When you are born, Daoist lore says, three spirits enter your body. Depending on who you ask, these spirits are sometimes called the Three Corpses and sometimes called the Three Worms.
My cousin—whose parents are both Taiwanese, and whose Taiwanese-ness is salient to her in a way only my Japanese-ness is for me—was the one who told me of these crouching corpses that take up residence in your heart, stomach, and head, and signify the past, present, and future.
The worms lie to you. They lull you with songs of the past and dreams of the future, and the more you listen, the more you veer away from true consciousness. While you are distracted, the worms feed on you. They agitate illness within your body. They meticulously keep track of your actions in order to report your sins to the gods. They welcome disease. They want you—the host—to die; for when you die, they will be free.
If my granuloma had appeared in a vacuum—that is, if my father hadn’t also been dying of cancer—I would remember my tumor and its two removals only as a painful and deeply unpleasant part of a painful and deeply unpleasant pregnancy. Instead, my benign tumor gained outsize significance. Or rather, I imbued it with significance. When my father and I joked about our respective tumors, I latched onto the word our, holding on to the plural for as long as I could.
We moved at a similar pace then—me with a belly full of baby, my father with a belly full of cancer. Both of us were slow, cautious. But we were moving in different directions.
Before my father’s decline, he was a preeminent scholar of Black religious history. As brilliant as he’d been, I wasn’t sure, at the end of his...