COURTESY OF BESSIE LIU
Liu’s household often avoided directly talking about death and mortality.
I was probably about five or six when I first learned that my parents were considered to be “middle aged”. Naturally, I started preparing for their deaths. I vividly remember storing away palm-sized pictures of my mom and dad, faintly reminiscent of yearbook photos, in a jewelry box. I would sometimes take them out and, with a real sense of urgency, try to memorize my parent’s faces. Back then, I only thought about death in terms of its physical aftermath - the photos being a representation of my parents after they go, my memories of their faces being all I needed to keep them with me. A fairly practical way to confront the faint beginnings of my understanding of mortality.
Throughout a rather self-pitying elementary and middle school experience filled with friendship drama, family life remained a constant. I didn’t think much about my relationship with my parents for a while. But now, as someone who hasn’t yet experienced death first hand, I’m scared of what’s coming - and of how my family and I will meet it.
I remember a conversation I once had with my mom where she freaked out when I put a white hair tie around my wrist. She told me that in China, people wear white to funerals, and that I should never use that hair tie. Another time, my dad earnestly pointed out to me that the number 14 is considered unlucky because if you say it out loud in Chinese, it sounds like the word for death. I wonder if he did anything special or prayed extra hard when both I, and my sister, turned 14. Most likely because we are superstitious people who don’t want to trigger tragedies, my parents and I have never really talked about death or mortality. Over time, it’s become easier to just avoid the topic altogether with them.
My first real encounter with death happened in junior year of high school, when one of our guinea pigs died. It started when I noticed him sitting with his spine unnaturally arched. His eyes dimmed. He shrunk quickly. I remember hearing his breath rattle inside his small body, as I begged my parents to take him to the vet, despite their insistence that he would be okay. Two days later, my mom brought him home from the vet wrapped in a purple blanket, lying stiff inside a box. She tried to explain to me gently why they chose to euthanize him. It was one of two times I’ve ever seen her cry.
Sometimes it takes me a while to remember that neither of my parents have (knock on wood) had to deal with the loss of their parents yet – which is incredibly lucky and also unsettling. It’s uneasy to think of just how much can transpire in the months between family reunions, and just how unprepared we are to face our own mortality. I guess what I really want to say is that when the time comes, I’m afraid I won’t know what to do to help my parents through their grief. How to act as my mom did when our guinea pig was put to sleep, how to help lessen the pain for others when you yourself are struggling to deal with it.
Once my sister and I watched through dust-filmed windows as our dad argued with another driver about how we were late for a doctor’s appointment so could he please let this go and stop accusing us of a hit-and-run when there wasn’t even any appreciable damage; I was truly afraid that the other driver, whom I still resent to this day for what it’s worth, might kill him. Once on an overnight flight that had been delayed for half a day, my mom offered her lap so I could sleep lying down. Inexplicably I thought, as I curled up to fit across the seats, about how childish this felt – and about how one day I would not be able to touch her again. Memorizing photos seemed so inadequate then.
I always struggle when writing about my feelings toward my family - and yet I think it’s all I ever write about now. Every piece of writing, whether a poem or an attempt at fiction, is a mirror that I gaze into again and again, because I can never seem to match my emotions with my words. To me, love is complicated by fear. I’m always going to end up feeling like I could have done more, said more, made my feelings clear while there was still time. I’ve so far only taken the easy way out, by trying to write down what I’ve never been able to say to my loved ones.
On the morning of my eighteenth birthday, a few weeks before moving to Baltimore, my parents each wrote me a card (of course, there was also my sister who jokingly congratulated me for having such a cool sibling, but also thanked me for supporting her all these years). My dad and my mom both expressed how proud they were of me, of all I’ve accomplished and the fact that I’ve become all these different adjectives. My dad in particular painstakingly engraved a list of advice in 10 point font that filled his entire card, with bits of his broken English poking through. They both told me they’d never stop nagging me or offering advice because they love me.
In my family, we don’t typically have deeply personal or emotional discussions. It’s easier not to. So if I want to be able to tell my parents and sister I love them without feeling awkward or afraid, maybe I have to let my fear guide me. I really have procrastinated long enough.