Alana Dao – “Feeding the Ducks”

A wall cleared of nails / for the ghosts to walk through – Solmaz Sharif

My father died but I miss my mother.
Her voice has changed. It has become threadbare and reedy, with an urgent syncopation.

She, or perhaps her fear, has become vital and alive in this wavering quiver akin to a high-pitched whine. This is the voice that flatly announces to me over the phone, “Dad’s dead” as though describing the weather.

I take a flight on a choppy eight-seater from snowy Maine to Houston with a suitcase, packed in a fugue state. One pair of pants and otherwise and inexplicably filled with homemade fruitcakes — his annual Christmas gift from me. Dead dad fruitcakes now, I supposed. When her and my brother pick me up at the airport, she looks back at me from the front seat then turns away to face the window once again and gives instructions “don’t cry or be upset. It’ll make it harder for him to leave. Stay calm.”

“Where is he going?”, I wonder.

For the next few weeks, I listen to my mother make call after call, calmly letting people know while I sit lamely in my childhood bedroom. Some receive the news and you can hear the upset in their voices, others send sweet messages and offer condolences. She fields all these strangers’ sadness, makes room for it. The insurance lady for the cruise company makes my mother choke up when she calls to cancel the trip they had planned. Always, her voice trills, high and thin.

She won’t sit still, can’t stop making lists. She makes all the phone calls, cooks and reheats food, turns down lasagnas and soups from well-meaning neighbors. She won’t let my brother or me help; we don’t know where she keeps the pans and she won’t tell us so we can’t help her.

I, however, am the opposite. I want to curl into myself, pull the blankets over my head and lay in bed, in silence. But I quickly learn, there is simply too much to do. It turns out, there are very important spiritual tasks the three of us must complete. As immediate family, we are the only ones who are able. We must concern ourselves with my father’s afterlife and this is what I am most worried about. Ghosts and spirits moving — where do they go? Especially if we don’t complete these tasks properly?

We are told that if we do not complete these spiritual tasks well enough, the consequences will dire — my father will be denied entry into Pureland and so, we must feed his spirit. This is the first I’ve heard of Pureland but it sounds like the place to be. In order for him to arrive at the preferable destination, our tasks contain symbolic gestures of helping him on a long journey. Neighbors and friends tell us to sew up the pockets of his favorite clothes and burn them. Buy some paper money and objects and burn those, too. Anything he might need to take with him.

Light candles to create heat and warmth, to keep the spirit on point lest he be distracted. But my mother is scared of fire — she once burned a part of her garage down with a candle — so we settle for fake, battery-operated white plastic candles and hope it’s the symbolism that counts.

They drop me off at a Michael’s craft store where I buy packs of AAA batteries to keep them going for days.

There is a murkiness to my memory, to what I was told and to what I can recall. When my mother called friends/family upon finding my dad’s body, they told her to quickly begin chanting next to him but she didn’t know how. It was all a blur, all happened too fast. She had a music box that played Buddhist chants so she put this on. Her regret was not doing it sooner, not putting it close enough to the body for him to hear it. She tells my brother and me, “make sure to do this for me. Just put the box next to my body, step over it and go get ice cream or something for an hour.” Her voice is sure and strong when she says this to us. We are shocked and horrified at the prospect. But it is an important component to the afterlife journey, it appears.

The sound of the music box with very specific Buddhist chants is supposed to guide a person to where they need to go in the afterlife. My brother orders an extra from Amazon which arrives the next day. We alternate between the two, charging or refreshing batteries in one while my mother sets the other on the makeshift folding table/altar where it plays all day and all night.

The music box has to stay on 49 full days and nights. I become resentful of the sound, the continual chanting on loop. My mother and brother claim they cannot hear it when they go to bed but I wake up in the night, listening to it drone on and on and on.The noise itself deters sleep yet the absence of noise would be just as alarming. I worry the battery will run out or it will break. I startle myself awake some nights convinced the box has stopped its constant intonation and all will be lost. This drives me crazy. I worry I won’t survive the month I am supposed to be there.

Yet the three of us keep going, dutifully, learning along the way. We make food and put it on the altar before we eat. The fruitcakes came in handy. Food offered at the altar is to keep him nourished on this journey. On Saturdays, we bring his favorite Chinese baked goods, plenty of ripe fruit. It all must be real, and hot so he can smell it, fresh so he can eat it.

But we are at a loss as to how we ought to dispose of the very real food scraps. Because, according to the Chinese monk, we cannot eat the food we offer spirits of the recently deceased. We only learn this after an entire week of having eaten the leftovers. This was under the instructions of a Vietnamese monk we had consulted prior who insisted this was the way to do it. How much bad luck have we inadvertently ingested? Only time will tell.

We decide to go with what the Chinese monk tells us, being Chinese (or some semblance thereof) but mostly because we know him better and he is available via text for our questions. When we ask him if we can put the leftover altar food in the trash, he insists we cannot. He simply waves his hand at the air around us and says “give it to the squirrels and birds.” But not the rats and mice my mother fears will be the ones to come, attracted to the food scraps we are supposed to casually throw in the backyard of a suburban subdivision.

We settle on composting the scraps and like so much of what we’ve been doing, we make it up on the fly. We had temporarily lost our footing, roots coming up from the ground, taking pleasure in tripping us up. It had always been my dad’s job to guide us through cultural rituals and nuances we did not know. Now he was gone and we were supposed to take this job up for him. We were confused so we turned to the Internet for guidance.

In the midst of all the confusion, we search for municipal compost pick-ups and Google public compost drop-offs, but to no avail. My mother considers buying a composting machine she sees on a crowdfunding website she stumbles across on one of her early morning searches until we realize it won’t arrive on the market for another year. My brother is the one who suggests a bayou down the street and we suddenly remember several semi-ideal places to dispose of altar offerings.

We come up with a few more locations such as the a walking trail going west along one bayou and a man-made lake across a subdivision to the east. There is also the green patch next to a dumpster at his work. To avoid getting caught, we alternate locations but the ritual of tossing leftovers outside is always the same.

We are wild in our grief, hurling grapes at ducks, tossing bread into lakes. I watch and I can’t stop laughing. I try to help but am bent in half, snickering at the sight of us. My brother chucking whole mangoes down a bayou. My mother with grapes, underhand tossing them at sitting ducks with a focused frown. I look on as she aims, throws, and misses them entirely. I’d never seen her so determined.

I’ve always been the baby of the family and I take this position up as I wait and see what they do before going. I stand still, watching and laughing. I hug a bag of old banh mi bread, unsure of my next move. We’ve already thrown a good portion of bread into the man-made lake of greenish blue water next to signs that say “Don’t Feed the Alligators.” This is where I discover that stale bread floats.

I am frozen under the Houston sun, clutching the plastic bag bulging with buns. As I am plotting where to toss them, my mother runs out of patience and grabs the bag of bread from my arms. She wants to get this done and over with. She lobs the rest of the rolls towards the ducks, missing them yet again. It is an unraveling.

No matter which time we commit these acts (Of crime? Of transgressions?), we always scurry quickly back to the car to avoid being seen. I try to make light of it all, sometimes trying to make a joke about our trespassing, the ritual made in the name of dumping food meant for spirits. My mother informs me that “we shouldn’t say we are dumping the food. We are offering it to the animals.”

I don’t have the heart to tell her that these animals shouldn’t be eating our leftovers. I’d only learned as an adult that it’s bad for their systems. After a lifetime of feeding ducks with my dad, I had passed this legacy onto my daughters who subsequently loved to feed ducks tortillas at the pond in our town with their father. I put a stop to it when I was told, the wheat and gluten from breadcrumbs and other food can block their intestinal tracts.

However, the fact that these animals are even sitting next to a lake in the middle of a concrete suburb is disturbing and unnatural, at best. Probably, nobody should feed animals that were brought in like this. Where did these ducks come from anyway? Do they remember? Do they miss it? Or have they, like us, forgotten where they came from? But I can’t bring myself to say this, to tell my mother the truth. Or perhaps, some version of a truth.

We all hold our own secrets, our own grief and we silence it for the sake of others. The things we don’t tell each other to let one another try for freedom, to not hurt more. We go home and my mother says “we did our good deed for the day.” She is satisfied, convinced we did something good in the name of my father. This is one step closer in ensuring his path to the Pureland. I imagine this place to be sweet as dawn with crystal waters.

After one of these offerings, she asks me about the leftover Chinese dessert in the fridge. Bright purple yam soup that had been sitting on the back shelf for days. It looks so cold and my stomach drops as I see its garish color. I watch the beads of water sweating off the glass as it sits on the counter. She wants to see if we should bring it to the pond. “I bet the ants would like it”, she suggests brightly.

I say, “maybe we’d fed enough animals today.”

In a few months, I will return to the lake and things will have changed. I bring my daughters. More green-blue, swelling with a smooth calm. The youngest points and squeals in delight, “look, water!” and ducks dip their heads, bobbing up and down for a drink. We all watch them for a while and I remember.

Back at the car, I ask my mother if she remembers how we chucked stale bread into the lake and she sighs. “That was horrible,” she laments. But which part does she mean? I always return to those moments with affection, looking back at them and seeing us in our own spirals of grief, trying to feel our way out. It makes me laugh. “I didn’t think it was horrible at all,” I say. She ignores me and we are silent before being interrupted by caring for one daughter or the other. This one memory split in two — each one giving us something different to hold onto.

Once, after one of those duck feeding adventures, my brother asked, “if we don’t know how to do any of this, who is going to do this for us?”

My mother’s friend told us that she refuses to teach her own daughter the death rites of her family. Her daughter begs, wants to do right by her mother when it is time. The mother is adamant in continuing her daughter’s ignorance. She explains, “if I teach her, she will have to do it because she knows. If I don’t, she won’t ever know how and won’t be able to. Won’t have this pressure.” What do we choose to give to one another? Will this mother spurn eternal life for the sake of her own daughter’s comfort? Do we get to choose what we inherit?

Months, years away from us now, I ask my oldest daughter if she remembers this lake, the one that is sunk so deeply in my memory, my grief. She stares blankly at me and says, “no.” We don’t talk about it anymore. This is when I know we’ve done all our good deeds and walked through walls. Away from the man-made lake and onto our next lives.

Alana Dao is a mother, writer, and artist whose creative practice explores contemporary culture, food, and identity. Her work most often takes the form of artists’ books, zines, and essays. She received a BA from Smith College and an MA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Born in Texas, she resides in Maine.