a bad grade on a test, an argument with my parents about something trivial—and I could feel myself digging my fingernails in deeper and deeper but still feel my control slipping through my fingers. And that was how it started. With my fingers.
At first I just made small half-moons on my calves, pressing my fingernails in hard until they bled. Things spun out of control faster and faster and soon I used my army knife to slice the skin on my arms and shins. At school instead of going into the bathroom to cry I would lock myself in a stall, take a pin and pick at my skin until it bled. Few people noticed my cuts and when they did I would lie and say I fell. I can’t imagine that they believed me, but whatever they knew, they never said a word.
One day I came home to an empty house after a miserable afternoon —it’s strange, but now I can’t even remember what was so miserable about it. I couldn’t see straight; my head ached and my heart hurt and I started to have trouble breathing. I went to my room to find my army knife but on my way, I glimpsed the knife my mother uses to cut vegetables sitting on the counter. I can’t remember what I thought. I picked up the knife and touched the blade. It drew a small droplet of blood on my fingertip. I sat on the linoleum floor and rolled up my pants leg. When it cut, it cut fast and deep. Army knives take coaxing to hurt you and make you bleed. This fell straight into my skin without resistance and when it came away I could see my bone. I screamed.
That is how my mother found me when she came home: sitting on the floor with her huge kitchen knife in one hand, blood spilling out of a gash on my shin, screaming. She called the ambulance and wrapped my leg in a towel as tightly as she could. The blood seeped through. I screamed. She wrapped her arms around my head. “Jiniku!” she cried. “Jiniku, why do you do this to yourself?”
I have this memory of my mother from a spring day when I was four. There was a lot of sunshine that morning, and I had woken up from the light dancing on my pillow. I padded, sleepy-headed, into the living room, where I sat at the table to a bowl of oatmeal my mother had left for me. It was still warm. I looked out the window and saw her gardening in our yard. She was wearing worn-out and faded jeans with grass stains on the knees, a button-up shirt that had belonged to my father. In one hand was a gardening fork and a straw hat rested on her head, covering her long black hair.
When I saw her, she looked up at something in front of her, and I saw in her sharp profile a nose that looked like it was cut from stone. She looked up suddenly and awkwardly, cocking her head. Her shirt was crooked and one of her pants legs was up too high. The hat began to slide. She made a shooing motion with her wrist, and that is the moment that I saw her, really, for the first time. That still awkward, still small person was my mother.
For the last seven weeks of her life, my mother lay in a hospital bed. I watched her hair fall out in clumps and the fat melt away from her body, leaving only bones and skin. I watched her eyes turn red, her tongue swell up from the medication. Toward the end she began to breathe in gasps, as if just the taking in of oxygen would soon become too much for her frail lungs to bear. It was on one of these days that she used my real name for the last time.
“Jiniku.” she whispered, motioning me to come closer. I scooted my chair up nearer her bed. “Here is something important.” She stopped to breathe, and then continued. “I’m going to die soon—”
“I am not so foolish. I know I am dying.” She stroked my hair with her hand. “This is why I am telling you—I left you something.” She coughed. “It is in the closet in my bedroom, behind the dresser. Move it to the side all the way, and you will see a hollow. It is for you, in there.” I nodded. She looked at me. “We love each other,” she said. I nodded again. She looked at the ceiling. “The shame.” Her eyes searched the ceiling, and then she fell asleep. My father returned and I went back to my hotel.
One week after my mother told me about the space behind her dresser, she died. I was not there at the end; there is no dramatic retelling of last words or such sentimental things as grasping loved ones at the critical moment. My father was sleeping in the chair next to my mother, and when he awoke, she was dead. There is nothing more that that.
The funeral was held at the grounds a mile from my parents’ house. It was sunny but the air began to chill. Friends of my mother I had not seen since I had moved away came and offered their sympathies. There were flowers. There is not much more to say.
I stayed with my father in the house for two weeks after my mother died, to help, to mourn. He mostly sat staring into the distance and I made the meals and cleaned up some. My father couldn’t bring himself to touch any of my mother’s things.
One day I went into the closet and shoved the heavy oaken dresser aside, marveling at how my small mother had ever managed such a feat. I exhaled heavily, wiping the perspiration from my brow. And then I saw what she had left me. She had left me notebooks.
These were notebooks that I had never seen her write in. The pages weren’t perforated for easy tearing; she had not burned any of them. I lifted one and opened the cover. One of the yellowed pages I saw her small, clear handwriting, but I couldn’t read any of it; it did not use the Roman alphabet. I opened every notebook and all of them were the same. My mother left me twenty-seven notebooks of writing in a language that I cannot read or understand. She left me the story of the life in her own native tongue.
I did not tell my father about the notebooks. I packed them in a box with my mother’s dresses and jewelry and took them back with me. I hung up the clothes, arranged the jewelry in my own dresser drawers, but the notebooks I left in the box in my closet. I think they are a challenge from my mother; a challenge to her daughter to learn the language of her mother and read what she had written to me. Maybe these are journals she had kept since she left home; how can I know?
I have signed up for a language class starting in a couple months. I think I will go and see how it works out; a friend of mine knows the instructor and said she is very good. The first thing I will learn is how to write my name. I think I had seen my mother write it once, and I copied down somewhere and lost it. But I think I still remember what it is. I think it’s the first word on every page.