I returned to work in September 2019 after a one-month leave of absence for my mom’s death. I was still deep in grief but decided not to hide it. I would be working at my desk and let the tears stream down my face. I did not run off to a private room to sob. I was like this for three months. Word spread through the office, and thus began dozens of conversations about grief.
My co-workers opened up to me about their grief. I talk with a woman who also lost her mom. She is not ready to grieve. A man opens up to me about losing his brother to suicide, another woman about losing her cousin to suicide. I meet a woman at a potluck who tells me how both her parents’ death was beautiful, but the grief is still there when talking about her partner who passed 18 months ago. My heart opened from all these stories. I welcomed them. None of these conversations felt easy but we are no longer strangers when we share our grief.
I received a voice mail from my mom in May 2019. She told me to call her because she had something important to say to me, but to call after Jeopardy. I learned she had gall bladder cancer. She came to Seattle for a diagnosis, and the doctors said she had six years to live. After talking it over with my mom and brother, I moved in with her in Port Townsend. She passed three months later.
When I arrive, I become overwhelmed with sadness and do not want to cry in front of my mom. I drove to a local market to get some food. I ended up going right through a stop sign before I parked. As I walked into the market, a man sitting on a chair outside said, “What an asshole.” I did my shopping, and as I left, I looked over, and he was glaring at me. I sat down next to him and apologized. He did not believe me and told me how he had been rear-ended while riding his motorcycle and now suffered from PTSD. I looked right into his eyes and said, “My mom is dying.” He nodded his head and told me his father had passed ten years ago. He was still grieving. I sat there with him in silence, and we end up becoming friends.
I cleaned her home for those three months as she sat on the couch telling me about every item. Each item had a story. At times I reminded myself to record some of these conversations with my phone. I realized I soon might never hear her voice again. She would share a story about wearing a dress out to dinner or from when she taught Spanish in high school. With books, she would remember the New York Times review she had read or tell me all about an author’s life from Miguel de Unamuno to Wislawa Szymborska to Pablo Neruda.
Every July there is a week-long jazz festival in Port Townsend. My mom really wanted me to go hear her favorite jazz piano player George Cables. I usually go to bed early and he was playing at 10:00 pm. My mom looked at me and said, “Be brave like me.” So I went and met George and let him know about my mom who came to see him every year. “Be brave like me” has become a motto I live my life by.
A hospice care nurse visited weekly. My mom asked the nurse, “How will I know when I am close to dying.” The nurse replied that a standard indicator is darkened rings around the knees. My mom lifted her nightgown, peered at her knees, and innocently said, “Oh, not yet, I guess.” The nurse began crying while apologizing. My mom took her hand and said, “Look how the beautiful color of your ring matches the colors of your shirt.” She was so present in the moment.
My mother passed on the evening of August 10, 2019, during the time her favorite TV show Jeopardy was airing. She was 84 and missed her birthday in October. On her bedroom wall is a painting of a wooden boat on a rough sea. A vase of locally picked flowers is beneath it. Her final words two days before were, “I see the river.” My younger brother and I are by her side, each holding one of her hands as she takes her last breath. My brother and I look at each other and he says, “She’s gone.” Much later that evening after phone calls to relatives and her body being taken away my brother returns home and I go to sleep on the bed next to my mom’s empty bed.
Waking up I emailed work to take a leave of absence. Grief hit me hard. I felt like a wave at the beach had knocked me over. Surprise, bewilderment, and sadness all at once. Every unresolved problem in my life was suddenly in front of me holding a ticket saying “Me first.” I had no idea what I should be doing. The entire month was a blur. I spent most of the time outdoors at a beach listening to the waves or walking in the woods getting lost. There is the story of Lakshman, in the Indian epic the Ramayana, sitting beside a river preparing to die and reflecting on his life saying “It’s like something I dreamed once, long ago, far away.” Eventually, my grief faded like a dream.
This January, my Japanese father-in-law died at age 91 in Tokyo. His birthday was two weeks earlier. A week before his birthday was the anniversary of his mom’s death. He was able to place an offering of food for her on the Buddhist shrine in his home. My wife says her grief feels like she cannot breathe, like walking up a hill and not catching your breath. She tells me that just holding her hand helps. She asks me questions about how I felt when my mom passed.
Today I took my wife to the airport. She is going to Tokyo to be with her mom for six months. Grief is not something to avoid or quickly recover from. Just as the oak tree is already in the acorn, grief, like love, shapes who we are. I miss my mom and father-in-law. I miss each of the people whose story was shared.