by Michelle Robin La
Upstairs, Grandfather coughs yellow-green into the coffee can on the floor by his bed.
Má says drugs consumed him.
Now he’s spitting out all that’s left.
She whispers to her sister as they knead clothes in a washing tub behind our house.
It’s the only time I hear Má talk about Ba’s father.
He was a Chinese doctor. When he visited patients,
he rode on a white horse like a lord.
Now he stays in bed all day,
eyes caved into his sockets, white hair thin on his head.
Each night my brothers and I hurry past him to our sleeping mats.
Má says Grandfather had a fish sauce barrel
full of opium balls in his house.
Each ball honey-colored,
then smoked black.
He saved the spent balls in another barrel to smoke later.
The clothes swish around in the washing tub
black opium balls, turning the water dark.
Má moves them to the rinse tub and pours water from the canal over them—
opium balls ready to be smoked again.
“He sat there with all those balls,
each worth the same as if it were gold,” Má says.
“If he could have given us just one before he smoked it away . . .”
I wonder if the barrel of opium was as big as the tub for washing clothes,
what it would be like to have that much gold.
Grandfather’s wheeze echoes against the tin roof.
Má shakes her head. “Now all that’s left is a cough.”
This is a finalist in Cha's "Addiction" Poetry Contest. Michelle Robin La on "Smoking a Pot of Gold":
My husband’s mother struggled to raise ten children in Vietnam while caring for her ailing father-in-law, all the while knowing her father-in-law spent his fortune on opium instead of helping them. She probably didn’t realise the children overheard her talking with her sister as she washed clothes. My husband imagined his grandfather’s barrel of opium as a pot of gold, and I envisioned what a child would have thought hearing this story as clothes swished around a wash tub. To my husband and his siblings, their grandfather seemed like a ghost upstairs they tried to avoid. Like gold that could have been theirs, children wonder at stories they hear about what a family member was like before addiction took over.