Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Two days after the funeral, my husband had to fly back to the States. After much discussion, we decided that our daughter should stay with me since I was just away from her. We felt that she could have more time with her cousins and it would do all of us, especially my father, some good to have her around.

From the time I got there until after the funeral, I didn't sleep right. I'm certain multiple jet lags did not help the matter, but even with medication, I could not stay asleep for more than 5 hours and when I tried to lie down during the day, I just ended up spending that time crying and not sleeping. My body felt like it was someone else's and I ached and couldn't focus. But then about about three days after the funeral, and the day after my husband left, I started to sleep. I no longer needed any medication and my body was finally letting me have some rest. Having my daughter sleeping next to me was a huge help and because of that, my days were beginning to have some clarity. And what I was facing was this daunting task of picking up the pieces.

When someone close to you passes away, you are left with their stuff. The house looked like my mother was still in the hospital and it was impossible to even know what to do and where to begin. I walked around the house several times to try to put my mind around this and couldn't start. Then as I do at work when I feel stressed, I narrowed down the task to something manageable for the next 10 days that I was going to be there with a 4 year old. I tried to look around and think what would be the hardest thing to live with for my father. To me, those were things that indicated the strongest presence of my mother. Her medical supplies, her purse, her makeup on the vanity, and her toiletries in the bathroom. Those objects that showed everyday routine would be hardest for me to deal with and see as a companion, so I decided to take care of those.

I first went through the things that were brought back from the hospital. I emptied two paper bags of her things, went through her purse, and put things away for the time being. I went to the small foldable table in her bedroom that she set up to hold all of her medical supplies and divided them into categories of things and bagged them. My father and I discussed contacting the nursing care facility and see if they would take any of these items. I gathered all of her medication from the kitchen where she kept them and bagged them up. This part felt fairly good to do. She was no longer sick. She didn't need them. But at the same time, I saw her efforts of trying to get better and make some sort of routine by the way she had things organized. I was there--just a couple of weeks before and helped her with these routine. Now she was dead.

I went into my parents' walk-in closet and took down everything of my mother's that was hanging on this rolling rack by the ironing board--a set of clothes that was just freshly ironed and ready to wear. I took some that I thought I could use and put the rest away in the closet, out of sight. I then went through some of her casual clothes and bagged four shopping bags for our Filipino house cleaner who has been working for my parents for over 10 years and adored my mother. I couldn't get through all of it. It was starting to feel overwhelming. So I stopped there. My father kept saying, "you don't have to do it all now. Just do a little bit at a time every time you come." The things I kept walking by were the clothes I had just purchased for her. She asked me to go out on an errand to pick up some things she needed. She wore a couple of those items while I was still there but there were some things still in a package with price tags on. I would walk by the entry way a hundred times a day and catch a small shelf full of my mother's shoes and kept thinking, "I gotta put those away" because they looked like she would just use them any minute.

I kept spotting things that I bought and sent to her this year. A portable DVD player with some movies, a lap table with clip-on reading light, small photo album full of photos of my daughter. That was all I could do from far away. Buy things to cheer her up and send them to her. But all of it was left behind and my efforts seemed ineffective now because she died anyway. "She was using those things you sent her, you know" my dad would tell me. I felt foolish anyway. It was a confusing process. I didn't want to put any efforts into forgetting her, but I wanted to put away things that looked like she was still alive--I wanted her memories to remain for my father, but not her ghost. I somehow found that line in my own way and chipped away every day but I would not last more than 30 minutes at a time before I felt exhausted.

By far the most challenging was my mother's vanity. A very personal space where she sat everyday for just few minutes when she was well to fix her hair and apply make up. She had everything organized just so in small boxes. I sat for a minute taking the whole thing in. There were many items that looked familiar from my childhood, like her gold compact that has a place for a lipstick at the hinges on the outside. I remember helping her hunt down the correct size lipstick to fit it once for hours. When she took me to Europe, we went through Moscow and the immigration officer was very suspicious of this item and had her open it and close it and take out the lipstick many times. I was 10. So much memory packed in this one small item. This was difficult. I almost felt nauseous. But it had to be done. I started bagging up things that can't really be used by anyone, then sorted things that could be used, things that would be a memento (like the compact), and things that were brand new. I went fast and furious because I knew that if I paused at any moment, I would have a breakdown. I got everything on the surface off, then I closed the tri-fold mirror, which had never been closed since this piece of furniture was purchased. I knew there were more things in the cabinets below but they were out of sight. I needed to save those for later. I then went into the bathroom and did the same thing and cleared the counter and shower of all things that belonged to my mother; shampoo, lotion, shower cap, facial soap, and a small glass bottle full of Q-tips. It was sad to see empty towel racks, but it would have been more odd to have towels there so I left it.

As we were going through our week, my father expressed his concern for being alone downstairs in the evenings. Not so much for company but more for something happening in the middle of the night. My brother and I went to a Home Depot type of store and purchased a buzzer that he can ring in case of an emergency that will be heard upstairs. We placed the button next to his bed. Then we had a thought that perhaps my middle niece should move downstairs to sleep. She was the one who helped my mother when she was home from the hospital, carrying down dinner from upstairs, set it up, eat with my parents, clean up and take everything back up. She is 16 and yet is having to share a room on a bunk bed with her 10 year old sister so we thought she would enjoy a room of her own. My mother's office had a sofa bed--and is located right next to the master bedroom so the decision was made to move her down. As I touched on in my previous post, my mother worked. In fact, her last cell phone entry was work related on the day she died. She has piles of paper and books everywhere. I purchased some filing boxes and boxed up some books to clear some space for my niece. During that process I found a note book that she kept from when I was in preschool and she took a parenting class with very through and detailed notes. I put that aside for me to keep and read. I packed about 7 boxes and the space looked more accommodating. My father and I moved some furniture around--some into his bedroom. We stood in the doorway looking at the rest of the stuff and he said, "It's a lot of work, isn't it--when people die." I took a pause then said," Yes it is. Please start throwing things out now." He chuckled. I glared.

When I couldn't deal with her belongings, I kept myself busy with another task, which was to take care of the nearly 40 flower arrangements that were sent to the house. They were placed strategically throughout the house and some of them were starting to wilt and die. Everyday, I would go around the house plucking out the dead ones and watering the rest. Every 2 or 3 days, I would consolidate. This was as skill I learned from my mother who loved flowers. If someone gave her flowers, she would change and add water everyday and trim the stems and rearrange if some died until the very last flower was just floating in a glass of water. When she was ill, this was a task she asked me to do everyday with flowers she received at the hospital. I felt as if she would find a way to nag me if I didn't to that--also, it's sad to be surrounded with dying flowers. That is all you need. What was comical was the amount of Oasis (the hard, green foam) and little baskets that were beginning to pile up outside the kitchen door. As Japan has very strict garbage codes, we had to look up how to throw them away. I probably could have built a castle with them for my daughter. People also give you gift certificates to florists in place of flowers so that when all of them die, you can use those to purchase flowers to place in her shrine at home. My father has a big stack to which he could probably have some sort of floral arrangement for the rest of his life.

The day before I was to return to the States, we were having a private mass given by a priest who has known our family closely since I was a child. We decided not to wear all black for that but my two older nieces felt they did not have adequate clothing for the occasion. I told them to come right down stairs to go through my mother clothes to see if they could find something. You might wonder what an 84 year old woman had in her closet that a 19 and 16 year old would find interesting to wear. Well, let me tell you that she was stylish. She had impeccable taste in clothes that could be worn by any generation. She often sent me clothing and was spot on with what looked good on me and what I liked. She gave me some beautiful clothes of hers from the '40s and '50s that she used to wear throughout my adulthood and those are the clothes I get the most compliments on. She designed and made several formal clothes I wore to my piano recitals and weddings as a flower girl. So she had things that could be of use to these two girls. We spent about two hours, digging through her things and trying them on. We had some laughs and I told them to come down anytime and take what they want. They said "OK-we'll borrow these." I said "Take to keep. Not to borrow. Your grandma would want you to have them."

Even if it's your mom, it's still strange to go through her things and just take. I felt like I was stealing. There was this set of designer clothes that someone sent to her that she felt she may not have the occasion to wear anymore. When I was visiting in September she said, "Look through those and take anything you want." So I started looking and setting some aside. She saw what I was taking and said "Oh, wait, maybe not that one." Then after about 10 minutes of watching me, she said, "I take that back. Let me go through it and get back to you." I made fun of her lightly and backed off. Now I have those clothes. She wanted to wear them. She thought maybe she'll get to. I had mixed feelings about taking them, but I thought better to wear them on her behalf than let them hang in the closet.

The very last thing I took was my mother's apron which was hanging in the kitchen. I walked by it every day and my heart would hurt. Even though my mother was unable to cook much of this year, she wore her apron when she ate. Japanese moms wear aprons. It is their uniform at home. And it hang there being of no use to anyone anymore. So I just grabbed it and put it in my suitcase as if to say, "You're coming with me."

I got on the flight back to the States with my daughter, two and a half weeks after arriving. The priest who gave us the private mass asked me "Do you say, 'I'm going to Seattle' or 'I'm going back to Seattle?'" I thought for a moment and I said, "I think I say 'I'm going back' both ways."

After all that ordeal, my daughter came down with the stomach flu on the flight, but somehow I handled it all without too much panic. It felt challenging but totally manageable. I suppose I was entering the phase where everything seems different than it usually does. I returned to work three days later to an office full of cards and flowers. I was met with many long hugs without any words or "Welcome back," "We've missed you so much," and "I'm so sorry about your mother." Some people just dropped off food. One donated money in my mother's name to the theatre where I work. I was grateful and so touched that people took that time to do those things. I was reminded that I also had a family in my friends here.

After being back for almost a month, I've finally stopped crying everyday but am struck about every other hour by the fact that I don't have a mother anymore. It's easy to almost forget because my daily routine had not involved my mother in so long. I am not certain if the distance is helping or hurting the grieving process but it's the way I'm going to have to work through. I call my father frequently. And I wear something of my mother's everyday to have her with me. I plan to go back in the spring and next fall--at her one year anniversary--and throw a small party to invite my female relatives and friends to divide the rest of her belongings. And we will have a good time.

My mother on her wedding day, 1959
wearing a dress designed by her mother