Running in the woods one morning in autumn, the dog and I were surprised by a deer. She did not leap dramatically before us on the trail – she didn’t move at all, in fact, but we turned a corner and there she was, still and statuesque beneath the gold and crimson leaves, staring silently at us.
“Mom?” I blurted.
The deer did not reply, only continued to gaze. Parker and I gazed back, equally silent – the dog is wise enough to eschew going at anything so much larger than himself – and soon shuffled on.
I laughed. A small, wry laugh, ending in a sigh. I had been thinking about my mother at that moment, so despite the fact that she has never set foot in rural east-central Illinois, my response to the unexpected encounter wasn’t strange. Still, my mother would never be a deer. Something more fierce, more powerful.
“That you, Mom?” I called out the car window to the red-tailed hawk perched atop a utility pole a few days later. The hawk looked down at me in the imperious way raptors have. No, that wasn’t right either – despite their reputation, hawks spend most of the day sitting around conserving energy (as K no doubt would have told me). That wasn’t her; no, something more industrious, but not just that – something artistic as well, something that created beauty.
“Hey, Mom?” The next time it was a spider at the center of a stunning web tapestry strung across a window in our laundry room. By this point it had become a game, something along the lines of that children’s book Are You My Mother? only lighter on the whimsy and heavier on the melancholy.
I don’t believe in reincarnation. It’s a lovely idea, with just about as much truth as any other post-mortem scenario meant to console and comfort. But I know she’s none of those things. Nothing else is her; nothing ever will be her again.
The team of 8th graders I coached for cross country had a terrific season, a fact I’d dearly love to take credit for but in truth they did a lot more for me than I can possibly claim I did for them. Every XC meet saw me dashing madly from one point in the course to another, screaming and flailing my arms and jumping up and down and generally wearing myself out to satisfying exhaustion. I needed that release, badly. The pinnacle was sectionals: two girls and the entire boys team qualified for state, and the whole team easily beat every other school in exuberant joy.
It was the highlight of my admittedly short coaching career, and like everyone else I was ecstatic. I had a moment of thinking, “If Mom were still around I could have called and told her.” This was followed immediately with, “but I probably wouldn’t have.” She wouldn’t have understood what state, sectionals, or even cross country meant – “do they run across the whole country?” I could imagine her asking. It wouldn’t be that strange a question; after all, when I had been in high school I am sure I had no idea what cross country meant either – we lived in Hawaii, so how could you run across the country? Did you have to swim to Los Angeles first?
The irony is not lost on me that I ended up coaching a bunch of teen athletes given how little I did extracurricularly when I was their age. And I have to admit, when I entered the phase of grieving my mother that entailed anger at all the perceived unfinished business, however petty – and most of it was extremely petty – this thought came up. My mother was not the stereotypical Asian mom, driving us relentlessly to excel, to climb every mountain and join every club and otherwise pad our resumes for the Ivies. In the past she’d been told repeatedly that good American mothers were supportive and nurturing, “but not supposed to push kids. Push your kids, very bad,” she asserted. And she did not want to be a bad American mother. She urged my sister and me to do well in school, but since we generally were good if not exceptional students, she thought there was little else required. She didn’t know about things like cross country, the school newspaper, plays and concerts and clubs. If she’d ever heard the term “soccer mom,” she was likely clueless as to what it meant. Her own youth had been so drastically different from ours – a different country, culture, and language; hot water for only one hour a day and little more than rice for most meals; bombs and soldiers and war.
I knew all this, and yet I still used to wonder how it would have been if she’d done otherwise, if she had been more involved, if she had, if not pushed us, then at least been a little more aware of the things we could – probably should – have been doing. Coaching provided me some answers.
The kids were kids. No surprises there; they were all over the place and aggravating and hilarious and fun. The parents were – well, not really any surprises there either. At the first meet, one father kept insisting that his daughter wear her jacket over her singlet, even though it was a warm morning. “Look, everyone else is wearing theirs! You need to do it too!” I have no idea why this was such a crusade for him, maybe only because he needed to be able to give her some sort of command to obey.
Another father harangued his son – the star of the team, who would go on to finished second overall at state – for just about everything, even sitting the wrong way. “You are all hunched over! Stop that! Throw your shoulders back, open up your chest!” Did I mention that the kid finished second in the entire state? Father and son looked as morose as if he’d dropped out entirely. Second place out of hundreds, and the only thing running through both their minds was that it wasn’t first.
Not all the relationships were toxic, though. One young man who had been extra helpful to me that morning – putting up the tent, showing me where to get the bibs, running the drills with the team – brought his mother over after the meet. “This is the person you need to thank. She taught me how to be responsible.” I seriously thought I might start weeping. How freakin’ sweet is that? And really, even the haranguers were trying to show they cared, in their own way. Would any of these have been me and my mother? I couldn’t see it.
Perhaps the oddest interaction I had with XC parents involved the couple who sent me very long, very well-crafted emails about their daughter, who suffered performance anxiety to an extreme degree and, while she definitely wanted to be on the team, did not feel like she could race the first few meets. I shrugged; that was fine with me. This was followed several weeks later by more long, well-crafted emails suggesting that while it was good of me to allow their child to not race in the initial meets, now they were afraid she had lost all drive and might never race. I sighed; I’d talk to her.
She was adamant: she did not want to race. She would come to the meets, she would help with drills, she would assist me with coaching tasks, and she would run around with me screaming our heads off to cheer the runners on, but she would not race. I nodded; I could live with that.
The erudite couple could not, so the saga went on. They talked to her. The athletic director talked to her. They all asked me to talk to her again, because – shockingly – she did not seem like she wanted to talk to any of them about it anymore. I was done shrugging and nodding. “Hey,” I said to her first chance I got. “I know a lot of people are pushing you to race. Well, I’m not going to be one of them. You’ve been extremely supportive and active in the team, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re fine.”
She smiled her thanks. She didn’t race the next meet but stood with me ringing cowbells and yelling our throats ragged as our runners went by.
Was I wrong? Should I have pushed her to race? Was she missing out on a crucial opportunity? But look: maybe that opportunity comes back, like it did for me. You don’t need to be pushed. It’s in you already to find it and take it. Maybe my mother knew that too.
Three hours after the state meet finished, K and I got on a plane to the PNW to watch my mother’s ashes be interred. My father is ex-military and has a section in a memorial wall at the Tahoma National Cemetery for himself and his wife. None of us thought she would be the first one put there.
It was an odd ceremony. The urn and a photo of mom (elegant and serene in a burgundy jacket and a matching scarf I knitted for her for Christmas) went into the designated hole in the wall. We looked up at the hole, whispered our good-byes. Rain fell in torrents; the umbrella I tried to hold over my dad in his wheelchair probably did more harm than good as cascades drenched his legs. After a moment of silence, a man put up a metal plaque over the hole and took an electric drill to secure each corner. The whirring of a DeWalt cordless is not quite the appropriately solemn sound one expects at such a moment, but I still bawled buckets, even though it was impossible to think of my mother as being here forever.
She wasn’t here forever. No one is. I know she’s gone; she’s not in a forest or above a cornfield or in the window of our house; she’s not even part of a wall of ex-soldiers, far too many of them. I can’t end this essay with a sense of consolation I don’t feel. But I also can’t end it with despair, because that’s something else she wouldn’t have understood. She was not a sad person. She was – she is, at least a little, a part of me, as people kindly remind me when I’m feeling particularly forlorn about my loss, and as I’ve seen myself, in the unlikeliest of times and places.