Stories of a Long Goodbye

January 1st, 2024

Each seed my mom planted was a delicate story, waiting to blossom.

Since she died, I often sit where she once tenderly nurtured our garden. It was her Eden. Spring onions neatly framed its edges, while cherry tomatoes and cucumbers burst from its heart. With soil-smudged fingers and wind-tousled hair, she breathed life into earth.

Peeking out the window, I regularly spotted her silhouette, poised in quiet battle against perennial weeds or nursing a frail seedling back to strength. Curled up on the couch, I would watch her through the curtains narrow gap, soaking in the tranquility that draped around her. A double tap on the glass would meet with our eyes linking in mutual understanding. When I joined her, playful protests soon gave way to laughter and shared tasks. "Aiya, watch your step!" she'd chide, only to softly beckon moments later, "Come, help me water the cucumbers."

As her life's candle flickered, her affection for the garden, much like her love for life and me, never waned. She tended to each plant with a soft, enduring love, nurturing life that would eclipse her. This was her quiet defiance. A gentle stand against her own wilting vitality.

The day she passed, a profound stillness enveloped our home. The summer breeze stilled, and twilight's long shadows gently cradled her delicate figure. In those quiet moments, she found a peaceful acceptance, a resignation to the fate we both worked so hard to defy. Holding a humble congee (粥) offering, I sat down for that last conversation. I had hoped her parting wisdom would guide me in her absence. But in a fleeting moment, she slipped away.

"Don’t cry, don't be upset."

Her last words lingered in the muted air, the opening of a conversation that would never take root.

In the ensuing silence, I wrestled with the deep emptiness of the words left unsaid. The absence of closure ricocheted throughout each busy day or sleepless night, a constant murmur of 'what ifs.' In our final goodbye, lost were the words of wisdom I longed for, and the reassurances I yearned to offer.

Sitting where the garden used to be, eyes closed, a reel of memories unfolds, rich with laughter, tears, and cherished moments. Yet, there are empty spaces. Each signifying the times she should’ve been there: introducing her to my first love, her holding my child, lazy dim sum Sundays at my Chinatown apartment. I imagine her light-hearted quips, ‘She’s so beautiful, but does she have a good heart? Is she forgiving?’, Those big ears come from your grandpa!', ‘It’s small here. Move back home and I’ll cook.’ These vacancies, where her laughter should saturate the air and her wisdom should reverberate, are moments forever lost.

In my apartment, I try to recreate a slice of her haven. Pots of herbs sit at my table, lucky bamboo shoots line my windowsills, and leafy greens adorn the walls. I hoped that in plunging my hands into the cool, crumbly soil, I will feel her presence, finding the understanding I’d sought.

My plants thrive, but they don’t mask the emptiness. Small, random moments ambush me— the elderly Chinese lady selling zongzi (粽子) by the subway, the familiar tang of pickled vegetables in my congee (粥), the distant sound of guoyue (国乐) drifting into my apartment. Each encounter is a fragment of her, close yet perpetually beyond reach.

Amidst the echoes of her garden that linger in my memory, I sometimes catch whispers of her voice. In the stories she wove between the rows of spring onions and cherry tomatoes, I unearth seeds of wisdom she left for me. Snippets of stories we shared. These recollections don't offer closure, but they bring a fleeting sense of connection, a hint of the guidance she might have imparted. It's in these stories, slowly fading but still within grasp, that I find the reassurance and wisdom that I had sought in our abrupt goodbye.

In moments I’m overwhelmed with the urge to bury my head in my palms, memories of my mother and our battles against tenacious weeds embrace me in a bear hug. Without tending, weeds of grief grew wild, casting shadows over once bright memories and creeping into new ones at inopportune, painful times. A self-inflicted cycle of metastatic grief reflected our garden struggles and the disease that sapped my mom’s strength.

As a child, I once asked on a sun-drenched afternoon Why do you keep pulling these weeds? They just come back.”

She responded with a soft smile, doubling down on her work without answering. It was there, amidst the stubborn weeds and flourishing blooms, that a seed of understanding, planted over a decade ago, now sprouts. Like the persistent plants we nurtured and battled, our feelings, too, quietly demand our care and attention lest we let them overrun us. Each weed she pulled was a silent lesson, an unspoken teaching: sorrows of the heart need tending, too.

In moments when I doubt if my love is reciprocated, I feel subtle manifestations of my mother’s care.

We were never a family of many words. Declarations of love, those simple three words, never quite found their way into our conversations. Yet, many evenings, a woven basket of cucumbers, each one picked earlier that morning, welcomed me home when nobody could.

My mother’s love was palpable in these silent testaments of her meticulous care. It was her way of expressing what words could not. More than mere vegetables from our garden, they were testaments to her quiet, unwavering affection.

It was, at it’s core, a lesson in recognizing love’s diverse dialects. To look beyond the conventional; to see the multitude of ways love manifests. Her love was in the soil-stained gloves left by the kitchen sink, in the meticulously watered rows of vegetables, and in the produce she placed in the basket. Her love was in the everyday, the mundane, consistent acts ingrained into the humdrum of our day to day.

On her last trek into the garden, as I watched her frail form amongst the resilient cucumber stalks, I resisted the urge to call her inside. At the time, I didn’t truly understand the finality of that moment, but I like to think that my heart recognized it as her way of bidding farewell. It wasn't through words, but through seeds, soil, and an unwavering love for life. In that silent goodbye, she bequeathed to me the greatest gift – the wisdom to find growth amidst my grief, to view life through the verdant lens she gifted me. Now, as I tend to a garden of my own, I realize she never truly left. She rooted herself within the very essence of my being, blossoming in ways I'm only beginning to comprehend. In every sprout that breaks the soil and every weed I pull, her presence is as tangible as the earth beneath my fingers, a constant guide in the garden of my life.