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.
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.”