One of the hardest things for a person to have to face is their own mortality. We spend much of our lives negotiating our fears of death, don’t we. Don’t we?
I have always said that I fear death less than dying alone. The thought of dying alone scares me, and I think this is mostly because dying is such an act of solitude, and I am a solitary person. It’s like… every time I am eating, sleeping, traveling, driving, physically exerting myself in isolation, I am taking a huge risk of dying alone. This does not mean I fear I’ll die every time I do something. It just explains how I might treat being alone as an act of courage. For me, refusing company is brave.
This year, I have had to think a lot about what loss means to those who keep company. With the remarkable exception of Law & Order: SVU where every dead character is *discovered*, most people die on-screen in the company of the most salient connection in the narrative—a frenemy, an ex-lover, a nurse…
My mother has been the subject of much loss this year, as in survivor, as in “he is survived by a wife and two beautiful children.”
It began with the separation anxiety of her last daughter moving from Los Angeles. While my sister hardly counts as anyone’s charge, having matriculated from early adulthood with a marriage and mortgage under her belt, the fact that she has been my mother’s neighbor for most of their lives, is significant. What exacerbated the anxiety however, was the completely random tragedy that immediately preceded it when their dog died.
I call it their dog though it began life as the proxy child of my sister and her then-husband. It was my mother’s dog during long weeks my sister spent on business trips, and my sister’s dog when she needed to pay for its grooming and vet bills. It belonged to everyone. Under my mother’s supervision one morning, the dog went outside to pee, never to return. We’re assuming coyotes got to him in this suburban chaparral where Lost Dog signs with shredded phone numbers are not uncommon sightings, but missing dogs are. Moses was a bite-sized poodle. I just hope it was quick and painless. The dog died, my mom took the blame, my sister left town.
My sister’s other pet, the cat, was also adopted by my mother some fifteen years ago. It entered its dotage years ago when she turned 18, but was as loyal a companion to my mother as any dog could be. They went on walks together and slept curled up like… well… kittens. There had been no arguing this was mom’s cat. Mom’s life is full of cat paraphernalia where wonders would never cease comparisons to a child’s mind, clown’s antics, a clearance sale at a junk shop in China; worthless tchotchkes we always teased her for collecting. I hesitate to call it hoarding because the items are not so random as to be arbitrary (read: piles of old newspapers), and the detritus has never occupied more than half of the surface area in mom’s house. Besides, keepsake golf balls and cat-origami earrings were more entertaining than disturbing. Meeshaq, in any case, was mom’s best friend and avatar.
This year, because the kids were in New York, we flew her out to spend Thanksgiving with us. During her two weeks here she took pictures of my cat, and told my cat about her cat, and we all decided she might be a cat, herself. Mom, the cat lady. The day after her return home, the 20 year old cat crawled under the kotatsu (heated table) and passed away. We all agreed, the cat had waited for mom to come home and say a proper farewell before passing.
My mother was so bereft she did not know what to do with herself. For the moment, she had decided to hang out at her friend’s cafe, and have said friend collect the dead cat and take them to the Humane Society, because she couldn’t do it alone. Even the cat couldn’t do it alone. Then she called to explain what happened. I kept asking her if she was OK. In hindsight it was my fucked up way of making my mom cry. She’d always leave the country to cry. Not this time.
"I want to cry but the tears aren’t coming out. Maybe I don’t have any left."
I was six when my baby sister died, so my mother would’ve been 35. That’s about as old as I am today, and not only do I not have children, the thought of having three of them knocks the air out of me every time. The idea of being pregnant is already so frightening for the wrong reason—summarily, body dysmorphia. But I wonder if dysmorphia can encompass the childhood depression of reconciling with your mother’s aging body, from which we learn to fear our own? I have very distinct memories of seeing my mother stoop to pick up clothes and applying makeup; the reflection from the backseat of her car in the rear-view mirror, a tight shot of my mother’s furrowed brow, putting up with gridlock traffic on our way to my sacred piano lessons.
I was so relieved when my mother finally became the old woman she is now, honest about her age and the lengths she will go (or not go) to hide the circulatory fatigue in her skin. She won’t be caught dead in either a turtleneck or a plunging collar.
The loss of Florence was the single most important event of my mother’s life. No one needs proof of this. No one would dare ask for it. What kills me when I think of the loss of my baby sister though, is that my mother was alone with her when it happened.
A person should never die alone, but what about the witness? Could it be like a legal quorum, where one alibi is not sufficient to override whatever the legal statute is for circumstancial evidence?
What I failed to appreciate while I pitied my mother having to watch her youngest die, was that because it was under my mother’s sole supervision, social services would send an agent to investigate the home in which my sister and I were still cared for, in case the death was caused by negligence. I recall being interviewed, being asked if I like my parents and idiotically saying I hated them because they never bought me stuff.
My sister always threatened to run away and we used to joke she was actually sent here from the Moon. We fantasized about running away until the day we fantasized about not being related to each other until the day we fantasized about never having to speak to each other again. We had a few years of total enmity. I tell myself this is normal for teenage girls. I rationalize much of the peace between us as an act of penance to the dark years and the green zone we demarcated in the den during Prime Time. Today we fantasize about owning a home together and starting her nut business.
We can argue my loyalty to people all day and I won’t care when a good friend stops inviting me to parties, but I get mad when I think of anyone questioning my mother’s loyalty. It enrages me when people make fun of her quirky affectations, because each and every idiom is a sign of pure love. She would manifest every ounce of humanity in this world with their own avatar in her home, if humanity introduced itself to her.
Several weeks after Thanksgiving, my mother told me her uncle had passed away a month ago and no one told her till now. This is the uncle that raised my mother from infancy to the age of 16. It remains a subject of some mild contempt that my mom re-appeared in the lives of her six siblings as a fully formed young adult, unscathed from whatever domestic hell that has led to every single one of them becoming alcoholic and/or clinically depressed in their middle age.*
*Note: this is with the exception of the one fringe conservative Christian who doesn’t condone any kind of drug-use… or watches any kind of television. But without exception, all of my mother’s siblings have battled substance abuse or suicidal depression.
The Other Dad, we call him, had passed away in the neighborhood of 80 or 90 years of age, but due to a vicious legal battle with his brother (my grandfather), had not been on pleasant or speaking terms with the rest of the family in over fifteen years. Still, my mother continued to send his new family Christmas and Easter cards every year, and attempted to see him on all five of her average yearly visits to Japan. His new wife would have none of it, and last year finally asked her to stop calling.
My mother was heartbroken upon news of her Other-Dad’s passing, but angry that no one told her. Finally, his son explained that there were some concerns that amidst the legal battle over ownership of the family empire that my mother might’ve tried to implicate herself in the fortune that his kin stood to inherit in his passing.
This crushed my mother. It crushed her that she was kept away from properly praying for and then mourning her stepfather, just because of some fucking money.
At this point I want to share an anecdote from my mother’s family, which in a nutshell, practically embodies the worst and the worse still aspects of The Hudsucker Proxy and Arrested Development. My grandfather was a broke Korean in Japan when he decided to invest hand over fist in a new material made of crude oil and thus became the grand mogul of Japanese plastics. As a staunch Korean conversative, however, the empire had only one of two places to go upon his passing: his oldest son or his oldest brother. His oldest son was an unstable lush. I’d catch him shotgunning beer in grandma’s bathroom during family get-togethers, and I laugh when I remember what he was eating to cover up the smell on his breath—feta cheese.
Number One Son became the president of a bank that my grandfather founded in the island-state of Cheju, off the south of the Korean penninsula. The bank was a tribute and it kept drunky uncle sequestered until it didn’t. One day he was forced to leave, and then Drunky Uncle killed himself by jumping off his workplace building.
What I remember from this suicide mostly is that no one but my grandmother missed him (though this may be the narrative license I’ve been so patently avoiding). If you mention her son or her husband (who had died at least five years before that), she clutches at her heart and sheds an imaginary tear. To the same utterance, the rest of us would approximate the emotional equivalent of typing “SMH.”
But I believe this event marked the voodoo end of the Kaneda brotherhood.
Several years after the death of Drunky Uncle, the rest of the siblings were embroiled in the collective bargaining of my Grandfather’s legacy which was now transferred to his oldest brother and the oldest son’s wife because of arcane patrilineal custom. Then the oldest daughter committed suicide.
Drunky Aunt had long suffered from chronic pain due to a degenerative disease in her limbs, but it was the voices in her head that made her end her life. She left a note very few have read, and this time while the rest of us mourned the life of this woman deferred—cheated from her inheritance by her husband, ignored by her own father, ridiculed by the world—my grandmother expressed what I can only describe as relief and vindication. As far as my grandmother is concerned, though, Drunky Aunt “had a heart attack” and not a broken heart. They found her alone only when a neighbor noticed her door was ajar. No one even had the decency of robbing her.
Last Monday, my mother called in a panic about her flight to Japan scheduled for the 22nd. Her youngest sister and closest friend in the whole family, was just given days to live by her oncologist. My mother would obviously have to cancel her trip, but secretly she knew she was the only one who would be able to tell Grandma, in person.
Yoko is everyone’s favorite. She’s the one who bought me McDonald’s when my mom refused it, and took us to Circus Circus at Las Vegas—the only part of the strip that didn’t make me scared for my life. She drove a Cadillac and was the first woman I ever saw sporting sunglasses for style. Her catch phrase was “showtime” and she’d exclaimed it when she won a bid for a Chagall painting and whispered it when we found a parking spot close to the Chili’s we were about to have lunch at. I adore her because she loved my mother. The two of them always had each other despite the ruckus in the rest of the family, even if Yoko was mostly making my mother the punchline of various retard jokes. However, in this, my father and sister have also been complicit. I have mentally raped everyone with rusty razorwire when they call my mom stupid, so I figure all is forgiven. Still, all that to say my aunt Yoko was also rare in her sense of humor. When I visit her at the hospital she is clutching a morphine drip button and offers me some. I show her my gay t-shirts and say I’ll wear a “crazy” shirt every day till she “gets better” to which she responds:
Bring it on.
Suffice it to say everyone who loves Yoko is close to her, but I started my search for the most affordable flight home to keep my mother company. I knew she would need both a chaperone and a wrangler, because she would be devasted and desperate to bring Yoko back to life. We all want her back on our side of the living.
The challenges of reconciling ones final affairs notwithstanding, Yoko’s siblings have declared unanimously that Grandma is not to be notified despite Yoko’s kids’ desperate pleas that everyone come out here now. I am deeply vexed by the siblings’ request but understand their reasons—Grandma’s too frail, Grandma won’t withstand the shock, Grandma’s too chilly to give a fuck about her youngest daughter and it might devastate her kids to discover their own grandmother will not clutch at her chest at the mention of Yoko.
I’m learning in this week of emotional triage, so cynically timed with Christmas, that being there matters. The thought of dying alone still frightens me, but God forbid I ever become so disenchanted with the world that I refuse the company of friends and family for anything more than an ideology or greed. If I believed in zero-sum superstitions, I would set a mountain of money on fire to make it so everyone would come to this funeral.