Kiki is Falling Down the Stairs
Observe: Kiki is pushed down the stairs. She breaks her right arm in one place, two, three, a trilogy of injury. The three is a sign, the three is proof. It’s like Kiki’s prayer has taken physical form. When beginning prayer, one chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo three times. When we hear about her injury, this is what we immediately think. How strange. Some would say, appropriate.
The renge of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means lotus flower. This flower both blooms and produces fruit at the very same time, which represents the simultaneous nature of cause and effect. This is the Mystic Law, which ultimately means: unknowable. There is no way to comprehend what cause will lead to what effect, but we all must take personal responsibility for our individual destinies.
You know of Catholic guilt. But imagine, just for a moment, Buddhist guilt. We carry the burden of our past lives; the evidence is in the effect we experience here and now. Even that which we cannot control in this life is our responsibility. That’s a guilt that you carry through lifetimes.
Joe Cohen lost his house in an electrical fire caused by faulty wiring that was installed years before he had purchased the home. Many of us wondered: What had he done wrong?
Hiroki James had a verbally abusive son. With just one drink, a demon within him would awaken, and he would scream at her and his younger brothers with little to no provocation, unsheathing an acute rage. Not even her most fervent chanting would soothe his unbottled anger. And many of us asked: How did Hiroki accumulate such cause to lead to this misfortune?
And don’t get us started with Narumi Kai’s slow death, a death that stretched decades. Narumi Kai broke our hearts.
After she fell down the stairs, Kiki didn’t come to meetings for a month. We thought that she might stop chanting all together. When she finally returned with a cast on her arm, she did not speak of the incident, although we knew most of the story already. When we asked how she was doing, she would smile like nothing had happened to her. So we are left to wonder. Does Kiki understand that by falling she was victorious? Does she know that by breaking her arm in three places, she had expedited her negative karma?
This is what we know. During a heated argument, Kiki Martin is pushed down the stairs by her husband. He swears that it was an accident. I didn’t mean to, he keeps saying.
We could only witness the marriage of Kiki and Ty in disturbed fascination. What was so deficient in their practice? Kiki had been a Young Women’s Group leader in Lacey; Ty had been born into the practice, a Fortune Baby in the Latter Day of the Law, a Young Men’s Group Leader himself who participated in the Drum Corps and even Gādoman. If these two could not be held to a higher standard, who in the organization could be?
We remember what happened to Kiki and Ty just two years before Ty pushed Kiki down the stairs. Kiki was driving drunk in the afternoon. She missed her driveway, instead accelerating her Accord into her own wire fence, running over Marco, their pit bull, who had rushed over to greet Kiki, as he always did.
They buried Marco the very next morning, in the backyard of the house that Kiki had inherited and would eventually lose to debt collectors. Ty, who loved that dog more than anything, stood vigil by the shallow grave, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo until the sun vanished from the sky. Ty chanted and would do nothing else, would not even acknowledge Kiki, who came outside every few hours begging him to eat. And mind you, both Kiki and Ty are hearty individuals who enjoy their food and their drink. Ty is half-Samoan, Kiki half-Korean, but both had half-Irish fathers, and they blame that Irish blood for their love of fried foods and afternoon beers. He passed out late in the afternoon—for once, not from drink. He missed the overnight shift at the Lakewood Walmart, and would you believe that they fired him for not showing up that night? Would you believe that Ty hasn’t worked since? It’s been two years. We’ve seen it, and we hardly believe it ourselves.
Kiki is at the Tacoma Peace Center now, and she is leading prayers. Her right arm is nearly healed. The cast comes off in a week. She chants with her left arm holding her prayer book, her right arm in a plaster cast draped with juju beads. Ty will not enter the Peace Center because he does not want to encourage a bitter reception from the Women’s Group, who view Ty, once their golden hope for the future, as an agent of demonic forces.
But Kiki has her DUIs, so he must pick her up. He will take the beat-up Accord and pound on the horn, usually a good ten minutes before the meeting has completed, enraging the old pioneer members, who are startled from their near slumber. His audacity is palpable. So is Kiki’s embarrassment. But she’s here every week, and he picks her up every week. She will not leave him. He will not leave her. They are linked together by their karmic misery. Nothing can free them.
Kiki is falling down the stairs. Later, she will not describe the physical pain to us, although we know it must have been considerable. She will not tell us what started the argument that led to his push. She will not tell us how long she lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for Ty either to help her or to inflict further harm.
Look! She speaks! For the first time in months, Kiki is at the microphone at the Peace Center. We almost forget to breathe.
“I have created bad cause in my life. I make bad decisions, I know. I drink too much. I’ve said hurtful things. My life is uneven. I am tilting at the edge of my life. But all that matters is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. When I chant, everything is clear. I gain wisdom. I know exactly what I have to do. When I chant, I love myself. I love everyone. I do. I love all of you. And I need your love. I do need it.
“After I fell, I was angry. Of course, I blamed Ty. I know some of you did too. I blamed my mother for convincing me to stay in Tacoma instead of going to college out of state, somewhere far away. I stopped chanting for a few days. I know, I know. I wasn’t thinking of leaving the practice, but I wanted to leave myself. I wanted to leave my karma.
“But then I remembered what Narumi Kai taught me. I miss her so much. When I was a kid, must have been twenty years ago now, she used to bring me, all of us, fried rice during Drum Corps practice. She would pull me aside and tell me, ‘You are making good cause,’ and even when I was tired, that was enough, you know?
“I remember seeing many of you at my mother’s funeral. Narumi was old by then, and you could tell that she was sick, but I still wanted her advice and comfort. I tried to smile and stay strong through the service, but I couldn’t understand how my mother could be such a devoted member and still suffer so much at the end of her life. I also couldn’t understand why chanting to protect her from sickness didn’t work. I was very discouraged.
“I sat next to Narumi and I told her all of this before the service began. Narumi held onto my hands. Her hands were so rough, but the way she barely held my fingers, so delicately, reminded me of crisp autumn leaves. Narumi told me that she understood what I was going through, but, in the end, we are each responsible for our own suffering. I could not chant to alleviate my mother’s misery. This was her own karma, her own struggle.
“Narumi knew all too well about that. She told me about how she used to chant for her husband when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And for her son, who had his own troubles before he died in that car accident. But it was only when she took responsibility for her own karma alone that she found happiness.
“My mother understood this, Narumi assured me. She told me that we are all burdened by the negative cause that we have accumulated in our past lives, and that no matter what good we do, that negative cause will still manifest. By taking responsibility for that cause and chanting, I can face my own karma. I can grow. But I can’t escape it. Neither could my mother.
“Those words stuck with me. And after I fell, when I was angry that I was suffering, I remembered them again. Narumi was right. I need to face my own negative cause so I can grow. I have no one to blame for my broken arm except myself.”
Kiki tries to continue but can’t. The mic rattles in her hands. She cries. Eventually, a few of us get up to hold her. True, we are proud that she has remembered Narumi’s guidance. But we are unnerved as well. Kiki’s tears are not from relief. And while we hoped that she would realize the negative cause that permeated her life, we wanted Ty to do the same. Kiki expedited her negative karma when she fell, but Ty had accumulated his own negative cause when he pushed her. Accident or not, he too must take responsibility. But he is not here. He will not return our calls or enter the Peace Center. When we should bask in Kiki’s victory, we can only fear for her future. But we will not tell her this, not today. She is confronting her negative karma. We should be happy for her. We will be happy for her.
Kiki is victorious!
Kiki, falling. Before she even reaches the bottom, Ty says: Baby, I didn’t mean to. I was just pushing you away. Believe me, baby?
We want to believe that Ty is incapable of ever intentionally harming Kiki. But if it was an accident, like he has insisted, why does he refuse to return to the practice? Since he is not here to defend himself, rumors have taken shape and have since crystalized throughout the organization. Some suspect that Ty was still angry at Kiki for killing his dog and that he blamed her for losing his job, and all that fury and resentment, two years brewing, led him to shoving her as hard as he could with no concern for Kiki. Others believe that Ty has always been in conflict with a fundamental darkness within himself. They bring up how he used to shame young members for not taking the practice seriously or how he’d pressure—bully—young men to join Gādoman to watch over the older members during meetings. And they’re right. What we once saw as noble actions are now cast under a dark shadow. This alarms us.
But others, they remind us of a different Ty. These members believe that Ty pushed Kiki hard by accident, and by karmic misfortune, Kiki ended up falling down the stairs. They believe that Ty has always had Kiki’s best interests at heart, and they point out that Ty has no other history of physical abuse with Kiki or anyone else. He even treated her sick mother with respect and reverence in her dying days when she showed him nothing but contempt.
Ty, that fucker, he will be the end of you. I know it, her mother had told her. Don’t you dare see that fucker again. He’s a loser. Even Walmart is too good for him. When Kiki didn’t listen, Kiki’s mother refused to call him anything except that fucker, the words still sounding unfamiliar to Kiki on her mother’s tongue. We all heard about this, and we all felt for Ty, who would only speak fondly of the woman. When her health began to fail, Ty would even drop off a new soup every day. Chicken Noodle. Beef Stew. Vegetable Broth. Miso. Pho. Nothing special, but he still hoped to gain her affection. He would ask members for recipes and borrowed spices. We were rooting for him, although there was something desperate in the way that he hoped he would win her heart. When he was younger, before failure had dominated his life, he let his charisma and confidence guide him. When he grew older, barely graduating high school, struggling to find work, his parents suffering from one catastrophic health failure after another, that easy charisma felt forced, desperate. Flailing. Like a song that he had forgotten the lyrics to but kept trying to sing. We could see it even then, and we were certain that Kiki’s mother saw it too and was disgusted by it.
Kiki’s mother would open the door, grab his pot of soup, give him the pot from the previous day, say, Fuck off, fucker, and shut the door in his face as he tried desperately to hold his smile. This routine repeated itself for two more months, until one morning Ty knocked and received no answer. Concerned, he opened the unlocked door, calling for Kiki’s mother. There was no response. She was in her bed, engaged with dying. He would later swear that when he entered her bedroom, he heard her murmur, Not you. And then she died.
How much suffering can two lives contain? Kiki is falling down the stairs. Her husband has pushed her in a moment of inexplicable rage. It happens so quickly, so unexpectedly, that Kiki does not have time to grasp at the railing. She doesn’t even have time to scream. She tells us later that her mind was racing. We wonder, as she fell, does she think this is the end? Does she think: finally?
Talk to Kiki after the meeting, hold her. She is warm. She will notice your new outfit, your latest haircut, she will thrill at your promotion or your engagement and will kiss your new baby because she loves you. When she laughs, she tilts her head back, and her chest heaves forward, and the laughter emanates through her torso and ends in a snort and an ecstatic guffaw. You will love witnessing her laugh, so you’ll always find yourself making jokes, and good thing for the both of you, Kiki finds most things funny.
But stay with Kiki for too long, and she’ll ask you to chant with her, and even if you don’t believe in chanting, you’ll feel obligated to do so. Not obligated. Compelled. You’ll chant with Kiki, and you’ll turn to Kiki, who is chanting so fervently that it makes you uncomfortable; Kiki is chanting on some cosmic scale that is hard for you to imagine. She is searing nebulas with her prayer, radiating the centers of black holes, obliterating gamma rays and photons and smashing blue giants until they go nova and light up the whole visible universe. Seeing Kiki chant will make you a believer. Seeing Kiki chant will make you believe that the only constant in reality is faith and that one’s faith, not some invisible particle, is what holds existence together for eternity.
When Kiki is chanting, she can do anything and be anyone. She can bend reality. Make a new reality. She can force her mother into a hospital to fight her cancer, she can go back and see her father one last time. She can prevent herself from hitting that fence, from having that one last drink that day at her friend’s baby shower. Marco doesn’t have to be dead. Kiki never falls down those stairs. Ty doesn’t have to lose hope and lose his job. He doesn’t get robbed. He doesn’t get into that fight at the bar, spending a night at a Lakewood holding cell. His father doesn’t have that stroke, his mother doesn’t have that heart attack. He doesn’t lose all his friends. He doesn’t get diabetes. He keeps his confidence and his smile. In fact, instead of dropping out of high school, he goes to college, they both do. They have a kid, a girl. Kiki feels so much love for her that even though she hasn’t even seen her face yet, she knows that the girl is blessed, a Fortune Baby of the Latter Day of the Law. This baby girl laughs and laughs; even before she cries, she laughs, a laugh that travels down her tiny baby spine and up through the fontanels, a laugh just like her mother’s, they will say.
When Kiki chants, she can will life. You’ll believe when you see it. And when the prayer ends, and tears have long run down her face, bleeding her purple mascara, you’ll believe that no one in all the world has prayed with as much sincerity and love as she does every single day. And then you’ll cry too, because you’ll never know that much fleeting peace, and your heart will break, not for yourself but for Kiki, who deserves so much more than she will ever have. Understand? Kiki could be the very best of us. But as long as Kiki and Ty are joined, their suffering will continue, and we will suffer as witnesses.
What holds them together? Why must they be the ones who persist?
Kiki is falling down the stairs. This is the worst moment of her entire life. Unquestionably, she is afraid. But we are also certain that she is thinking: Finally. I am facing this.
We are confounded by Kiki, and by Ty, who can only be heard via car horn. Mostly, we are confounded by how, in their own way, they have endured.
Sometimes we do not believe he will return. We see Kiki enter the Peace Center, holding back tears, hear Ty speed away. We think: Ty will not return this time. Then we think: good. Then Kiki leads us in prayer, she speaks, she cries, she hugs us, and she laughs, and just when we think Ty really will not return, there’s that horn, and for a split second, we can see relief pool on Kiki’s face.
Sometimes, she will even smile.