I heard my mom talking on the phone to my uncle, her brother. Her voice was quiet, a cracked whisper I had never heard her use. “When?”
Then she turned to me and switched to Cantonese: “Mommy died. She died last night. The nurse called me just now. Mommy died. She died in her sleep.”
She cried, and I started to cry too. “Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Just get ready for school and don’t worry about me.” She patted my head absentmindedly and went to her room to tell my dad. I wondered how I could do a normal thing like go to school.
But I did, and on my way, I saw a new friend. She waved to me, but I didn’t wave back. I couldn’t. I tried to smile, but I don’t think she saw because we were all wearing masks.
Later in class, another friend started ranting about how the shirt she wanted from Urban Outfitters didn’t have the cuffed sleeve she wanted. I turned away. I felt bitter that she could worry about a cuffed sleeve.
One of my friends asked, “Are you alright? You seem a little down today.”
I doubted they really wanted to hear me talk about what happened, so I didn’t tell them about my grandmother. I didn’t want them to feel like they had to react a certain way or treat me differently. I knew they would rather talk about something happy or funny.
I sat in a classroom memorizing the quadratic formula while I thought about my mom’s world falling apart.
Where’s My Mom?
After school, I dreaded going home. Outside, at least I could get lost in the hum of an apathetic city. But every step on the sidewalk, every traffic light, took me closer to my mom’s sorrow.
I wanted my mom to open the door as usual and smile, her eyes lighting up, and ask, “Why aren’t you wearing your jacket? It’s so windy outside!” Or “You’re 10 minutes late today; did you miss the bus?”
So I could say, “No, I actually missed the train.” And then maybe we would laugh.
Instead she opened the door and gave me a strained smile. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she squinted at me like I was a stranger.
“Are you OK?” I asked cautiously.
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” she said hurriedly. “Nothing’s wrong.”
The heaviness in my heart changed to anger and frustration. I wanted to hear her say, “Everything is falling apart,” or “Grandma is gone forever, nothing could ever be the same again,” or “Today was the worst day of my life.” I needed confirmation that everything was not just in my head.
“Stop saying nothing is wrong.”
“What do you want me to say to you then?” she snapped back. She looked like I was hurting her.
I asked, “Did you have something to eat yet?”
“Don’t worry about me, I’m alright, OK?”
A week later, there was still a cloud around my mom, and both my dad and I felt it.
“Sooo, what did you do today?” I asked, but my dad said, “Don’t ask her that, she doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“So we can’t have a conversation anymore?” I yelled. Silence followed, a black hole swallowing us.
I had imagined 8th grade, my senior year of middle school, to be a fun time where I enjoyed seeing people again after two years of quarantine. I had imagined fun events, senior trips, and hanging out. But now I hated being at school and being at home.
I was mostly anxious about my mom. She didn’t eat, sleep, or talk much. Throughout my life, my mom called my grandma every night and shared everything–all her worries, problems, victories, ruminations. Who would she go to now?
She’s Really Gone
I was so worried about my mom that it didn’t hit me that my own grandmother was truly gone until I went to the funeral, about two weeks after her death. My breath caught when I walked in and saw her body looking peaceful, like she was asleep. They had curled her hair in the way she had liked and put makeup on her face. She looked beautiful and free from stress.
In the rows of chairs, I saw my cousin in the front rolling up red slips of tissue paper. She motioned for my sister and me to come over and sit next to her, handing each of us a stack of the red paper. “What is this for?” I asked.
“We’re making paper money for Grandma so that she can be rich in heaven or in her next life,” my cousin explained, demonstrating how she folded the paper. I thought of the red envelopes with money inside that my grandma gave me every year for my birthday. I would never get one from her again.
She would never see me go to high school or college. Make sure to do well in school, she used to tell me. Look! I wanted to say. I’m graduating middle school soon. Listen to your mom and take care of her, she said, right before I left that last time I saw her in the hospital. I’m trying, I wanted to say. But it’s so hard when you’re not here.
I thought these things, but I didn’t cry.
A Poem Reawakens Me
A few months later, my mom started talking about normal things again. She went grocery shopping on weekends. She started cooking dinner again instead of ordering takeout. But I wasn’t able to snap back.
I had spent so long barricading myself from any joy, feeling guilty if I was able to be happy. So I pushed away opportunities and invitations. Everything else—my grandma’s death, my mom’s pain, my family’s changes—seemed out of my control. But when I didn’t text a friend back, I was ignoring someone, not the other way around. If I didn’t study for a test, I caused my bad grade.
But dropping grades and losing friends just made me unhappier. I spent my days under the covers, mindlessly scrolling through YouTube. Then one day, I clicked on a video of a spoken word poem by Andrea Gibson, called “The Nutritionist.”
Up until then, I felt that everyone was happier than I was. Hearing the poem made me realize I wasn’t alone in my despair. And that even if everything else seemed unsalvageable, I could still create, and I could still connect with people.
The next morning, I walked into the cafeteria and saw some classmates playing cards. I heard bursts of laughter and hurried chatter. It had been a while since I joined a group of people and I didn’t know how things would turn out.
But I still walked over to the table. “What are you guys playing?” I asked.
A few people looked up smiling while others stared at the cards, focused on the game.
“Uno. Wanna join next round?”
“Yeah,” I said.
During the game, I marveled at how a blue card with a +2 on it could get my heart racing, how easily I could laugh when a yellow +2 was piled on top of it, how victorious I felt yelling “Uno!” It was hard to believe that all of this was there all along, waiting for me.
I found warmth in letting these small moments wash over me.
The poem somehow brought me back into the world. I reconnected with old friends, and then, that fall, I entered high school. I met new people, joined different clubs and learned to play new sports. I even studied a lot because I felt powerful when something I practiced for paid off.
I realized that I was able to have more fun with others when I wasn’t sad. My friends started telling me that I was always such a positive person. I knew it was because I avoided opening up about sad things, but I figured that was better for everyone. So I didn’t talk, or even think about the gloomy months I’d just lived, and I didn’t talk or think about my grandma.
Finally Feeling the Loss
Then, in March, my parents told me that we were going to visit my grandma’s gravesite. The thought of going back to the cemetery felt dangerous. I worried that my family and I would slide back to the sorrow and despair we’d been in after her death.
On the two hour car ride, I wanted to throw up. Gravel crunched underneath the car as we drove up the slope of the hill to her grave. A gray blanket of clouds lay above, as if the sky didn’t feel like showing up either.
We got out of the car, and a cold wind whipped my hair. I stuffed my hands inside my pockets. Next to me, my mom was carrying a bouquet of chrysanthemums and baby’s breath. We stopped in front of my grandma’s gravestone.
The flat rectangle of dirt was so barren, and underneath was her body. My grandma, a person full of stories and love and soul, was a body in the ground.
Memories flooded back. I went to her house every day in the summers while my parents worked. She cooked me oatmeal for breakfast, and she would crack an egg in it and add sesame powder, which made the oatmeal taste rusty. Years later, I would ask my mom to buy me sesame powder so I could cook my oatmeal the way she did.
I sat with her while she watched her C-dramas, and she would explain the entire plot and all the character dynamics to me. My grandma named the characters as they appeared, but I didn’t try to remember them; I knew she would explain the whole thing to me all over again next time.
Instead, I leaned my head into her shoulder, my cheek against the soft fabric of her shirt.
Next to the grave, tears blurred my vision. I was breathing hard, sucking in the cold air, my chest heaving up and down, my hands ferociously swiping tears away. I was face to face with the grief I had been avoiding.
Grief Is Part of Me
I had been trying to shut myself out of my grief the way my mom had shut me out of hers. But this grief was a part of me, flowing through my veins as natural as blood and as the tears that finally flowed. I was afraid to go to the cemetery and really feel the loss, but connecting with my grief helped me reconnect to myself.
I still don’t know if my mom will ever want to talk to me about my grandma’s death, or if I’ll ever talk about it with my friends. But for now, I can make the choice to stop living as if the grief never happened.