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happy birthday, mama



Happy birthday. Today you’d be 59 if you hadn’t gotten stuck on 49 forever. This time ten years ago was the beginning of the end, when the chemotherapy stopped working and your brain and bones were eaten away. Crazy how fast that happened. Crazy how fast a decade passes.

Mama, I am writing to you because I haven’t heard from you in a while. Not since I ran into the shaman in the Sonoran Desert the day after Christmas 2022. He stopped banging his big drum and chanting his incantations when he saw me. “I am a medicine man,” he said, and after he called me over to where he stood overlooking the horizon that was just beginning to brighten to reveal a landscape of thousands of Saguaro cacti, he doused me with smoking trails of burning sage and cedar. He asked me if you were sick. I wondered how he could know of you and I told him no, you were dead. He said that made sense because he had received a message from the other side that you were crossing over. Mama, did you know this or had you finished crossing — whatever that means — already by then?

I am writing to you because baba found the index cards. He showed them to me in October when he came to visit me in San Francisco. Tucked deep between pages of a composition book, not to be found until after you’d gone, your last words to the three of us. Do you remember how you wrote your husband an eternal love letter, an ode to future lives? Or how you left your sons a mystery?

To baba: 如果有来生我多么愿意来生再来报答您!只可惜,今生我已无力能为您做点什么了。[If there is a next life, I would so gladly come back to repay you! It’s only a pity that in this life, I already lack the strength to do anything for you.] I’d never seen him — traditionalist stoic Chinese immigrant man who believed in corporal punishment until your successful abolitionary plea — cry in public until he read that aloud to me at the sidewalk café in North Beach as the tourists ambled by.

To didi and me: 你们曾经是我生命的全部。但我还是做错了太多,后悔已来不及。只希望你们好好珍惜生活,珍惜生命。吸取妈妈的教训,好好努力,把自己的人生和未来规划好![You two were my everything. But I still made too many mistakes. It’s already too late for regret. I only wish you’ll truly cherish your lives and beings. Learn from my bitter lessons, work hard, and plan your time on this earth well.] What mistakes did you regret? What lessons do you want us to learn?

I am writing to you because I have already forgotten so much and this might be the only way I can hope to remember what’s left. I am writing to you because every day that goes by that I don’t, you become more a fiction of my memory’s creation. To write is to at once remonstrate and accelerate that process, which I’ve come to conclude is a tradeoff not only worthwhile, but essential. By writing, I mar, Ocean Vuong says. I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once. So, let me write some of the things I remember…


The first time I saw you I was negative years old. My eyes developed far enough to open and see the fleshy walls of your womb. I must have liked what I was seeing and feeling so much because I came out two weeks overdue. Do you remember this very day 25 years ago when you were still taking the delay in stride because maybe this way we could share a birthday? Do you remember the existential threat that grew over the ensuing week, leading you to tell baba that if it came to it, you’d sacrifice your life to get me out alive? How big was the pain and panic that you’d later frame so casually in your reminisces? I remember your fond smile each time you retold this story. That was your proof that a maternal love can be so perfect in union that the child doesn’t want to let it go.

The last time I saw you was in your bed. I didn’t know you were waiting for me to come home from school so you could see me once more before going. It didn’t feel like the last time. I kissed you and told you I loved you. I’m glad I did that. Then I went to my room and went into a corpse pose on my bed. Baba came in and told me the hospice workers earlier that day had estimated 48 hours. For ten seconds I started to prepare for the last time, but then I was interrupted by baba’s primal scream “aiya” because he had come back into the master bedroom to discover you had used that rare unattended interval to slip away.

I remember times, but not dates. I don’t remember whether your bout lasted a year and a half, or two and half. I can’t remember if it was May 26 or 27 or 28. But I remember it was 4:44 p.m. How macabre: four (四) the least auspicious digit in Chinese because 四 sounds like 死 (death). I remember places, but not their environments. I don’t remember the weather that day; it’s as if it all happened inside a vacuum devoid of warmth or rain. But I remember our house. Four Mares Lane. Four. 四. 死. Mare, which means a female (女) horse (马). 女马. Combine those two characters and you get 妈. Mother. Ma. You. Four Mares Lane. Dead Mother’s Lane. Of course I cannot go back there without remembering you. I see your lack everywhere. I look out my window to the garden where you used to plant the chives you’d use in the dumplings you wrapped. Now it’s all weeded overgrowth. Without you, nature is reclaiming our home like it reclaimed you.

I remember listening to Sufjan Stevens and Japanese Breakfast. In the two years after I lost you came their two albums about dying mothers, the death, the surreal aftermath. “Fourth of July,” “The Only Thing,” “No Shade In the Shadow of a Cross” were almost mirrors to my lived experiences except that you were not absent like Carrie to Sufjan. You were there, always and too much — exerting yourself to cook and care for me between the rounds of treatment a two-hour drive away at Sloan Kettering every few weeks. Back when the chemicals still worked and you instilled in yourself, and so me, the blind faith that you were defying the debilitating odds of the five-year survival rate attached to your stage IV lung cancer diagnosis. In that way, you showed me how to believe in magic.

Psychopomp meant even more to me than Carrie & Lowell. Michelle Zauner named the album after the spirits that are said to guide souls to the afterlife because she had lost her umma the same year I lost you. I think you remember me listening to Psychopomp on all those sleepless nights in North Carolina, so far from the home we once shared that haunted me so much I ran away. If you’ve really crossed over I’m not sure you’d know I finally read Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart. For years, I couldn’t will myself to do it, partly to avoid confronting the grief and partly because of the book’s popularity. It was as if my sacred sanctuary had suddenly been overrun by a flock of casual tourists. If they listened to the ethereal instrumental title track that ends with a voice recording from Zauner’s umma Chongmi saying gwenchana gwenchana, how many of them could relate to the feeling I always get of a blank void expanding in my chest as I think of your last voicemails to me lost irrevocably because I bricked my old phone from jailbreaking it too close to the sun? How many of them cried seeing “In Heaven” live because they were remembering how their dead mothers so believed in them and tried so hard to believe in heaven too? How many carry a “Heft” so palpable that it’s obvious to a shaman in Arizona who’d never known them or their mother?

Gratefully I’ve grown enough to shed the gatekeeping. Now I see that to touch people as deeply as Zauner has is the great blessing of art. Now I see all the more how you were like the Chongmi to my Michelle, who fast-tracked her marriage so her mother would be able to see it. If she wasn’t there, I was guaranteed to spend the day wondering what she would’ve thought. Chongmi came back from the brink of death to go on little walks around the house so she’d have enough strength to slow dance with her son-in-law. When the end neared, you too raged on as much as you could. Do you remember when you told baba that you just wanted to see Edward’s middle school and my high school graduation? Just one more year. You had accepted the limits of magic, but still clung to the lesser power of bargaining. It’s a crying shame those dates weren’t movable like a wedding. I wonder what you would have thought of my graduation speech — your boy who the teachers always said was too shy and did not speak up enough now standing in the middle of the football field projecting his voice into the mic to be heard by hundreds. I wonder what you would have thought of that YouTube video seen by 1 million people where he, now a so-called journalist, struggled like a fool to articulate the very object of his craft: words. For a month after I read through the comments section, all I wanted to do was curl up in a hole and disappear.

Gratefully I’ve also grown enough to start facing the world instead of dying little deaths in my isolation chamber each night. Do you remember the line on those index cards that you wrote just to me? 恺儿除了学习上要 smart, 生活中也要 smart 地安排好。[In addition to being smart in your studies, you must also be smart in planning your life.] I’m glad baba did not find those cards for so long. I wouldn’t have understood what you meant then as deeply as I do now, having tasted firsthand the bitterness of substance, self-flagellation and jail. Maybe last year I touched people only so far as their mean-spirited funny bone, but each day brings time to create anew. I have so many more plans and so much more life in me.

I read Crying in H Mart under headlamp and Milky Way, sticking my hand out of my sleeping bag in the freezing West Texas wilderness to scribble dozens of instances of marginalia. I rescued memories from the edge of that abyss called forgetting. So much came flooding back when I read Michelle’s memories of Chongmi’s cooking. You never learned how to cook until right before you had me. You used to be someone else, but then you turned your lifelong passion into a means for the end that was didi and I. You told us you crossed mountains and walked three hours to and from elementary school every day because your farming village in rural Zhejiang was so remote. You crossed an ocean and twelve time zones to a husband you’d only known through pictures and long distance phone calls to cap your learnings with a Ph.D. You had an insatiable ambition and an animated intellect. You made it out of your tiny village that no one makes it far out of to study in Shanghai, Shandong, Shenzhen, and finally the States. You turned down suitors at every stop and never learned how to cook so you could more diligently hit the books. Then you gave all that up to permanently tattoo your arms with splashes of scalding cooking oil. For us.

I read Crying in H Mart and it made me so jealous. 25 is too young to lose a mother, I know, but at least she got to come full circle from her teenage years and regain the lucidity of seeing maternal love for the pure thing it is. It’s only now, as I’m about to turn 25, that I see this anew. When I lost you I was still mid-pubescent rebellion. I was bratty in so many ways, but the one that sticks with me most is how you would say dinner was ready, and I would ask “吃啥惡?” Shanghainese that roughly translates to “What shit are we eating?” Shit, feces, excrement. I don’t remember when it was that you cooked your last meal for us before the cancer caved too far into your bones. I hope I didn’t say “吃啥惡?” that time. I hope you know I never meant it.

In fact, all I cook now are dopey dupes of the dishes you made with their Shanghainese and Zhejiang twists. Dishes I’ve missed so dearly: luosongtang, the beet-less borscht that came from the Russian émigré wave into Shanghai; cuchaomian, with the noodles so thick and deep brown (I swear the restaurants that serve it always forgot the dark soy sauce); braised pork belly with meigancai, the countryside peasants’ answer to fancy meicaikourou. Like Michelle has Maangchi on YouTube to learn Korean dishes retroactively, I’ve been teaching myself recipes from The Woks of Life (a godsend for that family’s Shanghainese roots) in hopes of replicating your blueprint, though I know I never can quite fully get there. The reconstituted meigancai I bought in the vacuum-sealed packaging from the Chinese grocery store lacks the tangy savory taste and crispy crunchy texture of the 20-pound bag of pickled mustard that waigong harvested and dried. Do you remember how he chased down our Shaoxing-bound bus to hand the bundle to you to bring back to America? That was the last time we saw him alive, back before I had a personal grudge against Death.

I don’t remember the last meal you made. I lost your voicemails. I try so hard, but I can’t remember  any words of wisdom you spoke to me. A few days ago I watched Bi Gan’s 2018 film Long Day’s Journey Into the Night, where protagonist Luo Hongwu is haunted by a woman he loved who vanished 12 years ago. He sets out on a hopeless quest to find her. The movie toggles in whiplash from the present to past moments that are not quite flashbacks, but more like the fragments of memories — piecemeal vignettes triggered by madeleine moments in the present. Writing this letter to you has felt a little like that.

In the penultimate scene, Luo dozes off in a movie theater. The last scene is a single 59-minute take shot in 3D. It depicts a dream in which all those memory fragments surface with slightly altered facades — changed, embellished, yet preserved — for Luo to face. At one point Luo is flying like a bird in the sky. It’s kind of a bizarre movie. I think you would’ve liked it. I thought: How come when I fall asleep at the theater I don’t get to have extra-dimensional adventures where I fly like a bird-star in the night air, rescue my regretfully missed kisses, and process each of my unresolved traumas all at once? But actually, writing this letter to you has felt a little like that too.


Mama, did you know that as he fanned the sage around my outstretched arms and across my back, the shaman also asked me why I was carrying so heavy a burden? He exhorted me to let it go. Did you see it from wherever you were how he asked me to hold my palm up flat? How he grabbed at the air above it, wildly roaring — he had the spirit of a bear in him, he explained between primal grunts — as he palmed the horrors emanating from my hand and flung them like a shot-putter back into immensity of the Universe?

I am writing to you because to do so is to let go. I once thought that I could numb the pain until time whittled it away, but it turns out negative space get heavier. Did you know that even the smallest black holes one atom wide have the mass of a large mountain? I wonder how many mountains can form on one’s back in a decade. I wonder if burdens are just mountain ranges.

If so, let them be.

Because you raised me in the Chinese tradition that mixes folk religion ancestor worship, Confucian filial ideals, Taoist solidity, and Buddhist reincarnation and enlightenment. You raised me on these values through Wu Cheng’en’s epic Journey to the West — or at least the 52-episode box set of the 1998 animated adaptation — where Sun Wukong the Monkey King literally births himself by exploding his way out the rock on Mount Huaguo in which he was imprisoned. You raised me on the precept that to live is to break through stone.

I am writing to you because since you’ve been gone, I’ve come to discover that to let go of words is to alleviate my rockiest burdens. I’ve come to discover that I have so many things I should be saying to people before it’s too late — and if I can’t yet say, then I can write for a start, like I’m doing here, to you. I’m letting go of the shame, the doubt, the jealousy, the regret, and all those other vagaries that swirl vaguely around in me. To flip my insides out into fixed language is a great gift and greater liberation. Perhaps this is one piece of the solution to the mystery you left me: a lesson on the things you ran out of time to say before the cancer overwhelmed your brain cells. A lesson to use the language we humans were born to let go of while we still can.

Happy birthday. I love you.


P.S. I made you a mixtape