It took me until my father’s funeral to understand how different my mother’s grieving process was from mine. Not because she was his wife of 30 years and I was a daddy’s girl, but because she was raised in Japan and I was raised in Guam. Unknown to us, we had lived in two separate worlds, my father often serving as a bridge. And without him, we quickly discovered how significant that gap between us was.
Three months prior, my mother and I had flown to Japan to lay my grandfather — her own father — to rest. Dressed in a black ensemble with our juzu beads in hand, we attended his wake at a Buddhist temple and said a thousand prayers that would seal his vase.
That night, I watched a grieving widow and daughter with iced towels wrapped around their necks and Asahi beers in hand, slump on the couch recounting long-forgotten memories. I heard my grandmother’s voice crack, then laugh, then sob, while my quick-witted mother reassured her that everything would be okay — that they still had each other.
As much as I wanted to join in, I quietly retreated into the guest room, taking the cue that this special mother-daughter moment was always carved out for them.
The day I received the phone call of my father’s passing, I had just made a new life in Bali. It was only four months before that he dropped me off at the airport and I promised him that I would one day take him around on my scooter. I didn’t think I would have a time limit on that promise. He had a heart attack on what was an ordinary Tuesday night; my mother cooked dinner, they ate together at the table, then my father made their usual dessert run to McDonald’s for hot apple pies. They watched some TV and went to bed separately. That was the last time my mother would hear her husband wish her goodnight.
My parents were never affectionate. They slept in separate rooms, and never held hands or kissed, even in the privacy of their home. I spent many of my childhood summers in Japan, observing the similarly chaste interactions between my grandparents. As I entered the age where I was becoming more curious about relationships and romance, I one day asked my grandmother why she never kissed my grandfather. It hit me after watching her cheeks flush that PDA was not as common in Japan as it was in America.
I remember watching my father playfully try to hug or kiss my mother as she would scrunch her eyebrows and shoo him away. Eventually, the efforts stopped altogether. Still, they stayed loyal to each other. Dutiful to one another. I watched them age as roommates whose hair slowly faded from black into silver, but nonetheless, together.
When I was old enough to understand the importance and pleasures of physical affection, I blatantly asked my father why he and my mother never showed affection like people did in romantic movies. Why didn’t they hug? Why didn’t they embrace one another? And most importantly, why weren’t they in love?
“Is this how you imagined marriage would be like?” I asked. “Don’t you want a deep and passionate kiss from your wife? Don’t you want to sleep in the same bed and hold each other?”
My father laughed and admitted that he did want those things, but it was okay. “Your mother is your mother,” he said. “She loves in her own way.”
On the way to my father’s funeral, we drove through the village in Guam where my father grew up. We climbed the hill to Agana Heights, passing by the one-story houses painted in various shades of purple and beige while rolling through the hills into the neighborhood. I pressed on the brakes to let the chicken shuffle its feet across the road and into the neighbor’s yard, utterly unbothered by the stray dog fast asleep beside a tree.
“Did you ever think you would move here?” I asked my mother of my father’s homeland.
”Actually, I never thought I would leave Japan,” she responded.
By the time of my father’s passing, my mother had spent more than half her life on foreign soil — more time than she had spent living in her home country. I wondered what she would do now that he was gone. I saved that question for another day.
At the funeral, I watched her kiss the cheeks and shake the hands of glassy-eyed family members, friends, and distant “relatives” — aunts and uncles whom I had never met before, but were nonetheless joined to the family by marriage or custom.
“He was such a good man,” they would say, sobbing into my mother’s cardigan. They would bring her into their arms, hiding her petite frame in their embrace. Keeping a foot apart, my mother would tap their back three times, peppering in an occasional rub when they lingered too long, and repeat the same tired line, “It’s okay. He’s resting now.”
The thing about funerals is sometimes you don’t quite know whose funeral you are attending. In the spare moments I had, I escaped to the restroom and overheard a conversation not intended for my ears.
“Where’s the wife’s family?” It was an older woman’s voice. The reply, similarly old and similarly judgmental, “I don’t think they’re here. Oh, how awfully sad. Poor things.”
I made my way back to my mother while scanning through the seats of island print and coral Sunday best shirts. None were from my mother’s bloodline.
“Why isn’t uncle here?” I asked her, referring to her one and only sibling. “I know grandma doesn’t have a passport, but he should be here.”
My mother rocked back and forth, shifting her weight from her heels to her toes without looking at me. She told me in Japanese, perhaps an effort at discretion: “He couldn’t take off from work,” and before I could respond, she answered my phantom concern: “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
For the rest of the funeral, I was distracted. I watched my 2-year-old nephew crying in the arms of his mother. I began to wonder how my mother felt raising me at that age without speaking a lick of English, or how she bought oranges, how she pronounced the word at the register. I wonder if she ever cried herself to sleep while my father was away for months at a time for work.
I thought back on the rare times that I had seen my mother cry; the time my father ate a hot dog after she spent an hour cooking, the time we fought over her long hours at work, and our argument just three nights before.
I had passed on eating dinner together at the table. She told me that I’m too gaijin – westernized — and have lost what it means to be Japanese, how we always eat dinner together. I challenged her, arguing that my Japanese culture was all I knew, how I grew up, and who we were as a family.
It was the first time I saw my mother’s grief come through. She turned to me with quivering lips and bloodshot eyes and broke down in a way I did not witness at my grandfather’s funeral or even when my father had passed.
She shook her head slowly and I watched the tears stream down her face. “How are you Japanese if I’m not even Japanese anymore?”
That night, I comforted her in a way that was foreign to us. I held her as she crumpled in my lap and began to ask for forgiveness, most especially from my father about how she had failed at being the ideal westernized wife.
When it was time to close the casket, my mother and I did it together. As we began to lower the crown, bidding my father farewell for the last time, my mother stopped me. She lifted it back up and peeked her head inside.
“What’s wrong?” I ask her.
“I just want to make sure he’s okay.”
My mother, a wife of 30 years, was burying her husband in a foreign country, following foreign customs that were not her own. And even after death, she was still a devoted wife and continued to love in her own way.
On our way home, I stopped by the mom-and-pop store to pick up a six-pack of Asahi Blue for $4.99.
We stripped out of our funeral attire, and I threw on my dad’s sweater before making our way to our family dining room table, once set for three, now only set for two. I handed my mother a cold beer as we both released the day’s heaviness to the crisp sound of the pull tab opening. We said kanpai and cheers to the end of a long day before letting reality sink in.
That night, my mother shared stories about my father, while I listened. Stories about how he would sit through seasons of my mother’s favorite anime, Attack on Titan, just to spend extra time with her. Stories of how she would make him bento boxes when they were dating because, as a single airman, his fridge only consisted of oranges and bacon.
These were firsthand accounts from a woman who had given up everything she had known in the pursuit of love — a love that was rarely evidenced physically and yet was still undeniably real.
As we dove into the last of our beer, I thought back to that snapshot of my mother and grandmother sharing a cold lager after my grandfather’s funeral. A renewed relationship that could only transpire after a visit from death. Nothing quite does it like Asahi.
Akina Chargualaf is a writer and podcaster currently exploring topics on human emotions and relationships.