The Circle of Life: Not a Disney Movie

On a cold day in April, my daughter and I traveled by car to Minnesota to visit my ailing sister-in-law, Lesley, who was my daughter’s aunt and my husband’s only sister. Lesley had discovered just two months before that she had a brain tumor. By the time they got her into surgery, it was worse than the doctors had originally suspected. The tumor was removed, all right, but when she awoke, Lesley had lost the feeling on her right side and was also partially blind. The prognosis wasn’t good; chemo was scheduled, but it wasn’t to cure her, only to prolong her life.

My husband and daughter had made the trip back in February to see her right after the surgery. It was not a fun time. Lesley was 51, only a few months older than I am. She was possibly one of the most vibrant and hyperactive people you’d ever want to meet. Whirling dervish comes to mind as a description. She would talk a mile a minute, and always had too many things to do. To see her reduced to the remnants of cancer wasn’t pleasant for anyone.

Alexa did not want to make the car trip again. First of all, she was bemoaning the fact that it was spring break and all her friends were in sunny Florida. She also was extremely close to her aunt, as they shared a godparent-godchild relationship. She cried a lot during the February visit and didn’t want to be that sad again. Being sixteen, she also flat out told me that she didn’t think she could endure eleven hours in the car with me.

Before I started working with my husband, I would take the kids on long road trips every summer. We’d be gone for three or four weeks, traveling the western US in the minivan. I thought they both enjoyed it, and tried to make things interesting and educational. So when she said she didn’t want to travel with me, I was a little apprehensive as well. Besides that, she was teen-aged and was in the full throes of “I hate mom” mode.

We started out a little late that morning and met with rush hour traffic. Alexa hadn’t slept the night before and was cranky. She tried to bait me into an argument with snide comments on my driving. Wisely, I didn’t bite. By the time we reached Ann Arbor, she decided to spend the next two and a half hours going over the events of the previous summer’s band trip to Europe. This was in blow-by-blow detail, including the intimate flirtations between the band members, her conductor’s inappropriate and bipolar behavior, French cheese and how it stinks, her sometimes-dysfunctional host families, and getting drunk in Luxembourg with people she didn’t know.

To be polite, I would interject with a question here and there, trying to sound like I was interested. (I was interested, but I had already heard this story back in July, when she related the gory details on the return trip home from Chicago.) She then tired of her summertime recollections and started to sing, and continued to sing for another four hours, non-stop. This would not be so bad if she was singing ballads or something vaguely harmonic, but she spent those four hours rapping to Ludicris and Fergie. The sad thing is that Alexa really can sing; she’d been taking voice lessons and when she really lets go, she’s as good as any professional out there. She started to dance in her seat as well, doing the “pop, rock and roll,” and started gyrating and waving her hands about, as well as she could do in the confines of a Toyota Prius.

In between all this commotion, and just on the north side of Chicago, I received a phone call from my husband telling me that his sister had taken a turn for the worse. They didn’t think she would last the day. Should I turn around and come home? I was already almost half way there. I tried to hurry without getting a ticket for speeding.

Alexa, who had been listening to my side of the conversation, fell silent but not for long. She acquiesced and started putting in CDs from the 70s and 80s-ones she had stolen from me! These included ABBA and Cyndi Lauper. Then she tried to get me to sing with her. I was not in the singing mood. I was thinking of more serious stuff, like dying too young. Eventually, I fell under her spell and started to sing along to Cyndi. “Girls just wanna have fun.” Hah!

Back in the day of our three-week road trips, I would make my kids listen to MY music, which back then was oldies and Shania Twain. I sang at the top of my lungs to all the songs. These days, I listen to classical music or talk radio. I haven’t karaoked in years. My singing voice is way out of whack. But the raucous, terrible singing kept our minds off of our inevitable destination and the more terrible things to follow.

Finally, our destination came into sight. It had been many years since I had last driven toward St. Paul on I-94, and the city looked bigger, more impressive. By this time, I had become snarled in the evening rush hour, and the Spaghetti Bowl was choked with traffic. We drove straight to the house as soon as we exited the freeway.

When we entered the house, it was worse than I expected. The living room was made into a makeshift hospital room. Lesley fallen into a coma the previous afternoon. There she was in her hospital bed, her once tall and lanky body now crumpled in a half fetal position. She was struggling to breathe, bald, much thinner than usual, and her eyes were wide open and darting about.

My daughter followed behind me, silent and stricken. There was something weird and polarizing about her, a young girl so full of life, who just hours before was be-bopping in the car, and now she was here in this solemn room, visiting her aunt, so near to death. Though in a coma, I was sure she could still feel and hear. Isn’t that what they tell you? They can still see and hear? I took Lesley’s hand, which was blazing hot with fever, and told her we were there. I positioned my face close to hers and stroked her arm. My daughter could not bring herself to come close. She started to sob and could only sit in a nearby chair, tissues in hand.

I didn’t really fault my daughter for her resistance to say a final goodbye to her aunt, although I wish she had said something to her, at the very least. I’ve seen death close up several times, and it’s no prettier and no easier with each occurrence. Now I am kicking myself all over because I was unable to make the first trip back to Minnesota in February. I could have seen Lesley then, when she still had some of her faculties. I could have had a serious heart to heart with her when she could still understand me. Now I could only tell the shell of her body what I felt and hoped that she was listening.

(Just after writing this paragraph, I received a call from my brother-in-law. Lesley’s struggle was over.)


Growing Up W-ASIAN

It’s the Homecoming Season, and, as usual, there’s a Powderpuff Football game held sometime during the festivities. (For those of you still under the proverbial rock, it’s when the girls play football and the boys cheer.) My daughter came home from school with an interesting football jersey for her team. I say this, because each girl got to pick the lettering on the back of the jersey, kind of an alter-ego of their real self. Keep in mind, this is a Catholic school, and she couldn’t choose anything racy. Her first choice was GOLDDIGGER, and she couldn’t understand why they didn’t go for that. After all, the school colors are gold and black. After thinking about it for a while, she decided on WASIAN, her slang for white-Asian.

This struck me as being kind of peculiar, because I’m only half Japanese, which makes my daughter only one-fourth. (My dad is the Heinz 57 mix of Greek, native American, Scottish and French Canadian; i.e. pretty much white.) My mother died when my daughter was just a baby, so she never got to know her Japanese grandmother. Through the years, any semblance of the Japanese culture, at least in my house, has been long since diluted. Except for making great sicky rice, I can’t even cook Japanese! (Of course, my mother was a terrible cook! Just pathetic! Her idea of a big dinner was either defrosting one or opening a can of whatever was in the cupboard.)

When my mother came here to the States as the wife of my military dad, she dove into America as her new home like she was diving into a big, deep, Olympic-sized swimming pool. There’s lots of room to breast stroke in this culture. It wasn’t easy; my dad’s mom lost close relatives in World War II, and at first, my grandmother held my mother personally responsible. Undaunted, my mother became an American citizen as soon as humanly possible, and prided herself on getting her driver’s license shortly after. She bought a big, American car, a ’68 Impala SS, and drove like a person possessed. She converted to Catholicism right after being made a citizen. First she landed a menial job, and then a better one, and eventually worked her way into the computer department of a large resort in Colorado, this when computers were gargantuan machines in big rooms and no one knew how to use them.

My mother rarely spoke Japanese, not even to her friends. It was kind of funny to see them speak to her in Japanese, and she would answer back in English. What little of the Japanese language I remember as a toddler is fading fast. In fact, my mom took college level English classes whenever possible. She wrote beautiful poetry in English, too, about being in her new homeland, America. She liked American movies, American fashion (Jackie O being her favorite in the 60s, then Madonna in the 80s), American food, and big-time American sin (Vegas being her favorite spot).

A truly Japanese wife would have been subservient to the wishes of her husband, and I saw this happen in some of my friends’ homes with their mothers. They didn’t work; they cooked and cleaned all day, and arranged flowers. My mother was not this kind of woman, and she didn’t want her daughters to be this way either. She was a champion for education, and thought we should all strive to get one and have decent jobs. Oh, sure, in some ways she was very traditional, but in others, she was way ahead of her time.

Eventually, freedom beckoned, she divorced my dad (God forbid!) and moved to California. She grew grapes in her backyard and still went to school. She played tennis. She worked. She still sped around in fast cars and still was a big fashionista, at least in her mind.

It really bothered me at first that my daughter was giving herself this WASIAN nickname. I don’t know what it was, exactly, that made me so uneasy. Was it because my husband and I have always tried to raise our children not to separate and stereotype, and here she was, separating and stereotyping? It wasn’t how I was raised; I was integrated into the rest of popular culture at the time. My mom embraced being American, and I guess I did, too.

I grew up in military towns most of my life, and I didn’t even begin to notice that I was not lily white and like all the ‘majority’ of Americans until almost middle school. In military towns, there was a lot of mixed blood going on, even in the 1960s. To me, we were all the same. When I was younger and pointed out as being “different”, it was because I was a hippie, not because of my race.

Was I bothered because my daughter is only one of a handful of partially “Asian” kids in her almost all-white school?  I’m still not certain what it is about this term that makes me pause. “Honey,” I said, “you are more white than Asian. You don’t even know what being Asian means!” Then I thought, I know what being an American means, but I’m not even sure I know what being Asian means.


3 Responses

  1. WASIAN; I don’t consider this as a put down, but one who is diverse and able to cross barriers that most can not. We live in a country (America) that has been made powerful and victorious due in part to its diversity. Diversity is strength, not a weakness. She should be proud of her mix heritage and so should you. Wear it as a badge of honor – WASIAN !!!!!

    Live and be blessed!

  2. I think it is wonderful that she is embracing that Asian part of herself! How lucky are you that your daughter is proud of who she is, and who you are.

    Your mother sounds like an awesome person, and I know I would have liked her. Kind of like you!

  3. Your mother sounds like a lovely woman and your love for her is very evident in this essay. A wonderful tribute!

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