By Jeff J. Brown
Pictured above: my mother enjoying a trip with us to France in 1995, pensive and laughing. She also visited us in Algeria and China, so got a chance to see some of the world. She was a blast to be with, loved life and to say that she was a real character is a gross understatement.
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As of 20 November 2018, I am biologically parentless. I say that, since I have two surviving stepmothers, who are both wonderful relatives.
I wrote about my father, when he died on 22 January 2014 (https://chinarising.puntopress.com/2014/02/05/a-personal-reflections-in-sinoland-look-back-at-the-year-of-the-snake/).
As I now pass another stage in the cycle of life, my thoughts about both of them cascade together. The two experiences of losing my mother and father were very different and they were polar opposites in life and in death.
My father was a misanthrope, atheist and proud Irishman. He grew up in a humble, middle class family, and like his parents, was a dyed in the wool, Roosevelt-New Deal democratic socialist. Mom was a rock-ribbed Republican who wouldn’t vote for a Democrat if Jesus Christ was on the ticket, believed in God and eternal life.
My mother was raised upper class and spoiled rotten, although it must be said, her father made, lost and remade his fortune three times. From a young age, the work ethic was inculcated in all of us. Over the years, Mom and her parents were in the Oklahoma City newspaper a number of times, on the social page, and my grandfather as well, in the business section. My mother enjoyed all the public attention.
My father was reserved and contemplative. As he got older, he more and more disliked going out and hated socializing, except with family and a small circle of friends. Mom was a fun and funny, extroverted social bug, who loved eating out with friends, family and going to parties. My father was a brilliant writer and deep thinker. He listened to classical music, read weighty fiction books, watched PBS and listened to NPR, although he loved several commercial TV shows too, which always perplexed me. He was more suited for San Francisco or Greenwich Village in New York City, but deeply loved Oklahoma, where he moved to from Illinois, when he and my mother got married. Mom had her pop music, game shows, local and Fox News, popular fiction books, mainstream magazines and newspapers. She was a typical American from a conservative part of the country and wouldn’t live anyplace else.
As he got older, my father increasingly rejected materialism, becoming more ascetic and curmudgeonly, but his outlook on life changed long before that. When I was 12 years old, he rejected his big salaried, country club, bourgeois lifestyle with my mother and left the family to start farming in the countryside, something my city-loving mom refused to do (http://chinarising.puntopress.com/2014/10/06/fear-of-the-future-jeff-j-brown-at-tedxyouthwab/). She held a vocal grudge about their divorce from then on, which I never quite understood.
Years later, my mother extravagantly blew her entire inheritance, which was not insubstantial, on expensive cars, dining out, parties, clothing and furnishings. When that ran out, she worked part-time, until she was over 80, to supplement her social security check. She learned to live within her means, which she accepted admirably, while continuing to lunch and dine modestly with friends, going to the hair salon every week and playing in her bridge club – until too many died to keep it going. She was one of the last ones standing.
My father’s mind was clear and functional up to his final days, but starting in 1988, his body was wrecked by several malpractice back surgeries. Luckily, he was able to function and lead a fairly active physical life until the end, when the 24/7 pain he had to endure for the twenty previous years got so bad, that he had to start taking daily doses of morphine.
My mother’s body was quite functional up until her final days, but when we were back home in 2017, dementia was already setting in and gradually getting worse.
While my father’s death was not totally unexpected, I got an email out of the blue from his wife, so there was the sudden shock of finding out. My mother, on the other hand, went to a nursing home a couple of weeks ago, clearly ready to die. In fact, last week, they found her not breathing and rushed her off to the hospital, where she was resuscitated with a ventilator. This was against the wishes that she thought she had written in her living will, but which was poorly worded, and for which she had reminded us countless times,
I don’t want to be kept alive when it’s time to go, I don’t want to be hooked up to a machine.
Thus, the situation was agonizing for us family members, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Because of that, we were able to say our respectful goodbyes to Mom. Her two younger sisters, my sister and two of her children, our older daughter and son-in-law were able to be with her in her final hours. Getting up in the middle of the night and using Wechat video, my wife, our younger daughter in Beijing and I got to express our final words of affection and love. Given the constraints of time, distance and money for us here in China, I feel very at peace with how her life ended. She was clearly ready to die and did so with her loved ones accompanying her, albeit three of us halfway across the planet. The ICU team, which was wonderfully empathetic and compassionate, turned off the ventilator a couple of hours after our call, and shortly thereafter, Shirley Marion Jennings Brown Christenson took her last breath.
Just the week before, my wife and I telephoned her at the nursing home and got to talk to her the day before she stopped breathing and taken to ER. We had sent her flowers. As well, she had just received a beautiful bouquet and card from our younger daughter. When we talked to her, she was still conversational and told us,
It’s been a really difficult month.
I’ll say. I joked that I will be in her shoes in about 20 years, if I last that long, and that this is just the process of getting old and living beyond our natural lifespan. I told her many times and I tell others that anyone who lives beyond 80 has no room to complain, since thanks to modern technology, we can cheat our species’ evolutionary timeline, which is about 40-60 years of age. My father died at 82 and mother was 85. Hallelujah.
When I got back from the Peace Corps in 1982, after volunteering for two years in Tunisia, I learned that my mother, to whom I had added to my bank account to pay bills, had spent it dry. At that immature stage in my life, I was self-righteously furious and cut off all communication with her. It wasn’t until I got married in 1988, when I showed up to introduce Mom to my wife, whom she didn’t even know about, that we reconnected.
Although I never brought it up once, Mom spending all my savings was a sore spot for me, until our last visit to her place for six weeks, in the summer of 2017. Before going, I had recently read Lao Zi’s The Way of The Dao and had been learning about Buddhism and Confucism for quite some time. A common concept in all three is to relent, to forbear, to cede and retreat, to be humble, non-confrontational, to keep quiet. The Chinese have a word for it: ren (忍), which I see in action here every day and have written about (http://chinarising.puntopress.com/2017/11/10/all-the-chinese-people-want-is-respect-aretha-franklin-diplomacy-on-china-rising-radio-sinoland-171110/). The Dao taught me to keep my mouth shut, to cede and retreat. For the first time ever, I could say to myself,
What is more important, getting in the final word and making a pointless point that solves nothing, or appreciating my mother, sharing our love and focusing on our mutual affection for each other, without all the useless, petty, finger wagging stress?
And I was able to act positively on this understanding.
I’m just sorry it took until 63 years of age to figure it out, but better late than never. We spent a wonderful summer together, as mother and son, which with her death, I now cherish more than ever. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see her in person, however in the interim, we talked regularly by telephone, sending her flowers every Mother’s Day, Christmas and on her birthday.
I was able to do this, because I had finally, truly, organically changed as a person, which for me has been a long and at times agonizing arc of awareness; my journey of realization is joyfully ongoing (see the Prologue: http://chinarising.puntopress.com/china-rising-the-book/).
Recognizing that my parents’ deaths help bring clarity, I can see it all full circle. After two years volunteering in rural Tunisia, I talked the good talk about economic equality and social justice. Thereafter, I eventually traveled to over 85 countries, mostly in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America. However, I was like the vast majority of Westerners, always smug in my racial, social, intellectual, technological and spiritual superiority. It wasn’t until we lost our material possessions in a brutal, protracted bankruptcy, returned to China in 2010, then I journeyed across the Mainland in 2012, and wrote the first of my China Trilogy books, 44 Days, that I began to change on the inside, to become a decent person and a more meaningful global citizen.
Looking back, I now rue a lot of things that I did during most of my existence, being so arrogant and cocksure of my Western paradigms. I regret shutting Mother out of my life for six long years, on the destructive revenge principles of, an eye for an eye and, teach them a lesson – both the antithesis of ren – for a measly few thousand dollars. I now channel my opinions and beliefs into my writing and journalism and keep working to practice forbearance and humility, but still have a long way to go. My mother was imperfect, at times outrageous and we saw little eye to eye. But now, I realize that we are all unique and every person is deeply flawed, including myself. Prophets and philosophers like Lao Zi, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. only come along every few centuries or so. If we open our hearts to ren, they can all teach us to be good and positive human beings.
Thus, I would like to say,
Mother, thank for being a caring, loving person, parent and grandmother. You did a great job raising your daughter and me. This I said to you on your death bed. What I would like to add and should have told you before, is that I’m sorry I did not learn to relent and disown my petty vainglory sooner in life, and my road is yet long. Before you took your final breath, I can only hope you were able to forgive me.
Postscript: my mother graciously donated her body to science. Therefore, when we go back to Oklahoma for the Christmas/New Year holiday, we will be having the funeral service she requested at that time. We were hoping to see her then, but came up a month short. This eulogy was written on November 25th and published the next day.
As a matter of public record, here is my mother’s obituary. She got to be in the newspaper one last time. I know she is very happy to be there,