In another possible life, the life of my mother, I travel from country to country. When I finally settle down, buy a home, it is in Vancouver at the foot of a mountain. At night, I can get in my car and drive for a stretch of time and see nobody. When the car reaches the end of the road, I am a thousand feet above sea level. The houses below are flickering lights.
When I was young, I had imagined a different kind of future: my family balanced like a stone on the tip of my finger. In my first language, there is a phrase, tongchuang yimeng. To sleep in the same bed but dream different dreams.
It takes almost twenty years but one day I step outside. My three children are grown and my husband has left. I change because change is required. My life falls apart and takes shape, simultaneously. Even at fifty, I become more myself than I ever have been.
When I die, I leave quietly and suddenly. I leave the wound of love pouring out of my children.
In my own life, my real life, I have come to realize that, though writing is important to me, though it is my strength and my crutch, I would give it up in order to be returned the things that matter most to me. If someone offered me the choice—put down your pen, close your eyes, walk and do not look back—I would do it in order to lead my mother back. I would choose the kind of life that she lived. Find a job that brings me fulfillment. Raise my children the best way that I can. Find a home. Pay attention to the world. Make the best of what I have. It is the kind of existence that few people notice and few people celebrate.
Sometimes I think that I would have liked to have been a photojournalist, seeking out Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Or, like Elliott Erwitt, shooting those hilariously whimsical portraits of dogs and their owners. Or a dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company, where the line of a body, a reaching arm, sends a single shiver along the spines of a hundred viewers. But writing is what I have thought to do from the beginning, the only artistic work in which I may be competent. Take it away, and I will concentrate instead, focus more, on the circle of people closest to me, a lover, children, family.
In this alternative life, I commute to work in rush-hour traffic, listen to language tapes in my car. I prepare elaborate meals for my children, pastries filled with curry, sticks of satay, a dozen scones. I work toward my retirement. My grandchildren leap off the couches, shrieking, and roll around the carpets of my house. My children return to me, even after they are grown; they try to find me even after I am gone.
Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of four books of fiction, most recently, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel.