My dearest Mom,
I was totally unprepared when you left us on Jan. 27. My wish was to come back to Hong Kong and be with you in your final moments, holding your hands while you took your last breath. Guess I can’t have my wish. But you got yours.
For years, you have been telling me and your friends that you wanted to exit this world in your sleep.
“The best thing is to sleep and be gone,” you said. You even said in English to my sister-in-law, “Go, go, go (English) and sleep (Chinese).” The nursing home staff said the day you died, you had a bath and ate breakfast. Your face suddenly turned pale and white. The staff took you to bed, so you could rest. She said when she returned, you were unresponsive. I guess you left quickly. You had a “good death”— no pain, no suffering, no machines to keep your heart beating, no needles to poke through your throat or hands for tube feeding. Your quick passing was a gift to you and also to your family. When you suffered, we felt the pain.
On the morning of your death, I woke up, feeling refreshed after a solid seven-hour sleep. Yet, when I looked at myself in the mirror, whoa! My face was black and lifeless, as if I hadn’t slept for days. In Chinese culture, when a face is masked with a layer of dark clouds, it spells a bad omen. I didn’t know what it was then. Later, I realized that you gave me another gift. The fact that you passed away on a Saturday, and not a Wednesday, my newspapers’ production day, you allowed me to mourn privately on my own terms.
I got the news through your grandsons. But I didn’t look at my text message until my son, who works in Hong Kong, called me to tell me that you had passed away. I screamed so loud that my heart just broke into a million pieces. I couldn’t talk, and my husband took the phone away from me and told my son to call later. I wailed and sobbed for several minutes before I gained control of myself. Even as I write this letter, tears well up in my eyes. Anything can trigger my emotions, including a New York Times story about United Airlines expelling a passenger from the plane, so she couldn’t see her mother in her dying moments.
My younger brother told me to gather photos, so he could make a slideshow, “A tribute to your life.” I must have gone through 15 to 20 family photo albums, to find your photos. Your beautiful face and smile in the photos comforted, as well as saddened me.
Your photos with us reminded me that we had been through thick and thin as a family, and your visits to Seattle often brought you adventures. You were so thrilled when you met Hong Kong movie stars in Seattle, and other dignitaries including Anson Chan, the highest ranking female government official in the 1990s, at Bell Harbor Center; and former governor Gary Locke at his parents’ birthday party. You felt joyful when you cut ribbons for the grand opening of the Asian Weekly building. And you were beaming with pride when you and dad attended the 10th anniversary gala of Seattle Chinese Post and Asian Weekly.
You were a remarkable mother who struggled to keep the family well fed, although money was tight.
You became a landlord, subletting single rooms to tenants to earn extra money. You were a great cook, even though my grandma did most of the cooking. But the most incredible contribution to us was you raised a family of college graduates, even though you barely went through junior high. A courageous decision, you being a devoted Buddhist, sent me away to a Catholic school so that I could receive a good education. “You once said, if you don’t have an education, you will be a useless fool.” To get me admitted into the school, you agreed that I should convert to Catholicism. That was a huge sacrifice for you. I still remember you were my tutor for my exams in grade three. And you sewed inexpensive materials into fashionable skirts for me when I was a child. They looked even better than those expensive clothes in the store.
Thank you, Mom, for giving me what you didn’t have — an education. And you granted me the freedom to pursue my dreams in America. Most importantly, you gave me life.
As I sifted through the photos, our happy moments together were when we traveled together. We were in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Texas, Washington, D.C., New York, and New Orleans. You were so excited when my husband, son, and I took you on a cruise to Vietnam from Hong Kong. On the way, the ship docked far from town in Hainan Island in China, and we had to walk at least a mile. You were cursing me that I made you walk since one of your legs was hurting. You kept saying, “I can’t, I can’t.” I kept pushing you and there was no taxi to be found. Finally, we got into town. When the trip was over, you said, “My feet actually healed.” We were laughing so hard together.
What you taught me was your spirit in learning. My step dad encouraged you to learn English in your 40s. I couldn’t believe it. You started with the ABCs, practicing writing English words and sentences every day for two years. You never missed any assignments. In your 80s with dementia, you threw out English words surprisingly, like “My daughter, “tall,” and “beautiful” when you talked to white strangers.
Even though you had dementia, you could tell the difference between ugliness and beauty. You would point out the most beautiful dress among a stack of clothes in seconds, while I was overwhelmed with the many colors and choices. Your taste and your sense of beauty were always impeccable.
Relatives and friends consoled me, “Your mom is free now, it has been resolved.” Because you had Alzheimer’s, the monster had affected the quality of your life. You were no more the person you once were. Once, I asked you who the man in the photo was. You couldn’t tell me. It was your husband. You couldn’t tell me the dreams you had. You told me things were all muddled up in your head. Friends said it was meaningless for you to live on as you lost more of your memory every day. I wish it was that simple for me to let go. Your passing hit me hard emotionally.
What is comforting is, I was the only one among my siblings to be with you towards the last stage of your life. I spent 12 days recently with you, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve, even though some days, it was spent in the hospital. Everything that happened in December was meant to be. Someone called it destiny. Whatever it was, it’s a blessing. And your grandsons Jason and John, and John’s fiancée visited you in Hong Kong last November, and drove you out for dim sum. You had a good appetite, they said. As you were on wheelchair, it took a lot of effort to get you out from the nursing home. I am so grateful that my sons did so. It’s fortunate that my whole family, including my husband, had a chance to be with you before your journey to the next world. You are now gone, and I won’t be able to see you anymore.
I love you, and I will miss you forever.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.