“It hurts just as much as it is worth.” – Julian Barnes
The story goes that my maternal grandmother, Po Po, had her feet bound when she was a young girl in Beijing. The process was halted when they realized she would have to flee to America during the Communist Revolution.
But no, that doesn’t make sense. Her feet would’ve been visibly disfigured; she would’ve had trouble walking. Perhaps she was just a natural size four?
My mom had me when she was 42 years old, which is to say that she was preparing me for her death since the day I was born. It was less about her actual age than the fact that she seemed to always feel death’s looming presence. She knew she would leave us one day, sooner than she’d liked.
Because of this, I never imagined her crying at my wedding. I never imagined that my future kids would call her a deranged name like Mee Maw or Gam Gam. I always knew that by the time these things happened, she would be gone.
Foot binding is done in private by mother to daughter. Even though she knows the pain well, the mother still pulls and pulls the cloth strips tighter. She remembers the pain, the agony of it, the way it twists her toes under the soles of her feet, breaking the bones into inhumane shapes. The mother does not know any other way.
I woke up at 7am to a text from my dad. Mom died around 2:30am in her sleep. Hospice confirmed and funeral services came to pick her up. Glad you both visited. I didn’t answer because I had nothing to say.
She died, I texted my three best friends. One of them stayed on the phone with me last night as I cried my way back from New York. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore, the waiting. We hung up at 1:30am, 2:30am New York time. The moment she died.
I tried to fall back asleep, putting it all off for a few more hours.
I had nightmares as a child. They varied in plot, but always came to the same end: I would be kidnapped and taken from my mom, never to see her again. I’d wake up in tears and run into my parents’ bedroom, back when they still shared one, shaking my mom awake. Without hesitation or complaint, she’d walk me back to my room, tuck me in, and kiss my forehead. Then she’d curl up on the foot of my bed like a dog, tossing my SpongeBob blanket over herself. My mom was the person I feared most in the world and yet, she was the only person who I was sure could protect me from the dark.
Whenever my mom was late to pick me up from elementary school, Chinese class, or gymnastics, she would find me crying, waiting by the side of the road. Each time, I was sure she wasn’t late—she was dead, just like she always told me she would be.
Two weeks before she died, when my dad told me it was time, I flew home to Long Island. I’d had four years since her initial diagnosis to prepare me for the goodbye. I made sure to pack a lot of black just in case the visit took a turn.
I sat on her bed in our guest room and wondered how you’re supposed to have last words with someone who doesn’t know you’re there. It had been about a year since we’d had a conversation and even then, she was just a shell of herself.
My mom was always on a quest to lose just five more pounds even though she teetered around 95 for most of her life. I looked down at her small frame. My dad told me she couldn’t keep on weight anymore. 74 pounds. I put my hand on her leg above the old SpongeBob blanket and then jolted it back, shocked by the sharpness of bone.
“I’m sure this isn’t how it works,” I said “but if you’ve been waiting to see me, please go. It’s okay to go now.”
Nothing happened. Her mouth remained agape in a horrifying circle of pain. How stupid I was to think she was waiting for me.
That night, my older sister, Lynna, and I went to a Beyonce vs. Drake dance night in Brooklyn. She was dancing, but I was preoccupied with my phone, hoping for a text from a guy I’d been talking to from a dating app. Our first date was set for tomorrow night when I’d be back home in Austin.
We were in purgatory. Our mom was dying, had been for years, but she wasn’t dead yet. All we could do was wait. What we didn’t know was that our wait was about to end. She’d die just 24 hours after we left the bar to eat greasy bodega fries.
I’m overwhelmed with the how are you <3 text messages that flood my phone when people hear the news. Kindness can be so unbearable. I see one that starts with I know you weren’t close with her, but— and decide not to open it. I’d said it plenty of times before. I was an adult. I had no need for something as childish as parents.
But was that true, or just an easy way for me to explain away their absence in my life? What is closeness if not hours spent in the car, if not tears shed, if not the desire, no, the need, for me to be better than she was?
She made me inside of her. Was it possible to be any closer?
At my house in Austin, flowers showed up in a continuous rotation. The first arrangement was nice, but by the eighth I was enraged. I left them all on our coffee table until one of my roommates texted a photo in our group chat saying, These are starting to smell. Are you gonna throw them out?
I dumped the decay in our compost and smashed two of the vases in our carport, but immediately regretted it when I thought about glass getting stuck in my dog’s paws. It took an hour to meticulously clean up all the pieces. Sometimes grief feels like performance art that no one is watching.
My mom hated flowers. She’d say, “Why would I want something that will just die anyway?”
I exercise the morning of the funeral because I think my mom would’ve liked that.
I grew up thinking 100 pounds was too heavy, too much. I’d stand on a scale every night alongside my mom and sister and we’d record our numbers in a notebook. The game stopped being fun when I began to outweigh them at 12 years old.
In the year after she dies, I will gain 25 pounds and keep it on. It surprises me how natural it feels to wear the extra weight. People ascribe it to finding comfort while grieving, or perhaps my new relationship, but I think it’s something different—a release, binds loosening. Why did my mom want me so small?
My sister texts me a picture of herself in a black dress with rainbow polka dots. Do you think it’s okay to wear this? she asks.
Of course, I text back. This is our thing. Who’s gonna tell us it’s wrong? Maybe we can even wear red since that was her favorite color. And it’s a lucky Chinese color too.
No, that’s weird, Lynna says. And red looks bad on me. I tell her I’ll wear my pink pom pom earrings and a black pleated skirt with woven threads of silver so she won’t feel like she sticks out.
My mom’s aides are helping my dad get dressed for the funeral. I guess they’re my dad’s aides now that she’s gone. I wonder if they feel the grief thick in the house or if it’s overpowered by the stench of pee and vomit that’s deep within the upstairs carpets. Did they feel death when it came to take her? Do they know how soon it will come to take my dad?
I get ready in my childhood bathroom, caked with mildew from disuse. I draw a bath even though I’m sure sitting in this tub might make me dirtier. I find a bar of soap crusted to the bottom of a dish and wrestle it free.
I lay in the water, submerging my ears even though my mom always told me that would lead to an infection. I have always taken baths, something she assumed I would grow out of. This is a trait of mine that baffled many old roommates who would find me in the bathtub even at 6:30am before a work day.
A tarot reader once told me that baths mimic the womb space, making you feel held and comforted. Safe. Loved.
My dad doesn’t want to ride with me to the funeral home; he’d prefer to go with the aides. All three of us— my dad, my sister, and me— will arrive separately. Grieve separately.
The BMW is the only remaining car that hasn’t been impounded by the state after his countless DUIs. I find the keys in their old spot—on our dining room table in one of those weird catchall bowls that has somehow held keys, Halloween candy, throw up, and microwave popcorn over the last twenty years.
My mom’s wool Pendleton bag is still there. She hadn’t left the house for more than a walk around the block supported by her aide’s strong arms in over three years, but her purse sat there like she’d just returned from a quick errand.
All three of us had a version of that bag. My sister’s earth tones. Mine cool tones. My mom’s, some strange combination of the two. She was the mess of color we both came from.
“I never want you to have to do this for me,” she told me. I’m nine and we’re outside her parents’ house. “I don’t want you to see me like this. I don’t want you to take care of me. It’s too much. You should be able to go anywhere, do anything.”
Po Po had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years prior and we’d visit frequently to check in on her and Gung Gung. Her decline was sharp and fast and painful to watch.
My mom grabbed me by my wrists and stared deeply into my eyes. “Promise me something, Alex. Promise me you’ll kill me before I get like this.”
“I promise,” I heard myself say.
She asked my dad to kill her for the first time two years ago and every day after that until she couldn’t speak anymore. “There’s nothing I can do,” my dad said. “At least not without going to jail.” I wanted him to say that he’d risk it for her so I didn’t have to think about my own broken promise.
My mom was trapped in a prison of her own mind and the walls closed in on her more and more each day. Why didn’t we do more to set her free?
I hope I won’t suffer when my inevitable diagnosis comes. But I know I will, like her and Po Po and my paternal grandmother before me. This is the legacy of the women in my family— to lose our minds.
I feel the binds pull tighter and tighter, knowing I can’t break them. Knowing that everyone else who felt them tug on their skin before me is dead.
My parents were going to buy an apartment somewhere in Paris’ 6th arrondissement after I graduated college. That was their fantasy at least when they were still in love and in good health and life had so much possibility.
My dad wants to give the eulogy but doesn’t want to stand in front of the room with his walker. I try to arrange an armchair for him to sit in and he gets frustrated with me. It would be hard, I imagine, to go from being a VP at a big company with speaking engagements all over the world to this. When is the last time anyone has seen him? They don’t know what 19 years of alcoholism does to a body, a mind.
My sister meets us at the funeral home with E, her new boyfriend. They’d been dating for a year, but to me he’s still new because I haven’t met him yet. Once, we planned to meet for brunch, but he bailed 30 minutes before, texting my sister that he had a “tummy ache.” I think he’s afraid of me and I like that.
Now, I can tell he’s nervous when he shakes my hand. To be fair, it’s probably not easy to meet your girlfriend’s family for the first time at her mom’s funeral. But also, to be fair, I wish he hadn’t come at all.
People arrive slowly: old neighbors, Lynna’s childhood nanny, my friends, Lynna’s friends, a few Chinese people who I can never remember our relation to. This funeral is more for my dad than my mom. It’s pageantry, just for show. Hell is making small talk with strangers at your mother’s funeral. After 20 minutes of this, I go sit with my dad at the side of the room.
“Do you want to start your speech soon?” I ask him. I don’t know the schedule for these things. Shouldn’t someone say something? Did we make a program? Instead of going to the front of the room my dad quiets everyone from the couch. I’m trapped next to him and feel all the eyes in the room shift to us. He begins his speech and I know I can’t get up and leave him. My sister sits safely with E in the back of the room.
“Kathy died on February 18, 2018 at the age of 66 from complications from Lewy Body Dementia,” he begins.
We’re already doing it wrong. My mom would’ve hated everyone knowing her age, a fact she kept secret from me until I found a birth certificate in the basement. She didn’t trust me not to tell the other moms how much older she was than them.
“She loved New York City, her daughters, and a good sale.” New York City first, me and Lynna second. We deserve to be first, I think. She sacrificed so much for us.
“She loved to travel. When we’d explore a new city on foot, you’d have Kathy walking fast in the front, Lynna a few feet behind her trying her best to keep up, and then me dragging Alex a block back trying not to lose them.” People laugh at this, and I do too. I’ve always been my family’s comedic relief. I look at my sister and am surprised to see her sobbing. Just two days ago, she’d told me she had no good memories of our mom. E gets her a tissue and I want to rip it from his hands.
My dad talks about meeting mom at work. How she gave him his first job in the city at Manufacturers Hanover, a now defunct bank. They traveled Europe together and dated for five years before getting married. If they weren’t my own parents, it would strike me as cool that they didn’t rush into anything while both approaching 40 in the 80s. But then, they took their time and they still got it wrong.
My dad ends his speech by asking for others to share their own memories of my mom. I grimace knowing no one will say anything. But I’m wrong. My mom’s cousin speaks up. “I loved Kathy’s cookies,” she says with a laugh. “So yummy.” That’s all she says. I look at my sister and we inappropriately burst out laughing.
We calm down and our old neighbor, who I’m shocked to see is still alive, starts asking my dad questions about banking in the 90s. When did Manufacturers Hanover close? Didn’t Kathy work at Goldman? And when did you move to Chase? And when did Chase become JP Morgan Chase? Oh god, now they’re talking 9/11. I know we all want to crawl out of our skin except for those who are old and unaware or perhaps those with an interest in finance.
The insufferable conversation goes on for at least five minutes during which I continuously make eye contact with my sister, silently begging her to shut it down. E must be blocking our telepathy because she does nothing. I force myself to stand up and thank everyone for coming, let people know there’s a memory book to sign (Lynna’s idea. No one will write anything) and then thank them again because I don’t know how else to end things.
When she died, my dad asked if Lynna and I wanted to give the eulogy. We both said no. I wanted to, but knew I couldn’t. How could you encapsulate someone so beautiful, smart, complicated, neurotic, and sad into a few paragraphs? I couldn’t boil her down to shopping, fast walking, and cookies. No, I wouldn’t.
I thought of your mom today. Kat, an old friend, texts. I signed up for this expensive pottery class. I almost didn’t but then I remembered what your mom always said– you can never waste money on learning something. I clutch my phone and close my eyes. I sometimes forget she mattered to anyone else but me.
After the funeral, Lynna and I look through our mom’s closet and I notice a small dry-cleaning bag. Curious, I open it and find a collection of handmade, crocheted child-size sweaters with happy patterns of clouds and ducks and frogs and trees. A note is tucked on the hanger in my mom’s almost illegible handwriting– save for grandchildren.
The ancient Chinese believe the body is a gift from one’s ancestors. You must protect it and treat it well. The greatest punishment in ancient China was to be beheaded because it meant your body would be damaged beyond repair. No longer whole. You must keep your body whole if you wish to be reunited with your ancestors in death.
I suppose I am not whole by design. Half Chinese. Half White. I don’t think I believe in an afterlife. But sometimes I think— how will I ever find her? Are we not bound together?
Without each other, can we ever be whole again?
I tell my dad it’s time for me to go back to Austin. For the first time since I was a child, I feel sad to leave him. We don’t hug goodbye; I can’t remember the last time we did that. Instead, he waves me over to his desk drawer to take a stack of $20s. I protest, and then give in when I see he won’t relent.
I leave him alone in our big house, happy that the aides will stay on, checking on him twice a day. I feel the money, heavy in my coat pocket, and can’t help but feel like my dad just paid me to come watch my mom die.
Sometimes in the year after her death, when I’m feeling extra delusional, I’ll wonder if my mom sent me the guy from the dating app. A boyfriend to ease the pain of her absence. But of course, if she could’ve sent me something, she wouldn’t send a man. She would send an all-expenses paid vacation to Europe, a successful business venture, maybe a nice jade necklace, or a Marimekko dress.
On the escalator down to baggage claim at the Austin airport, I see a mother holding a sign that says, “WELCOME HOME, KELSEY!” She is shaking it wildly above her head. A girl in front of me, Kelsey, I assume, starts waving her hands and jumping up and down. I watch her run down the escalator and into her mother’s arms. I wait until I get into my car and then I start to cry. I feel stupid for it. My mom was never that type to run towards me and embrace me. That could have never been us. But then I think, maybe it could’ve been.
Later that year, I will go to San Francisco to get a soul tattoo from a witchy, white woman with soft pink hair. We will meditate together as she designs my tattoo. She’ll show me the design– a rose with deep roots surrounded by cedar, mugwort, and poppy. She’ll say that there is a lot of emotional damage and darkness being held in my womb space. The flowers are the plant medicines I need to cure it. She’ll stab the flower essences mixed with ink into my veins for three hours. Heal me. Heal me. Heal me.
I think about how she’ll look at me and immediately see a giant gaping hole where my womb should be. A hole that wasn’t created by my mother, or even her mother, but maybe a woman generations back: whoever the woman in my family was who decided that to love greatly was a sign of weakness.
I don’t think my mom would’ve wanted a funeral. I imagine she would’ve preferred to go in silence with no big performance for those who didn’t matter to her in the end. She would’ve wanted me and my sister to remember her from before she got sick— her good, her bad, her complicated.
She’d want us to remember her as the woman who didn’t leave her office in the city for over 48 hours because of a deadline. Her eyes dried out so much from the lack of sleep that her glass contacts affixed to her eyeballs and needed to be surgically removed. She’d want us to remember the flat tire she got when she was nine months pregnant with Lynna and how she pulled over on the highway to change it by herself. She’d remind us that she used to design her own clothes, of the importance of our Chinese culture, and how much she loved her own mother.
I think she would have wanted us to know that she was hard on us because she so badly wanted us to be capable and independent when she was gone. Maybe she’d even tell us that we were everything she’d hoped for.