My Mom’s Death Years Ago

My mom and me!
My mom and me!

When I think about all my failures, I don’t regret any of them, except my mom’s death because I didn’t do anything to delay it. My friends told me I did a lot, but they don’t know. The thing with failure is that no one else knows the gap between your reality and your potential the way you know it. No one can judge yourself the way you can.

My dad found he had stage 3 colon cancer at the same time as my mom’s cancer. My mother had left her husband and I was visiting her in Virginia where she’d found a room in an old lady’s mansion. We went to the doctor together to learn what was causing my mother’s back pain. The doctor said, “You have stage 4 lung cancer. I take cancer very seriously. We’re going to fight this.” My mother wrote an email to her friends that she was coming to live with me in Chicago, eliciting responses with references to Jesus.

The next day she told me she was going back to her husband, which filled me with both relief and doubt. That was certainly more convenient for me- I’m not a naturally nurturing, caring person because I’m monkishly devoted to work, but how could they get back together so suddenly?

I alternated flying to Pittsburgh and Princeton to see my parents, 20x more than I’d ever seen them since I left for MIT. For a while it seemed like she was getting better. I told her I needed to go to the London office and didn’t have anyone to care for my cat, and she said she’d come take care of it for me. My coworker exclaimed, “Wow, that’s a VIP cat.” She gave my cat a name, Mimi. I loved this cat so much but I’d never taken the time to name it, and my friends would call it, “The cat w no name.” During her stay in Chicago, she nested the way she always does for me- she cooked, she got me a maid, she arranged furniture, she potted plants, she got them to hang the painting the founder of my company gave me. They were late to hang it and she was running (her, running, with her chemotherapy port!) through the airport to make her flight. Tearfully she exclaimed, “I give my life for you!”

Annoyed, I said, “I didn’t ask you to do that. Who cares about hanging the painting?” It’s easy to be short and mean to people who love you unconditionally.

When it seemed my mother was getting worse, I moved my team to NYC to be closer to Princeton. I neglected my dad more because he was only stage 3. Both parents tried to tell me their frustrations about the medical system, but I was impatient and didn’t want to think about it. I was selfish about my own stress. Wasn’t it enough that I went with them to the doctor even though it was boring and tiring and I would’ve rather been doing something useful like work? Even though I was there, I wasn’t present. I went through the motions without opening my heart. Even though my parents have always been proud of me and in most ways I was the ideal Asian child who independently, ruthlessly achieved more than what my parents could’ve imagined without anyone saying a word, I was a terrible child child.

My father sent her a cure that had something to do with aloe. I read a few books and websites on cancer. There are a lot of alt-medicine theories out there because people are fighting for their lives and need something to believe in. My mother wanted to move to Texas to try the Burzynski clinic. But I was slow to pay for the clinic because it didn’t sound like it could be real. People had sued this doctor as a fraud, and it was tens of thousands of dollars per month, and they don’t take insurance (or insurance doesn’t take them). Even though I could easily afford it, my mother knew I didn’t want to and at the last minute didn’t turn in the paperwork, saying she didn’t want to be a “burden.” There’s a Netflix documentary about this doctor and I have avoided looking at it because I’m afraid it’ll show it was legit.

She had problems with her phone plan and wanted me to deal with it because I was paying the bill but I was too impatient and hate these types of chores, especially talking with Verizon people. Thus towards the end she didn’t have access to good internet to stay connected with her friends. That must’ve felt terrible, to be so isolated while lying in hospice, because she was always texting and very social. I have a story that this phone problem accelerated her death and that it’s my fault she died so unhappily.

For a few weeks I had wished that she would die so it could be over. There was a ticking clock because insurance would only cover up to a certain date and everyone expected her to die before then. Her body had grown bloated and disgusting- I always washed my hands thoroughly after massaging the blood into her clay-like, swollen legs and feet, dying flesh that held the mark of my touch for an unnaturally long time. She had been incontinent for a while and sometimes we’d clean it ourselves when the nurse was slow and the smell started to sink in. My stepfather wiped with brusque efficiency while my mother gasped in pain. I watched awkwardly, embarrassed for her.

I wasn’t there when my mother died. Shameful. My stepfather even hinted, “I’ve never seen her look so weak.” I had a trip planned to go to Chicago for a short vacation, my first in years, so I still left. That night I got his voicemail at 3am saying she’d passed away. I flew back in the morning.

I’d never been to a funeral before. I had grown so thin the flower-y dress I’d long inherited from my mom hung off my body, but people who didn’t know why I was skinny would say I looked great, a real New Yorker with my blowouts and Pradas. Four men declared their love for me. I said that I appreciated it but it wasn’t necessary that they come to the funeral, especially on such late notice and in New Jersey. My team got me flowers.

Friends came and I’ll always be grateful. My dad drove from Pittsburgh and we didn’t know what to do with him, putting him in a back pew. He’d cried when I told him she had cancer. My middle school friend drove from Philadelphia and I took her to my favorite dessert places. Even though he hates taking breaks from his research, my best friend from high school nerd camp flew from Stanford to visit for 1 day and be with me at the funeral. Everyone thought he was my boyfriend and I was relieved to lean on him.

At the funeral, I gave a speech about how she sent me on a flight with a houseplant in my carry-on. My stepdad talked about how she’d get last minute tickets and magically access things and get people to do stuff for her, enigmatically explaining, “I’m Chinese.” The priest said how she had so much assertive personality and insisted everyone wear colors to her funeral. Afterwards, some fobby Chinese people posed and took photos with the casket flowers. I never talked with her church friends again even though they’d done more for her than I did, bringing soup and praying with her every day.

I was in awe of their Christian charity because I doubt I would’ve done this for anyone else. When my high school friend Jeremy was dying of bone cancer, I thought of him and donated money to his causes, but I never went to Pittsburgh to see him. I would sometimes think of how often I’d walk by his house with the red door, how he introduced me to sparkling water, how we watched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and he explained how her head really did get hit in the blooper, how we lay in the sun room and stared at the strangeness of how it is to be human in high school, how his dad smiled with delight at the “elfin” portrait I drew, immediately grabbing it to admire and figure out how to display.

I flew a lot to see my parents during their sickness, but it wasn’t real sacrifice. I didn’t know what real sacrifice was. I’d never been self sacrificing. With my parents, I was willfully ignorant and didn’t take ownership of helping them treat their diseases. I never viewed them as assets or part of my team, more as a burden I had to dutifully endure. I had my own goals separate from them.

Years later, I was at Beregovsky’s wedding and my date translated the Jewish contract, “He vows to give her the shirt off his back.” I thought about that level of love and commitment and thought about how much I’d have to love and value someone to be able to make a promise like that to my husband. If my mate had cancer, and I’d loved them enough to have vowed to become one flesh and give them the shirt off my back in the first place, I imagine I’d quit my job, I’d move with them to be near the best hospital, I’d become a research expert in the field, I’d do everything with a smile because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Basically the opposite of what I did for my parents.

I’ve always been very focused on my own goals. When I set a goal, I know it’ll happen because I’m an effective person and I always figure out a way to win. Nobody bets against me- when playing poker people say I’m intimidating/ scary, and my coworker wrote a song about how everyone wants to be on my team.

For me, failure isn’t about not accomplishing a goal. I fail at having the wrong goals in the first place, a deeper problem. I have the arrogance to believe that if I’d made it my goal to delay my mother’s death, I could’ve. I just didn’t think about it because I was too selfish and on autopilot in my focus on work. Because work was always making progress and thus more fun and easy to deem worthy of attention, whereas she was not making progress, her health hard for me to control, and generally thus a distraction. I don’t regret not trying harder to keep her alive, but I do regret not showing her more love and connecting more with her instead of sitting there with my kindle and VPN-ing into work- so much wasted time.

Even though she didn’t seem like a big part of my world, her death changed my world. I’m grateful for how selfless and kind my friends and family are. I try to be a better person every day but it’s hard. Since I was a child, I’d grade myself and I almost always give myself a B-, which is, as I explain to my team when giving out our grades, an Asian F. I’ll tell them, “99% of startups die, so if we’re not at least 99th percentile as a startup, we’re getting killed.” I hired the type of people who find this inspiring. We like to work and we like to win. But every day I remind myself that success without love is the biggest failure.

I knew from the womb that for me a life without impact would be failure. I knew from all my reading that wealth without meaning was failure. I never need to worry about not being ambitious enough, not growing enough, not working enough, not being insightful/ introspective/ perceptive enough. I don’t even have to worry about not being compassionate or empathetic enough because when my attention is on you, I’m emotional, giving, thankful, and intuitive. The failure modes I have are the flip side of my strengths- I can be too focused, too competitive, too right. I have to be less judging and more patient, more generous with my attention. Since her death, I’ve learned that everyone I love is a chance to practice loving more, loving better. Grading myself, I’m still generally failing at this, but I’m thankful that the people I love don’t judge me too harshly for it.