Do You Understand What I Am Saying?

Kaj Tanaka

Back in Minnesota, my mother is preparing to preach a sermon to her conservative congregation about how it is God's plan for us to welcome Muslims into our communities in no uncertain terms. She fully expects to be booed out of the pulpit and possibly fired, but she is doing it because she knows it is right. I open this story about my mother in this way because I want to make it clear that she is a good person. She has advocated for poor and marginalized people her entire life, she has saved children from hunger, and she has taken a stand against the wealthy and powerful rural patriarchy in every small-town parish she has served since her ordination by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1984. 


The story about my mother goes like this:

During a hot summer night in 2002 my mother and I were watching something on television when we got a call from my aunt. She was high on something, and when I answered the phone she told me to get my mother. My mother held the receiver to her ear. She didn't say anything for a few minutes, and then she said she was hanging up the phone, and then she did hang up the phone. We looked at each other for a few seconds in the silence of the kitchen. My aunt wanted money, my mom said. She wanted my grandfather's money. But there was no money. He used most of it when he was dying, and we used the last of it on his funeral. Then my mother was crying. 


We hadn't cried for my grandfather yet. He had already been dead a few months, but he was such a bastard that we hadn't gotten around to crying for him. No one cried at his funeral. Only a few of us were there, and my uncle and my aunt were not invited. They always hated my grandfather because he never gave them money because they were always high on something and because they broke my grandmother’s heart, which is what we think killed her, and so my mother did not invite them to the funeral. We didn’t even tell them he was dead. My mother said it wasn’t their business.


But we cried for my grandfather in the kitchen that night, there in the uncomfortable silence left after my aunt’s phone call. I loved him, I said out loud, crying. My mother loved him too, she said. Then my mother told me that we should lock the doors and windows. Your aunt is coming, my mother said. She told me she is coming for us tonight. Sleep light, my mother told me. If she comes, I am going to need your help. You are old enough now where you can help me. Your aunt said she is going to burn down our house tonight while we are in it, but we aren't going to let that happen. I want you to listen to me. If she comes here and if she tries anything, we are not going to call to police, do you understand? We are going to take care of her ourselves. Do you understand what I am saying? Don’t be afraid. No one will miss her. 


What about my uncle? No one knows what happened to him. He was homeless at one point, but that was years ago. Probably, he is dead now. We do not know about my aunt either. She never came that night, and so she may still be alive, though it isn’t likely that she will find us. My mother and I have moved several times since then, and I am grown, and my mother and I no longer live together. I am no longer young, and I no longer cry for the dead because death is no tragedy. 


And what will happen when we all reunite in the afterlife? I will need to apologize for writing this story and for publishing it. I will need to apologize for calling my grandfather a bastard. And I will need to apologize for being prepared to murder my aunt, and for saying that she and my uncle used my mother and my grandfather’s money to get high. And I will need to apologize to my actual mother for the places in this story where I made things up. But in my defense, it’s only when you try to tell the truth you realize how much of our personal histories are fictional. And buried in that idea, there is hope we can resolve all of this business. There is hope. There is.


Kaj Tanaka’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, New South, NANO Fiction and Midwestern Gothic.

He is the nonfiction editor at BULL Magazine.