Mom just died, embraced by the love of her family and the nursing home staff. She was 92. The last two weeks with her were a profound gift that has changed our lives.
We’d never been a huggy, warm family before. But now, on her death bed, she was telling us over and over how much she loved us while we covered her in kisses. As the constant talker grew too frail to speak, we sat in a quietness that said more than words.
The needy woman who always demanded center stage finally had our full attention! Being with her gave my sister and our daughters a new bond to share. In watching her fade away, she also taught us that death is a part of life, that it’s supernatural — and also, super natural.
I learned so much about death from the nursing home’s hospice staff. My education began when I first asked the hospice nurse how much longer Mom had. “You can’t rush your mother,” she said. “She’s running this show. When she’s ready to let go, she’ll go.”
The staff explained that while Mom could no longer talk, she heard everything we said. She was taking stock of her life. She would depart when she was done. Since dying is a private act, she might not leave until she had a chance to be alone in her room. Or, if she wanted us with her but we were away, she would probably wait for our return before making her exit. I found all this new information very reassuring.
So we felt pretty peaceful going into those final hours. It was my sister, me and our girls at Mom’s bedside. She’d shrunk to a yellow, jaundiced skeleton doped up on morphine. Her liver and kidneys were failing. Her eyes stared off; before she had stopped talking, she had told me she was seeing a “beautiful place.” I had dressed her up in some of her jade and diamond rings and a matching necklace; if she really knew what was going on, then we were sure she’d enjoy wearing them.
As her heart and breathing diminished, the girls cruised YouTube on a laptop, serenading their Puo-Puo (pronounced paw-paw) with old Disney movie songs. A little before six, my sister and niece left for dinner. My Princess and I sat on either side of our beloved patient, holding her hands. Princess suddenly launched into an emotional monologue, telling Puo-Puo how much she loved her.
I rubbed Mom’s hand. “I don’t know if you want us to stay — or to go and give you privacy,” I said. “But we’re leaving for dinner now. Then we’ll be here again and stay with you for as long as you want.”
We got up to put on our coats. When we turned around for a last look, Mom’s breath had slowed significantly. And we just knew. So we sat back down and held her hands. Barely 20 minutes later, she was dead. According to this nursing home’s custom, a window was opened so that her spirit could depart.
A major snowstorm was due very soon. But of course, Mom took her leave in the unnatural silence preceding the blizzard. It made perfect sense; no way would she let herself be upstaged by the white stuff. My sister was located and summoned to Mom’s room. After we each took a few mementos and hugged goodbye, Princess and I got in the car for the two-hour trip home.
Our car bumped along deserted country roads that seemed eerier than usual. Talking made the drive seem less dark. I asked Princess how she was holding up. “I feel free because now Puo-Puo’s free,” she said.
Then in a while, my insightful daughter had another thought: “Puo-Puo got the three things she wanted — love, attention and jewelry.”
Oh, we’lI miss her.
Below is a chronology of the events following her death. I want to remember it all…
Wednesday, Feb. 17th: The nursing home folks held a lovely memorial service for Mom today. It began at 2 p.m. with 38 of us gathered in a circle in the main dining room — residents in wheelchairs, family of the residents, staffers and us. Folks who were on duty popped in and out during their breaks. For the next hour, we had a nice time reminiscing about Mom. Our little service was a sweet circle of sharing; I learned that my mom loved bingo!
Then, it was onto the reception. My sister and I brought food and flowers. She also made a beautiful album filled with Mom pix that was passed around. My dear friend Wendy put together adorable keepsakes that we gave out at the end — little satin pouches bearing Mom’s photo. We also gave out the customary envelopes that contained a piece of candy and a nickel. They symbolize our wish that everyone go on to enjoy life’s sweetness and prosperity.
Thursday, Feb. 18th: Special thanks to Sing Tao editor David Leung, who is an old friend. He personally handled the writing of this obit that appeared in his newspaper. Very comforting to see it in print (even though I can’t read much Chinese).
Friday, Feb. 19th: This afternoon, I went into Manhattan to meet with the family matriarch. Auntie is my late father’s baby sister. She had summoned me to her apartment. At 85, the mind of this successful Chinatown businesswoman is still laser sharp. Her English isn’t great. But since my Chinese is even worse, we talked in English…for more than two hours (!).I enjoyed the visit because we got past the usual how-are-you and have-some-more-food chatter.
She started out by asking me how my sister and I were holding up. I assured her that we were fine. Then Auntie fed me Malaysian pastry treats. We also looked at some old photo albums while she told me family stories. After 90 minutes of pleasantries, she got nosy.
“Did your mother ever talk about your father?” Auntie asked. “What did she say about him?”
“Do you really want to know?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. So. Big mouth me, I told her about my dad’s infidelities and how my parents fought.That led to a marvelous, difficult chat about our family. She also wanted details on my personal finances and nodded thoughtfully as I crunched the numbers.
We kept yakking past Auntie’s afternoon nap time. I left with a new understanding of her, myself, my parents. I can’t wait to visit with Auntie again.
Saturday, Feb. 20th: A beautiful, clear morning for the burial. Not too cold either.I drove into Chinatown and picked up my three cousins. Since it’s Lunar New Year weekend, the old nabe was in party mode.
The lion dance parades were in full swing. I slowly drove past colorfully costumed marchers. The big drums seemed to be pounding everywhere. What a nice send-off for Mom. While she was dying, I kept telling her it was okay for her to go — and that if she left soon, she could be with her parents in time for Chinese New Year. So now she was departing in style!
At the cemetery, a minister held a brief service. Then the marble urn containing Mom’s ashes was lowered into the grave next to Dad’s. We tossed in red roses (her fav flower) then shoveled in some dirt. Our collective mood was soft, tranquil and sad in a matter-of-fact way.
Afterwards, celebrating seemed completely appropriate. Nine of us went for a delicious brunch at Noho Star, which is just a few blocks north of Chinatown but a trendy world away.
We toasted Mom’s life with Bloody Marys, martinis and ginger margueritas. Two of my cousins are senior citizens who live in Chinatown. They said it had been many years since they’d eaten food which wasn’t either Vietnamese or Chinese.
One cuz loved the mango pudding dessert; they both enjoyed the fried chicken salad (I liked it too). Afterwards, we gave each relative a vase of flowers to take home.
And they gave us something I’d never heard of before — white envelopes. It’s a twist on the cash-filled red envelopes that Chinese folks gift each other on happy occasions. At funerals, the custom is to present the deceased’s family with a white letter envelope containing cash for defraying expenses. So thoughtful. (Btw, white is the Chinese color of mourning.)
Well, I’m back home now. Tired, relieved and glad that Mom has been laid to rest. Hoping that tomorrow, I can just sleep in with nothing more important to do then lose myself in a copy of the Sunday paper — and a lifetime of memories.
And a few last words about Mom’s bio: Mom had an amazing life. She was raised in Beijing at a time when it was called Peiping. Her dad, a three-star general, ran pre-Communist China’s leading military academy.
When she was 17, her parents sent her to Belgium to study chemistry. After graduating from the University of Liege, she earned her PhD at the University of Lyons.
Soon after, she married Dad, a man she barely new. In 1951, she immigrated to NYC to join him and put her degrees to work. Her last gig was as an immunochemist for the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York.
After my dad died, she switched careers. She quit her job and took over Dad’s business, which was a Chinatown travel agency. Mom, who always loved to travel, is onto her Next Journey.