Friday, July 24, 2015

A Personal Essay: Seeing life through filters of death.

In the east side suburbs of Seattle, it is five p.m. on July 24th, 2015. My cat is sleeping in the closet after throwing up his lunch, tonight's dinner is defrosting on the kitchen counter, and I sit upstairs in silence to write what my heart is trying to explain to my mind. Because across the Pacific Ocean in Da Nang, Vietnam, it is 7 a.m. on July 25th, 2015. My mother will rise soon, if not already, to bury her mother. My heart hurts, and my mind doesn't understand why I cannot bring myself to FaceTime her.

My grandmother's passing is the first death in the family. It was unexpected. Though I've had four days to cry until my eyes burned, and let the news sink in, I find myself okay one hour, and randomly crying the next. Somewhere between receiving the phone call and spacing out, I've found myself viewing life through the filters of death, and how it portrays myself disappoints me.

I've only seen my grandmother twice in the flesh. During my first three week visit in 2009 and the less than two week visit this pass year. When I first met her, I was scared. She was this spritely old woman who woke up at the crack of dawn to go to the market then back, bringing my sisters and I breakfast. She'd push food in front of our faces and tell us to eat, even when my sisters and I weren't hungry. It must be a Vietnamese thing. Woman express love through food. Or at least that's the impression I get from my own mother who always makes me my favorite dishes on my Birthday, holidays, and now, when I come to visit. But my second visit was different. Grandmother was now more fatigued. Observant on the sidelines instead of walking about in the center of things.

Because I am very terrible at speaking in Vietnamese, it is difficult for me to talk to anyone besides the basic elementary words and phrases. It is with deep regret that I could not know her more under the surface then what I've seen. So how is it that I feel this deep void within me?

I hope it is love because the language of love has no equivalent words to describe it. Yet if it is, it's difficult to discern with all the regret polluting it. Because I regret not being fluent in Vietnamese. I regret that I can't bring myself to even dedicate time to it now so that I could remedy this regret with my grandfather and other members of my family over there when the time comes. I regret being so selfish that I had rather study English to write up stories my extended family could never read, despite them influencing me so much that I wish I could show them, but I can't. I regret that circumstances didn't allow my sisters and I to be at the funeral and mourn alongside everyone else. To be there for own mother...

But I hope the void is due to the loss of love. Because if the language of love has no equivalent words to describe it, I hope that they can feel my love despite me standing on the outside, watching with my eyes, my lips closed but smiling, and loving with my heart even though an ocean sits between us.

As a child I observed my mother practicing ancestor worship. My sisters and I helped out, but we never partook in it. I always wondered who the recipient was of the hell notes, paper clothing, and offerings of food. I never asked. Perhaps I never will. But I know when my mother returns and it's time for another ceremony, I'll know that one of the recipients is my grandmother.

Cue waterworks because this is where my heart booms like a thunderclap cracking the black skies as I ask the question: who will worship my mother? Who will continually express gratitude for her life and the life she's given us? Of course my sisters and I all will in our own ways, but what of her ways? Who will give her offerings to her soul, hell notes to spend in the afterlife? Two out of five sisters are Catholic. And the rest of us are not religious. Sure we go to temple and say a nice prayer once in awhile, but is it the same when the buddhist religion means so much to my mother? I know I will try to understand it and practice as much as I can, but this is only one revelation death has brought to me.

The other is that life is fragile. Death knocks. And it will continually knock until its my own turn. There is no guarantee that we will have a long life, so what am I doing to make sure I am utilizing the one life I'm given? Am I being a kind enough person? A good enough daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend, etc..? I don't know. I can only be the best me I can be and hope that counts. But right now, I know that I am not, and that's what disappoints me.

I know it's okay to grieve. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be afraid. My heart tells me so. But my mind's not listening. It's imaging a scene a world away where something important is happening and all I can do is sit and type, trying to mediate the disconnect between two parts of myself.


  1. Oh, sweetie! I'm so sorry. Since my grandpa died in May, I've been spending a lot of time with my grandmother. She's the grandparent I'm closest to and it makes me really sad to think that in a few years, she might be gone, too.

    But you know what? We all grieve in different ways. So don't beat yourself up because you think you should be reacting in a certain way.

    My mom's side is Buddhist--I'm not--and we did a long chant and a little Japanese memorial ceremony for grandpa. The thing is, my cousins and I don't practice Buddhism and don't really know a lot about it and obviously, we're not exactly steeped in Japanese funeral practices, so it has crossed my mind of what we'll do when my mom and my aunt pass away.

    I did declare several times that I, personally, don't want to be cremated. Is cremation a thing in Vietnam?

    1. I'm sorry for your loss as well, and am so happy that you are able to spend time with your grandmother. I'm not really sure if cremation is a thing. Whenever we go to the burial grounds in VN, our ancestors are buried. Not sure if it depends on household or not.

  2. We have to grieve. We have to be sad. And we have to be afraid. That's what shows we care. So sorry to hear about your loss. Don't feel bad about grieving in your own way. You are you, not someone else. And that's a good thing to be.

  3. I had a cousin who died suddenly not too long ago, and that hit me harder than expected. Sometimes we can't control how we react to death, and that is totally okay. I think it's harder too when someone we don't see as much dies shortly after we see them. It was that way with my cousin. Two weeks after I saw him the last time he was gone, and I kept thinking that I wish I had talked to him more. I wish there was something I could have done. And I really wish I could have gone to his funeral, too. There are always things that we can do better, but everyone's path in life is different.

    1. Oh Krystal. I'm sorry for your loss. And yeah I completely agree with you about the shock of it shortly after seeing the person :(

  4. Am so sorry, Michelle.
    I wrote a post on loss, too. Wasn't my grandmother. I lost mine months ago. I also didn't know them much because they lived in Mexico. But unlike you, my not knowing them created a barrier. When they passed I didn't feel what others feel when the lose grandparents. How could I cry for them when they were basically strangers? Well, one of my grandmas I did cry for. She had a visa so if we couldn't go she could come to California and we had a much stronger bond. She was adorable.
    I felt the pain more for my parents and that's what made me sad. Hurt so much to see them sad. So I know what you must feel for your mom. Again, sorry for your loss.

    1. I'm sorry for your loss as well. And I know what you mean, I also feel pain for my mom and it's just a rude awakening that one day the time will come where we'd have to do the same and bury our own parents.