June 3, 2023

The day after Thanksgiving, my mom called, afraid I was going to die. I had falsely told her I had heartburn, so she left a long voicemail reminding me that my father had heartburn before he died of a heart attack at age 50 while playing racquetball.

She begged me to get a checkup, to get my blood work done. “Did you know you’ve been gaining weight lately?” she said.

I knew.

Her voice began to break towards the end of the message. I was her only son and the men in her life dropped dead without warning, explanation or goodbye.

The day after my mother’s 80th birthday, her partner of over 35 years, a man named Bing (who came after my father) died on a trip to Palm Springs with his friends, drowning alone in a hot tub overnight with hypertension and alcohol as contributing factors.

Bing was like a father to me, but he never forced himself as stepfathers on TV. Even after he moved in with me when I was 5, he never chastised me or gave me fatherly lectures. Instead, he taught me how to fish on California’s Kern River and built me ​​a huge treehouse in the backyard.

After Bing’s military funeral by Navy veterans on a low hill outside Bakersfield, my mother asked me to take her to Hawaii to visit her older sister who lives there with her daughter.

She had taken a similar journey after my father died, a journey to paradise to get away from home yet be close to the people her partners knew and had stories to tell.

When my mom explained Bing’s death to her neighbors of over 40 years old, the man said, “Isn’t that the second you’ve lost?”

“He shouldn’t have died first!” she told me before our flight. “That’s why I chose a younger man; he wouldn’t do to me what your father did.

This was not the plan, for her or for me. Bing, just 73 when he died, had to take care of her, keep the house in good order and take out the trash.

In the 1960s, my mother and her sisters emigrated to Los Angeles after their homeland of Indonesia was embroiled in brutal conflict following Dutch decolonization. My mother had been brought up to believe that it was a woman’s job to marry well and raise children. After my father died, she often said, “No one taught me what to do when my husband kicks the bucket.”

As the only man left in her life, I flew her to Hawaii to heal her pain, and used promises of beaches and snorkeling to persuade my husband to come too. I told him a vacation is what we need after all the grief, and he sweetly agreed.

My aunt lives with my cousin and my cousin’s husband on the rainy Hilo side of the Big Island where all the good hotels were booked, so the three of us shared a room in a two-bed motel with a struggling air conditioner . It rained every day. When we weren’t visiting my family, we were in bed eating takeout and watching TV.

My husband tried to stay cheerful, but the rain, my grieving mother, and cramped rooms were a bit too much. At night, my mother would scream for Bing in her dreams.

I was desperate to make things better. My chest felt tight, but I ignored it. I wanted the healing to begin; this was Hawaii after all. So we cut the visit to Hilo short and I booked a condo on the sunny side of the island in Waikoloa.

As we drove over the tops of ancient volcanoes, the sun came out and made the ocean sparkle below. Our apartment had two bedrooms and plenty of room to hide from each other, and it was on a golf course where wild turkeys roamed. That evening we fed them from our hands and felt some of the Hawaiian magic we were looking for.

The next day, when we finally found ourselves on a white sand beach, strange clouds began to float overhead. They were dark and low and made me want to be somewhere safe.

It turned out that a forest fire had broken out and strong winds pushed the smoke our way. It got hard to breathe, so we crouched in to watch the Tokyo Olympics.

“I didn’t come to Hawaii to watch TV,” my husband said on the second day of the wildfire. We started arguing. My mother was grieving and I felt like I couldn’t leave her alone. Still, I knew the trip would not go as promised.

All of a sudden, all three of our phones started ringing a distress message. Waikoloa Village, 15 minutes away by car, was evacuated. We were told to also prepare for a possible evacuation.

“Am I being punished by God?” my mother said as she looked at the smoke. ‘Where are we evacuating to? The beach?” She sighed and walked back to the TV and turned up the volume.

My husband marched into our bedroom and closed the door. He said he was going for a walk, that he didn’t care about the smoke, and that I’d better think of something else than watching canoe races or horse jumps.

After he left, the tightness in my chest that I had tried to ignore grew sharper and moved to my neck and jaw. I had felt something like this before, but since Bing’s death the pain had gotten worse. I thought it was my heart, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was there to heal my mother and give my husband a romantic Hawaiian adventure.

I lay down on the rug and covered my eyes with my palms. I focused on big, slow breaths until the pain finally subsided and I was able to stand and sit on the couch next to my mom.

She kept an ongoing commentary about which Olympic athletes she liked and which were braggarts. It was a familiar rhythm I remembered from my childhood, just the two of us watching TV, talking about everything and nothing. Then she said, “Bing wasn’t your father, but he loved you like a son. He took care of us the best he could.”

“I know, Mom,” I said. “I know.”

The next day, the firefighters got the upper hand and the evacuation orders were lifted. We salvaged what we could from our last days and were thankful to go home.

Weeks later I went to my GP. He told me my chest pains were mini panic attacks, but my heart was fine. “You need to manage your stress better,” he said. “Take more walks, sleep better, maybe try to lose some weight.”

I left wondering if he and my mom were talking about me. I thought of my dad and Bing, both gone. My father’s fate had always hung over my head like a warning. Now Bing fate warned me not to waste a single minute.

It had been sunny and warm at Bing’s funeral. I remember we were sweating as a group of us carried his casket out of the hearse. Although my mom was going to go back to her seat, she stayed with Bing’s coffin after going upstairs to kiss him.

Bing had a world of friends at the funeral that we didn’t know: fish friends, high school classmates, and military men. Without prompting, my mother hugged each mourner when they came to pay their respects, as if she knew them.

I stood beside her as she did this, feeling like I was intruding into another family’s grief, and I was amazed at how my mom put it all out, crying and talking to so many strangers. This was not part of the plan either. My mom had just done it and surprised herself as much as the rest of us.

“I don’t know why I’m standing here,” she said, holding hands with one of Bing’s friends. “We all loved him so much, and now he’s gone, but our love is still there.”

It was only in retrospect that I realized that my panic attacks stemmed from my need to manage life’s calamities and a sense that I was failing to solve what couldn’t be solved.

I loved Bing; I was also grieving, and I had kept the grief at bay by trying to heal the heartbreak of those around me. But the pain had to get out, and it would be mixed with love, confusion, and anger, and that was OK.

After losing the second love of her life, my mother was overwhelmed with pain. Yet she was there and taught us how to grieve. And I almost missed class.