Is There An Open Bar in Heaven?
It’s Christmas Eve. According to my GPS, I am 5,221 miles away from my home in Vancouver. In reality, I am adrift from my sense of home by much more than the miles that separate me from my front door. I have lost my parents, my dad to a massive stroke on July 28 and my mother to a broken heart on December 11. That’s it. I’m an orphan. There will be no more trips together, no more holidays spent overeating, no watching my dad yell at the tv during the Niners game or throwing his clubs at the golf course over an errant drive, no helping my mom make those mysteriously amazing homemade biscuits every Thanksgiving and Christmas, no carting her to the casino to play her beloved slot machines. It is still difficult to fathom that they will not be there when I return, that I will never hear their voices again, or wake to the wafting smell of their coffee in the mornings. Life has its moments of unrelenting cruelty, but that is, after all, life. It must end, at some point. One is never ready. It is impossible to grasp the depth of loss that I imagine is only surpassed by the loss of a child. But grief, no matter the cause, is a personal oppression of one’s soul. You cannot give it justice with words. Friends and family, though they try (and I am grateful that they do) cannot assuage the wounds that pierce straight through a lifetime of memories and love.
Parents are many things over the course of our lives – protectors, nurturers, cheerleaders, counselors, sometimes quiet observers, often outspoken critics, babysitters, shuttle drivers, spoilers of grandchildren, and so much more. My earliest memories of my mother are actually from an old reel to reel movie. I had no idea, until we inherited them from my grandfather, that I spent the majority of my early years attached to my mom’s leg, requiring her to drag me with her wherever she went. I was painfully shy, a reality many of my friends will find completely unimaginable. Until I was in my late teens and turned into someone I prefer not to remember, my mom and I were thick as thieves. We went everywhere together, did everything together. I was a competitive swimmer growing up, year round, full time, two a day workouts, serious swimmer. I had workouts at 6am and after school. My mom faithfully woke me up every morning and drove me to workouts and slept in the car until I was done. She and my dad drove me to more meets than I can count, sometimes multiple weekends in a row, sometimes in completely different states. They endured endless hours at swim meets waiting for my events to roll around. But my mother, for every event I swam, stood at the end of my lane and cheered me on with wild abandon. My quiet, reserved, shy Japanese mother, all 4’10 and 100 pounds of her, was my biggest fan. And I will never forget being able to see her there, and how that made me feel.
I spent most of my youth not really knowing if my dad felt pride or disappointment in me. He wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type – retired military, enough said. He always had advice on how I could have done things a bit better, a bit faster. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and visiting with my aunt that I learned about his deep sense of pride, not just about my accomplishments, but about who I had become as a person. It stunned me, brought me to tears and changed, forever, the way I interacted with my father. I never discussed it with him, of course. He would have hated that. But I realized then the depth of his feelings, buried perhaps under a veneer of military toughness, but there nonetheless. I am so thankful for that conversation with my aunt.
Over the course of my adult life, my relationship with my parents traveled the inevitable path carved out by generation after generation. When I had children of my own, I reveled in watching my parents provide the same love, protection and guidance, albeit with a greater spoonful of spoils on a much nicer platter. My mother used to peel my kids grapes. Honestly. She would carry them around on her back when they were babies and play silly games with them for hours. When they were older, my parents would drive them to every activity, watch every event they were in, and, amazingly, hold their tongues when they felt their parents weren’t exactly doing a stellar job. They were amazing, hands down.
When life choices eventually led us away from my parents, I never fully understood the void it would leave in their lives. Raising their own children, and then being such a fundamental part of their grandchildren’s lives, had given them purpose and brought them an endless stream of memories. Looking back, it is difficult not to feel immense regret and guilt over the pain and suffering and grief this caused them. I would see it in their faces whenever we saw them, but would bury it away, unable to deal with it emotionally or practically. They lost so much, my mother in particular. I would mark this as my biggest failure as an adult, the thing that causes me the most disappointment in myself, as a daughter, as a mother, as a compassionate human being. If I had that illusive magic wand, this is the one thing I would surely go back and change.
As my parents entered their 80’s and it became clear they were struggling to maintain their independence, we visited more often, attempting to clean and organize and repair. My dad met this effort with a mix of annoyance (he claimed he could never find anything after we left) and amusement. He felt I was unable to come to visit without cleaning – a character flaw. My mom, bless her, would try and help, despite my pleas for her to just sit and relax and have tea. When I finally convinced them to move up and live with me I was thrilled. I wanted to give back. I wanted to care for them in the same way they had cared for me, for my kids. I wanted to give them a worry free existence, a chance to enjoy life for as long as possible, together. It wasn’t enough. Time would not be on my side. Instead of years, we got months. They moved in April 1. My dad would be gone four months later. In those four months, my mom would be in and out of the hospital three times. Instead of carving out a life, he spent the time worrying about and caring for the love of his life, his other half, the only person on this earth that truly understood him, deep down. He often told me that he never really understood what the word love meant, but that he knew, early on, that he liked my mother more than anyone he had ever met. And that she was someone he could trust, forever.
I did not fully realize the extent to which my mother had become dependent on my dad until they moved up. If he was gone, even for a few minutes, she would ask where he was and when he would be back. It was as if his mere absence made her fearful, as if without him she could not exist. And I think, in the end, that was true. When my dad was in the hospital, the tenderness between them when he was still conscious, is something that will stay with me always. They held hands. He would reach for her when she was at his bedside. When he wanted to give up and be drugged out of consciousness, she said no, a veto she rarely used. When he passed, she remarked that he was not supposed to go first, a loving argument I remember hearing between them throughout my life. I know he would not have wanted to leave her. I repeat, life can be unrelentingly cruel.
In the weeks and months after my dad’s death, we tried valiantly to keep my mom interested in life, but slowly, like the unwinding of a spool of thread, she slipped away. In the weeks before she passed, she would remark to me that she wished she would sleep and never wake up. She never wept, but we would see her silent tears. We would hug her, tell her we loved her, ask her what we could do, and she would shrug. She had trouble getting to sleep at night, would wander her room, rooting through drawers, looking for things she couldn’t remember. It was heartbreaking. The week before we lost her, we sat in her bed together, she telling me how very hard it all was, and me telling her that it was ok if she wanted to go, that she’d been an amazing mom and grandma, that we would be ok. And then she was gone. Peacefully, in her sleep, for which I am endlessly grateful.
The last photo I have of her is in front of our Christmas tree, hanging an ornament. We could not bear to spend the holidays there. It’s too soon, too hard, too emotional. I can still see my mom and dad, sitting at my kitchen table the night before he had the stroke, talking about the day trips they were going to plan now that my mom’s health had stabilized. Yes, time will work its magic and memories that cut through me like a knife will instead bring a smile, but for now, a time to mark the before and after is needed. We have run away, 5,221 miles away to be exact, to heal our hearts and to begin the work of finding a new path in our lives. We will return, to start anew, to begin the work of being whatever it is we will become without them. The void will never be filled. We will, instead, honor the memories, learn to smile again, and create a home filled with love and laughter and joy. I miss them so very much seems inadequate to describe what this really feels like, but that’s the best I have. I love you mom and dad. I hope you’re dancing and smiling and laughing. I hope, wherever you are, there’s an open bar for dad. And don’t worry. We will be ok. I promise.