From December 14, 202
Tan-Lee 诞丽 – Born Beautiful. This was my mother’s name in Chinese. Yesterday morning, she passed onto the next stage and form of energy. As her pulse rate slowed and her body temperature began to cool, we bathed and then dressed her in an elegant, long-sleeved black Chinese qipao with a matching, peony-embroidered sleeveless vest. I did the daughter’s honour of combing her silky, black hair. Her spirit was about to ascend and she’d be meeting her ancestors soon, which meant she’d better look good! And so it was like this that my mother, Liu Tan-Lee, died. She was even more beautiful than when she was born.
When I arrived last Thursday and saw my mom in hospital, she was clearer and more energized than I had seen her in months. Her eyes shined with warmth and affection. But this can often be the case in the final days of someone’s life. An undiagnosed, diffuse neuromuscular deterioration led to difficulty swallowing liquids and foods down the correct tube. This caused mucous to build up in her lungs. Her diaphragm had also weakened so much that she could no longer cough any of the mucous free. Soon, she refused all foods. At first, I tried to gently persuade her into trying to eat. After a day of this, I stopped and told her, ‘Ma, I will respect your decisions, and do as you wish’. She seemed so relieved to hear this. She knew she was close to the end and wanted to do as she wished.
On Sunday, when we finally arrived home, she was weak, but surprisingly clear in her advance directives to the hospice nurse. When the nurse asked, ‘If your heart stops, do you want us to try and start it again through resuscitation?’ she replied with a smile and laugh: ‘If it stops, what’s the use of trying to start it again?’ I was so proud of her in that moment. This was the mom I knew — full of clarity, dignity and resolve to meet adversity with courage and lightness.
My mom nearly didn’t make it the first night. Her breathing quickened and at one point I thought we’d lost her; her hands and face turned blue. Thankfully, miracles do happen and she pulled through with the help of some timely pain management. More family was on the way. I begged her not to go now, with just me here, and to wait at least another day. Though she could no longer talk, she nodded and understood.
For over two years, I’ve been preparing for my mother’s death by accepting its inevitability and doing what I can to love, respect and assure her that who she was and what she’s accomplished in life would not be forgotten. But nothing could have prepared me for the heartbreak and pain of her final passing.
Once she started slipping away, I began snuggling with her, just like I did on past visits when I’d lay by her side before sleep and we’d just chit chat together. Holding her hand and cradling her frail frame, I’d tell her that I love her, share funny stories or memories, or describe how I cried and laughed my way through reading the the drafts of my brother’s book about her life. As her breaths became more labored, I implored her to hold on until the others arrived. I’m so relieved that she found the strength to will herself to stay until my brothers and niece arrived the next night.
After her pulse stopped and we took our three bows to her, I crawled back up on her tiny hospital bed to snuggle next to her again. I just wanted to hold her close, but what came out was a primal cry from my bones. They rattled and shook with an irrepressible grief that I know is born from love. I didn’t think about it then, but I imagine now in hindsight that is what she would have done had the roles been reversed, and she had been the one to see me through my final moments of death. It’s the least, then, that I could do for her. Mama, I am here for you. Mama you will never be alone. Mama, you will always be loved.
My brothers Jay and Kaiser have posted beautiful tributes to my mom and her formidable life on their pages. If you haven’t read them, please do as they not only shed light on the extraordinary life she lived, but are also exquisitely written. My mom’s talent as a writer has certainly been passed down to them.
Having my siblings close has been such a gift. I’m grateful that the bonds of love my parents forged in our family are strengthened through the fires of loss. I am so thankful for them, especially for the steadfastness and care that my brother John has provided to her for so many years on his own — he’s been the one on the ground, visiting her sometimes many times a week to ensure she was cared for. As when my father died eight years ago, my mother’s death has brought us all so much closer. We have had honest and healing talks about her life and our relationships to her, which – like any normal, healthy family, was layered and messy.
Seven years ago, my mother sent me an email, written in her customary ALL CAPS choice:
THIS IS THE MAIL YOU SENT TO ME 1993.
It was a letter I wrote to her for Mother’s Day during my Junior year at Stanford. What is most surprising to me in reading this again is how I didn’t sugar coat my love for her. I think that’s probably why she sent it to me to read again, and why I imagine she probably appreciated this letter in particular. Reading this, I feel exactly the same now as I did then, which makes me smile.
May 5, 1993
I’ve wanted to write this letter for a long time but have never had the right opportunity to put my thoughts into words until now. Ever since I left for college, there have been countless occasions when I’ve wanted to tell you how much I love you and appreciate everything you’ve done for me. On this Mother’s Day, I thought I’d send you this letter to express these feelings. All these memories keep filling my mind as I write… I remember you braiding my hair when I was a young girl, showing me Mao’s picture in the Little Red Book, and sipping coffee at the Shangri-la Beijing while listening to that wonderful pianist, and talking about all my crazy experiences with Jia and A Dong. I also remember all the pain and suffering we’ve endured as a family, and I would be lying to say that it’s not a very real part of our past. But everything we’ve pulled through has brought us closer together in ways that there’s will never know.
Mom, you’ve given me so many opportunities to see the world and appreciate everything in it that’s beautiful and terrifying. You’ve let me feel what love, anger, tragedy, and hope really are, and that’s more than anyone could ever teach me in my lifetime. Indeed, you’ve shown me what’s of value in this world, and have sacrificed so much to give me things that I’ve often taken for granted. It isn’t until recently that I’ve begun to understand all that you’ve done for me and continue to do, as my mother and as my friend. And that’s what you are, Mom — my mom, and my friend. I don’t think I could ask for anything more’.
All of my accomplishments and all of my dreams are inherited from you — I owe you thanks for raising me to be who I am and for giving me your strength. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.
In the final moments of my mother’s life, she was peaceful, surrounded by the love of family. I can’t imagine a more suitable closure to an extraordinary life.
Thank you, Ma — you are my mother, my friend, my teacher. I am so proud to be your daughter. I hope you feel this, wherever your spirit flies in this vast, love-filled sky.
Teacher, writer, lover of movement and meditation who lives with her husband, dog, three cats, 6 chickens and 10,000 bees.