Día de los Muertos

I didn’t react when I saw her at first. I stopped and pondered the person in front of me, how her California sunshine fit into the Hong Kong scenery like an upside down jigsaw piece. I tried — and failed — to make sense of my mom in my foreign world.

She was the first of my immediate family to make the 13-hour leap into my life after I relocated to Asia. I wasn’t completely sure how to proceed in that moment, but I knew I wanted to share every corner of my home-away-from-home, the beauty that I learned to love over the years.

That week we visited tourist traps, ran errands, cooked for each other, and slept under the same roof.

We settled into a rhythm, and I remembered what it was like to be mother and daughter again, how effortless our relationship was. We began to say the same things at the same, immediately looking at each other with a knowing smile whenever it happened. Our bond was instantly recognizable to shop owners and friends, even to tourists who offered to take our picture.

Then the rhythm came to an abrupt halt on Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

I was sleeping on the couch when I awoke to the sound of frantic murmurs. I recognized Mom’s voice crying into the phone, so I rushed to the bedroom.

It soon dawned on me that Mama Pina, my grandmother, had passed away, and Mom was saying her last goodbyes through the phone, my aunt on the other line holding the phone up to unhearing ears.

Both our hearts broke for our mothers that day.

When she hung up, we held each other on that bed for what could have been minutes or hours. Time didn’t exist.

As I sat there with my eyes closed, I thought about how Mom taught me to stand strong in times of adversity. Finally, I shifted on the bed. Her eyes fluttered open, but they were out of focus when they met mine. In an effort to be strong for her, I found the willpower to suggest we get out of the house. We cleaned ourselves up, put each other back together, and left the apartment.

We amended the itinerary to include Día de Los Muertos shopping. We bought candles, flowers, ribbons, and picture frames. We printed photographs of family members who had passed away, and we arranged everything on an altar of remembrance.

Throughout that day, Mom and I reset the rhythm to a different beat, one that fluctuated between mourning and celebrating, crying then cheering each other up. One moment we were recalling Mama Pina’s fragility, the next we were laughing over her snarky sense of humor and her love of dichos (Spanish idioms to live by). We shared fond memories like how she always had those hard strawberry candies on the table, or how she took great care in setting up her nativity scene with figurines and fairy lights every Christmas.

This new rhythm, unexpected as it was, maintained until I had to drop my mom off at the airport. I could only imagine how good it must have felt to go back home and to mourn properly, surrounded by her sisters. The thought sent me into a fit of crying into her shoulder. Her tight embrace and sunshine smile were luxuries I wouldn’t have in a few hours, and that kept the tears flowing.

The end of my mom’s trip brought the family-sized hole to the forefront of my life and reignited my homesickness. I wished I could drop everything and take the same flight with her then and there. I craved the comfort, love, and warm bonds of family.

The only reason I wasn’t a puddle on the airport floor is because I forced myself to gather the words to say goodbye. I focused on the low hum of people talking, luggage rolling, and intercom voices. I said my farewell.

And just like that she was gone.

As I think about the time that’s flown by these past two years, I am left with two unrelenting truths. One, the rhythm continues, with or without me. Two, time will inevitably run out.

Even now these truths stay with me through every phone call; they cross my mind with each photo she sends of her with my siblings, nieces, and nephews. I can’t help but wonder how much of this time I have left with my mom.

I want to live side by side with her and the rest of my family, but I know I’m meant to be in Hong Kong, for just a while longer.

I only hope that by the time I go back home, we’ll manage to move to same rhythm once again.

Forever a foreigner, always learning. The weight of words is immeasurable.

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Arianna Ruvalcaba

Forever a foreigner, always learning. The weight of words is immeasurable.