Leave it all down here.
It's future rust and it's future dust.
My left hand fingers are buried into the wool fabric of my gloves; my right hand is tossing the dry earth onto the urn in the five-foot deep pit. The sound of the chalky soil scattering, hitting the chestnut top of the urn seems to resonate in the silence of the cemetery. Pat. Pat. Pat. As I stand up, a pink rose petal gently kisses the ground before lifting into the air, carried away by the autumnal breeze.
One second, it’s there.
The next second, it’s gone. Away with the wind.
Should I be grateful for the beautiful roses my neighbor left?
Should I be ungrateful that my mother never got to see them?
The perception of the glass being half full or half empty remains confusing. Yet regardless the path of optimism and pessimism, there is always still the inescapable reality that creates love and evil, hope and fear, life and death.
We all take advantage of time in this reality. Time is inevitable. Time has no resolution. Time is merciless.
I always play around with this silly metaphor in my head:
If life is encapsulated by an hourglass, we are all living in the bottom half, unknowingly rejoicing in the limited amount of sand we each have. When the very last grain of sand succumbs to the bottom half, our time is up and life is over.
I guess that makes me a pessimist.
Memories are woven into the fabric of our beings. Sometimes we lose ourselves trying to unravel them in the present.
Eighteen months before the burial, my mother and I are adding rainbow candy and toppings to our frozen yogurt cups at Kiwi’s. Paper cylinders of unhealthy, but heavenly goodness.
“Add some coconut shreds. It’s really good,” she says.
We find a table outside. The sun is shining now, blanketing the town with warmth and brilliance. It’s strange for an April day, but of course, we aren’t complaining.
We laugh and talk about all sorts of fun things. Our new crocheting ideas. The selfie stick we had just unregretfully purchased. The success of our clearance shopping.
Being a fifteen year old, it may seem easy to live the life of teenage rebellion, hanging out with friends at the mall, being annoyed by my parents’ curfews, and preferring to listen to music in my room over socializing with family, etcetera. But this was never the case for me. My mother and I are almost always on the same page. We like certain things together. We do certain things together. Being homeschooled for seven years, my mother is beyond my home facilitator: she has become an irreplaceable friend.
As we savor our delicious yogurt, we talk about life. The goods and bads, the ups and downs. But mostly, I let my mother speak because she always has the most interesting stories.
“I remember when we lived in Vietnam, during the aftermath of the war,” she says. “When I was little, we didn’t have toys; we were too poor and my mother, who was single and hardworking, couldn’t afford them. Before school, I would pass the shops and admire the beautiful dolls that were pencil toppers.” She smiled. “They had little frilly dresses and pretty yarn hair. I said, ‘Mom, mom! Please, I want one so bad!’ She would laugh and pat me on my back, and say, ‘Maybe next time, child.’”
I always liked when Mom spoke about her childhood. Although she was a rather solemn person, she had a light inside that enkindled whenever she remembered her past. Her brown eyes would light up, and every now and then she would tuck her long, voluminous dark hair behind her ears. She sometimes looks away in between the conversations, as if slipping into the sweet reveries of her childhood.
“I never got one though; I grew up and moved to America,” she continues. “They don’t have those dolls here.”
I point to the plastic shopping bag of colorful polymer clay blocks we had purchased. “I have an idea. We can make doll keychains that look just like them!”
“Yes. Oh my goodness, they will look so cute,” she says, smiling at the thought.
The first thing you would notice about my mother is her smile. She has a vibrant smile, the kind that illuminates the atmosphere and genuinely welcomes you. When she smiles really big—when she’s particularly happy—you can even see her missing tooth far back on her upper left row that just perfectly characterizes her childish playfulness.
She dances with joy, her arms goofily waving in the air.
“Mom, please, stop,” I say. I sink into my chair, mortified, looking around at customers passing by. My cheeks burn with redness. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“What? It’s fun!” She giggles and continues her octopus-like dance. I can’t hold it in anymore and burst out into laughter.
“See? I’m just joking around.”
Suddenly, I feel my eyes pool up. Seconds later, I feel tears fall down my face.
The Ghirardelli chocolate suddenly becomes bitter in my mouth.
“Don’t do that. Don’t ever cry in front of me,” she says firmly. I can detect the anger in her voice, the kind that disguises motherly love.
She sighs exasperatedly, looking away. “I’m telling you now, if you keep crying like that, I’m not going to take you out for shopping anymore.”
We are silent.
There isn’t much more to say.
In my life I have seen people walk into the sea
Just to find memories plagued by constant misery
Their eyes cast down, fixed upon the ground...
It’s strange when the person you love the most is suddenly diagnosed with
ch??-C — translated directly to “the c-word”. Without doubt, “cancer” became the equivalent to a forbidden expletive in our family.
I flip through an outdated People’s Magazine in the waiting area of the hospital. My mother is in the bathroom. After several minutes, a smiley nurse approaches me with a manila folder. My mother’s name messily written in Sharpie on it.
“I believe you are Linda’s daughter,” she says in a bubbly voice. “Here are the documents and let me know if you have any questions or concerns! I’ll be right over at the desk.”
I thank her and take the folder.
Inside is a collection of documents on my mother, with detailed reports of her diagnosis. Non-small cell lung cancer (Stage IV; metastatic). One particular sheet catches my eye: a black and white chest x-ray of my mother’s lungs. The pair of lungs are splattered with thousands of little black dots. The cancerous nodules.
Those terrifying, little black dots.
That was the moment that her diagnosis truly sunk in.
It’s strange when all throughout this journey—from diagnosis to the progression—I was greeted by this strange entity called denial. It interrupts me, introduces itself, and unfolds its very essence before my eyes. The first few weeks after my mother’s diagnosis were the peak of my denial; it was strenuous to comprehend what exactly had stricken my mother, and I didn’t want to, either. It’s almost like when you ridicule the idea of aliens coming down to Earth in UFOs, and then the next day, boom. Aliens come down to the Earth in UFOs. You are in disbelief. You don’t accept the reality. You try to tell yourself, No way . This isn’t real.
But God has His plans, and this one is real.
You try to ‘be positive’, but that merely fabricates a bubble of temporary good feelings all around you. It doesn’t last forever; a single confrontation with truth can pop it in seconds.
At this very moment, in the hospital waiting room, I whisper a goodbye to denial and I walk forward.
Almost one year later, is the last day of sophomore year. After a bittersweet morning of exchanging yearbook signatures with my classmates and teachers, I leave the school building.
My Uber driver, Nathaniel, greets me as I fasten my seatbelt. While driving, we talk about school, how the blended learning curriculum works, etcetera: just small talk.
“So, what do you want to study in college?” he asks.
“I’m not sure yet,” I reply. “I’m graduating high school next year, so hopefully then, I’ll know for sure.”
“Well, you’ve got a lot of time for that. You’re still young.”
I sigh. “I guess. Sometimes I feel like I’m having a midlife crisis.”
He laughs heartily. “Look at me. I’m fifty-four years old and I studied accounting in college. Dealing with numbers, calculations, more numbers, money. Everyone cares about the numbers. Everyone loves money.” He sighs.
“Of course, I could support my family with accounting. But ever since I was little, I’ve had a heart for writing. So last year, I left my job at a local accounting firm and here I am now, starting on my second novel, after publishing my first one a few weeks ago.”
“Wow,” I say. “That’s amazing!”
He nods. “You’re sixteen or so, right? Almost half the number of years I’ve spent in accounting. You’ve got a long road ahead of you to figure out your passions. You take one day at a time. Time flies. Before you know it, you’ll be where you wanna be.”
As I walk home on the tattered sidewalk, I think about Nathaniel’s words.
You’ve got a long road ahead of you to figure out your passions.
I realize that we all have the same predispositions to how we visualize this road of life. A long, ongoing road stretching towards the horizon. We subconsciously plant road stops and signs at different points along the way with our grand dreams. “Tomorrow’s” always become “one day’s”. One day, I’ll become wealthy. One day, I’ll buy my parents a beach house in Santa Monica. One day, I’ll become an artist and be invited to exhibit my work at the MoMA. One day, this. One day that.
But what if you know where your road ends?
Do all your visualizations and daydreams evaporate into thin air, just like that?
Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who studied at Stanford University, wrote about his sudden diagnosis of stage four lung cancer at the mere age of 36 in When Breath Becomes Air:
“Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die—but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”
One handful of peace and quiet is better than two handfuls of hard work and of trying to catch the wind. - Ecclesiastes 4:6.
Jesus, I Trust In You!
The large-print words stand out on the poster taped on the door in front of my mother’s bed. Jesus’s deep brown eyes stare cordially into mine. His hand is placed over His heart with golden rays of light diverting in different directions.
I trust in You, I think to myself.
I sit before Mom as she sleeps on her blanketed recliner.
Her head is tilted back with her mouth slightly ajar. She moans with every arduous, unsteady breath. Her eyes are heavy with dark and hollow circles, contrasting her transparent skin. Her feeble grayish-brown strands of hair are lightly cover her forehead. Her thin, bony arms drop beside her small body, her palms weakly open—one is holding a crystal rosary. The cross of Jesus lays in the center of her hand.
I pray silently. The prayers are written so harmonically, yet the words slip out of my lips so dryly and emptily.
The monotonous buzzing oxygen generator pumps air through long transparent tubes that connect to my mother’s nostrils. Her failing lungs rhythmically press against her chest, rattling audibly.
Jesus, can I trust in you?
The next entity that greets me is doubt.
Doubt is a little different from denial. Confrontation with doubt is not just an exchange of words; doubt is a thief, perpetually robbing you of hope. You try to speak out to consolidate your argument that things will get better, but doubt speaks over you with striking audacity. It cuts you off. It shuts you down.
As I watch my mother in pain, doubt stands before me and casts a dark formidable shadow over my tiny self. It forces me to repeatedly question myself. Will each round of chemotherapy cure my beautiful mother? Or am I just trying to catch the wind? Why am I running so hard, losing my breath trying to change the inevitable?
I see my mother’s eyes open slightly as she awakens.
“Pray for Jesus to take me,” she whispers in Vietnamese.
I hesitate to comprehend her request. I can’t. “No, Mom.”
Her eyes widen. “Why? Why aren’t you praying for that?”
“I...I can’t, Mom. I love you.” My voice quivers. “I can’t. I don’t want you to go.”
Her eyes are piercing, firm.
“Look at me, Hannah. What is life worth living if I can’t do anything I like? I can’t take walks with you at the park anymore. I can’t eat the foods I like anymore. I just want to see my mom and dad again. End the pain. Why don’t you want that for me?”
Her voice softens. The nostalgia of her sweet, loving voice rushes through my mind, and for a few mere seconds, everything seems normal again.
“I do love you, too.”
The tears fall down my cheeks. It’s too late. Fulfilling my promise to her, I close my eyes, stand up from my seat, and I walk away.
Even on a cloudy day,
I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun.
My mother died on October 24, 2017 at 6:34 P.M.
The next few seconds after she takes her last breath are incomprehensible. I am caught in a blurry storm of my fears clashing with reality. I vaguely remember my dad saying something about “magnet” and “emergency”. I remember ‘8695’—the last four digits of the hospice emergency magnet on our refrigerator. I rapidly dial those numbers, just to be slapped with rejection by orchestra music on the waiting line.
“Please hold as we reach a representative to assist you.”
I hear my father’s voice praying fervently.
“Dad, we should just call 911. Why don’t we just call 911? Dad, please.”
No. 8695. It’s too late.
“Thank you for your patience. A representative will speak with you shortly.”
It’s strange how four random digits become the very last fragments of hope.
I remember praying so hard on my knees before the cross of Jesus on my bedroom wall. In between the shaky “Our Father’s” and “Hail Mary’s”, I experience a series of flashbacks. The latex blue gloves on the nightstand beside my mother’s bed, how they were the same color as the hair bands my mother would use to tie my pigtails in second grade. The flower petals of the bouquet, how they resembled the soft, gentle kisses she would give on my cheek before bed. The hopeful washing of the morning sunlight we all anticipate, how they encompassed the warmth of her embrace when she was strong and healthy.
An eternal fifteen minutes pass when my prayers interrupted by the click as my father turns off the oxygen generator. The click emulates the sound of my heart snap.
One second, you’re here.
The next second, you’re gone.
When I reflect on the metaphor of life being an hourglass, I realize an error in the resemblance.
Time is not a number of days left in our lives. Time is immeasurable and no matter how much we try, we cannot figure out how much of it we have left.
But we can make most of it.
When I reflect on the beautiful, invaluable moments in my mother’s life that I had the great honor of sharing with her—whether it be enjoying a chocolate frozen yogurt or reading Bible passages as she drifts into sleep— I realize that time is not the sand in the hourglass of life.
It’s the space. The air.
It’s the very breaths we take as we walk in procession with the ones we love, as we travel down this unforeseeable road.