Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A New Season

I’ve been reading/watching The Joy Luck Club with one of my classes. For all of the obvious and clich├ęd reasons, it has always resonated with me. But watching it today, on the heels of my mother’s death, it shook all of the remaining reserve and detachment right out of me. It’s not that it’s an especially powerful film; in fact, I think the acting’s really bad for the most part. But stereotypes or not, it manages to capture enough truth about mothers and daughters, particularly, about cross-cultural mother/daughter relationships. As I watched today, I felt those gaps and misunderstandings between those mothers and daughters in newly painful ways. Before, even though I’d kind of sympathized with the mothers in the film, I was pretty firmly entrenched in the daughters’ perspectives, feeling the hurt, rejection, embarrassment, etc. that came with having an Asian mom in “American” culture. Today, however, I felt those mothers’ stories more acutely. I found myself explaining, rationalizing, and excusing their behavior to my students who were appalled and aghast at the way they treated their children. “Can’t you see,” I asked my students, “how their expectations and reactions are informed by all of those secret sorrows, forgotten loves, deep regrets and alternate lives that their daughters never fully know or understand?” “No,” they answered, “that lady’s just cold!”

I suppose that on an intellectual level I’d understood how these women had become the looming matriarchs that they appeared to be to their daughters. I hadn’t, however, really understood just how much we are shaped by those unexpected currents of life that sweep us up without our permission. Some people never make it back to the bank; they never get that opportunity to take a breath, to lie in the sun for a moment, assess the damages and chart a new course. They simply get swept further downstream, pummeled here and there by debris, barely managing to stay above water. Perhaps because I’m a mother myself, now, I have a bit more understanding and empathy for the way we get carried away from ourselves without realizing it.

In many ways, this was my mother’s story…and mine.  As we sat together in those last minutes together, she looked at me and said, “I have been so stupid…” She trailed off, lost in her regret and sadness. I understood all that would have followed if we’d had time enough; we’d both been stupid. We’d used up all the time we had caught up in things that, perhaps, should have mattered less than just loving one another.  Why do so many things get in the way of just loving one another? She cupped my cheek with her hand and with all the love, with all the affection, with all the things between a mother and child that there are not words enough to express, she said, “goodbye, baby girl.” In an instant, I was filled up, emptied out, destroyed and put back together again. It was, without a doubt, the most profound and sacred moment that I’ve experienced in my life thus far. I could try to explain, try to talk around it, but I don’t think I can yet articulate why or how that moment has changed me so completely; I only know that it has. It tossed me onto the banks of that river that carried me downstream, and now it’s up to me to find the way back to myself.

But today, I found myself missing my mother, truly mourning her for the first time. Before now, I’ve been in some kind of denial. It’s not that I deny her death, but somehow I’ve found a way to deny her absence. It’s fairly easy because she wasn’t a daily presence in my life. We texted every few days and skyped once every week or two, but there were long stretches of time between our face-to-face visits.  It helps that I’ve been so incredibly busy and bogged down in the day-to day, but the tension has been building over the past few weeks as the leaves have started to turn. Every time I drive beneath the brilliant canopy of trees, I think about how much she would have loved this fall. I took a picture of my son recently pulling his wagon on a walk: the trees behind him are golden, the leaves on the ground are raspy oranges and reds—you can almost hear them crackling beneath his feet.  I took that picture for her. I knew how much she would have loved it.

After we buried my mother’s ashes, my brother asked me whose idea it had been to bury them beneath a tree. I told him that one of the pastors had actually suggested interring my mother’s ashes there. And then he told me a story I’d never heard before. When he was in his language school for the military, my mom visited his Korean class on what happened to be Arbor Day. She told my brother that when she left Korea with my father in the 70s, she looked down at her country from the airplane and all she could see was brown; the countryside was still razed and ravaged from the wars.* But upon her return many years later, she told him, she’d cried with joy when she looked down on her country again and discovered the lush green landscape below.

*For many years in Korea (until just recently, I think), Arbor Day was actually a public holiday and the government launched national campaigns to support reforestation; it was done with a kind of fervor for a long time.

Hearing that story undid me a little. Not because of the story itself, though I’m glad it’s one that I have now, but because I was struck by the fact that I’d never heard it. I realize that there’s so much about my mother and her life that I don’t know. She didn’t talk about her childhood or her life before my father very often. Some things she shared. Some things I cobbled together on my own. Other things I overheard. And then there were things that I stumbled across here and there that I’m sure I was never meant to know. But it’s easy to forget, with the familiarity of the everyday, that my mother was, in so many ways, an unknown entity. When my brother told me his story, I was consumed with sadness for all the ways in which I’ll never know her now. If we’d had more time, more than those last few moments on the couch, what would she have told me? Sure, it’s easy to romanticize now, to imagine that things might have been different. Honestly, though, I don’t know. I don’t know that we would have found a way to meet one another in some sort of truth. But I like to imagine that we might have.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ashes to Ashes...

I’m exhausted. No, I’m whatever lies beyond exhausted. Last week was brutal and insanely busy. I returned late Monday afternoon and was back at work by 7am on Tuesday--jetlagged, heartsick and overwhelmed. In Korea, I was surrounded by people 24/7, literally. And since I returned, I’ve been inundated with students and all of the catch-up that comes with being away for a week. So there really hasn’t been a moment for me to catch my breath, let alone to process or to really even think about grieving. Sure, I wrote the last blog post and I even wrote up the second part of the “carnival of grief” on the plane ride home, but it just felt…flat. It’s not what I want to say. But I don’t know what I do want to say. There are moments that a thought or a memory springs to mind. The swell of emotion threatens, for a moment, to pull me under.
In Hawaii, 1986
But I keep forcing it back, pushing it down because I don’t have time to feel; I don’t have time to grieve. My days are so full of things that have to be done that I can scarcely find a minute to just be. Even now, writing this, I know I’ll pay for the time spent not working when I have to wake up even earlier to get it all done tomorrow.  But I can’t shake the feeling that I want to say something—something about how I loved my mother, something to honor her memory, something to fill the space that she once occupied.

Leaving Korea was harder this time around. I’ve seen my parents more in the past few years since Bennett was born, but before that we went as long as 2 years without seeing each other in person. Each time I boarded that plane or sent them away, I was always struck by a sense of panic that it might be the last time I saw my mother.  This time, of course, it became a reality. I’ll never see her again. So I’m not sure why it was so hard to leave. She’s no more there, than here. Not really, anyway. But it felt like my last clear connection to her—surrounded by people who had been with her in those last few days, but also in the last decade of her life that she has spent there.
I spent time in their house, a house that is still very much my parents’ house, but will be upon a later return not theirs, but my father’s alone. As I went through her things, emptying out wardrobes and drawers so that my dad wouldn’t have to do it alone later, I felt numb. I still can’t quite wrap my heard around the fact that she is gone. Literally, no more than ashes…is that shocking to say? Is it crude? I don’t know.

My mother was cremated. That’s how it’s done in Korea, primarily because of the lack of space. Like so much of the experience there, the cremation process was full of ritual and a kind of unparalleled dignity that we rarely afford to such processes here. After another strange and elaborate affair, when her remains were finally ready, they called us to the viewing room. There, they transferred her bones to a box and proceeded to grind them to ashes. It sounds like a brutal and somewhat gruesome thing to observe, but I was comforted by their attention to detail, by their efficiency and respect.
I’m grateful that she’s no longer suffering and that her body is no longer riddled with disease. Still, parting with her body was one of the hardest parts of the funeral process. Though I understood that there was nothing left of her, that body had still given birth to me and fed me. Those hands had once bathed me and braided my hair. Those arms had lovingly cradled my child in the recent past just as they had once cradled me. That face, her face, had always been the easiest to recall because I’ve known it longest and, perhaps, studied it more than any other in my life except my child’s.

Lately, as I put Bennett to sleep, he takes his little hand and caresses me from my hand, up my arm and neck across my face, all the way to the very top of my head and back down the other side. Sometimes he gazes at my face, and sometimes he rests his forehead against mine. This new little bedtime routine (I’m sure it will shift to something else soon) is so deeply moving. I don’t know why he does it or what he’s thinking, but I’d like to think that it speaks to that way in which one’s parents,for some time at least, not only shape one’s world but are, in fact, the world.
That process of emerging from them, as distinctly other, can be full of wonder and excitement, but it can also be full of sadness, longing and pain. For me, that first separation was long ago and there have been many other forms of separation since, but this final severing of ties is so full of unspeakable longing and sadness. As we put the box containing half of her ashes into the space that they made, under a tree she would have loved, I was paralyzed by anxiety. How do I even begin to describe the finality of that moment? Though I have loved many others after her, I loved her first. I remember vividly the fierceness of my love for her as a child; for me, she was love. As I stood there, I was that child again, and I was consumed by grief. I said my goodbyes there in that lushly wooded area as I’ve said them everyday since—whispering them in the dark, chanting them in my heart and sending them through the airplane’s windows as I watched my mother’s land grow distant through the clouds beneath me: “I love you, I love you, I love you. May you find rest and peace.”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Carnival of Grief, Part One


I wrote the first post for this blog just four months ago on June second, and on October fifth, my mother passed away. Her illness and rapid decline sent us all into a kind of tailspin. She’s always been strong, both in constitution and in spirit; she worked ceaselessly and never seemed to tire or burn out.  She was a force to be reckoned with, a formidable foe. But she was also a champion to and for so many. To watch her mind and body slowly deteriorate over these past few months was heartbreaking and disorienting. When I think of her now, it’s still hard for me to reconcile the woman that she was toward the end with the woman I’ve known all of my life; they remain, in some ways, two separate people. I keep waiting to see my mother—the real one—walk around the corner. And I have to keep reminding myself that the unfathomable present is our new reality. For you, as much as for myself, I’ve tried to keep track of this process, which has proven to be the most exhausting, the most difficult and the strangest thing I’ve experienced yet.

Monday, October 7

We arrived around 7:30 tonight and were picked up by two people from my parents’ church. We understood that my dad, as the widower, had certain funerary obligations to perform. As we drove from Seoul to Suwon, I was struck, as I always am, by the city. Like most big Asian cities, it’s a sleek and shiny thing to behold. Something always rises up in me to meet this place, but this time I felt, acutely, that my link to this place, to a part of myself, had been fractured. Straddling two cultures has never been a simple or easy thing; it means never fully belonging in one place or the other.  Now, it seems, I belong even less to this place where my mother was born and where she died.

I assumed that we would go straight to my parents’ house, but one of the men informed me that we were headed to the mourning center* instead; everyone was waiting for us there. I kind of knew what to expect, but unless you’ve experienced it, there’s no way to really be prepared. We were already exhausted from the trip and way underdressed, but since it’s not our “dominant” culture, they made a lot of exceptions for us throughout this process. We arrived, and two of our friends—my parents always joke that they are their adopted daughters—came out to greet us and bring us to our father. Because we arrived late on Monday night, most of the people had gone home and we weren’t expected to stay long. We said our hellos to the people who remained (some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn’t) and we left shortly thereafter to spend some time alone.

*The mourning centers vary in size. This one was big enough for two different families. They are large buildings, often attached to hospitals and hospices. Each family’s space consists of a receiving area, a large-ish dining area and another room—I’m not sure what it’s called, but my sister named it the "sad room"—where people pay their respects to the person who has passed away and the family. The body is never put on display. Instead, there’s a picture of the loved one and large flower arrangements. As people enter the room, they take off their shoes, select a flower out of the bucket and place it on the table in front of the photograph. The rituals, I assume, vary according to family preference, religion, etc. The family who occupied the front space was Buddhist, while, of course, my parents are Christian. People who visited us mostly prayed, though some sang as well and others stood quietly. And then, of course, the bowing commenced. I’ve never bowed so much in my life. Once we’d bowed, accepted condolences and offered our words of gratitude, we would invite them stay awhile and eat. In Korea, there are two things that people do at every major life event—they eat and they bring envelopes full of money, partially to ease the burden of feeding so many people. This mourning process begins immediately after the person passes away and it lasts for three days. Traditionally, the family remains in the building for the entirety of the three days so as not to miss receiving someone coming to pay their respects.

Tuesday, October 8
I woke up with a feeling of dread. Because today was the third and final day that we would spend at the mourning center, I knew that it was also the day that we would view my mother’s body. Our appointment (you have appointments for EVERYTHING in Korea and they are promptly kept—none of that waiting around business that we do in the U.S.) was at 3pm. We arrived at the mourning center around 9:30 shortly before the 10am service (they held services in the “sad room" twice a day at 10 am and 7pm) and began receiving people—bowing, accepting condolences, offering gratitude, inviting people to eat.* Over the course of those three days, I think upwards of 700 people passed through those doors, some came every day, some stayed throughout the day to help as needed or to simply be present.

*There were people who arrived before us every day and left after us each evening. They prepared food, cleaned up, kept the guest books, counted the money and did anything and everything else that needed to be done. These people were my parents’ friends and church members who took time off from their jobs and worked tirelessly so that we would have little to do or worry about. If you’ve never seen such love and generosity in action, it’s an amazing thing to bear witness to.

As the day wore on, we began to joke that we needed new phrases to say. The old ones already felt chewed up and stale on my tongue. “What else can I say?” I asked my sister and our friend. My comprehension is pretty good, but my speaking ability, not so much. They began throwing out random phrases that sounded good but meant ridiculous things: “They don’t expect you to know Korean anyway, so it doesn’t matter what you say. How about…juchajang?” (Juchajang is the phrase for “parking garage.”) It was one of those moments that probably felt funnier than it was because of the circumstances, but it became a running joke. There were times when I had to stifle the laughter that started to bubble up as I shook someone’s hand or bowed yet again and offered those old phrases while saying to myself, with all the solemnity of the moment, “juchajang.” It was, indeed, a carnival of grief—and we were the sideshow, somehow always a little too westernized in our enactment of these rituals: we chose not to remain in the “sad room” exclusively for the duration of the three days; we laughed too much; we deviated from the customs in small ways that marked our otherness, that signaled our half-belonging. As one woman who has known my parents for several years gripped my sister and began wailing and pounding my sister’s back, I stood by awkwardly. I felt like a character in an Amy Tan novel and, again, I had to hold back my laughter. It’s not that I found her grief funny, exactly, but she seemed more a caricature to me than a real person. It wasn’t a moment of shared grieving, but a display meant to signal her status as someone who knew my parents well-ish and therefore felt my mother’s death more acutely. It’s not that I doubt her affection for my mother, but it just felt excessive and meant to create a kind of spectacle. Whoa.I’m glad these displays were limited. 

When 3pm arrived, I felt completely numb and detached. The director of the hospital escorted us back to the room where they had prepared my mother’s body. He told us that he had taken care of her himself rather than having an attendant perform the job and explained that they had washed her body and wrapped her tightly in a shroud from the neck down. There were others in the building at that time who had been close to my parents and wanted to come back with us. I wanted to say no. I was angry that they couldn’t give us these last moments alone. They’d been there when she passed. They’d had time to see her go and to love her, but I couldn’t say no. My mother’s life stood before me—she’d given her whole self to these people and to others like them. Whatever anger or bitterness I felt, to be ungracious now would be to spit in the face of all of that. So I asked them to give us a few minutes alone before they entered and they complied.

I felt sick and terrified. I wasn’t sure what condition she’d be in, but she looked peaceful, as if she were only asleep. The day’s numbness slipped away, and I felt myself beginning to come undone. I wanted to scream and throw things; I wanted to hurl myself on her body like those Sicilian women I mentioned in my very first post. Instead, I wept silently as I touched her one last time and tried to imagine what my life would look like without her in it. The director began washing her face and finished the shrouding process by wrapping her head with care. I watched as they lifted her body into the box that would carry her body to the crematorium. I wanted to stop them. I wanted more time. But I realized that I would never be ready, not in five minutes or two hours or three days. I wrote her name on the box after they closed it, and then they wrapped it tightly with a long strip of white cloth, creating handholds for the pallbearers to use the following day. Though the rest of this carnival of grief had offered me little comfort, this moment of such careful and elaborate ritual, of such gentle caretaking of her body filled me with such gratitude for this strange and foreign process.

We returned to our duty stations and continued to meet people throughout the day. The transitions were jarring and exhausting. My mother’s family came and spent time with us later in the day and stayed until we left at 10pm. Grand aunts and uncles, cousins and others whose relationships to us were tangled and difficult to decipher. “Isanghe,” they murmured to us, “how strange.” Women in my mother’s family live long lives. How strange that she will be outlived by her own mother who is over 80 (though she is not well now and has some dementia) and nearly all of her maternal aunts. It didn’t take long for them to begin the typical Korean prodding; they wanted to know why I’m not married, whether or not I have a special “man friend,” and they urged me to marry quickly.  It went something like this: “We’re so sorry for your mother. We loved her; she was a good woman. Such a shame you’re not married! We’re going to pray for you to find a husband quickly. Eat. Eat more. EAT! You need to eat. Don’t get fat, though, or you won’t be able to find a good husband. Ah, you remind me of your mother; you have her smile. Such a pretty girl…why aren’t you married?” Welcome to the emotional carousel at the carnival of grief.  

As we drove home that night, my brother and sister were joking about the various things they’d had to cover over to be respectful and appropriate. My sister wore her hair down to conceal the shaved sides of her head. My brother wore long sleeves despite the heat to cover his tattoos. “Well," I said smugly, "I didn’t have to cover over anything…except my whole life, of course.” We all began laughing. My dad laughed the hardest. I think my mom would have found it funny as well. If she were here, she would have been grateful, I think. She would have felt half-justified and half-guilty, but grateful that we complied to save face. I would have been annoyed by all of the dissembling. Maybe we would have sniped at one another, because that’s what we did in these moments. But for tonight, we did those things out of love. And tonight, we laughed. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How do you title a post like this?

I decided earlier today that I would blog tonight since it’s been so long and since I am, for this one evening, caught up (well, sort of, anyway).  I’d already titled the blog: “The Perils of People-Pleasing and Perfectionism: Alliterative Life Lessons.” Titles are fun, right? But the day has taken a turn, so I’ll have to save that for next time. And, curiously, I can’t think of a damn thing to title this post. 

For the past week or so I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot. “Isn’t that a given,” you might ask? Well, no, actually it’s not. Since they left and I began the new job, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to think about anything other than the day in front of me. There’s been some purposeful avoidance, too, I’m guessing. It’s not that I don’t think about the fact that she’s halfway across the world dying of cancer. That thought crosses my mind several times a day. But I haven’t really allowed myself to internalize that, to really think about what that means. Instead, I’ve been running from everything these days and feeling increasingly angry at everyone and everything in the process. I’m just pissed. I want to scream and lash out. And every time Bennett throws one of his massive toddler tantrums, I want to join him. Instead, I’ve been holding him, talking quietly to him, loving him through it—and it helps. It feels cathartic for me as well.

Over the past few days, however, my anxiety has been through the roof. I’ve woken up several times in the middle of the night thinking that I’ve heard my phone; I keep waiting for the phone call from my dad with bad news about my mom. But the last time I talked to my dad he told me that things were “about the same” as when they left. I didn’t believe him, of course, and that probably served to heighten my concern. He’s a reliably unreliable source when it comes to these things. So I wanted to check in again, but because of the time difference, I had to wait all day to call. By Bennett’s bedtime the feeling was so intense that I paused our book reading to call my dad. I never cease to be amazed by these strange moments of connectedness or knowingness that come upon us suddenly and strongly. My dad didn’t answer, but he called me soon after to tell me that my mom is in the hospital. For now, it’s just some fluid on her lung that they had to drain, but then he also came clean about the rest.  She can barely walk these days. She doesn’t really talk very much. She is having some hand/eye coordination issues. They hadn’t been telling us because they "didn’t want us to worry," which is what I suspected anyway. And then he dropped the bomb. He explained that he sort of regretted seeing his mother in her deteriorated state right before she died and suggested that he and my mother didn’t really want that for us. He did say that he would leave it up to us, but I can tell that they would rather we didn’t come.

I contemplated not going for a minute. I tried to imagine what that would feel like. Not going, of course, would mean that our final moments here would be the ones that I carried with me. In some ways, that appeals to me. I haven’t shared those last moments with anyone: not friends, not my partner, not my therapist, not my siblings. I’ve barely looked at them myself. I tucked them away because I couldn’t bear to think about them. Her last words to me were full of all the wistfulness, tenderness, and love of our lifetime lived together and all the regret, sorrow and longing for that lifetime unlived, both past and future.  There’s a part of me that wants to preserve that…but I know I’d regret that decision.

While cooking this evening, I put something away in the cabinet and saw the sesame seed oil that she bought while she was here; I was struck by so much grief and heartache that I could barely finish cooking. All of those things that drove me crazy—the way she took over my space whenever she was around, the way she rearranged drawers and cabinets to suit her needs—were suddenly deep losses. She’ll never be the boss in my kitchen again. She’ll never feed me again. She’ll never cook for my child. She found so much pleasure in feeding us—watching us eat, making us our favorites, relishing how much we love Korean food.  She was a fierce and formidable woman. She was wounded and short-tempered. But she was also mine. Now she’s weak and vacant. And soon, in that way that mother and child belong to one another, I won’t belong to anyone anymore. Whatever good, bad or un-nameable things have passed between us, when she gave me life she anchored me to the world, and now I feel like I’ve been unmoored from something and set adrift. So I’ll go, of course…to see myself off as much as her and to honor all that she has been to me.

I keep thinking of this poem by Rabindranath Tagore; I’ll leave you with it:

Peace, My Heart

Peace, my heart, let the time for

the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain

into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end

in the folding of the wings over the


Let the last touch of your hands be

gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a

moment, and say your last words in


I bow to you and hold up my lamp

to light you on your way.