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A Surprise Awaits
Feature Article
by J.D. Beltran

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images News via Getty Images

A couple of days ago, I pulled out a fortune from a fortune cookie that read, "A SURPRISE AWAITS." I started to wonder what that surprise could be.


My younger sister called. I’d just visited with her — she lives three hours away. I didn’t expect a call. “Is everything okay?” “Yeah, I’m fine.” Although close, we don’t talk all that often. And our mom isn’t young; many years ago, dad had died suddenly. “Oh, that’s good …” I caught my breath. “I’m always worried when you call that it might be ‘that call.’”


“Well … it’s that call,” she said.


My mom had unexpectedly passed away. She lives in Hawaii so I hadn't been able to visit her recently. It also had been awhile since I’d actually seen her. She never got the hang of using a computer or smartphone (despite my purchasing for her multiple iPhones, iPads, and a special Jitterbug model). The only time I’d get to see her remotely was if she hit the Facetime call button by accident. 


I was able to talk with her one last time, a few weeks earlier. Nothing special — she’d called for our usual check-in, and I asked her what she’d eaten for dinner (chicken). Before all the lockdowns, we’d even contemplated a visit. I could grab a flight all my daily obligations could be accomplished remotely, anyhow. But COVID-19 testing wasn’t available at that point, and the science was starting to indicate the hazards of flying. I didn’t want to accidentally expose her with the virus if I was somehow asymptomatic. She agreed.


So, I never did get to see her. Her disintegrating health had happened in a matter of days. My sister had flown to Hawaii the night before her call to me; the caretaking neighbor had contacted her, mom had fallen again and needed to be hospitalized. Her condition might be serious. But Hawaii mandated my sister quarantine at my mom’s house, so she never got to see her at the hospital. It had just happened. Sudden cardiac arrest, they said.


She couldn’t visit the mortuary to view mom after she’d died, either. Two days later, after conferring with them, she called me and laid out my choices. “They can give you a fingerprint — on a keychain.” Ugh — no, thanks. I opted for a tiny urn with a few ashes (“The smallest one, please.”) Even that will be so odd, when the box arrives in the mail.


I think she was cremated yesterday morning.


It’s not like this was entirely unexpected. Ever since my father died, twenty years ago, I’d be careful to take a selfie with my mom every time I dropped her off at the SFO curb for her return flight to Honolulu. Just in case. She always wore the same departure outfit: black knit slacks and a bright red sweater topped by her omnipresent wide-brimmed sun hat. After that phone call, I went through my photos and collected all of those shots. The series looked akin to Nicholas Nixon’s “Brown Sisters,” except I was the only one in the photo who changed.


It’s all so strange. How does one grieve remotely?


We’ve been witnessing the world’s steep learning curve of translating everything we do to its remote version. Virtual cocktails and fourteen windows of people singing “Happy Birthday” in unison at that long-distance birthday party. Actually seeing and talking with people backdropped by their homes — from around the world — has its endearing novelty. But eventually the flat 2-D screen personas have blurred and disappeared into the coagulated memories of my other 16:9 windows: dozens of webinars on remote learning solutions, the nightly news, and all eight episodes of “The Mandalorian.”  We’ll probably plan some sort of Zoom service, at some point. But I know this virtualizing of my mom’s death will only prolong my denial. I posted about her passing on Facebook, but can’t bring myself to return to my page to see the responses. I still don’t want to be reminded that she’s gone.


My mom and I were close at the end. We weren’t always — there were a good three or four years when I refused to even speak to her. We’d had a checkered history, since I was a child. Her eccentric, MacGyverish approach to doing things didn’t always agree with me. She once told me that as a baby, when I’d cry too much she’d sometimes put Phenobarbital in my milk. Years later, however, while a young adult, something happened between us such that anyone observing probably wouldn’t have blamed me if I never to spoke with her again. (I’ll leave it at that.) Our bond was fraught, sometimes fleeting, and oh, so complicated. 


But after our breakdown, I knew I’d regret not having some sort of communication with her. What if she suddenly died? Would I be at peace?  


I reached out, and gradually, we reconnected. After my father died, she called me every week for the months during which I’d become dysfunctional with grief. I told her I wasn’t sleeping, and in my mailbox would arrive her long, chatty letters. She’d tuck small packets of Xanax tablets (my stash, she said), each one wrapped carefully in a square of her white note paper. She loved to write letters. I kept all of them. And every once in a while, I’d pop a Xanax.


Right before she died, my family had returned from our annual summer road trip. We’d driven north from the Bay Area to Washington, checking out national parks, mountains, lakes, craters, the world’s largest frying pan and, reputedly, the country’s largest oyster (not really). As was our tradition, we curated a goodie bag of souvenirs for Grandma at stops along the way. Aplets & Cotlets (her favorite). A canvas bag from Crater Lake. A tiny music box that played “Amazing Grace.” A glittery postcard of the Space Needle (never sent). Mom would always call after receiving these tokens of our travels, clearly delighted we’d been thinking of her during our journey. We arrived home only a few weeks before that phone call, and promptly consumed ourselves in our routines. The package of souvenirs was still sitting by my computer, waiting to be mailed, when my sister called.


Shortly before all of this happened, I’d come across Al Bello’s stunning, heartbreaking newspaper photo of an elderly woman covered in plastic, being hugged tightly by what looks like her daughter. The woman reminded me of my mom. The photo also brought to mind that tension of separation in Magritte’s “The Lovers.” Even though it’s through thin plastic, though, it’s still a hug.  


Remote hugs don’t work at all — remote anything, it seems. What is the last Zoom memory that you treasure?


I grasped to recall my last memory of actually being with her. She used to visit us and see her grandson every few months, but during one Christmas visit, she fell and fractured her hip and ended up staying for three months to recuperate. After that, she couldn’t travel because of her worsening mobility. So, we went to see her. My sister’s family also coordinated joining us for that trip, and at one point, we all went picnicking and snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. Under the coolness of the expansive tree under which we’d staked out our blankets, my mom was relaxing in her metallic red wheelchair, napping, reading, and watching us all shout and play in the water. I remember coming out of the waves and plopping down on the beach towels spread around her. We didn’t say much. But I remember laying down to dry off and looking up at the sky through the high, dense branches of the seaside heliotrope tree, glimpsing at her out of the corner of my eye. She was quietly reading a newspaper. 


I tried consciously to create a memory. As the moment unfolded, I remember working very, very hard to concentrate, to visualize, eyes open then closed, each sensation I was experiencing at that exact moment — the smells, the sky, what was being said to me, the surrounding shades of colors and sounds. It failed. I don’t even remember what I was trying to remember.


I don’t know what last memory I’d want to have of my mom, had I the power to choose. I know I wouldn’t have wanted it to be of her final, frail, unconscious moments in the hospital. Sitting quietly together at the beach while she read a newspaper isn’t bad.


This year has been a year of constant surprises. Unpredictable developments. Uncertain futures. And of how we trick ourselves into the fiction of believing we can truly control what happens in our lives, or in our futures. 


I'm grateful that my family had that visit with my mom in Hawaii, that final time. If there's anything that I've been trying to concentrate on this past year, it's been trying to stay mindful of how I'm spending my moments, my time, and my life, and how it's making me feel. Really being present and expressing love and gratitude to those I'm spending my life with. And figuring out how to deflect, if I can, what brings me down. So much of what might happen tomorrow, or even tonight, is beyond our control, anyhow. My mom was an incredibly complicated person, as was our relationship. But I'm glad that the last thing I told my mom was that I loved her.


I miss her.

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