Cultural traditions around death

One of my best friends is living in Singapore with her husband’s family, and she just told me that her husband’s paternal grandmother passed away on Tuesday after a number of health problems. She was 88 — seems like a nice, long life to me since no one in my family who has passed has even successfully made it past 80. As per the cultural tradition, the four days following her death are a long wake, during which family and friends come and pay their respects at all hours of the day to view her body. Someone from the family has to be there (and awake) the entire time, so the close family members take turns staying awake until the day of the funeral, which is this Friday.

There are so many cultural traditions around death in the world that are so diverse and complex. I know I probably couldn’t personally handle most of them. One of the traditions Chris told me about was that in Maori death custom, if a mother passes, her daughter must stay with the dead body for 48 hours straight.

When I heard that, I thought, I don’t even think I could go even a fourth or a fifth of that with Ed’s.

LearnVest event

A colleague of mine has a friend who works at LearnVest and was able to give away friends and family passes to their annual LearnVest workshop event this year, so she invited me to come with her tonight. There were over 2,500 people who attended the event, the majority being young working professional women, who LearnVest originally targeted when they began in 2009. There were a couple of good speeches around happiness, what defines it, and how money fits in, but for the most part, the topics being discussed were already things I was aware of and have been actively doing.

I guess I take for granted a lot of the things I learned in my money workshops during my college years, as well as advice I’ve been given from my dad as well as finance books I’ve read shortly after graduation. Given all of that learning, I just always thought it was the normal thing to do to at least contribute 10 percent to my 401K and retirement funds, to spend no more than 25 percent on housing and rent, or to have at least three to six months of ‘emergency funds’ stowed away in the sad event I’d lose my job. I always knew that once I would have children, I’d buy additional life insurance right away in the event that I’d tragically die prematurely. I guess these are the things that I have no idea about when it comes to what the average other person is doing. In some way, I live in a money bubble because I feel out of touch with what the average person does with her money. I cannot relate at all to people who live paycheck to paycheck, and I can’t relate to the women who think it’s the norm to buy at least a pair or two of shoes a month.

It was a good reminder to hear today, though, that there’s really no such thing as having “enough” money. It’s always relative, and we tend to never think we have “enough.” People with a million dollars think they need three times that to be fully satisfied. People with $3 million think they need $9 million to have enough, and so forth. We get settled into our new “status,” and nothing ever becomes enough. And if you asked me today if I thought I had “enough” money to afford a child, I’d say no. Nothing seems to be “enough” no matter what your net worth or salary. It’s really true among people I know.

Too close

A third colleague donated for the walk after seeing my Facebook post today. He’s relatively new, as I believe he started at my company about two months ago. We’ve had friendly chatter here and there in the kitchen, and I could always tell he had a more sensitive side than other men at my company. After I saw the donation notification, I messaged him to thank him, and he told me that he was very sorry to hear about my brother. He said he could relate to how I feel because he’s actually lost two immediate family members and a former college roommate to suicide. “I’m glad that you posted it on Facebook,” he said. “It’s something that more people should be aware of because it’s far more common than anyone thinks.” More people need to acknowledge and talk about it. Why must we make the issue worse by not giving it its needed attention?

When someone dies from suicide in this country every 15 seconds, it certainly is more common than the world wants to acknowledge. I was so shocked to hear that not just one but two of his close family members took their own lives. How do we seem so together for individuals who have dealt with such horrible losses?

Out of the dark

It’s seven days until the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Manhattan Out of the Darkness walk, and I received an update notifying me that we have until October 22 to get the last donations possible that will count toward the Walk donation goal numbers. I started fundraising in August and had reached out to all my close family and friends to let them know I was doing this, but I was hesitant to post this on Facebook. Not everyone in my Facebook community would know that my brother had died, that it was due to suicide, that this tragedy had fallen upon my family. As much as I want to be open about his death and the circumstances around it, it’s hard because how do I even know who wants to know or listen? The deeply cynical side of me thinks that no one really cares. A lot of people would just read the Facebook post and think, “how sad,” and then move on. Some might “Like” it. But that would be it.

Chris said to me, if just 1% of your 400-plus Facebook friends donated, that’s still something. For those who don’t, it doesn’t matter. Screw them. But for those who do, it’s still dollars towards an important and not talked enough about cause.

So I posted my Donor Drive page to Facebook and said I was doing this walk in honor of my brother. Over 20-something people “Liked” it, which doesn’t really matter that much to me, but I was able to get six people donate, and not all of them I’d expect to even care at all. Colleagues, a former boss, and a distant relative were included.

I can’t focus all my energy on the people who didn’t donate or help at all or care. I can’t spend time thinking about what people are thinking or how they may judge my family and me, or whether they even pity me. The only healthy choice I have is to be grateful that the six people who did donate because of my Facebook post did it because they in some way did care about me and my experience, and the cause itself. I am deeply grateful. I felt the same wave of gratitude come over me when I started seeing the donation notifications coming in, and my eyes kept welling up.

I might have been scared of what the reactions may have been, but it’s really necessary to do what you are afraid to do, suck it up, and move forward with what you believe in. The world isn’t going to change if I stay silent, even within my own small community. As much as I’d like, I can’t bring Ed back, but I can use my love for him to help others and try my best to be hopeful for the future.

Changing season

Today was the first day this season when it’s actually felt like autumn. The air was cold and brisk. I went out to do a quick grocery run at Fairway, and my toes were a bit unhappy that I’d only put on flip-flops for this errand. My neck thanked me for wearing a scarf.

When the season changes and it gets colder, I think about all the things I have to do before the year ends — charity donations, volunteering, Christmas gifts to be bought, pantry clean-outs and food items that need to be eaten before we leave for Australia for Christmas. I also think about Ed and how it’s another season without him. It’s another season of my life that I will not have a chance to see him or talk to him. The only daily physical reminders I have of him are Bart, the gifts he’s given me, and the photos I have of him in the apartment. When I look up recipes to make for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I can’t help but wonder if Ed would have liked these things; I’m sure he would have. These are dishes I will be making for all these other people to savor and enjoy, but not for him. In fact, I cannot even remember the last thing I made that he got to eat. Was it the crispy oatmeal cranberry cookies that my mom got so excited about that she didn’t share as much with her best friend as she originally said she would? Or was it the chewy brownies I made? I’ll never know for sure. His memory just lingers on and on no matter where I am and what I am doing, and all I have left to think about it is — what would life be like if he were still here?

Banh mi

Since leaving home for college in 2004, I haven’t been much of a sandwich person. I’ll occasionally have one, but I generally don’t get too excited about them. There is one big exception to this, though: banh mi! Vietnamese sandwiches have been a part of me since as long as I can remember. During all of our trips to Southern California growing up, we always had multiple banh mi stops, and in Vietnam, the best banh mis of my life were had from random food carts along the street in Quy Nhon and Saigon. In Vietnam, I realized how light and ethereal yet crispy banh mi bread could be, and I found out the best combination of sliced meats, pate, and pickled vegetables to complement that bread. By random luck, I found a great place that almost matched this quality in Dorchester, a suburb outside of Boston, but the second time I went back, the bread quality just wasn’t the same.

I’ve been lucky and through thorough research of food blogs and sites, I’ve found the best banh mi at Ba Xuyen in Brooklyn. The most ironic thing about this is that generally speaking, New York is actually lacking in a wide variety of good Vietnamese food. It’s quite a trek from where we live, but I’ve even gotten Chris wanting to travel all the way out to Sunset Park in Brooklyn for this sandwich. It could arguably be the best sandwich on earth to both of us.

Worth the chase

My friend recently wrote an article and posted it on Medium about how in every relationship, even happy ones, the “chase” should last forever. As someone who has had two other failed semi-serious relationships, I can completely relate to this idea. It’s easy to get too comfortable in our romantic relationships, and even in our platonic ones, as well. The concept of trying seems to completely die once couples have established themselves either by moving in with each other, getting engaged, or classically, by getting married and thus “settling down.”

I thought about his article for a long time after I read it. It made me think about how among my own friends, we rarely ask each other how our relationships are going once we are past the “labeled” stage of officially being in a relationship. We ask each other a lot when things are uncertain and when the label “boyfriend” or “partner” has not been given, but after that, those questions seem to die off. Do we just assume that because we are officially together that nothing might be wrong? Or maybe we just shy away from those topics unless our friends give indication that something may be off. I’ve tried to make a point to still ask, even if the question is unwelcome or shaken off with a response like, “We’re fine; we’re just (fill in the blank with whatever they are waiting to happen).” There’s always attention to be given and work to be done, even if we don’t wait to admit it out loud. The chase is really never fully over unless the relationship is over.

Phone call

As time has gone on, I’ve become less and less of a phone person. When I was in middle school, I used to spend hours and hours on the phone when not studying or doing household chores. This was before I realized how lame that was because why would you spend all these hours on the phone with someone in your same city when you could just go spend time with him/her in person? In high school, I spent more time doing that – hanging out in person, whether at malls or walking through neighborhoods or at each others’ homes. Then through college and in the years after, I spent even less time on the phone. If I wasn’t on the phone with my then-boyfriends or my parents or Ed or another relative, I wasn’t on the phone at all.

It seems like this progression seems fairly normal, especially since it’s almost unheard of for people to call each other anymore because we live in a world dominated by texting and e-mailing — in other words, a world that is far more impersonal. When an old high school friend was visiting New York last month, he said he’d call me, and he actually did. I was honestly shocked (despite how stupid this sounds).

Tonight, for the first time since I could remember, I spent almost three hours on the phone with one of my best friends in San Francisco. Sure, I multi-tasked a little bit by doing things like flossing my teeth and creating scrapbook collages during our chat, but for the most part, we had a long, in-depth conversation about our latest activities, our families, our respective familial conflicts, and the future. It actually felt really nice. It reminded me of those middle school days when I felt so close to friends just by being on the phone with them. It’s scary to think how much time has passed since those days and the people that we’ve evolved into, and exactly how different our lives are now versus then. Yet we’re still connected, and we choose to be.

Emotional intelligence (or lack thereof)

Today, my cousin, who is taking three months of unpaid time off to “tend” to his two-year-old son, and I were having an instant message conversation online. His baby, who supposedly needs five different therapists five times a week because of multiple learning disabilities that he and his wife believe the child has, is being smothered by the two of them. They could probably give my mother a run for her money when it comes to who can be the most overprotective parents in the world.

I’m telling him that I think he and his wife seriously need to consider marriage therapy. They clearly have no respect for each other and don’t listen to each other at all; she calls him an “awful father” every day. He has no respect for her job and thinks she should fulfill traditional female roles at home and not do paid work, even though she loves her job and works for a company that takes pretty good care of her. I tell him that I’ve done therapy before and found it very helpful. He is clueless. He asks, “Why would you need to go therapy?” All three of my male cousins lack any sense of emotional intelligence, so I responded, “To deal with Ed’s death, the circumstances around it and how it came to be, and to come to terms with how stupid people in our dysfunctional family are like you.” His response? “Oh.”

Sometimes I read certain entries on this blog, and I can’t help but think that if someone else read this, they’d think I’m making up all these stories. No, this was not made up. This is real… sadly. I wish I were making this up.

New family

After work today, I rushed to see Chris’s aunt and uncle, who are spending their very last day in New York today. We met at the Shake Shack near Time Square so that we could have a quick bite together before I walked them over to the Minskoff Theatre to see The Lion King musical. Because of a work meeting that ran way over, I unfortunately only had about half an hour with them before we had to part, but it was a really enjoyable time. I presented them with half a loaf of the pumpkin cranberry walnut bread I made, and we discussed their time at the UN, Top of the Rock, and shopping in Herald Square. They were in high spirits the way they had been pretty much the entire time I have spent with them.

As I walked east after leaving them at the theatre, I thought about how I never feel as satisfied spending time with my own relatives. We can’t have the same types of conversations, and I can’t expect them to be as excited or happy about what any of them do. Being with my cousin and his wife this past Saturday wasn’t that enjoyable, nor was it as though we had much to talk about that meant anything to anyone; the enjoyable part was being able to see and play with their two-year-old son. The conversations I think I should be having with people who matter to me cannot be had with my relatives. I can’t even say what I think about New York City honestly around my own family without it completely being shot down or criticized.

But now, Chris’s family is part of my family. It’s still sinking in (and will probably continue to sink in) the same way it was still sinking in for the first month that the engagement ring on my finger was actually my engagement ring. It wasn’t on loan, and it wasn’t going to be given to someone else. This is mine now. And I’m blessed to have an extension of a family that is everything I’ve never had before.