Elegy to a brother, part 5 – hummingbird

[This is the fifth in a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent remembering and lamenting is what’s supposed to be happening here. But there seems to be less lamenting and more healing in my heart with each installment.]

On the day of Mark’s funeral, the sun is shining and the air is warm. We get to be outside at the cemetery for the service, and this is much better than a stale-aired in-door experience. It feels casual, like Mark would have preferred, and Mother Earth is coming through with a beautiful day.

Our eldest brother Ted shows up in shorts. I mock him for this, but he has the right answer: they’re nice shorts, and it’s really hot today, and Mark would prefer everyone to be comfortable. Mark was the consummate slob and, as far as I could discern, did not care in the slightest about decorum and formality.


Mark dropped a million balls in his human life, but he rarely let down the little creatures of earth he decided to care for. The hummingbirds who resided in the trees in Mom’s yard made his list. He kept hummingbird feeders on the patio, and they were always properly stocked. He would sit outside in the mornings, contemplative, often stoned, and make observations. The hummingbirds were very important to him.

He observed the neighborhood hummingbird patterns with curiosity and childhood wonder. He knew where they lived, which trees they descended from to visit the feeders. There were several different breeds that frequented the feeders, Mark explained. They took turns, in a particular order and at different times of day, like a timeshare. He liked that they shared instead of arguing and battling all the time.

Occasionally, I would be outside at the right times to observe some of the action. Watching the wee blurred figures — flitting around too fast to see clearly for more than a split-second at a time — I could understand Mark’s love for them. They lived ephemerally, grateful for what was given, not greedy in their behaviors, too flighty to stick around for any attachment, little puffs of whimsy.

More than a bit like Mark.


The funeral service is what it is. There are Korean pastors (did they speak any Korean? I can’t remember). There are prayers and readings, there is some form of sermon. There is eulogizing by brother Eric. There is an unscheduled, pretty bizarre, and overly-long share by Mark’s friend and fellow pot-grower J-. Is there singing? I don’t remember, but probably.

I’m sitting in the front row of seats next to Mom, holding hands, sniffling, trying to remember that my dress is short so I need to keep my knees together and sideways on this uncomfortable folding chair. She hasn’t been able to shed eye tears since her stroke, but her bitter sorrow is weeping from every cell of her body. I remember that at some point I’m sitting next to Eric too, and he’s also suffering badly, but was he between me and Mom or on my other side? I simply can’t place the order of things, it’s all muddled in my head. My memory is a mosaic, not a line.

But I think that doesn’t matter, as I sit here more than two years later. I’m beginning to understand that what matters is the mythology we build as we rescue ourselves and each other from the moments of deepest grief, a combination of actual facts and wishful thinking. Technical accuracy isn’t important.

And so this one true thing happens as I sit uncomfortably in the front row of chairs on the cemetery lawn, trying not to get bored or distracted or irritated by ritual banalities, keeping my knees together so folks won’t see my underpants:

A perfect red-headed hummingbird flies up to the floral wreath sitting on the easel next to the speaker dais. It stays for much longer than a hummingbird should.

It is a moment of pure, breathtaking magic.

I gasp. Eric startles. We look at each other in wonder and actually smile.

Maybe it’s just coincidence. Or maybe hummingbirds are everywhere all the time and I just never notice, except today I’m under duress and everything is pouring into my perception because lots of crazy chemical things are happening in my body. Maybe the whole of life on earth is an empty, chaotic anarchy with no meaning at all.

But that won’t do.

The mythology begins to spin up in an instant. Mark’s spirit send the bird. Mother Earth sent it to say goodbye to him. It’s Mark himself, come to tell us he’s okay – a parting gift from my fay, sweet, gone brother.

I can shape the myth any way I like. Whatever myth I choose, I see that there is a piece of what made Mark beautiful in it, and there’s as much joy as there is grief in that.

Elegy to a brother, part 4 – weed(s)

[This is the fourth in a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent remembering and lamenting is what’s happening here. Onward, and perhaps some odd humor in this episode.]

Mark was a natural born gardener. He loved to grow edible things: tomatoes, cantaloupes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans, cucumbers, marijuana.

He kept gardens at my mom’s house and at one of her rental properties, where his friend J– was a tenant. He was devoted to his plants with a wonder and joy that infected me. He watered, fertilized, even occasionally weeded. He loved bringing vegetables into the house for mom and sharing them with others. Mom would give his beautiful vegetables to church members and neighbors, proudly bragging that her son had grown them. He’d get on the phone with me and go on and on about his plants and his harvests, the excellent pickles Mom had made, the delicious salsa J– made.

If I was in town at the right time of year, he and I would head over to the local nursery and buy seedlings for him to plant. When I built and established our own vegetable boxes out front, early in the pandemic, I thought of him as we filled the boxes with soil and chose the plants to grow. I didn’t know how much the simple pleasure of growing and harvesting vegetables in my yard was connected to him, until he was gone.


There’s a quirky issue I decide to deal with while we’re in Stockton for Mark’s funeral: all the marijuana.

Mark has collected 6 or 7 plants in large black plastic nursery pots. I think only three of those are legal. There are rules and limits in California for how many plants a non-dealer can have. Based on my experience with Mark’s poor decision-making, I am certain he has exceeded those rules and limits. Mark also has a couple plants in the ground, among the vegetables. Having weed in the ground in a personal residence is definitely illegal, as far as I know.

I infer from the placement of the in-ground plants that Mark has been tactical. The bigger of the two plants towers at about 7 feet tall, its diameter exceeding my 5-foot wingspan significantly. It is magnificent, and it’s also begging for a police visit. But he’s got it next to the pole beans, which tower even higher and wider in a dense, thriving thatch that makes it nearly impossible to spy the weed from the road.

Well played, Mark.

What I can’t fathom is how Mom has never noticed. The scent alone is unmistakable. Then again, maybe she did notice but simply admitted defeat.


Mark used to sit outside at night in the darkness on Mom’s patio, surrounded by his pack of semi-feral dogs, smoking and playing poker on his phone. When we were in town, Anthony and I would frequently join him. We haven’t smoked anything in decades, but we would bring out our drinks and catch the fresh air, talk a bit. During one of these moments, Mark chattered happily about his pot plants, in his superficially cheerful way. They were growing well, the buds were going to form up soon, these were special cultivars that were intended for a certain type of high, he could only have this many or that many, these pots were the right size, he had a couple extra over what the law allowed but that was okay, if he got the good harvest he expected he’d be able to share with friends, he promised he wouldn’t sell any and get arrested, he told mom they were tomato plants.

Hold on now.

You told her what?

Yeah, he laughed. She asked what they were, and I told her they were tomato plants.

I was filled with dissonance. Mark was caregiver to Mom. He wished her well. How could he lie to her like this, possibly endanger her with the law by having too many pot plants on her property? He relied entirely on her for income, room, board, clothing, basic needs, everything. What was he thinking?

I always struggled to find my way through my feelings, in moments like this. I was angry at Mark for the selfishness of the situation, and yet I also knew him not to be selfish. Maybe addiction played a role, but it felt like more than that. He had been a crank dealer early in his adulthood, and maybe he was a little too comfortable with the idea of making a bit of side money that didn’t come from Mom. Maybe he was compelled to do risky things as a sort of middle finger to Mom. Maybe growing excessive quantities of pot brought him a gardener’s happiness. Maybe he liked having gifts for friends. Maybe he was just a walking sack of unadulterated impulsivity and nihilism.

Where I inevitably ended up was, maybe he deserved my compassion and acceptance, because his life was pretty shitty. Maybe all those unanswered needs swirling around his mental health, all the stigma attached to his life’s journey, all his failures and stumbles and falls, all his loneliness… Maybe all of it felt a little further away when he looked at a bunch of thriving weed next to the beans and zucchini.

The next day, I sat outside with Mom and Anthony in the morning, enjoying the patio’s warmth. We were all facing the array of potted plants.

Mom remarked, “Mark is growing those tomato plants, but there are no tomatoes coming in.” She looked puzzled.

Anthony and I glanced at each other and tried not to laugh. Anthony commented dryly and quietly, “Those aren’t tomato plants.”

Mom was oddly firm in her reply. “Yes they are. Mark said so.”


As the funeral day approaches, there are in fact authentic tomato plants in Mom’s vegetable bed, and they are in fact bearing fruit. I’m going to leave those of course, but Anthony and I decide to get rid of the false tomatoes for Mom’s sake. We dig the plants out and throw them street-side, roots and all, hoping someone will just take them and that the police won’t drive by at the wrong moment. The guy next door takes a couple of the pots of pot, and the remainder we give to Mark’s friend Doug. I think Doug ends up taking the dug-up plants too; he has to use his trailer to fit them. It’s a bonanza.

Later on, I stand and stare down at the hole left in the vegetable garden, shaking my head and trying not to turn it into a banal metaphor for the hole Mark’s death will leave in my life. I pick green beans and tomatoes and zucchinis, all planted and watered by Mark in the months before he collapsed. There are so many that we’ll never be able to eat them all, but I don’t know how to leave them on the plants to wither and die.

I carry piles of vegetables into the house. Mom and I marvel at the bounty Mark has left behind.

Elegy to a brother, part 3 – re-arranging

This is the third in a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent remembering and lamenting is what’s happening here. Onward.]

Preparing for a funeral is an odd business, especially in the COVID era. There are no vaccines yet, and we have no idea how any of this is going to go. Mark’s funeral has to be outside, and it can’t have very many attendees, and there will be no modern screen on which to stream photos, and scheduling it takes some time. But that is all in other people’s hands. The only thing I can add is empty whimsy. I do this by putting together a couple foam-board photo displays and ordering flowers.

The photo foam-boards are very low-rez, low-tech, and low-skill. Before we leave Wisconsin, I rifle through my physical photos and grab a random assortment of old Mark pics. I spend a bit of time on my computer and print some more recent pics onto regular paper, because that’s all I’ve got. I throw that all into an envelope and the envelope disappears into the cavernous rented minivan. In Stockton, I buy a couple poster-size foam boards and I use a glue stick to stick photos on them. I hand-write some words – birth date, death date, brother, friend, son, that sort of thing.

I get Mark’s birthday wrong but no one even notices until after the funeral.

It’s not well done, but it’s done well enough. Mark would appreciate the effort and laugh, I think.


Many many years ago, while I was still practicing law and experiencing unholy levels of stress and anxiety, I did a lot of knitting. It was neurotic and intense, of course. I made original-design Irish fisherman sweaters covered in extreme cabling for Anthony and lace blankets for various babies, working from a couple encyclopedic book collections of stitches. Once I made Anthony a sweater out of a gorgeous nubby grey-brown wool, but the dimensions didn’t come out quite right for him. I took it with me to California that Christmas and offered it to Mark.He put it on. The sweater didn’t reach the top of his pants, and the arms went halfway down his hands. But he claimed he loved it. I sort of believed him.

Eventually, Mark admitted to me that he wore the sweater occasionally as a novelty. He would put it on when friends were over. He demonstrated for me.

“Do you like this sweater? My sister knitted it.”

<A perfectly timed pause as he looks down and takes in the overlong arms and short torso:>

“She’s a lawyer.”


In addition to the photo posters, I remember to order funeral flowers. I go to FTD.com and look through the funeral wreaths. I want to get one of those big ones that sit on an easel. But as I stare at the bleached-out white-flower samples, I just can’t. It’s all so blank and cold. Through the computer screen I can practically smell the stink of lilies, the stench of death rites. If I get one of these wreaths, I’ll feel it grimly judging Mark and me and all of us. Mark deserves something more joyful and glorious to send him off. He doesn’t need to be judged anymore.


Back in 2001, there were a lot of flowers at my dad’s funeral, and a lot of flowers were delivered to mom’s house as well.

I didn’t understand the scope of it until Anthony and I went over to Mark’s house a couple days after the funeral. We walked into a sort of wonderland. Mark had taken home as many of the funeral flowers as he could. He disassembled them and filled every vase, bowl, and glass, every flower-capable vessel in his house, with his own re-arrangements of flowers, large and small. Every table and shelf was covered in flowers, hundreds of flowers, no exaggeration.

I don’t think Mark was using crank at that point in his life, but he might as well have been. He was buzzing, mentally and physically, like a bee in the heart of summer. He pottered about the rooms in a nervous fuss, describing what he was thinking about with the arrangements, adjusting flowers, moving containers from here to there, checking the water, describing to us his artistic thinking and decisions. This flower here because its color goes with that flower; this blue arrangement, this yellow arrangement, these tall, those short.

I thought it was a very beautiful and very, very strange way to cope with the grief of watching his father die.


The flowers for Mark’s funeral have become weirdly important to me too. After spending unreasonable amounts of time making a decision, I order a multi-colored easel wreath through FTD.com, to be delivered to the cemetery.

When I get to the funeral site, under a small tent on the lawn at the cemetery, the wreath has already been delivered. It’s huge and fantastic and colorful. There it sits, monolithic and perfect next to my sorry-ass foam board photo displays.

The humans at the funeral look at each other meaningfully and cringe through the awkward moments and touch each other for support and cry and hug and breath. The wreath does not care.

After the funeral, the wreath heads on to Mom’s house, where it gets set up poolside. I finally take a closer look at it and see there’s a card. I open the card.

It’s not my wreath.

This enormous, gorgeous, rainbow wreath has been sent by a thoughtful cousin who lives in Seattle. My $300 wreath has not arrived. Damn. But apparently, I’m not the only one who understood we shouldn’t say good bye to Mark in all-white flora. So that’s good.

I call the local florist and there’s been a mixup. She thought the funeral was tomorrow. There is sadness in her voice. I know what Mark would do, and it’s the same as what I do: I tell her to send the wreath over to Mom’s house. We can enjoy it poolside along with the cousin’s wreath.

My wreath arrives on its easel a few hours later. It’s beautiful and colorful and all the right things, inane and whimsical and I don’t know why we do so much with flowers when a person dies. Why? Why cut a bunch of beautiful living things off from their mother plant and send them to people grieving for a death, just so we can watch more things wilt and die? Why can’t we do something more permanent, more… alive?


A couple weeks ago, for about 20 seconds Mark was still alive. Sometimes this happens with me, and then I have to say goodbye to him anew. This is how I remember the most recent round, through the hurricane haze of emotions:

I was going somewhere or coming from somewhere, in the car. I pulled into wherever I was landing. I was thinking about all sorts of things in my racing-thoughts way and a thing came into my mind that made me chuckle and roll my eyes. I reached for my phone, thinking, “oh this’ll make Mark laugh, I think I’ll give him a call.”

I had the phone in my hand before I realized there is no longer a Mark I can call. I experienced it physically, just exactly like I’d been punched lightly in the gut. My shoulders hunched and I bent forward a little, and my breath left me in a small puff. I put the phone back down and tried to re-arrange my mind to reality. When I succeeded, I wept for a little while and then carried on.

Elegy to a brother, part 2

[This is the second in what will be a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent lamenting is what we’re talking about here, with a loose idea of building this lament in elegiac past/present prose couplets as a meaningless and misguided nod to meaningless classical forms. Because I think this last bit would have made Mark laugh at me, in wry puzzlement and love.]

I had plans to visit Mark and mom back in March of 2020, by myself. I had arranged the trip months earlier, before the COVID-19 pandemic blossomed. My intent was to take a short break from my own parenting responsibilities, going on 15 relentless years, and to provide some respite to Mark, who was surviving also-relentless years as mom’s caregiver. Mark had a couple heart attacks over the prior few years, and I could tell that he was emotionally bone-weary. He would often make comments about being okay with dying, being ready.

This was mildly terrifying.

I wanted to visit with Mark in person and offer some gratitude to him for the daily grind he put up with. I intended to give him some rest, and to spend some child-free time with him and mom. But the pandemic hit and no one knew what was going to happen. With mom’s age and Mark’s heart health, we couldn’t risk bringing the disease to them via air travel. (The first vaccines wouldn’t be available until late 2020.) After a brief discussion with Mark in February, I cancelled the trip.


About half an hour after learning of Mark’s death, some five months after the cancelled trip, I start mulling the bitter fact that coronavirus took away my last chance to see him alive, my last chance to hug him, sit with him in the yard looking at stars at night or watching hummingbirds in the morning, make a good meal for him, potter in his vegetable garden with him. Even worse, I start thinking about whether a week’s respite for him, back in March, might have changed the outcome I was staring at: my brother collapsing in sudden death on the kitchen floor, probably after dipping into crank despite the state of his heart.

Foolish to imagine I could have made a difference, but I’ve survived half a century fighting off the sense, in the manner of OCD, that I’m responsible for everyone and everything that goes wrong on earth. Even worse is the simple fact that I can’t remember my last conversation with Mark.


About that crank – not crack, but crank.

Meth, speed, ice, poor man’s coke. It was an addiction Mark faced off with for much of his adult life. When he was on it, he had what I called raccoon eyes, unnatural dark patches under his eyes that were a giveaway. I remember first noticing them at my wedding, then for some years they were gone, and then I saw them again the last couple times I visited him in person.

Meth is a really bad idea when you’ve had two heart attacks and need some repair work on your heart. Thus, I hypothesize that meth played a significant role in causing Mark’s death. But that’s a superficial, non-philosophical way of looking at this story. The more important questions are humanistic, not anatomical. Why did Mark turn to crank? Why did he struggle with addiction? Why would he use a drug that he knew could kill him?

In the last few years of his life (it’s still very hard for me to say that, so different from “recently”), Mark and I would dance around the subject of mental health. He was bound up by stigma, well-trained by my mom and our culture to evade the painful likelihood that depression, anxiety, stress, and maybe some other labels were in play whenever his life fell apart. I was walking a different path, following my daughter Jesse’s massive mental health challenges to a stuttering awakening about myself, my history of depression and anxiety and trauma, and my ongoing need for therapeutic supports. I didn’t know how to invite him to cross the bridge with me, without coming across as arrogant or bossy or smug.

I would occasionally ask Mark, as gently and indirectly as I could, whether he was doing okay emotionally. He would inevitably say, “I’m fine, I’m okay.” But he would yell at my mom over little things and then hate himself for it. He would pretend he was okay with his life, but I could see his self esteem was in the toilet. He lived a strange life, with a handful of half-feral rescued dogs to sleep with at night, fully dependent on my mom’s financial support. Instead of seeking the help of a therapist, maybe making some tough decisions to extract himself from a very unhealthy co-dependent living arrangement with my mom, I think he turned to crank. It was probably easier than the Herculean task of overcoming stigma and false shame. I wish I had been able to offer him a stronger hand to hold. I wish I could have smashed stigma for him, with him, before it was too late.


Mark’s death during a pandemic, 2000 miles away, has us in a pinch. COVID-19 has made common things like travel and funerals difficult. Air travel is not an option – there’s not a chance my kids are going to make it through a 5 hour flight, wearing masks, without personality-annihilating emotional and behavioral explosions.

But I have an extraordinary husband who resolves all the questions. Monday morning, less than a day after Mark has died, Anthony announces that we need to make the 30+ hour drive to California to be with my family and attend whatever funeral can be mounted under COVID strictures. We’ll eat out of coolers along the way and stay in clean, national-brand hotels with safety protocols that meet our standards.

By the end of the day Monday, we’ve made boarding arrangements for the dogs, set up caretaking visitations to our gardens and fish, packed, and rented a car.

We have to rent a larger car because we will gouge each others’ eyeballs out if we have to spend 30 hours in our little station wagon, over the course of just three days. Anthony exceeds my expectations, which are for an SUV of some sort.  He comes home from the rental agency in an enormous minivan, with three rows of seats spaced so far apart that we can meet CDC social distancing guidelines in one vehicle. We fill available storage spaces with two coolers, one big suitcase, a bag of shoes, random sundries, pillows and blankets, 50 electronic devices and charging cords, and two Razor scooters.

The scooters are Jesse’s idea. There’s room for them, so we say yes instead of arguing.

I’d like to say the drive goes smoothly. But Jesse in a car for 30 hours in three days is impossible to describe, bordering on unbearable. It is a test for her and everyone around her. Verbal and physical tics, emotional jags, anger and fear and rage, sorrow for the loss of her uncle, cruelty and loneliness and desperate need are all bound up in one little volcanic wisp of a 15-year-old body. Add two exhausted and grief-filled parents and one pissed-off little brother, and it’s not pretty at times.  

There is much yelling. Everyone feels awful afterwards.

Still… at some level, it does go smoothly. All eyeballs are accounted for by the time we reach Stockton, California. The scooters pay off, because the kids use them at longer rest stops to loosen up and get rid of some energy.  We never get lost, and we find good hotel stops along the way. We drive through extraordinary western landscapes. The weather is good to us. We keep trying to get along.

It almost feels like a mini-vacation at times, though that fiction always fizzles for me. We’re on our way to bury my brother.

Elegy to a brother, part 1

[This is the first in what will be a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent lamenting is what we’re talking about here, with a loose idea of building this lament in elegiac past/present prose couplets as a meaningless and misguided nod to meaningless classical forms. Because I think this last bit would have made Mark laugh at me, in wry puzzlement and love.]

It’s a Sunday evening in the summer of 2020, in the heart of the COVID pandemic. I’ve called my mom because I’ve just gotten word from my brother Ted: my brother Mark, who lives with and looks after mom, is being rushed to the hospital after collapsing. I need to find out what hospital Mark’s being taken to.

Mom responds to my query with clarity: he’s not going to the hospital, Carla.

I’m confused.

“He died.” She blurts the two words out in a gasping whisper. Her voice is so quiet I can barely hear it. Mark died, he’s right here, he collapsed in the kitchen and I couldn’t wake him up. He was warm and then he got cold, the paramedics tried to wake him up but they couldn’t.

“Oh no oh no oh no.”  I hear the words but don’t quite know that my own body is speaking. I gag as I push down sobs and the crushing feeling I remember from 19 years earlier.


In 2001, two days after 9/11 and on my birthday, my dad died. He had endured an emergency heart surgery and several weeks in the ICU. Mark hated seeing him that way, suffering and hooked into a phalanx of machines in a corporate complex full of strangers, wires and tubes and whirring and beeping and everything that isn’t human and home. When dad finally experienced full systems crash, Mom and Mark rushed to the hospital and quickly signed whatever needed signing to remove life support, and sat with dad while he took his last breaths.

A few moments later, Mark called me from the bathroom in dad’s hospital room, where he had taken refuge from whatever weird things mom and an uncle were doing. I thought he was calling to wish me a happy birthday, but no. When I finally understood the message he was delivering, grief engulfed me with heaving animal noises. Mark waited me out peacably. For years after, he would remark on my reaction with what seemed like bemused wonder. It always surprised me that he recalled it so clearly, through the filter of his own loss in that moment. He would mention it, shake his head, and laugh ruefully. “Dude, that sucks that dad died on your birthday. That just sucks.”


These memories flick through me in a heartbeat, 19 years later. I know I have to be present and calm for mom, because she’s more than 2000 miles away, an old woman in her house with her son’s dead body, paramedics doing paramedic things, her closest family more than an hour away. So I push it down.

Mark showed me the way. I’ve got this.

Mom and I manage a moment of shocked, shared grief, and then we agree that I need to call Ted and Eric, my alive brothers who think Mark is still alive. I hang up and gather myself, sitting alone in my bedroom, leaning into the corner of the house so I don’t fall down. I know Anthony and the kids can hear me from downstairs, I know that they know something is terribly wrong.  I heave with sobs for a few minutes, breathe deeply and slowly in the way years of therapy have taught me, and successfully avoid vomiting.  I push it all down and wipe my face off.

My mind is racing as I make my first call to Eric, who is just 14 months younger than Mark. Eric and Mark are tight.  I’m remembering how hard it was for Mark to get me to understand that dad had died, how much that frustrated him; and so I won’t be using euphemisms like “gone” and “passed” and “at peace.”  I have to get the message through quickly, like a Deacon Jones head slap off the line.

Eric answers the phone and busily lets me know he’s busy getting ready to go down to Stockton for Mark and mom, and I think he asks me about hospitals.  I can’t remember all the words, because I’m pushing so much down emotionally. I think I ask him if he’s in a safe place so that we can talk, and then I tell him. Mark isn’t going to a hospital.  He died.


Mark is dead. He died. He’s in mom’s house right now, in the kitchen.

Eric breaks into feral, grunting sounds, animal noises of suffering grief that I recognize. As my heart shatters for him, I finally understand Mark’s remarks through the past two decades, about my own reaction to the news that dad died. It wasn’t bemusement Mark felt. It was responsibility – for a moment when he caused me so much pain. I hold onto that connection and it calms me. Mark did so many hard things. I can do hard things too. I need to cause another brother pain now.

I call Ted next.  He’s on the road to Stockton already, still believing Mark is alive and en route to a hospital. I deliver the news.  His grief expresses itself quietly, like a shift in the breeze, a whisper; but it’s still a sledgehammer. He pulls over to the side of the road.

I keep pushing it all down, and we get to the practical business of dealing with the messy fact that Mark is lying dead in Mom’s house.


I loved living in Seoul, Korea as a little girl. It was a vibrant, third-world urban mess with family and a grandma who doted on me.  I hated living in Stockton, California, where we moved when I was 10. I never felt like I fit in there, and I was very lonely.  Life was complicated because of my parents’ volatile marriage, financial insecurities, and sibling challenges. Belatedly, I see that racism also played a heavy hand in my youthful American experiences.  So I went across the country to college, and other than a brief year after getting my undergraduate degree, I left California and never looked back.

If I was the prodigal daughter, running as far away as I could, Mark was the son who stayed. Stockton was the place for him, near my mom and dad and his childhood friends.

With Ted, Eric and me in more distant locales — I the furthest away — Mark carried on best he could with the increasing obligations of caring for aging parents.

Mark visited dad every day in hospital at the end.

When mom had a stroke some years after, Mark was the one her husband John called. Mark called 911, got her to the hospital, tended her through her recovery, managed her medications and doctors and therapists.

When mom fell out of bed and broke her hip, and John was too out of it to know what to do, Mark was the one who figured out something was wrong and, once again, called 911, got mom to the hospital, took her through another long recovery.

Mark was the one mom called when John died in mom’s home — the same home where Mark would die. Mark gave John CPR until the paramedics arrived, though the effort could not save John’s life anymore than the EMTs could safe Mark’s.

Mark was the one who moved in with Mom after John’s death, because Mom couldn’t successfully live alone anymore.  

When mom was hospitalized for two or more weeks during the pandemic for fluid around her heart and lungs, Mark would drive to the hospital every day and just sit outside by the entrance. He wasn’t allowed in, of course. When I asked one day why he went there anyway, he replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I can get in today. I need to be here.”

Mark wasn’t perfect and he dropped balls and he had lifelong addiction issues. But he was always there. The rest of us came when we could, and left when we needed to. Mark’s world was with dad and then John and always mom, in a cycle of co-dependency.  It was a burden and journey that I imagine broke his heart.


Back in Stockton, Mom’s at home with her dead son and a couple paramedics, and Ted is still more than an hour out.

A paramedic has told me they’re going to leave before the coroner’s office gets there, so mom will be alone with Mark’s body and needs to not touch it. I try not to lash out as I explain the obvious to him: you can’t leave an elderly mother alone in a house with her dead son and expect her to leave his body alone! What are you thinking?

I make some calls, Eric makes some calls, we start working all the things out. I ask my alive brothers to please drive safely. I can only lose one tonight.

For decades, Mark has been the one who navigated with mom through the impossible moments. Who will do it now?

Conversations with little grandma, #3: apple picking

Mom, let’s go apple-picking. Have you ever been apple-picking?

Mom looks at me with curiosity. “What, apple-picking?”

Yeah, apple picking. We go to an apple orchard, and we pick our own apples. We do it every year.

“Yah, let’s go apple-picking!”

Nick and Anthony aren’t very interested this year, so on a Friday when Jesse doesn’t have school, the 3-gen girls hit the road, two daughters and a mother, all of us no taller than the 5th percentile of height in America.

Mom is enthusiastic about doing something new. “On Hildreth [her old street in California] someone every year had this, you could go pick apples, but I never did it.”

88 years she’s waited for this experience. I am providing. It’s fun, I tell her, low key but fun. The apples are so fresh, pick one and bite into it, even a bad apple fresh off the tree is better than the best apple at the supermarket. Mom nods. We make plans to pick way too many apples. She can give some to the workers painting her house and to church friends.

I’ve read news on the website for the farm we’re going to: the Honeycrisps are ripe and ready for pick-your-own as of Thursday. I love Honeycrisps, and this is Friday. We’re getting there before the weekend so the pickings should be good. But when we arrive at the farm, the lady handing out bags tells me that, in fact, the Honeycrisp harvest stinks. There’s almost nothing on the trees.

We adjust. Pippins are nice. We drive down the dirt lane, past several other apple varieties I’m not interested in. The Pippins are at the very end, two rows of trees, and just one other car is parked there. Mom looks very curious as we pull up.

The trees are dripping with ripe apples. Mom is ooh’ing and aah’ing. Jesse is sixteen, so I have to tell her to put down her phone and grab a bag. We march down the row of trees, at least half way down so we can get to trees that fewer visitors have touched.

Mom starts out quick, pulling the closest apples she can reach and muttering ruefully about the apples that have already fallen to the ground. I haven’t seen her this young in decades. She’s laughing out loud about the abundance of apples, chattering about how she never got to do this before, how beautiful it is here. I suggest she slow down — choose the biggest, best ones, be picky. Mom, Jesse and I take juicy bites out of a shared apple and stand still under the blue sky for a bit, savoring the fresh tang.

As we gather apples, we take note of the often-paired ones, nose to nose – you pick one, the other of the pair falls off. So you have to take them both, or what a waste. Like twins, I say. They’re married, Jesse says. Like brother and sister, little grandma says.

We wander slowly up and down the row, trying not to pick all our apples from just one tree. I manage a couple pictures, but it’s an extremely low priority. Our hands are full of apples most of the time.

(Those aren’t Jesse’s natural cheeks by the way. Those cheeks are absolutely stuffed with apples in this picture. It was just too delicious for her to stop eating for the photo op.)

I walk away with purpose and spy from a distance. What a wonder my bookend girls are, my mother and my daughter. Jesse gets maternally protective, giving me the occasional stink-eye for not watching over her little grandma more carefully. The henpecking is gentle, responsible, loving. Grandma, be careful. Grandma, don’t go in there. Grandma, let me hold that for you. Grandma, what are you doing? Little Grandma seems to enjoy the attention. Jesse looks bemused as mom walks right into the center of a tree, among the branches, and comes back out laughing and carrying too many apples the size of softballs in the crook of her arms. Jesse helps pick them up and put them in the bag as little grandma drops them here and there, giggling all the while.

When our bags are overstuffed, we walk back down the row of trees to the car. We’ve picked 60 pounds of apples, no exaggeration. Mom wants to carry a bag holding about 10 pounds, and Jesse fusses about this decision. After a moment, she marches next to Mom’s wobbling form and gently insists on carrying the bag for her, but mom refuses to give it up. I invite them to each hold a handle on the bag, so Mom can carry it with Jesse’s help. This solution hits the spot, and they walk slowly, side by side to the the car.

In my world, filled with noisy emotions and needs and conflict, and years of mental health challenges and dangers and struggles for my kids, It’s all so strangely peaceful for this moment in the apple orchard. There’s nothing for Jesse to scream at. There’s no one to goad her. There are no triggers. There’s nothing to fail at. There’s just… apples and Little Grandma.

We spend the next couple hours being together. We make plans to come back to the orchard in a couple weeks for more apples. We get gas. We get lunch. We go to the grocery store. We get ice cream. It’s all slow and easy.

We take Little Grandma home. She wants to keep 20 pounds of apples. Before I think, I argue gently and unnecessarily. What are you going to do with 20 pounds of apples, Mom? They’ll go bad before you finish them.

“I love apples. I can eat them all.”

Conversations with Little Grandma, episode 2: visitation

I startled awake from a strange dream this morning.

I was at a family gathering of some inchoate nature, in a house that was an amalgam of several homes I’ve known. My brothers were there. I looked up from the living room and saw all three of them – Mark, Eric and Ted – standing outside on the deck chatting happily. I stared at them; it took a moment for me to realize what was amiss.

Eric came inside, looking excited and relieved. “Mark’s back! He didn’t die. He just went somewhere, and now he’s back.”

Ted joined him, looking slightly irritable but also very happy. “Mark just went somewhere. He’s not gone. He’s back now.”

I didn’t understand. I knew they were wrong. After an awkward moment, I replied, “But… Mark’s dead.”

Ted and Eric cheerfully insisted to me. No, he’s here, look. We were mistaken.

I shook my head in disbelief, but there Mark was, standing right there, looking at me sheepishly, in a stained t-shirt and beat up shorts, just like he always looked. I started to feel excited myself. We approached each other, and I saw that his eyes were the wrong color, a pale eerie blue unrelated to his own gentle brown eyes.

I said aloud, “This can’t be. Mom saw the body. She saw Mark die. Mark, you’re dead.”

But there he was. We embrace each other in a bear hug. I was holding my brother again, tight. Could it be real?

And then his solid substance dissolved. My embrace passed through him. He stood looking at me quietly, a wraith, and I said, “It’s okay Mark. You can go. We’re okay.”


As we drove to physical therapy this morning, I told mom about the dream. I cried a little as I got to the end. Mom stared impassively out the window, and we had a little conversation. I tried to get her to tell me about Mark as a baby, but I think the dream had thrown her for a loop. She struggled to engage and pull the words.

It wasn’t a sad dream, Mom, while I was in it. I’m crying now because I miss Mark, but the dream itself, I didn’t feel sad in it.

It’s a nice dream. Mark hasn’t come to my dreams.

You don’t dream at all anymore, do you.

No, I don’t dream anymore, not one dream.

I don’t know if it was a nice dream, Mom. It was weird.

You’re lucky Mark came to your dream.

Why was I lucky to dream about Mark?

Because you got to see him again.

Conversations with Little Grandma, episode 1: Ah-Nak

Hey mom, did you have a best friend when you were little?

Yes, but I can’t remember her name.

What did you guys do together?

I don’t remember.

Where did you live when you were little?

It was called Ah-Nak, in Hwang Hae Do, what do you call it, the area Hwang Hae Do.

Like a region?

Yeah, yes, that region.

We pull up North Korea on google maps and hunt. There it is still, the town of Ah-Nak, close to Pyeongyang, the current capital of North Korean — but just a dusty farm village back in 1932 when Little Grandma was born.

Oh. I thought you lived much further north.

No, that’s where I grew up.

Who did you play with back then?

I don’t remember.

Her brow furrows. The questions are tugging at something, deep memories. Words are starting to come out, but it requires patience.

I know your family eventually went south. When did you leave Ah-Nak?

When I was seven.

Tell me.

My mother, your grandma, came and took me to Incheon.

I remember the story. Tell me how that happened.

She had polio and had to go to a hospital for a long time. And then my sister, Soonja, became very sick. My mother came back to be with her in the hospital, and then Soonja died.

Do you know what she died of?

Nooo, they probably knew. I don’t know. But it was something that was going around. She was five years old.

I didn’t realize Grandma came back to your village because Soonja was sick. I thought she left because of polio.

Yes. I was seven, Soonja was five, and your Uncle Sung Joo was about 3. Soonja died. Then my mother said she was going back to Incheon and taking my little brother with her. All her family had moved there. I remember they got in the car and she said good bye to me. I was screaming and crying, Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me behind, how can you leave me! I took of my shoes and chased the car and threw my shoes at the car, I was so angry. And they left. I was in first grade.

Oh my God, I never knew it all happened at the same time, Mom. I never knew Soonja died and then grandma left with your brother right after. And Grandpa didn’t pay any attention to you, did he?


So you were suddenly just completely alone. You must have felt abandoned.

Little Grandma nods sadly, remembering. I wait a moment but she doesn’t speak, so I poke a little.

That’s incredibly traumatic. I don’t know if a person ever really heals from that.

Little Grandma nods in agreement, still without words.

Who took care of you after that?

You know, people.

What people?

House maids, house boys. We were rich.

Did you have any other relatives in Oh-Nak?

Sure, my father’s family. I went to first grade there, in my village.

I remember you telling me a houseboy would give you oh-boh-bah [piggyback rides] to school.

We laugh together, imagining this abandoned yet spoiled little girl, too rich to walk to school on her own feet.

Grandma came back for me after about a year.

I remember you telling me about seeing her next to a fence.

The story is a little different than I’ve heard before, but the feelings are the same.

Yes, I had to come home from school one day, about a year after grandma left with Sung Joo. That particular day, I had gone to school with no underwear on, and everyone could tell through my skirt fabric.

What the heck, Mom. Why would you go to school without underwear on?

I have no idea! So I had to go home. I remember I fell into some water on the way. There was water next to one of the fields, like extra water for emergencies? And I fell in that. And no underwear on.

Mom! What the heck were you doing?

I have no idea! A nice farmer saw me and pulled me out, and helped me.

So I walked home from there, soaking wet, and when I got home my mother was there. And that’s how she found me. She told me she had come back for me and she was taking me with her to Incheon. We took the train. When we got to Incheon, my mother realized I couldn’t read or write.

But you were going to school. How did that happen?

I don’t know. I was the rich man’s daughter. Maybe they just didn’t bother. My mom was shocked. She said, you need to read and write! So she taught me how.

Grandma taught me how to read Korean too; it’s one of my earliest memories.

She was a good teacher, wasn’t she? So Grandma taught me how to read and write in Korean and Japanese, because remember, the Japanese occupied Korea, and we were strictly forbidden to use Korean, except at home we did. By second grade, I could read and write, and by third grade I had become such a good student that they made me class president. That’s also the year, third grade, when I was given a Japanese name to use, because we were required to have Japanese names.

We look at the map of Korea some more.

Didn’t you end up in Busan at some point?

Yes, eventually, I think in 1941, we fled from Incheon because of the war. We took a boat down the coast.

Did you have family in Busan?

Sure we had family there – but they were also refugees, like us, like thousands of Koreans who fled to Busan.

The conversation winds down. I ponder her story as I go to sleep, and I have an unexpected insight. The next day as I sit with mom, I tell her about my blog. I tell her I want to have conversations with her, and tell my little world her stories. I tell her that these stories are for me, and for our family, so we never forget. She’s enthusiastic.

I share my insight. I tell her, as I choke back unexpected tears, how I finally understand why she was so relentless with my brothers, no matter what shit they got into, what trouble they caused, how cruel they were to her. On any given day, she might have been dysfunctional, she might have yelled and screamed, she might have been a lot less than perfect, she might have done more harm than good. But she never let go. She always tried to find a way to help, even if I thought she was insane in how she went about it.

I used to wonder why, but now, finally, I know. She would never pass on the legacy of what her family did to her, when she was seven. She would never abandon us.

Mom looks at me without blinking, straight in the eye as we sit side by side on the sofa. She can’t cry, but I see a tenderness in her stare. She nods gently. “That’s right,” she whispers.

Conversations with Little Grandma: prologue

My 88-year old mother moved to Wisconsin in March to live 300 yards down the street from my family. In the two months since then, I’ve probably spent more time with her than I have during the past 25 years combined. 2021 was our first Mother’s Day together since, I don’t know… 1989?

Mom’s move here was essential to her meaningful survival, for reasons I don’t want to talk about right now. I think her move may well turn out to be essential to my family’s survival too, in some as-yet-to-be-determined way. My children are still processing what it means to have Little Grandma (Jesse coined the moniker years ago) living so close, and I hope these times will leave them with a deeper understanding of the joys and challenges of love, family, and responsibility.

Mom has had a really tough run. A handful of years ago, she had a stroke that affected her cognition significantly. She lost her rage and her caustic humor and her executive functioning and her career as a really kick-ass realtor. Something went blank. She lost a lot of English and continues to experience serious aphasia in her ability to pull up words and speak. She lost the ability to cry.

When her husband John died two years ago, her inability to cry expressed itself fully. Though her throat burned and her heart ached, not a single tear came. She didn’t understand why.

Last August my brother Mark died at 58, collapsing in Mom’s kitchen. She held him and cried out to him as his spirit fled the flesh. No tears came, not a single one. Around the time of his funeral, she confessed it to me and wondered aloud if she was even grieving. I interrogated her like a lawyer would. Does your heart hurt? It is being crushed, she answered. Do you long for your son? Every moment. My heart is broken. She clutched her chest as she spoke, her face etched with pain. That sounds like grief to me, I replied.

And now here she is, 300 yards down the street from me in her own home, getting by with a lot of help from my family, and holding onto the tendrils of independent living and self-respect as she continues her long, long journey. My goal is to fight back her loneliness and help her live as happy a life as she can, retaining as much dignity as she can as the twilight advances.

Here I am, 54 years old, with the unexpected and extraordinary opportunity to see my mom every day (minus respite moments) for the foreseeable future. We’re building a new story together as we settle into new normal. I eat breakfast and dinner with her every day. She’s connecting with my kids and husband in beautiful ways. We’re gardening together and exploring her new world in Wisconsin together. She is showing exactly the kind of courage she’s always shown as she faces seismic changes in her life.

But I want to do more than just live in the now. Mom has had an epic life. I’d like to capture some stories of it before it’s too late. Not for sale, not for any venal reason, but just to hold them, and savor them, and treasure her.

An old friend Camille suggested the title of this blog: conversations with Little Grandma. She imagined it as a podcast, but Mom would likely be embarrassed by that. Sometimes it’s hard for her to pull up the words, and she shifts between English and Korean as she finds them. Sometimes she loses the thread and needs a little help rediscovering the path to the story she’s telling. So I hope to do what any good daughter would do: be an aide and guide to her history and her meaning. I will no doubt learn much about myself along the way.

Will the stories she shares always be factually accurate? Certainly not. But who asks that of poetry? Will my translations always be perfect representations? Certainly not. But who asks that of family?

We settled to our first little conversation this evening. I’ll just give you a teaser, and I’ll be back soon with the rest of it:

Mom was born in 1932 in a small farming village called Ah-Nak, in the region known as Hwang Hae Do, just southwest of Pyeong Yang in what is now North Korea. There were no cars or paved roads. In that village, the son of a rich landowner married a poor village girl beautiful enough to earn her an arranged marriage to a rich boy. They met on the day they married, and the first-born child of their union was a little girl who eventually gave birth to me.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: days 12 through 14, movies, lots of movies

There were long stretches in our 20’s and 30’s when Anthony and I watched at least 10 new-to-us movies a week, no exaggeration. We would probably still do it if we could, if jobs and children and living in Wisconsin didn’t intervene. We saw nearly every movie available in every theater in the Washington, D.C. area, including the art houses and foreign film venues. We rented movies with and without friends, drinking and ranting. We stayed up into the middle of the night watching oldies on rerun channels. We marathoned Bogart, noir, Kurosawa, Eastwood, rom-coms, Merchant Ivory, Bergman, trash action, Japanese anime. We didn’t worry about previews; we avoided them if possible. Even a bad movie is pretty good if you have no idea what it’s about before it starts.

I’ve searched my blog and it appears that, incredibly, I’ve never shared this story here: we watched The Matrix blind, having never seen a single trailer for it. I remember simply hearing that a new Keanu Reeves movie was out, called Matrix. Anthony rolled his eyes as I keened excitedly about Keanu, and then he grudgingly went to the theater with me. We had no idea what was going on plot-wise, and it was spectacular. (Anthony’s guilty pleasure is Point Break, and we both enjoy John Wick, so it looks like Keanu finally won him over.)

Oddly enough, my kids don’t seem to be very into cinema. They don’t even want to watch Christmas movies with us, which we’ve been doing relentlessly since Thanksgiving. I don’t get it. Movies offer so much escapism and imagination, and dramatized opportunities for cathartic release. Jesse and Nick don’t seem to want much to do with that scene.

But today Jesse came out of school, flopped into the car, and announced, “I wanna watch some Jim Carrey films.”

In parenthood, you learn to roll with the inexplicable punches.

She had seen a youtube vid during a break at school, showing Carrey’s best improv moments in films. I told her a bit about his weird sense of humor — I thought of Dumb and Dumber, The Truman Show, Liar Liar, In Living Color. I know he made some reasonably good films, and I used to be really entertained by him. But he’s a particular brand of strong cheese, like Will Ferrell or Eddie Murphy, and I eventually wearied of his style.

We got home and looked him up on IMDB. We settled on Ace Ventura Pet Detective, for a first watch. Anthony rented it on Amazon and… I couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like watching that kind of stupid tonight. I hung out in the kitchen for a while and then went upstairs and lay in bed, playing stupid casual games on my phone.

But I couldn’t avoid the sounds. First there were the weird noises Jim Carrey himself makes, which, without visual inputs, are truly bizarre. And then… there was Jesse.

Just a couple hours earlier, she had told me she was sad for no reason. This is very common for her, a function perhaps of clinical depression, anxiety, the alienation and loneliness that accompany her mental health disabilities, being 15, the year 2020. When she says it – “Mom, I feel sad for no reason” – it doesn’t come across passionate or desperate. She seems more fatalistic, wistful even, and tired.

I should have grown used to her expressing this feeling by now, but it still kicks me in the gut every time. It feels like there’s nothing I can do for her. But I have a mantra, when she’ll listen. Go do something to distract yourself. Go outside. Look up. Read a book. Draw. Make music. Watch a movie. I love you.

Tonight, the movie magic happened. She wandered around the house in embarrassment during the most humiliating scenes. I lazed on the bed, listening to her giggle, comment, groan, squeal, and laugh. The sound of her light-hearted enjoyment landed on my ears like a soft snowfall that leaves me smiling, but with a small sense of awe – just a little bit bracing, peaceful, and very beautiful.