Migrations Starry Sky
“The tumor cells, often stained a deep, twilight purple, recall a van Gogh nocturne.”
On December 18, 1927, James Parsons Burkitt, amateur ornithologist, fastened a small metal ring around the leg of a European Robin before she could fly away. The prognosis for a European Robin is not good; most will not live to see their first birthday. But those that do, those who survive the first winter migrations as far south as Spain, and the aggressive attacks from territorial male robins, often live long, healthy, perhaps even happy lives. James Parsons Burkitt found his robin nearly eleven years later, on July 14, 1938. It was a Thursday.
One day in 1968, when she was nineteen, my mother rode from Bandung, up in the cool hills of West Java, Indonesia, down to the Jakarta basin, and caught a flight from Kemayoran Airport to Sydney Kingsford Smith. It was the same flight Tintin and Snowy, my diminutive journalist friend and his white wire fox terrier, were meant to catch in the twenty-second installment of The Adventures of Tintin before being diverted by a millionaire investor, supersonic jets, and mind-reading natives.
For my mother, the flight from Jakarta to Sydney was just the beginning of her family’s journey—also in installments—from the ethnic ghettos of Indonesia to the leafy suburbs of Australia. One by one, via Taipei and Hong Kong and San Francisco and Montreal, my mother’s parents and five of her siblings followed her to Sydney. My brother and I were born there, my grandfather died there, and today, if you include spouses and grandchildren and one great-grandchild, we are a family of twenty-five citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia.
A few years ago, my uncle Ting, who lives in Bali, tried to become the final member of the Lim family to migrate to Australia. Australian visa subclass 115 allows individuals to apply for permanent residency if they are the last remaining relatives outside of Australia. That was Uncle Ting.
But there was a problem: Three of my mother’s siblings, all of whom had migrated to Australia years ago, now no longer lived there. When Uncle Ting’s case went before the Migration Review Tribunal, the lawyers in our family, myself included, gathered in email threads to review precedent and craft an argument. We had to convince the Tribunal that, despite their residence overseas, my auntie in Hong Kong and my uncles in Shanghai and San Jose considered Australia home. “The test,” a federal judge had previously decided, “is whether the person has retained a continuity of association with the place together with an intention to return to that place and an attitude that that place remains ‘home’.”
To judge what home means to someone, to dictate or stipulate or legislate the place where someone finds the most comfort and belonging—that seems like it should be beyond the jurisdiction even of the law. At Uncle Ting’s hearing, the Tribunal noted how my auntie Wilina, who at the time was Hong Kong’s chief virologist, had, in some years, returned to Australia for only three or four days. How, then, could Australia still be home for her?
“When someone flies nine hours each way for a three-day trip,” Uncle Ting responded, on speakerphone from Bali. “Where could they be going but home?”
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, in the middle of the afternoon, I sat on the runway at JFK in seat 65D, buckled into that section near the back of the plane where the aisles taper off into the galley and the rear bank of lavatories. Cathay Pacific flight 831 flies from New York up and over the Arctic Circle before coming down over Siberia, then the eastern limb of Mongolia, over the heart of mainland China and its most famous mountains and rivers, before descending into the islands that dot the northern edge of the South China Sea, one of which is Hong Kong. I was flying sixteen hours each way for a one-week trip. I was going home.
By the time I stepped off the plane it was Monday, November 20, 2006. I slid the American SIM card out of my orange Sony Ericsson cell phone and I slipped a Hong Kong SIM card in. I turned the phone on. I disembarked, I walked down the jetway, and I called my brother, who said my mother had just come out of the operating room. I asked him how it went. He said it didn’t go very well.
Denis Parsons Burkitt—the one-eyed son of James, the amateur ornithologist, was a volunteer army surgeon with the Royal Army Medical Corps in East Africa, and after the war he stayed to become one of the two qualified surgeons in Uganda at that time, first at a remote hospital in Lira, 275 miles from an X-ray, and then at Mulago Hospital in the capital, Kampala. It was at Mulago that he noticed, over seven years, a surprising number of young Ugandan children who had malignant tumors in or around their jaws. “God, in his mercy enabled me with my one eye,” Burkitt said, not long before he died, “to see things which my predecessors had missed with two.”
“A sarcoma involving the jaws in African children,” the paper Burkitt published in The British Journal of Surgery in November 1958, is not a pleasure read. In addition to the sterile, technical description of tumors in young children, there are six photos of the children, each with bulges near their jaws. There is another picture in Burkitt’s paper, Fig. 256, a microscopic cross section “from the tumour in the mandible of Case 18” magnified two hundred times. The picture is dominated by closely packed black dots—tumor cells—and there are sporadic, empty white spaces where the cytoplasm has slipped out after a cell has died.
Some cultured microbiologist, at some point, likely after the microscope images could be reproduced in color, realized how much this distinct cellular patchwork resembled the dense, swirling, nearly pointillist brushstrokes of a certain Dutch painter. The tumor cells, often stained a deep, twilight purple, recall a van Gogh nocturne— Starry Night Over the Rhone , perhaps. Van Gogh wrote his brother Theo that he was depicting “the starry sky painted by night,” and it is precisely, strangely, these agreeable, even romantic words—“starry sky”—which pathologists use to diagnose the aggressive cancer now known as Burkitt’s lymphoma.
The neurosurgeon, as soon as he could see the growth attached to my mother’s right orbit, knew it was lymphoma. She and my brother shuffled from specialist to MRI to specialist, and it became clear that surgery was needed to remove whatever was growing—surgery unnervingly close to the brain, “a transcranial orbitotomy.” I flew back from my first semester at Georgetown Law to be with my mother. As I was walking to the immigration counters, the phone still at my ear, my brother dropped in the word “cancer” the way a boss sometimes interjects an explanation, unprompted, because he knows you don’t know what’s going on but doesn’t want to embarrass you.
In the hospital an hour later, my mother lay in bed with most of the right side of her head bandaged, and though she could show, in her one open eye, and in her tired, knowing breaths, that she was happy to see me, she was not much up for talking. So, as I had rarely done before but would do every day for the next six months, I held her hand. It was her, me, my brother, and my virologist auntie Wilina and her husband Walter. David, my mother’s longtime partner, was traveling in Europe; he knew about the operation, but not yet the result. When he arrived a few days later, that was our team through the worst of it.
I spent the night in my mother’s room, on a cot next to her bed. My brother and I, and David when he arrived, took turns spending the night with my mother for the first week or so. I got so acclimatized to those hospital rooms that I can’t remember what it was like to encounter all the sounds for the first time, the beeping of the blood pressure monitor, the ambient busyness from the nurses’ station outside, the quiet rale from my mother’s throat when she was at her weakest. I might have actually slept well that night, tired as I was from the long flight, from everything. I don’t know if my mother slept well; she never has. But I know she was tired.
My mother, my brother, and I recently went to Bandung, my mother’s birthplace and home until she took off for Sydney when she was nineteen and stared out the same airplane window as Tintin and told herself she was going somewhere better. It was the first time my brother and I ever went to our mother’s hometown, after decades of listening to her share childhood stories and gossip with her mother and siblings in a lyrical jumble of English, Mandarin, Bahasa, and Sunda, the local dialect in Bandung.
The family had lived in two houses in Bandung. The first was the house my mother was born into, and where they stayed until she was about twelve. My mother has always described it as a little row house in the Chinese ghetto where all the kids slept in the same room, ingeniously designed by my grandfather, with pairs of tiered bunk beds up against each of three walls; like terraced rice fields, I sometimes imagine. I have seen the floor plan for this house because my mother always rustles through her handbag for a pen when we ask her about this time of her life and she draws on a tissue, or the back cover of a magazine, not only the floor plan but also a map of the neighborhood, with alleyways to her friends’ houses and streets on the way to her uncle’s toko mas , his gold shop.
The floor plan of the second house, a bigger one they built when they came into some money, is less straightforward. There is an upstairs and also a backyard, and more rooms to sleep what by then were seven children. My grandfather built an aquarium in the back, up against the wall of a sunroom so that he could spend all day looking out at his fish. It was this house we thought we might be able to still find on our homecoming trip to Bandung. We walked from the Novotel, and my mother needed a map for only the first few blocks. Her memories led us the rest of the way, up the tree-lined street Indonesian mobs had plowed through when she was thirteen, looking for Chinese homes to ransack, and up the small hill they had rolled my grandparents’ cars down. Near the end of a short side street, Jalan Lamping, was House no. 3. My mother instantly recognized it, and then seemed not to.
It was only half there. The lot had been subdivided into no. 3A and no. 3B, and the developer of 3B had torn down the right half of my mother’s old house. The owner of 3A had kept the left half standing.
The next morning, a Sunday, my mother took us to find whatever other whole or half parts of her childhood were left on the streets of Bandung. She took us to the textiles marketplace, a lane lined with fabric shops on either side that is just barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. Down one of the side alleys, she told us, was where that little row house she was born in used to be.
The alley was just wider than the width of a single car. There were some empty food stands parked along the first twenty meters, and then there was a single-story house with wooden door and window frames, and, linked to it—a little row house—was another single-story house with wooden door and window frames. My mother stood in front of it, and looked at the door and the windows, and she turned to us and said, “This is it.”
It ran about one and a half car lengths, and you could see from the taller buildings behind it that it didn’t extend very far. It was right here, in front of this little house, that my mother would watch her younger brothers horse around with the neighbors’ kids, where her friend from down the street would seek refuge when she failed a test. It was here, my auntie Wilina once told me, that there used to be a kind of playpen set up, and they would sprinkle talcum powder on the concrete and slide around in it.
And it was here that my mother started going somewhere better: to the house that is now half a house, then on the plane to Sydney, then to being the only woman in her graduating class of chemical engineers. It was from here that she got married, and had two sons, and opened a gift store and closed a gift store, and realized that to keep going somewhere better she had to go back to Asia, where she built offices for petrochemical corporations, and then built whole factories for them, and struggled through a tough marriage and divorce.
At the time of her transcranial orbitotomy, my mother was among the three or four most senior executives in Asia for one of the world’s largest oil companies. She was a couple years from retirement, from seeing me and my brother graduate from the law and business schools she had paid for, on her own, with money she had made by outworking everyone else during the day before rushing home at night, from the office or from Shanghai, or Bangkok, or London. I remember her coming in to my room to kiss me after I’d gone to bed.
And it was all that, the distance she had traveled, the futures she had built for her boys—and for what?—that I think started going through her mind when my auntie told her the biopsy had come back. “Histologic examination shows an infiltrative tumor invading the fibrous tissue and adipose tissue,” the report said. “There is a starry-sky pattern created by interspersed histiocytes.”
My mother sat on the edge of her hospital bed after hanging up the phone, looking, as they say, like someone had died. It was part shock, part resignation, and she looked absentmindedly at me and my brother and she said, “That’s it.”
Soon there were doctors and nurses, and my mother like I’d never seen before, tears and IV drips and blocked veins, terms like prognosis and staging and metastasis, which was one of those words I’d never heard before, then too quickly knew too well, and suddenly it seemed like a trend, like everywhere I went it was the new word of the day and not only doctors but bankers and politicians were talking about the need to prevent crises before they metastasize .
To get out of the hospital room every now and then we would huddle in a corner of padded seating that had been carved out of the wall to the right of the elevators, across from the nurses’ station. I remember finding my auntie having a coffee, with some papers in her hands and that look you can only describe as vacant. She was reading up on the five-year survival rates for Burkitt’s lymphoma, and we talked like we sometimes do over dinner about her virology work, just an exchange of interesting information about the chances my mother, her sister, would still be alive when I turned twenty-nine.
My auntie knew Hong Kong’s preeminent pathologist, Dr. John Chan, and we probably got my mother’s tumor sample to him and back, with his starry-sky biopsy indicative of Burkitt’s, faster than most people can. And Dr. Chiu, our primary doctor, who failed to impress me on his first visit when he took a phone call in the middle of examining my mother, recognized my auntie when he walked into the room, from a training course they had done early in their careers at the same London hospital. After he agreed to take the case my auntie thanked him, and in Cantonese he said one of those things that only really works in a particular language. He said just three words, 自己人 , which translate as “self people,” but which we all understood to mean, “Don’t worry about it; we look after our own.”
I am one of those people who went through almost all of college and law school without talking in class unless required to. I am one of those people who says little or nothing when an argument breaks out, who stays on the sidelines of a fight. I am one of those people who doesn’t raise a fuss when there’s bad service, who doesn’t send my food back, who stares but does not scold when someone cuts in line. There are things I want to say and I don’t say them. Sometimes it’s because I want to be polite and calm, and sometimes I say it’s because I want to be polite and calm, but really it’s just because it’s hard.
Dr. Chiu explained to us that the most immediate thing that needed to happen was a full body PET scan, to see if the cancer had spread anywhere. This was easy to understand. What was less easy to understand was this: If this cancer was so aggressive, if in my mind it looked like those time-lapse videos where flowers bloom disturbingly fast, then why were we waiting until the next morning to do the scan, which would mean waiting until tomorrow night to get the results, which would mean waiting until, at the very earliest, the day after to begin chemotherapy? If this cancer was so aggressive, wouldn’t every day count?
This is what I was thinking as Dr. Chiu explained the next steps to us. I don’t think he spoke to us for very long, but in those few minutes I replayed every time I hadn’t said something I wanted to say, and every reason I gave for it afterward, every time it didn’t end up being a big deal, every time it didn’t matter. But then sometimes it does.
There was a silence. So I asked, “Can we do the PET scan tonight?”
Maybe Dr. Chiu knew something about what patients and loved ones are going through in these situations; he must have seen it so often, and maybe he knew it’s all a bit overwhelming when a doctor comes to tell you that to stay alive your mother needs this procedure and that medicine; maybe he knew it can be too much to absorb, too much to process rationally. He gave me a sympathetic look, his only soft moment that night, and he paused, I think, just to show me he was considering it, before saying it was too late, the equipment would have been shut down and the technician would have gone home. We’ll do it first thing in the morning, he said.
I remember coming home one night and seeing my mother, back from the hospital during one of her off-weeks from chemo, with a mischievous look on her face, struggling not to tell me something. She walked into her room and came out with a parcel, elegantly wrapped, and from within pulled out a blue backpack with “LV” branded into every few inches of denim: the only Louis Vuitton item she has ever owned.
At Christmas, I got myself a present, too. I got a Nikon D-40, my first single lens reflex camera. I unboxed it in my mother’s hospital room, and one of the first photos I took was of my mother in her plaid pink pajamas, plugged into an IV that stretches about a meter from its stand to where she sits on a couch. She has slight, wispy patches of hair on her head, like lint, but she is mostly bald. There are almost no other shots of her during those six months—just a few from behind, at home for dinner, or outside on a walk, where you can tell it’s her because she’s wearing a beanie, and because the straps of her face mask loop like small lassos around her ears. These were not images we were going to make any special effort to remember.
On a cool sunny afternoon several years ago, I called my mother while taking a stroll around Hong Kong Park. I stood out by the terrace of Flagstaff House, the first Western building in Hong Kong, erected in 1846, and looked out at the harbor through the gap between the office towers of Admiralty.
My mother had been to see her oncologist, Dr. Sally. Like my mother, Dr. Sally has two cheeky Labradors, one yellow and one chocolate. She said everything was fine, the blood cells seem to be back to normal, and my mother only needed to see her once a year from then on. That was because that day, exactly that day, was five years since the diagnosis, and I should be careful not to say this too loudly, but if you spend five years in remission, doctors will give you another special word to be said in your indoors voice: cure .
We’re not the type to celebrate or even note each passing anniversary of my mother’s diagnosis. Not long after the end of the chemotherapy regime, I read It’s Not About the Bike and how Lance Armstrong would commemorate every post-diagnosis milestone as if he had climbed another mountain stage on the Tour. The telephone call with my mother that day was the first and only time we ever marked a date like that, and we probably wouldn’t have if Dr. Sally hadn’t said the word. We’ll take it—I choked up when my mother told me—we’ll take it, but we won’t repeat it.
The last day of my mother’s last hospital stay, after the last drip of chemo and the last bag of saline, we checked out and said goodbye to the nurses, who wished my mother luck and told her not to come back. As we waited for the elevators, the nurses went back to work, the machine kept humming, and to the right of us I noticed a family sitting in the corner of padded seats carved out of the wall. They were gathered in a tired huddle around the table, not making a sound, but not calm, either—a familiar kind of still, quiet frenzy—and I could see in their reddened, parched eyes that this was all just beginning for them.
In the years after my mother recovered, I came down with the travel bug. I backpacked through Southeast Asia and Central Europe, and watched the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, and attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, my D-40 always slung over my shoulder.
I traveled alone often, and it was sometimes like a dance, like I was in a club—sometimes I was in a club. The music is playing, the bass is bumping, and lights are stuttering, and the place feels packed, heaving. Shoulder to shoulder, all along the bar, and squeezed in around all the low-sitting tables are interestingly dressed people, mingling, flirting, ordering drinks, waiting for drinks, drinking their drinks. When I traveled alone, it was like this, like I was dancing, surrounded by all this humanity and activity, but out on the dance floor, it was just me. Like a dance, but I was the only one dancing.
One evening, in the middle of traversing the Indian subcontinent from the mountain snows of Dharamsala to the fishing nets of Kochi, I found myself in the deserts of Rajasthan, the first time I had ever truly slept under the stars without even a tent or tarp for cover. Our camels had gotten us to the dunes just before the sun set, sliding faster and faster into dusk. When the sun disappeared altogether, and the grayscale faded to black, they started to turn the stars on, dozens at a time. Then more, and more, until in the far, far reaches, stars were packed so tightly they formed clouds. Or were they galaxies? I propped my D-40 up on my backpack, left it open for thirty seconds, and then found something in the LCD screen that kind of—just kind of—resembled those deep field images of the farthest points of light in the universe. My very own Hubble.
There were no mattresses as advertised, and the sand was unexpectedly hard, so I slept in fits. Each time I switched from lying on one side to the other, I would open my eyes and the sky would appear brighter, the dunes would go on farther. In that space between sleeping and waking, I thought I could feel the world turning, until the sky began to find color again, and there were footsteps shuffling in the sand around me, and a pot hissed with our breakfast chai.
The night sky appears to me like that frequently now, whenever I stand out in the yard of the house my mother and David bought in Kenthurst, a suburb northwest of Sydney. One of those nights was a Sunday—December 28, 2008—the night my mother and David got married. My auntie Wilina and my uncle Walter were there, along with every one of my mother’s siblings, the seven of them together for the first time in a quarter of a century, squeezing into our sofas and around our tables the way they used to cram into their bunk beds in the little row house in Bandung. When it was time to go home, Uncle Ting tipsily told everyone how much he loved us, and we watched as a small parade of cars streamed out of our driveway under the starry southern sky.
I retired my D-40, but we have, all my family, resumed capturing the images we want to remember, of weddings and travels and children and dogs. There is one of my aging father in a Santa cap smiling with my brother and me, the first photo the three of us had taken together in four years. There are dozens of my half-sister hamming it up for the camera; it was the first time she has visited Sydney and the first time I had seen her at all in four years. And there is one more in the Kenthurst driveway, green grass and trees and blue sky in the background: My older brother Ben and I stand with my mother on the left, and my stepbrother and his wife carry their one-year-old son, also Ben. David is in the middle of a chuckle. We are all smiling, except for little Ben, who is looking away and pouting between chubby cheeks set under a lock of blond hair. In between our legs you can see Sam, our yellow Labrador, ambling around with his nose down.
I didn’t know we could look this happy. I didn’t know people like us, so often apart, could come together like this, and in some funny, mixed-up way, look like a real family. When I was younger, I imagined many versions of this future, but I never imagined having a nephew who was blond, or my mother having a dog. I never imagined us standing in a driveway looking this happy. The world is always full, always turning, but the dance is better when you find ways to be together. Just look at this picture.