Nonfiction by Owen Lartson
An Essay in (Endless) Knots
This is about watching my mother die.
Eternal knots have fascinated me ever since I was a kid. I knew absolutely nothing about them back then, (not even their name—that, I learned only recently) except that they originated from China. Even that information I pieced together from seeing them in the Chinese restaurants where my family had Sunday dinners after church.
I could stare for hours at their perfect symmetry and texture, even as a scatterbrained child. Their vivid colors, the natural sheen their silk or nylon cords emitted. They’re called 盤長結 (pán zhǎng jié), literally meaning “long knot,” fashioned after a Buddhist symbol called the “endless knot.” After learning the name and its history, the name made sense to me. I felt a distinct sense of forever when I gazed into the larger knots; they were their own little universe, balanced and even and self-contained. It was one of the few forevers I experienced that didn’t suffocate or fill me with fear, like attending college or surviving puberty. In any case, the desire for them always rested at the back of my mind, and would arise whenever I saw them again.
One of the first things I did when I returned to Houston a few years ago was get a tattoo. I have these old keloid scars on my neck from a psychotic-break-turned-suicide-attempt that led me to leave town in the first place. For a long time I’ve wanted to cover them up with a tattoo, but never knew what to get, nor could I afford it at first. With one of my first few paychecks, I went to a tattoo shop and asked for an endless knot. At this point, I had begun to conduct some research on them—what they were called and the history behind them. I needed to make sure it wasn’t sacrilegious for me to ink one into my non-Asian skin, even for the reasons I chose. I sought validation that this was the right symbolic cover up for this unsightly reminder.
It was then that I learned about the knots’ connection to Buddhism, intended to navigate the endless wheel of suffering and reincarnation that is life. The endless knot is one of many auspicious symbols in several iterations of Buddhist artwork across several cultures. In his article The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism – A Study in Spiritual Evolution, Nitin Kumar writes: “The whole composition is a pattern that is closed in on itself with no gaps, leading to a representational form of great simplicity and fully balanced harmony. . . Since the knot has no beginning or end, it symbolizes the infinite wisdom of the Buddha.”1 The pattern Kumar refers to is that of the “endless knot,” which originated during the rise of Buddhism and thus spread to spaces that practiced it. Chinese knotting specifically has utilitarian origins, from ancient times when knots were merely a means of survival, and “rope” itself was worshipped not unlike a god, as the words “rope” (繩, shéng) and “god” (神, shén) are homophonic when spoken.2 Over time, knot-tying gained sentimental and aesthetic meaning and evolved beyond its utilitarian origins, with the endless knot being the most ubiquitous. According to Lin Xia, “the reproduction is one of the most representative knots in Chinese art. It symbolizes the auspicious concept of yin and yang, endless life.” The symbolic significance of the knot seemed reason enough to use it as a symbol to cover up my scar, as the tattoo was a landmark in my literal lifelong quest to find balance and remedy my own suffering.
Now that I knew more of my endless knots (as well as other versions from different cultures, such as the Korean chrysanthemum knot and the Celtic endless knot), I gained confidence in my decision. Unfortunately, the tattoo didn’t go as well as I would have liked. I don’t know if the scar tissue was too unyielding or the tattoo artist unable to penetrate it, but very little of the tattoo showed up after it healed. I can still see hints of it today, but the scar remained more visible than ever. Clearly, it wasn’t my time. Strangely enough, this experience with endless knots has become a recurring theme in my life—trying to capture a knot for myself through external means and being unable to hold onto it. Sometimes I wonder if the epheramlity of the knot is a message in and of itself. It leads me to question whether I deserve the auspicious blessing a symbol like that could provide.
About a year ago, I was at a Vietnamese supermarket and noticed a bunch of different knots were for sale. That familiar childish desire rose up in me the moment I saw them. I’m sure I had encountered them at some point earlier in my life, but there was something about this moment that felt like the right time and place for my relationship to the knots to truly begin. The first one I bought ripped on the way home. When I took it out of the car to bring inside, the cord from which it hung was frayed and broke off. I went back to the store to buy another one, this one a little bigger, with more loops in the knot itself, three coins woven into the tail, and a longer tassel at the end. I was so satisfied with it, happy the way a child is when they get to eat the big fancy ice cream they just bought with many weeks’ worth of saved allowance. I loosened the topmost loop and twisted it around my rearview mirror, so that it hung just within my periphery while I drove. Even amid everything I had to be stressed or sad about, it brought me comfort to see it dangle at the corner of my vision.
I had that knot in my car for a long time, and after awhile I noticed it wasn’t constructed properly. Compared to the sharp-edged diamond shape of most knots I admired, this one had an amorphous shape, uneven on each side. No harmony, no assurance in its form. It was merely an approximation of a symbol, a facsimile that got distorted while trying to copy the original. It’s hard to say if it was that way when I bought it, or simply loosened over time. Either way, I had it in the back of my mind to buy a better one when I would be faced with the opportunity again.
I never did get around to finding a knot to replace the one in my car. My mind became occupied with juggling school and work, trying to make enough money to keep up with my new car. Calling my mom every day to assure her that I loved her and thought about her even on those times I forgot to call. Even if all I did when we talked was complain about work and school.
My mother was first diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2016. At least, that’s when I think she was diagnosed. She didn’t tell me until October of that year, even though my sister had known for months. She said it was aggressive and that her treatment would have to start soon. I refused to believe it at first. I thought maybe there had been a clerical error, or this was some cruel joke. I couldn’t process it. But the existence of her condition didn’t go away, as I was painfully reminded when pictures of her shaved head came across my Facebook feed and heard her voice gradually weaken whenever she answered the phone, her breath shallow and wheezy. I couldn’t deny it anymore. So I switched, immediately, to overprotection. We laughed and joked on the phone while we still could, and I would gently remind her to stop smoking or drinking, advising her to do what the doctor says. Drink water, take your medicine, don’t take too many of those pain pills because they’re very addictive. They gave you oxycodone? Now they’re giving you fentanyl? They’ve upped the oxycodone? How often are you taking it? Do you really need to take it now, or are you just taking it because it’s been six hours? Have you eaten today? Maybe try drinking water without ice, it might go down easier. Are you okay? Okay, I’ll hold on. I’m sorry.
As I struggled to come to terms with my mother’s diagnosis, I was also preoccupied with my medical transition and gender affirmation. I figured out around age twenty-two that I am transgender. It had been in the back of my mind for many years, compartmentalized until I could gain an understanding and learn the right terms for what I am. Besides, I had enough going on with my depression and poor life choices and trying to figure out my sexuality (difficult until I could get a handle on my gender identity). I remember breaking the news to my mother while at an inpatient drug-treatment facility in Florida, terrified of what she would think and say. Terrified that on top of being a disappointment for ending up in a drug-treatment facility in the first place, on top of all the inexplicable conversations about sexuality, now she had to deal with me being transgender. I had to tell her, though. It was important to me. She was important to me, too.
Needless to say, it was a challenge for her. I don’t think she ever really came around to liking it very much, but it meant something to me that she tried. Even if only to appease me, especially since I was so combative about my name and pronouns in the beginning. Perhaps I’m just remembering the negative. There were some positive times, when she said she still loved me and was proud of me, but that I just needed to be easier on her. In any case, the farther I progressed in my transition, the faster her health seemed to decline. That’s probably a coincidence. But like most coincidences, it didn’t feel like one to me. I felt guilty for being trans, like I was killing my mother and disappointing God. Despite my guilt, once this truth revealed itself to me, I couldn’t go back to pretending I was a woman. That was unthinkable. I had to push through. I had to hope her sickness would go away. It was possible. I had heard of it happening before. She’d be alright, I’d be a boy, and this nightmare would go away.
Months and months and months and months later, when I finally started to get my life together and was actually, for once, hopeful for my future, I got the call. I was in the middle of juggling a few jobs and school, looking forward to being more responsible and organized and fantastic at my brand new jobs. Momma had been trying to buy plane tickets for my sister and me to see her for awhile, but she was getting fuzzy. She was repeating herself more often, and didn’t seem to remember the dates. She hadn’t bought the tickets even though she told us she had. I was frustrated because I couldn’t understand where her mind was or what her daily life looked like at that point. Weird text messages and calls that one would assume were coming from someone senile or perhaps in the early stages of dementia. I thought maybe she was just on too much medication (which I knew she was the moment she told me her dosage, and when the number kept increasing, rapidly, at the fault of the doctor’s).
Not long after she started to really lose herself, the call came from my stepdad: We might have to fly you guys out much earlier than expected. She’s getting really bad. After I hung up the phone, I still didn’t believe it. Things were finally starting to go well and now this? Impossible. It can’t be true. It sounds like something out of a terrible Netflix soap opera, yet it was my life and I couldn’t turn it off.
The last conversation I had with her, a week before we were set to fly out, she still sounded like herself but I could tell she was going. She was still coherent, still talking, but more slowly and with more pauses. My stepdad took the phone at one point: She’s really getting bad, Owen. You guys need to come, she’s getting really bad. Only then did it start to penetrate a little, but I was still optimistic we would have more time. I was prepared for her to go, even if it was hard, but hoped we would get some time with her first. The last words my mother said to me were, “I’ll call you back in five minutes, I have to go upstairs to get some lotion.” I remember this because my sister told me Momma said this to her in their last conversation, and never called back. She didn’t call me back, either.
We missed our first flight. My sister wanted to split an Uber. We live twenty-five minutes away from each other and about forty-five minutes (without traffic) away from the airport. Our flight was at 5pm. I didn’t leave my place until almost 3pm. I thought we had plenty of time. I thought getting to the airport two hours early was just a safe thing to do, not a requirement. I thought we would be fine. I was freaking out but being still and slow and deliberate, because This isn’t real and we’ll get there when we get there. The whole way there, my sister kept saying we wouldn’t make it. She started crying and saying over and over we wouldn’t make it. Momma would die and we wouldn’t get to see her. I was embarrassed and afraid that she was right but also wanted to calm her down because I can’t handle it when she cries, it’s too much to hold in my chest. I told her, We’ll be fine, we’ll make it. She won’t die, she’s not doing well but we’ll be able to stay with her and see her off peacefully if she gets too bad. We’ll make it and it will be fine. I sincerely believed that. I had to.
We got to the airport around 4:15. The woman at the front desk told us we had to be at the airport at least an hour before our departure time to even be let in through security. I couldn’t believe it. It was too horrible and it was my fault. Again. I kept saying I didn’t know, but that didn’t do any good. We still missed the flight. I should have left earlier to be at my sister’s place. I should have insisted we take separate cars. If we had gone at the same time we would have made it.
We had to rebook for two days later. There weren’t any earlier flights. During those days waiting to return to the airport, I decided I would learn to make endless knots. I needed a new one anyway. I didn’t know exactly where to buy one in Houston, and didn’t have time to order one online. Teach a man to fish has always been my way of doing things, so I decided just to learn. I’d be able to make as many as I wanted, into forever. Just like the knot itself. I didn’t think much beyond that at the time. I spent hours researching what I would need, the pattern to follow, how to weave and tighten it. I bought all of the supplies in one day. I watched at least six different YouTube videos at one time, because they all had different methods, and they all confused me. It is surprisingly difficult to find educational resources on how to tie Chinese knots, even the popular ones. At one point in my search I became so fixed, so granular, that I looked up “endless knot,” found the Wiki page for “Chinese Knotting,” searched for each knot listed until I found that “Pan Chang knot” matched what I saw in my mind. I copied the characters, 盤長結, and used them in my search instead. I found more videos; they were longer, more detailed, and most importantly, they showed the process from start to finish. It didn’t really matter they weren’t in English. I’m more of a visual learner anyway.
I made my first knot on the plane. I’d slept for maybe forty minutes the night before, and didn’t want to sleep at all on the plane, so I didn’t, even though I was exhausted. The flight was about nine hours. I think. I don’t remember. I was hunched over my corkboard with my white satin cord and pearl pins on the little folding tray table. Weaving in and out, in and out. Feeding through, pulling, tightening. Untying, retying, watching videos. Repeat. I turned on the overhead light when it got dark and everyone else closed their windows. My sister complained the light was making her hot. I apologized but didn’t stop working. I paused occasionally to eat, but didn’t eat much. I just kept tying and untying and retying that little knot until we landed. It was the only thing that kept me from thinking about what a horrible mistake I had made. It kept me from imagining my mother’s voice, my stepfather’s anger at us from the day before when we told him we missed the flight. It kept the pain from completely choking me. It allowed me to disconnect, and find meaning in what was happening even in this mindless task. I was taking my pain and making it into something potentially beautiful. At least, I hoped so.
We landed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. It’s a three hour drive from Schipol to Bergen op Zoom, the town where my mother lived. My stepfather told us we were being picked up by a friend, a woman I had never met named Gaby. I was afraid, worried something terrible would happen on the drive there. I told myself I couldn’t sleep or something terrible might happen to me because I don’t know these people and I’m in a foreign country and my mother is dying and everything is coming apart. But what could I do? I hadn’t slept in almost 24 hours. I fell asleep on the ride and woke up just as we were entering Bergen op Zoom. We arrived at my stepdad’s apartment and took the elevator up, almost in the same breath. He was outside the door and told us, “Put your suitcases down and go inside, don’t worry about it just go in.”
My stepdad's sister, Mira, and her wife Olga were there. Gaby and her husband, too, and someone else but I can’t remember who. In the middle of the living room in front of the TV was Momma on this rather large hospital bed. Something was beeping, though it wasn’t immediately apparent where the sound came from. She didn’t move and couldn’t say anything. Her face was completely sunken in and her breathing was beyond haggard. Her mouth hung open. Her eyes were rolled so I could only see the sclera, covered in a thin film from being open for too long. She didn’t blink. She was heavily sedated as part of a euthanization process she had opted into long before.
My sister fell onto her, crying and screaming her name. I cried too, but didn’t make much noise. While my sister’s tears exploded, mine imploded. I hunched over and held my mouth to keep from screaming. The tears came out whether I had any say in them or not. I tried to hold it in because I didn’t deserve to cry. My sister was much closer to her. She was a good daughter, so she deserved to cry. I didn’t even deserve to be there, horrible child that I was. My sister took one side of the bed and I took the other. She fixed the covers on Momma, positioned her little stuffed elephant, talked to her aloud until she couldn’t anymore and had to go away from the bedside. I took that time to lean close to Momma and tell her some things. I mainly told her I was sorry, that I was afraid. I told her sorry for being so afraid. I told her I was going to continue making the best choices I could, and try to be happy and be what I was too weak to be all those years she raised me. She made noises when I spoke to her, and afterwards. I cried more without making much noise and kept apologizing until I couldn’t. I have no idea if she affirmed what I said, or vehemently dissented to it the only way she could at the time. A rattle came. My sister fell to the floor and screamed. My mother stopped breathing for awhile, then started again. I was frozen. Another rattle shortly after, then she stopped. Stopped. Stopped. We waited. She never started again, and it was done.
I want to say maybe fifteen to twenty minutes passed from the moment we walked through the door to the moment my mother died. Everyone there, during and after, kept saying she waited for us before passing. Apparently she called out to my sister the night before. She called out my Aunt Kathy’s name and her father’s name, both of whom had already passed too. A few days later, during dinner, I learned from Mira that my stepdad almost jumped off of their balcony from grief that night.
My stepdad called the funeral home, and started crying in the middle of a sentence. Even though he spoke in Dutch, I understood enough to guess what he was saying. Everyone cried then. I think some of them hugged me. I was already beginning to turn off. I was starting to disconnect. It became more difficult for me to cry after that.
After everyone left and everything was cleared out, I started tying knots again. I could think of nothing else to do with myself. I needed to occupy my mind, I needed to tie my grief into string and do anything to not think about it. This wasn’t a conscious decision. I just started doing it. Every moment that I wasn’t at the funeral home, or visiting people my sister and mother knew but I had never met, I was tying knots. When I was out with these people who talked too much and put up a front and frankly made me tired and sick, I was thinking about Momma or the knots. I was always tired, and jet lag combined with sadness made it impossible to fall asleep. My sister slept in Momma’s bed upstairs, my stepdad slept in the second bedroom, I slept on the couch next to where her deathbed had been. My sister invited me to sleep with her in the bed, but I couldn’t. I didn’t deserve to. I stayed up till 5 am every night and slept until the afternoon, or woke up at 8. Or stayed up until 8 and never went back to sleep. I drank coffee all day. I kept the TV on to have some noise, I listened to podcasts, I kept tying knots.
I didn’t want to leave the apartment and visit people or explore the town much. I just wanted to keep tying my knots. The funeral came and went, it was small. I wrote a eulogy of sorts at my stepdad’s request, but couldn’t read it out loud. My sister read her speech in front of everyone, I was too afraid. I put the eulogy in the coffin with Momma to be cremated. It was a shitty speech, full of excuses. I had no place there. I was just existing. More people hugged me. I couldn’t look at anyone and just wanted it to be over.
When I came back to Houston, everything was the same. It had to be. I waited a week or so before attending classes again, until things felt real and my jet lag went away. I used up the rest of my leave from work and returned a week after that. I restarted my on-campus job. The lady I worked for asked if I was sad. Of course I was fucking sad but I tried to be polite and just said, “Yeah.” I didn’t want to talk to any of my friends. I immediately shifted gears into work mode and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
I kept making knots. My first night back I ordered one hundred yards of silver cord. Sometimes I made knots just to untie them again and start over, even if there was no need to. I bought more cord. I started hanging them up, adorning everything I owned with them. I hoped some of their luck and benevolence would make things less horrible. I hung more in my car, draped them all over my walls. In one of the instruction videos, the woman made earrings and I thought maybe I would do that too. Some keychains maybe. At least now I have a cute little hobby. My friends complimented me on them, which made me feel awful, but I thanked them anyway. One friend said, “You should sell these!” and I wasn’t really sure. Should I? That would be nice. I could definitely use the money. I hadn’t received a paycheck in about two months, and had spent all of my savings/mastectomy fund on expenses and paying bills while I was gone. I had no idea how much to charge, but started to anyway.
As I was selling them, I had this nagging feeling that it was appropriative to do so. I am not Chinese, and I was not raised Buddhist. However much I related to the meaning behind the knots, they are not of my culture and I felt I had no place to profit off of them. I truly did enjoy making them, and wanted to capitalize on one of very few talents I possessed. Still, I felt I didn’t deserve to make money from them. I felt vaguely as if the very friend who suggested I sell them was secretly mocking me. I couldn’t make this feeling go away, so I decided to stop selling them for a while. I still made them, and sometimes people asked to buy a pair. I tried to offer them for free, but some of them paid me anyway.
In a search for answers as to how and why I could lose the only real parent I have, I turned to superstition. These knots became luck charms for me. I believed they could dispel some of the immense negativity that had entered my life. That feeling had always been there, really, but had only gotten worse with my mother’s illness. I thought that the knots would turn everything around. Not only were they a physical manifestation of my inability to truly process death and other difficult emotions, but they were prayers into the future for things to get better. Please, please get better than this somehow.
I’ve only cried about Momma’s death a few times since coming back, and always around other people. Sometimes I feel like tears are performative, and even when they come naturally I try to stifle them with this in mind. I don’t want to perform for anyone. I don’t want, need, or deserve that attention. On the other hand, I want people to understand I have nothing in me anymore. I have to work to pay bills and repay the people that have let me live off of them for so long so I can finally someday stop being a bum and live on my own one day. I have to work with every ounce of me and try not to be too stupid with my money in the process. I want people to understand why I don’t want to go anywhere, why I’m so tired, why I can’t have fun, why I don’t talk, why I blow up, why my depression is worse, why I talk so much. I want to scream at them, My Mother Is Dead, my father doesn’t speak to me and my life is a wreck so sorry I can’t make it to your party. Maybe next time, if I’m not working or depressed.
I am torn between wanting to bite into my own arm and shower people in my blood and tears and scream my grief until my face goes numb, and just kind of want to quietly isolate myself until I’ve taken care of my responsibilities. The latter is a lot more graceful and mature, so I usually opt for that.
Up until recently, I was incapable of making any more knots without feeling guilty. They still soothed me, and their auspiciousness was never lost on me, but the fear of appropriation was starting to outweigh the comfort. Besides that, work and school were reaching a new crest in how much of my energy they consumed, so I no longer had much time for them. I made time for them, though, when you helped make them bigger than just a pacifier for my grief. I have struggled for some time, mentally and emotionally, with the ongoing violence against transgender people and people of color in this country. No matter how much of my money I donated or how many causes I tried to boost and support, it never felt like enough and I was overcome with that hopelessness again. But when you suggested to me this little thing, “Why don’t you donate some of the profit to charity?” it simultaneously gave me a purpose, one greater than the selfish reason I had before. With renewed energy I set about making and exploring new knots, because I knew the money given to me would be for something better. All of the supporting queer people, fellow artists, and even the trend-hungry white women that used every amorphous Orientalist fetishizing sentiment they could to fawn over these accessories. Their privilege that manifested into their money would be put toward the betterment of queer people’s life circumstances, and help reduce the death toll.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t want to write this. I am not enjoying the process, because it is forcing me to confront some things of my past I don’t enjoy thinking about. It reminded me of some very nice things too, and there was some amount of catharsis in completing the first draft, but there is still pain in these words that I don’t know how to make organized and succinct. I grapple with the constant belief of “not deserving.” I don’t feel I deserved my mother, or that I was a good child to her. I don’t feel like I deserve any of the compliments I get on this skill, or the people who support me this artistic endeavor. I don’t feel like I deserved to see beautiful, talented people like Antonius Bui not only wear my jewelry, but painstakingly craft it into their work on a massive scale. To see this queer Asian artist dance joyfully wearing something I made, inspired by this culture that I have experienced since childhood but was not a part of and feared appropriating, is a feeling of validation I can hardly put into words. I am still overflowing with disbelief and love, grateful (even when it is hard to believe) that what I’ve done is admirable to others.
“This too is a response to grief. Covering yourself in the spoils of your survival.”
Images by Antonius Bui
Kumar, Nitin. “The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism - A Study in Spiritual Evolution.” Exotic India, Nitin Kumar, Oct. 2003, www.exoticindiaart.com/articleprint/symbols/
Xia, Lin. “中国与中国吉祥文化(Chinese Knotting and Chinese Auspicious Culture).” China Academic Journal Electronic Publishing House, 2004
Owen Lartson is an English major and gay, transgender person of Louisiana Creole and Ghanaian descent. When not working two day jobs and plowing through schoolwork at Houston Community College, his passions lie with writing queer speculative fiction, drawing, and tying decorative knots for charity and mourning.
Owen’s endless knots can be found here: https://www.instagram.com/bbbbeautyssssupply/.