The day after Thanksgiving, my mother called, worried that I was going to die. She had mistakenly told him that she had heartburn, so she left me a long voicemail reminding me of how my father had heartburn before he died of a heart attack at age 50 while playing racquetball.
She begged me to get a checkup, to do a blood test. “Did you know that you have been gaining weight lately?” she said.
His voice began to crack at the end of the message. I was her only child, and the men in her life tended to drop dead without warning, explanation, or parting.
The day after my mother’s 80th birthday, her partner of more than 35 years, a man named Bing (who came after my father) died on a trip to Palm Springs with his friends, drowning alone in a hot tub at night. with hypertension and alcohol. as contributing factors.
Bing was like a father to me, but he never really came through as stepparents on TV. Even after he moved away when I was 5, he never disciplined me or lectured me fatherly. Rather, he taught me to fish in California’s Kern River and built me a huge treehouse in my backyard.
After Bing’s military burial by Navy veterans on a low hill outside Bakersfield, my mother asked me to take her to Hawaii to visit her older sister who lives there with her daughter.
She had taken a similar journey after my father’s death, a trip to paradise to get away from home and be close to people who knew their mates and had stories to tell.
When my mother explained Bing’s death to her neighbors of over 40 years, the husband said, “Isn’t that the second you lose?”
“He wasn’t supposed to die first!” she told me before our flight. “That’s why I chose a younger man; he wouldn’t do to me what your father did to me.
This was not the plan, neither for her nor for me. Bing, who was only 73 when he died, was supposed to take care of her, keep the house in good repair, and take the trash out of it.
In the 1960s, my mother and her sisters immigrated to Los Angeles after their home country of Indonesia fell into brutal conflict following Dutch decolonization. My mother had been raised with the belief that a woman’s job was to marry well and raise children. After my father died, she used to say, “No one taught me what to do if my husband kicked the bucket over.”
As the only man left in her life, I flew her to Hawaii to heal her pain, using promises of beaches and scuba diving to persuade my husband to come too. I told him that a vacation is what we need after all the sadness, and he sweetly agreed.
My aunt lives with my cousin and my cousin’s husband on the rainy Hilo side of the Big Island, where all the good hotels were booked, so the three of us ended up sharing a motel room with two beds and an air conditioner that it does not work. . It rained every day. When we weren’t visiting my relatives, we would sit on the bed eating takeout and watching TV.
My husband tried to stay cheerful, but the rain, my grieving mother, and the cramped space were too much. At night, my mother cried for Bing in his dreams.
He was desperate to make things better. My chest felt tight, but I ignored it. I wanted the healing to begin; this was Hawaii, after all. So we cut our visit to Hilo short and I booked a condo on the sunny side of the island in Waikoloa.
As we drove over the tops of ancient volcanoes, the sun came out, making the ocean below sparkle. Our condo had two bedrooms and enough space to hide from each other, and it was on a golf course where wild turkeys roamed. That night, we fed them from our hands and felt some of the Hawaiian magic we had been looking for.
The next day, when we finally found ourselves on a white sand beach, strange clouds began to roll overhead. They were dark and low and made me want to get to a safe place.
It turns out that a forest fire had broken out and strong winds were pushing smoke towards us. It got hard to breathe so we huddled inside to watch the Tokyo Olympics.
“I didn’t come to Hawaii to watch TV,” my husband said on the second day of the wildfire. We started arguing. My mother was grieving and I felt that she could not leave her alone. However, I knew that the trip was not turning out as promised.
Suddenly, all three of our phones issued an emergency message. The village of Waikoloa, a 15-minute drive away, was being evacuated. They also told us to prepare for a possible evacuation.
“Am I being punished by God?” my mother said, looking at the smoke. “Where do we evacuate to? The beach?” She sighed and turned back to the television, turning up the volume.
My husband went into our bedroom and closed the door. He said that he was going to go for a walk, that he didn’t mind the smoke, and that he better find something to do other than watch canoe races or horse jumps.
After he left, the tightness in my chest that I had been trying to ignore sharpened and moved to my neck and jaw. He had felt something like this before, but since Bing’s death, the pain had gotten worse. I thought it was my heart, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was there to heal my mother and give my husband a romantic adventure in Hawaii.
I lay down on the bedroom rug and covered my eyes with the palms of my hands. I focused on big slow breaths until the pain finally subsided and I was able to stand up and join my mother on the couch.
He kept up a running commentary about which Olympians he liked and which ones were show-offs. It was a familiar rhythm that she remembered from childhood, the two of them alone watching TV, talking about everything and nothing. Then he said: “Bing was not your father, but he loved you like a son. He took care of us the best he could.”
“I know, mom,” I told her. “I know.”
The next day, firefighters got the upper hand and evacuation orders were lifted. We salvaged what we could from our last days and were grateful to come home.
Weeks later, I went to my doctor. He told me my chest pains were minor panic attacks, but my heart was fine. “You need to manage your stress better,” she said. “Walk more, sleep better, maybe try to lose some weight.”
I left wondering if he and my mom were talking about me. I thought of my father and Bing, both missing. My father’s fate had always hung over me like a warning. Now Bing’s fate warned me not to waste a minute.
It had been sunny and warm at Bing’s funeral. I remember breaking a sweat as a group of us carried his coffin out of the hearse. Although my mother was supposed to return to her seat, she stayed by Bing’s coffin after going up to kiss him.
Bing had a world of friends at the funeral we didn’t know about: fishing buddies, high school classmates, and service members. Without asking, my mother hugged all the mourners when they came to pay their respects to her, as if she knew them.
I went to stand next to her as she did this, feeling like she was meddling in another family’s pain, and was amazed at how my mother blurted it all out, crying and talking to so many strangers. This was not part of the plan either. My mom had just done it, surprising herself as much as the rest of us.
“I don’t know why I’m standing here,” she said as she took one of Bing’s friends by the hand. “We all loved him so much and now he’s gone, but our love is still here.”
Only looking back did I realize that my panic attacks stemmed from my need to control life’s calamities and the feeling that I was failing to fix what couldn’t be fixed.
I used to love Bing; I was grieving too, and had kept the pain at bay by trying to heal the pain of those around me. But the pain had to come out, and it would be mixed with love and confusion and anger, and that was okay.
Having lost the second love of her life, my mother was overwhelmed with grief. Yet there she was, teaching us how to grieve. And she had almost missed my lesson.