The day after Thanksgiving, my mother called, worried I was going to die. I had mistakenly told her that I had heartburn, so she left a long voice mail reminding me of how my father had heartburn before he died of a heart attack at 50 while playing racquetball.
She pleaded with me to get a checkup, to get my blood work done. “Did you know you’ve been gaining weight lately?” she said.
Her voice started to break by the end of the message. I was her only son, and the men in her life tended to drop dead without warning, explanation or goodbye.
The day after my mother’s 80th birthday, her partner of more than 35 years, a man named Bing (who came after my father) died on a trip to Palm Springs with his friends, drowning alone in a hot tub at night with hypertension and alcohol as contributing factors.
Bing was like a father to me, yet he never imposed himself like stepfathers on TV. Even after he moved in when I was 5, he never disciplined me or gave fatherly lectures. Rather, he taught me how to fish on California’s Kern River and built me a huge treehouse in the backyard.
After Bing’s military burial by Marine veterans on a low hill outside of Bakersfield, my mother asked me to take her to Hawaii to visit her older sister who lives there with her daughter.
She had made a similar journey after my father died, a trip to paradise to get away from home and yet be close to the people who knew her partners and had stories to tell.
When my mother had explained Bing’s death to her neighbors of over 40 years, the husband said, “Isn’t that the second one you’ve lost?”
“He wasn’t supposed to die first!” she told me before our flight. “That’s why I picked a younger man; he wouldn’t do to me what your father did.”
This wasn’t the plan, for her or for me. Bing, just 73 when he died, was supposed to take care of her, keep the house in good shape and take out the trash.
In the 1960s, my mother and her sisters immigrated to Los Angeles after their home country of Indonesia fell into brutal conflict following Dutch decolonization. My mother had been raised with the belief that a woman’s job was to marry well and raise children. After my father died, she would often say, “No one taught me what to do if my husband kicked the bucket.”
As the only man left in her life, I flew her to Hawaii to heal her pain, and I used promises of beaches and snorkeling to persuade my husband to come too. I told him a vacation is what we need after all the sadness, and he sweetly agreed.
My aunt lives with my cousin and my cousin’s husband on the rainy Hilo side of the Big Island, where all the good hotels were booked, so the three of us ended up sharing one room in a motel with two beds and a struggling air-conditioner. It rained every day. When we weren’t visiting my relatives, we sat in bed eating takeout and watching TV.
My husband tried to stay cheerful, but the rain, my grieving mother and cramped quarters were a bit much. At night, my mother would cry out for Bing in her dreams.
I was desperate to make things better. My chest felt tight, but I ignored it. I wanted the healing to begin; this was Hawaii, after all. So we cut the visit to Hilo short, and I booked a condo on the sunny side of the island in Waikoloa.
As we drove over the crest of ancient volcanoes, the sun emerged, making the ocean glitter below. Our condo had two bedrooms and enough space to hide from each other, and it was on a golf course where wild turkeys roamed. That night, we fed them from our hands and felt some of the Hawaiian magic we had been looking for.
The next day, when we finally found ourselves on a white sandy beach, strange clouds began drifting overhead. They were dark and low and made me want to get somewhere safe.
Turns out a wildfire had broken out and strong winds were pushing the smoke our way. It became difficult to breathe, so we hunkered indoors watching the Tokyo Olympics.
“I didn’t come to Hawaii to watch TV,” my husband said on day two of the wildfire. We started arguing. My mother was grieving, and I felt like I couldn’t leave her alone. Yet I knew the trip was not turning out as promised.
Suddenly, all three of our phones blared an emergency message. Waikoloa Village, 15 minutes away by car, was being evacuated. We were told to prepare for possible evacuation too.
“Am I being punished by God?” my mother said, looking at the smoke. “Where do we evacuate to? The beach?” She sighed and went back to the TV, turning up the volume.
My husband marched into our bedroom and shut the door. He said that he was going out for a walk, that he didn’t care about the smoke, and that I better figure out something to do that wasn’t watching canoe races or horse jumps.
After he left, the tightness in my chest that I’d been trying to ignore sharpened and moved into my neck and jaw. I’d felt something like it before, but since Bing’s death, the pain had gotten worse. I thought it was my heart, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was there to heal my mother and give my husband a romantic Hawaiian adventure.
I lay down on the bedroom carpet and covered my eyes with the palms of my hands. I focused on big slow breaths until finally the pain subsided and I could stand and join my mother on the couch.
She kept a running commentary on which Olympic athletes she liked and which were showoffs. It was a familiar rhythm that I remembered from childhood, just the two of us watching TV, talking about everything and nothing. Then she said, “Bing wasn’t your father, but he loved you like a son. He took care of us the best he could.”
“I know, Mom,” I said. “I know.”
The next day the firefighters got the upper hand and evacuation orders were lifted. We salvaged what we could of our final days and were grateful to go home.
Weeks later, I went to my doctor. He told me my chest pains were mini-panic attacks but that my heart was OK. “You need to manage your stress better,” he said. “Take more walks, get better sleep, maybe try losing some weight.”
I left wondering if he and my mother were talking about me. I thought about my father and Bing, both gone. My father’s fate had always hung over me like a warning. Now Bing’s fate warned me not to waste a single minute.
It had been sunny and warm at Bing’s funeral. I remembered sweating as a group of us carried his coffin from the hearse. Even though my mother was supposed to go back to her seat, she remained by Bing’s coffin after she went up to kiss it.
Bing had a world of friends at the funeral who we didn’t know — fishing buddies, high school classmates and service members. Without prompting, my mother embraced every mourner as they came to pay their respects, as if she knew them.
I went to stand next to her as she did this, feeling like I was intruding on some other family’s grief, and I was amazed by how my mother let it all out, crying and talking to so many strangers. This wasn’t a part of the plan, either. My mother had just done it, surprising herself as much as the rest of us.
“I don’t know why I’m standing here,” she said as she held hands with one of Bing’s friends. “We all loved him so much, and now he’s gone, but our love is still here.”
Only looking back did I realize that my panic attacks were borne from my need to control life’s calamities and the feeling that I was failing to fix what couldn’t be fixed.
I loved Bing; I was grieving, too, and I had kept the grief at bay by trying to heal the heartache of those around me. But the pain had to come out, and it would be mixed with love, confusion and anger, and that was OK.
Having lost the second love of her life, my mother was awash with pain. Yet there she was, teaching us how to grieve. And I had almost missed the lesson.