The joy of love is often coupled with the fear of loss. Here, novelist Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood recalls how anxiety before her wedding returned her to the impermanence of life, to its multiple pathways and infinite realities, as explored in her new book, The Constellations of Eve.
My first instinct after falling in love with my husband was picturing his sudden death, taken from me per the whim of the gods. My father had passed away in a car accident, so it took little effort to imagine a similar fate for the person I most loved. This threatening and constant reminder of how fragile life can be, how easily everything might crumble, made me at times an anxious partner – pacing the short length of our apartment living room if he was late to come home, quickly spiraling into despairing thoughts, grieving for an imagined death. Always, I planned for the after, ranging from how I would deal with such a spiritual loss to how I would afford to pay the bills on my own, and even absurdly, how I would raise our child (one we don’t yet have) on my own as a single mother.
When my husband and I visited Vietnam for the first time together, we went to the temple where my father’s urn has been housed for the past thirty years. We arrived at lunch time – the normally quiet Buddhist grounds were even quieter. We sat waiting outside the locked pagoda with two cages of sparrows. In traditional Buddhism, releasing captive creatures like birds and fish is believed to generate spiritual merit. For as long as I remember, my family has diligently followed this practice. Still, there was something antithetical about cages of panicked avians erratically thrashing their wings. I gave my husband an apologetic glance – rituals rarely make sense and can even contradict our values – but I was in no position to forgo yet another rope connecting me to the heritage I’d so long been separated from. Under my breath, I apologized to the ceremonial sparrows.
A novice monk arrived to let us know that the senior monk who normally guarded this tower was absent that day. Immediately, sweat poured down my neck and temples – I’d wanted to show my then-fiancé a moment in time, an exact replica of a childhood memory – in my many ways, I expected nothing less than time travel. I was disheartened. I’d hoped to be greeted by the same kindly smile of my childhood visits to the temple, to hear him call me by my Vietnamese name, and for him to ask if I were there to see ba Hải (father Hải) as though my father wasn’t actually gone, but there with us in person, just behind the red lacquered wooden altar and a screen of smoke – the scared sanctuary a bridge between our world and the next. Behind closed lids, I could see his silhouette.
A planner, I function well on schedules and routines. Anticipating catastrophe is a way of planning. Psychologists call it anxiety, I try to think of it as a kind of nervous gratitude. Imagining the death of the person I love helps me not to take our life for granted. It’s easier not to bicker over how to correctly load the dishwasher, or whose turn it is to make dinner, take out the trash, when you truly feel the possibility that they might never walk through the door again. My father’s death, though one I had not witnessed, was visceral in my mind. It occurs to me at least once daily, as an irrational fear while crossing the street in my neighborhood, or more directly in my morning prayer to him. It informs every decision I make, in my marriage, friendship, and career. If a job prospect intimidates me, telling myself what my regrets might sound like on my deathbed improves my resolve to go after the very thing that scares me. Like a child, I’m overjoyed to be loved, and to get to love another day. Knowing death at a young age also makes it easier to let go, of people, ideas, jobs, my own fears and insecurities – a blessing in disguise.
Inside the pagoda, urns are kept in individual slots shielded by small wooden doors. My then-fiancé and I lit incense and knelt in front of my father’s urn. With my thumb, I caressed the two by two photograph – a habit I’d developed since childhood. I don’t know why I do this, only that my communication with my father was limited to prayers, and in the presence of his ashes, I felt I could touch him. When I was a child, the person in the picture had seemed older, wiser, and more distant. The summer we visited, I was only a year younger than my father was when he passed away. Suddenly the man whose soft expression and melancholy I shared seemed more like a friend. Silently, I introduced my husband and asked for my father to protect our relationship.
Keep him safe, I prayed.
I’ll never love again if something happens to him, I threatened my father, the heavens, no one in particular.
I didn’t ask my husband what he’d said to my father. Talking to my father in my thoughts had always been a private and sacred experience, and I wished it to be the same for my husband. Outside the temple, we lifted the metal door of the bird cages. Hundreds of sparrows spilled from the small opening, toward the sky. A few remained behind, too startled, perhaps, to move on.
Outside my apartment window in Brooklyn, birds gather to peck at the seeds I’ve hung up on the balcony. These small things tether me to two places at once, in Vietnam and New York, at home and at the temple with my father, in life and in the after-life. At the kitchen counter, I light an incense as I do every morning. There is no photograph to touch, no altar to bow to, no statue of Buddha, instead I’m looking at the ordinary items that make up a life, a bottle of vitamins, an espresso machine, squares of chocolates. I pray anyway.
Two weeks before our wedding, my husband and I were going through a crisis, a culmination of years of hurt, his pain, my own – the agony we feel when we not only betray the one we love, but ourselves. And there was the looming event we were still struggling to organize. I don’t feel the need to relate the story to my father as I believe he already knows. This immediate transference is at times nothing less than a lifeline. How many ways can I tell my therapist or a friend that I am sad? How many times can I use a word before it loses its power? Prayer – an intentional message to a personal god, whether religious or not – skirts the edge of language and unspools its limits. As I speak to my father, I simply leave blank the spaces where emotional adjectives would have been – I accept that I do not know enough words; I accept that the words I know are not enough. When I pray, I’m not fractured into sentences, slices of feelings, snapshots of being, I am whole.
I am not strong enough to weather all the sorrows of love alone, nor do I want to be. Death is an effective reminder of the fleetingness of life, of love, and of pain too. Like all marriages, my husband and I can inadvertently hurt each other, but no matter how much we suffer, I know that it will pass. Both our joys and heartaches are impermanent. At our wedding, my mother talked about my father in her speech, as I knew she would. He is there, in her every thought, as he is in mine. It is hard not to wonder what all our lives would be like if he were alive. I wrote my second novel for many reasons, one of which was that I couldn’t stop wondering, imagining the infinite combinations that might play out had one thing changed. Constellations of Eve is a modern fable, following three incarnations of one love story. Each reality allows Eve, an artist and mother crippled by fears of being abandoned by those she loves, another chance at fulfillment – but can she get it right? There is a minor but significant detail in the novel: in one reality, Eve and her husband Liam live in the country side; in another reality, they are in the city. Everyone who has ever relocated knows how external geography, landscape, architecture can reorganize our internal ones. Traditional feng shui tells us that there are intangible forces, visible and invisible, that belie our material world. When I was a teen and acting out as teens do, my mother hired a feng shui consultant to analyze my bedroom in hope of finding insights to what she thought to be my demonic behaviors. I suspect now that this might have been the Vietnamese equivalent of a therapist. The consultant carefully walked the whole length of my room, inspecting the furniture, the curtains, my desk, the peeling poster on the wall of a Japanese anime. Afterward, he concluded that my bed, which was placed at about a thirty-degree angle from the room’s corner, where I slept and looked up at the asymmetrical ceiling, was the chief culprit to my psychological turbulence. If the position or angle of a single piece of furniture has the power to affect us so, relocation is no frivolous matter.
After the pandemic, my husband and I were confronted with the possibility of leaving the city for upstate, New York, or really, a quiet place to take in the Milky Way at night. At any given moment, multiple pathways, infinite realities are upon us. Which doors might lead us down the same track, and which might separate us? One way to know is to go down the lane ourselves, and the other is to imagine. In imagining many possible futures, we can live life with the compassion and generosity it deserves. We don’t have to lose to death, or endings, for we can always begin again, love anew.
Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood’s Constellations of Eve is published by Platypus Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. For more information on Abbigail and her work, click here.
About Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood
Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood is a Vietnamese and American author. Her debut novel, IF I HAD TWO LIVES, is out from Europa Editions. Her second novel CONSTELLATIONS OF EVE is now available for pre-order. Her works can be found at TIME Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, Cosmopolitan, Lit Hub,Electric Lit, Catapult, Pen America, BOMB, among others. She is the founder of Neon Door, an immersive art exhibit.