Sometimes there are no words

6 March 2023

The Day Mom Died, Written by June Xie.

After we got the news of mom’s passing, Aaron spent about six hours on the phone trying to get me a flight back to New York ASAP. I rushed to get a PCR test done. I don’t know what was going through my mind. I mean, do you even feel anything after receiving the biggest shock of your life? Are you capable of feeling after you’ve reached your breaking point?

Grief is so interesting to watch back, because even though it’s been almost a year now I don’t feel like I’ve changed much from the state that I’m watching right now. In a lot of ways I was wrong about what grief was, what grief is. I thought that grief is something you pass through and get over. But just like the rest of life, things you experience never do leave. They pass through you, and they change you. And if you are determined to live, you only move forward while looking backward, because without looking back you don’t see the shift. Life continues, no matter how hard you try to stop it. It has its own road map and the pace is set by someone else. I can only do what I can. And at times it isn’t very much.

On most days these days everything I do feels quite pointless. I’ve always felt this way, but now more so. Now without Mom convincing me that things are worth doing. I only have my own voice all the time telling me it’s not. “I just keep thinking — how can I possibly eat at a time like this? But life goes on. And I’m sure my mom would have wanted me to take care of myself and enjoy what I can.”

But then again I think she’s still here. And I think somehow her presence has become stronger in the absence of her being here with me. The amount with which I have integrated her into me without realizing. Like an automatic transfer of energy and force. Mom’s point of view. Mom’s wishes and dreams. Mom’s unspoken desires. Is this grief? Or is this just reality after death? Do we actually continue to live in others?

Memory is faulty but I believe this to have been the most peaceful I had felt in my entire trip to Egypt. Only after mom died did something in me realize there are no promises, so why have expectations? That I felt so out of place in Cairo was because I had an imaginary ideal of what going away to a far away land would feel like, look like, taste like. And when you set expectations for yourself that are not based in reality it will truly hurt you if you were to ever return to reality. So when mom died, that was the most real of life I’d ever tasted. Everything before seemed imaginary. With the shock and the pain, the numbness, that was more real than I had ever imagined real could be. A complete paralysis, just riding your body through all the stops it has to make and observing quietly from the inside out.

As I sit here editing this on my birthday it has been a full year since I took this trip, which also means that it’s just a few days away from one year of you dying. I still remember everything that I’m looking at right now. I remember looking at these pews and thinking this reminds me of church when we used to go to church together when I was little and I would think of how we used to go to Burger King after going to service on Sundays. And I thought about you finding all this interesting, because you believed in Christ, and you hung on to your faith, and you lived by it. I walked without feeling. I walked with too many thoughts, none of which made sense. I felt completely lost. Completely soulless. Completely directionless. If I didn’t have Aaron with me, I don’t know what I would have done that day. Probably just sat somewhere and cried until it was my time to fly away. But he took me here and we walked downstairs, upstairs, and the sun was bright, and the churches were dark, and the kids were screaming. We even ran into a funeral procession. And it was comforting because I was reminded that my mom was not the only person who died. This really is just a part of life. This is the world. It is out of my control. It truly sucks. And it hurts so much. 

I am alone in my own remembrance of you, but I am not alone in remembering who you were, what you did, and what you left behind. And I am not alone in experiencing the pain of life and tasting the misery of missing someone you love. And if you can find communal solace in this pain, perhaps that is your only salvation.

I often wonder why people tell me grief should be experienced in private. I think it’s a lie that we’ve all been fed and there are truly many lies we have been fed that we take to be true. It is a very personal thing to choose which lies to believe in. Since your death I have chosen to embrace new lies. I want to believe that there is no afterlife. And I want people to stop telling me that I’ll see you again one day. I want this to be it. I want one life. I want to romanticize it. I want to burn down my romanticizations. I want to shatter all my Illusions and make new ones and I don’t want to have to do it again after I die. And I do miss you mom. I wish very frequently to see you in my dreams, but you’ve stopped coming to my dreams. And I think maybe you were ready to go too, finally. Freedom. Isn’t that what death is? The ultimate freedom. Why would I want to be a slave to this world forever? Why would I want to be a slave to a different world again?

My second lie is that I’m choosing to believe now I loved you as much as I could, because if I could have loved you more I would have, and I didn’t. Whether or not that makes me a bad person, a bad daughter, I don’t know. My third lie is there is no such thing as good or bad, there just is. I do what I do. I regret it, and I either do it again or I don’t. These days I think about whether or not I would choose to do something if I were to die tomorrow, if I were to die next week, if I had a month left to live. If I had a year or two years or five or ten. I don’t think beyond a month most of the time, but sometimes I give myself a giggle and I think what would I choose if I had five more years to live. I bet you thought you had five more years to live, right mom? I bet you thought you had 20 at least. 

I remember not liking this meal. I remember not tasting much flavor and I remember just in the back of my head just thinking — what am I doing here? Mom’s dead. I’m eating. Soon I will be on a plane. Soon I will be back in New York. Soon I will have to take care of grandma and face the fact that mom is not coming home. The back of my head was light but also filled with noise, fear. The back of my head was: avoid. And I felt myself being pulled into myself, the outside going in, and the inside disappearing. I discovered how great my capacity for denial was when mom died. It’s incredible that I could just choose not to think about something and have it not exist. To direct a delusion is to control the uncontrollable, for just a little while, just enough time so that you can feel like you’re not dying of grief. So that you can temporarily believe that maybe this hole can be plugged with something.

“I’m at the same time trying to think about what to do, and not think about what to do. I don’t really want to sink into anxiety spiral. I just thought, it’s kind of like autopilot right now. Like I’m not even hungry but I just know that I should be eating right, so I just do it. I’m just doing what I think I should be doing…. I’m pretty certain the breakdown will happen soon.”
“Well, don’t resist it.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to anyway.”
“Do you want to talk about her at all?”

No, I don’t want to talk about her. Because that would mean she’s dead. Why else would I talk about my mother, if she’s still alive?

Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about it. Because once you start thinking about it, you can’t stop it.

How quickly life falls apart without even asking if you’re okay with it. How quickly you can get discarded and forgotten. How quickly things just disappear. Let enough time pass and you’re not even sure if it ever existed.

I didn’t realize it at the time but it was good that we walked. I got one last taste of Cairo, breathing it all in. Sometimes all you can do is walk, no destination really. Funny enough this might have been my favorite part of the trip, just wandering about, not at all certain where I was headed, not at all certain what the goal was. I suspect this is what most of life is. Walking about, sometimes in a straight line, sometimes getting lost. All of these things that I saw I know I would have been ecstatic about if mom had been alive, but at this point mom was dead. I didn’t want to believe it but it was true. Whether or not I believed it was irrelevant. Looking back I’m entirely surprised by myself. I don’t know how I wasn’t just a puddle on the floor. Think about your mom dying. Then think about trying to navigate yourself in a foreign country and trying to enjoy the last remaining hours of your trip knowing that your mom has died. How was I able to walk? But it was in moments like this that I found peace, wind, tree, light, people, even noise. The noise didn’t hurt me anymore when mom died.

Very few things hurt me anymore after mom died. I tell people I think my physical tolerance for pain has increased. I think too the threshold for mental pain has grown. Maybe all it takes is for something inside you to break, for you to not feel that jarring sense of something’s wrong. After all, if the whole framework falls away, what do you have to complain about? You’re free.

It’s funny how life replays itself without you noticing. On this walk, random kids walked up to Aaron started talking to him. It reminded me of when I first met Aaron in China when we were both teaching abroad for a year. It felt like we had returned to our beginning as we met our end, full circle as they say.

I think what really hurts about death is that we don’t think about it. We celebrate our births, we celebrate our beginnings, but we sometimes just like to brush the endings under the carpet and ignore it until it festers into mold. Until the dust grows into illness. All of this language we’ve concocted in battling cancer and killing germs, and we don’t really acknowledge the cancer that we continuously battle — ourselves, our fears, our avoidance of what is inevitable. And by making enemies of ourselves how do we expect to live and find happiness? The inherent denial that we hold on to is like holding a knife by the blade. And we bleed out.

I miss you so much Mom. I don’t know if I’ve said that yet, but I do. It’s been over a year now. I wanted to finish editing all of these videos before the year was up, but life happened, you know? The same way that you left, and I stayed. For the first few months after you were gone I didn’t see you at all, and then I saw you in four or five dreams. And I think the last one made it clear that you were trying to talk to me, and I hope I gave you the sense that I’m able to take care of myself now even in your absence. I turned 33 last month. I feel 33. Finally. In your absence I have grown. And maybe I needed your absence in order to grow.

I saw some of the most beautiful sights in Cairo on this last day, and I don’t know why but I think your death brought me so much unbearable peace. Suddenly there were no criteria to fulfill, nothing to measure against anything else. And suddenly I was just there, witnessing. Somehow you dying made me feel gone. What a big, big place this is. I remember asking you when you would let me grow up, be my own person. I guess you finally gave me my answer.

I remember taking an Uber with Aaron to the airport and running around trying to find the terminal. I remember texting my friends that you had died. I remember telling them that I’m headed home, that I still need them to look after Fred because I need to go home to Grandma and I remember sitting on that plane with both a sense of relief and doom. One, that I was going home, and two, that there would be no you.

What shocks me the most in seeing this footage is how careful I had been to cover all the angles and shots. We have a bird’s eye view. We have a first person perspective. We have a sideways glance. We have a up close shot. We have me staring at the TV. We have bread dipping, bread squishing, rice fluffing — showing you all the textures that you’d want to see in a food video. And at the same time knowing that my mom was dead. Surprising isn’t it how we can just go on autopilot and do the same things we’ve always done and just compartmentalize everything in our brains? So that we survive, that we don’t melt, that we don’t fragment.

Here I am showing you the so-called cheesecake — a top layer of glistening, hot pink cream. A middle layer of beigey pink cheese. A bottom layer of crushed graham crackers that taste like they’ve been sitting in the freezer for a long time. I don’t think you would have liked this cheesecake, but maybe you would have thrown it into the freezer and eaten it frozen like you used to with the entiments.

I chose to watch this movie and processed none of it. The editing was so fragmented on purpose, I suppose, but it mirrored too much of my own fragments upon fragments, replace upon replace. Still piecing together the sequence of events and trying to decide what the fuck happened, how the fuck you died, and why now. Why not later? I can both love you and hate you for leaving me here without telling me, but inside that anger is unspeakable sadness because I know you didn’t want to do this to me. This is your worst case scenario. I know you wouldn’t have wanted to burden me with anything of this sort. A house full of papers and belongings and mysteries, and your mother. All the things you never wanted me to help you with became mine. My inheritance. Not just the money, but all of the pain that went into every aspect of your life, all the stress — I came to find it waiting for me when I came home.

Seeing the same cheesecake again made me so sad, angry even. That I should have to deal with deja vu two flights in a row, possibly the last trip that I would take for a very long time. I wanted something new, something that wasn’t such an offense to your favorite dessert. The second round tasted even worse than the first.

What do you tell strangers when they ask you why you’re crying? I told them the truth. Over the past year I’ve discovered that even if you have gone through grieving and mourning recently, when confronted with the loss of others you still don’t know quite what to say. Sometimes there are just no words for when someone leaves. I saved this yogurt because I couldn’t finish it and I didn’t want to throw it away. I would later get into trouble at customs about it, along with the apple that was in my backpack. Couldn’t be less concerned though. My mom had died. What more can anyone else do to me?

Given the option to play the same game again, do we? I did. I will.

Hey, I'm Sarah

My favorite things to do are eat, travel, bake, and drink coffee! I love bringing retro and classic recipes back to life and making baking easy and fun.