I was eleven years old in 1951 when this story happened. My mother, Lum So Wah, was a small-framed woman, five feet three, 105 pounds, with greying black hair and considered pretty by all who knew her. She immigrated to Canada, as a mail bride and was chosen by my grandfather to be Father’s new wife in 1903.
She was fifty-three years old and in frail physical health, due to years of cigarette smoking. She often would continue smoking even when her lungs would be hurting, trying to catch her breath and gasp for air. The family was concerned about her nasty habit, but she refused to quit, much to the family’s disappointment.
Her medical condition and health were questionable due to her increasing cough and a noticeable medium size lump near her throat. However, she did not complain and was somewhat hesitant to discuss her medical condition with the family. I was eleven years old and the youngest child, having five other siblings. I was mostly kept out of receiving information regarding Mother’s health issues. As a result, I was involved in being with my friends, playing sports, and just being an eleven-year-old kid, generally fooling around.
It was an unusually cold spring dawn on April 24, 1951, and it was about 5:15 in the morning. I was still in bed, snuggled in a warm embrace with my Hudson’s Bay blanket. I was eleven years old. The two of us were home in our apartment flat, but my father was at his logging operations in Port Moody and my brothers were at the logging camp with him. I was suddenly awakened with sounds of a wooden chair being dragged over the kitchen floor, then banging on the kitchen table on the floor, “boom, boom, boom”.
I did not get out of bed right away, as I was somewhat still groggy from being awakened so early in the morning. I yawned and stretched my arms and legs, blinked my eyes, and wondered why mom was making the noise. I closed my weary eyes and tried to go back to sleep trying to ignore the noise. Then more strange sounds of “ting, ting, ting”, the sound of buckets banging against each other. “Quiet, mom, I’m still sleeping,” I yelled, still not knowing or bothering as to why she was making those crazy noises. I would yell at my mom and many times I would be able to get away with my outbursts, without being scolded by Mom. I was her “favorite” child.
I fell back into a light slumber still in bed. I suddenly smelled smoke. Was I imagining things, was I dreaming or having a nightmare? I tried to ignore it and suddenly I was jarred by my coughing violently, my lungs were filling up with putrid smoke, my eyes hurting and watering. I wanted to throw up! Tears started to roll down my face staining and wetting my pillow, causing me to raise my arms to wipe them away. I hit the cold metal bed frame trying to get to my eyes, hurting my hand. I began to violently gaggle from the foggy smoke, which actually woke me up. I jumped out of bed, disoriented, confused, and scared as hell! The smoke started to fill the room up with an ominous grey and darkening black cloud, sucking out the good breathable air from the kitchen and the bedroom. Why was Mom doing? She must be out of her mind, “crazy, stupid, we’re in danger! “ I thought.
I ran from the bedroom, in a daze, affected with stinging watery eyes, coughing and spitting out bad air and frightened as I have never been before. In the grey and black haze caused by the smoldering and red amber burning piles of clothes in a large metal bucket, I saw my mother crying, and making strange sounding noises, wailing like a wounded animal. She piled more stuff to burn in the bucket: papers, photographs, and nylon stockings which gave a very strange odor. It made me want to vomit. Mom was sighing loudly, seemingly in a trance and very detached from reality. She was like a robot, unresponsive to any of the shouts I was yelling at her.
I grabbed the one bucket which she was going to use to burn more items, filled it with water, and poured it on the burning clothes. Mom looked at me in a saddened and eerie look, one which I have never seen before. She was in a delirious state and even at my young age, I knew she was probably “crazy” and not herself. My only thought was to douse the fire and get her out of the kitchen. I poured three buckets full of water onto the burning pile, flooding the floor and causing more smoke but successfully extinguishing the fire. Mom remained sitting in a daze and began weeping. This was the first time I have ever experienced my mother having such dangerous and far from normal behavior. I was shocked to see her in this condition.
Speaking in Chinese in the Cantonese dialect, I stumbled forward, avoiding the strewn about chairs and the burning items in the bucket, and she was about to alight the second one. I yelled,
“Mom, what are you doing, are you trying to kill us?”
“Jackie, I need to get rid of my stuff, I’m taking it to heaven with me.”
“What! I don’t understand, why are you setting fire to your things?”
“This is what I need to do, I am going to heaven.”
“Why? I still don’t understand,” I yelled. I was confused, angry, and still affected with a continuing cough and stinging eyes. We were now both choking from the smoke. I wasn’t in the mood to continue questioning her. Mom was wearing her sleeping outfit which was not affected by the burning fire. I got her off the chair and into another bedroom, put her on the bed for her to lay down, covered her with a blanket, opened the window, walked out, and closed the door behind me. She was not saying anything, appearing detached and in despair. I could hear her sobbing and probably in a desperate emotional state. There was no one else to help me, as other members of my family were at Father’s logging camp.
Mom remained in the spare bedroom, fell asleep, and did not wake up for two hours. In the meantime, I thought the best thing to do was to clean up the burnt mess, get rid of it, and mop up the water in the kitchen. I changed into my clothes, opened the kitchen windows to air out the stench, threw the burnt material into the garbage, and washed the floors. Then I phoned my father’s emergency contact person, who got in touch with him in person, as Father did not have phone access at his logging operations. I was still upset and still not understanding why Mom would endanger both of us by burning her possessions inside the apartment with a good chance of injuring or killing us.
Father came several hours after this incident, and he was angry and confused. He was not the type to show his emotions openly. He was always stoic and communication was not one of his strengths. Although he loved his family, he was a good provider, his main concern in life was providing enough money for his family.
He commanded respect from our family and his workers, because of his fairness and sensibility to evaluate whatever situation he was in to see what happened and find solutions. He always would think in terms of having alternatives to any life situation that was in front of him. On this occasion, he was very emotionally distraught and concerned that Mom would do anything to jeopardize our lives and our living quarters. He seemed to understand what was causing Mom’s unpredictable behavior. However, he would not share it with me or with my other siblings. He scolded her as gently as he knew how without making her more angry or sad. He was thankful that a more serious fire was not started, and especially relieved that Mom and I were not seriously hurt. He was also concerned about Mom’s sudden change in her mental state, as she did not exhibit any strange thoughts or behaviors before this incident. He brought her to the doctor the next day.
Everyone at home was on pins and needles, not wanting to question Mom or put her under pressure. We were avoiding all talk of the incident. We were wanting her to rest. It was two days since Mom set the fire. Mom and I were home alone. She was returning to her normal self and in a talkative mood which gave me a chance to ask her why she burnt her clothes and important photographs and papers. I wanted to know, to be sure it wouldn’t happen again. I was always close to Mom, and I knew she would tell me the reason.
“Mom, what made you burn your clothes and other things in the bucket?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you, don’t you know?” The whites of her eyes became very visible as if she was contemplating what to say to me next. Her tone of voice was very soft and gentle.
“Yes, I want to know why you did this,” as I was curious and still in doubt whether this would not happen again.
“Well, in our village, Nam-Long, China, our ancestors used to burn their possessions and currency paper money in a bond fire because the dead will be able to use whatever they burnt whether that be clothing, letters of importance, jewelry, and money so they will enjoy using all those things in Heaven.” She took a deep breath to hold back a cough she was developing. Her voice started to crackle, and she was very focused and appeared calm. She did not lose her train of thought or composure and continued. “Even those who were very sick or knew they were near death, they would burn their possessions and especially money.” Her voice started to quiver and stopped for a few seconds. “This was so they could use their prized possessions and money in Heaven.”
“But why did you want to burn your stuff in our apartment, it was so ‘crazy’ to do that!”
“I feel terrible, I did not tell you or your brothers about my illness. I am sorry, I want to go to Heaven”, she said faintly.
I didn’t hear her say, Heaven, all I heard was illness. I did not connect anything about Mom having thoughts of dying.
“What illness? Are you sick? Is it because you smoked so much? Smoking cigarettes really stinks you know,“ saying it with a bit of sarcasm, hoping she would stop smoking.
“I have a lump here,” pointing to her throat
“Yeah, we know, but we didn’t know it hurt you. You never said anything about pain. Does it bother you?”
“It has been hurting a little bit for the last two weeks, and the doctor said I need to have it operated on in a few weeks. I didn’t want to tell anyone because it would worry the family.”
“Really? How serious is it? What’s going to happen now? Are you going to the hospital, tell me, please.” I was getting upset and worried. She was remarkably emotionally controlled, and motioned me to come closer to give me a hug.
“Don’t be afraid, I will be going to the hospital for an operation in a few weeks and I will be back in better health.” She tried to calm me and sooth my anxiety with a longer than usual hug, stroked the top of my head and said,
“Jackie, I will be alright, believe me. I’ll cook the family a special dinner when I get out of the hospital, I promise.”
“Ok, you promise?”
“Yes, you know I keep my promises.”
On May, 14th, 1951, my mother was admitted to Mount St. Joseph’s Hospital, to have an operation on her goiter, caused by iodine deficiency in the thyroid gland. The condition was not particularly painful for Mom, and she tolerated the pain without complaint. Father came back from his logging camp and brought her to the hospital. I went with them and Mom was looking peaceful. She was going to get cured of the goiter condition and have the disfigurement of the tumor removed from her throat. She was also grateful that she was going to a Catholic Hospital, Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital, where she would be getting very professional medical care. Once the admitting procedures were over, she was admitted to her hospital room and we stayed for a short visit.
On May 15th, 1951, I was looking forward to being a contestant in a “Whipple Contest”. Whipple is a game like a Yo-Yo, with two sticks attached to a waxed string, and you ‘whip’ a wooden spool on the waxed string attached to the two wooden sticks, to make it spin. Tricks can be performed and it was a craze in the early 1950’s. All my school friends have entered this contest, and the first prize was $25 and a special lighted spool, a prize we all wanted to win. I never won anything in my life, I was so intent on winning, nothing could stop me from this contest. I was so excited and confident because I thought I was pretty good. I could win. As it was early morning, on the day of the contest. I was preparing to leave when the phone rang.
“Hi, Jackie, what are you doing today?”
“Hi, Mom, I am going with my friends to McLean Park, I’m in a Whipple contest, you know the toy you bought me last week.” She didn’t seem too interested in the Whipple contest and interjected,
“No, I want you to come to the hospital, I want to see you, I miss you.” Her voice sounded a little shaky, like a squeak from a talking baby doll.
“No, Mom, I want to go with my friends. We all want to go together and it’s already set and I don’t want to change.” I was very firm. I wanted to be in the contest.
“Jackie, it is very important to me that you visit me in the hospital. You know how to take the bus to get here. Please come to the hospital, I want to see you,” she said in a shaky voice.
“Gee, Mom, why just me? Why didn’t you ask Father or Jimmy or Johnny? Why just me?” I was trying to get out of the obligation of visiting her. But the contest was more important for me than visiting her, so I decided to disobey her request.
“No, I am NOT going to visit you today. I’ll come tomorrow, I want to be with my friends, and go to the contest. I already paid my entry fee of fifty cents, so I AM going!”
Mom’s voice was raspy and lowering in tone, it was like I have never heard her in this voice before.
“Hey Mom, how come your voice sounds so strange?”
“Oh, they gave me some medication before my X-ray and other things. But I’ll be all right.” Well, tomorrow I’ll be getting my operation, so I won’t be able to have visitors.“
“Do I have to visit today? I want to go to the contest, please, I could win some prizes!” I was trying my best to get out of this obligation.
There was a significant pause, we both remained silent. Then Mother spoke softly,
“ Ok, then, but come two or three days from today. I’ll be better then.” She sounded resigned to the fact that she would not have any visitors today, as Father and my brothers were unable to see her. They had to meet lumber orders that had to be filled that weekend. So I was the designated family member left to visit her. But I selfishly refused to visit her and I knew it.
“Mom, you will be okay. Nothing will happen. I promise I will visit you on the weekend after your operation.” I believed everything would be all right. The phone call ended. I chose to go to the Whipple contest, in spite of my mother’s disappointment. I went to the contest and lost. I did not win anything. I was very disappointed and went home sulking.
The next day, Friday, members of my family returned from Father’s Port Moody logging camp. The phone rang and my father answered the phone. It was 7:30 pm.
“Hello, yes I am her husband,” a momentary but significant pause. “ WHAT? NO, are you sure,” in his broken English. There was a sense of panic and disbelief in the tone of voice coming out of his mouth. Father usually doesn’t express emotions, he is very composed and controlled. This time his voice was echoing off the walls, as he was almost screaming words that were not understandable.
“No, how did this happen? “ I knew something was wrong, I could not only hear it, I felt it. I gasped for air, my heart seemed to pound harder than I have ever felt before. I looked stunned and impatiently waited for an explanation as to what was wrong. The suspense was so strong I felt I was going dizzy.
Father hung up the phone and stared up to the ceiling, clenching his fists. He stood there for a few moments looking like a zombie, taking one step awkwardly, stopping then resuming his broken steps.
“What’s wrong. What happened?” I was in suspense and felt anxious, as Father’s face had suddenly turned red.
“Go get your brothers, I want them here, NOW!”
All the family were now together, my brothers were busy getting ready to meet their friends and a little annoyed at having to stop their cleaning up, shaving, and taking a shower.
“Ma Ma has died. We all must go to the hospital to pay our respect. Now get ready.”
I could not understand what Father said. He was mumbling his words and trying to control his emotions. I yelled, “WHAT? What did you say?” Both of my brothers looked stunned, and I knew something was terribly wrong.
“Ma Ma died from the operation.” Father was now beginning to lose some control as his voice broke several times.
“No, no, I don’t believe it. I just talked to her yesterday. You’re lying.”. I really went into a tailspin, denying that she had died, and I did not get the chance to see her. I started to cry, running from room to room, yelling my disbelief. “Father, you’re lying, you’re not telling us the truth. Your lying, your lying!”
Father did not respond to my accusatory accusations, he was not comprehending what we were asking him, anyway. He was a proud man and excused himself to be alone with his thoughts. He went to the bedroom, shut the door and I heard sounds of wailing and sobbing. My brothers and I gave him his private opportunity to grieve the loss of his loving wife. They were devoted to each other.
I felt sick. I was in disbelief, still numb from hearing of my mother’s death. Then another emotional traumatic feeling enveloped me. A dagger-like feeling embedded into my shoulders, and my lungs weighted down with anchors dragging me down so I could hardly breathe or move. I couldn’t think straight, how could my mother die, she was just talking to me. It’s not true! Suddenly I recalled our conversation, Mother wanted me to visit her, I remembered she sounded desperate, and I refused. An engulfing feeling of guilt, shame, and sadness overwhelmed me. This emotional feeling I rarely had before, which was strange and debilitating. I also felt embarrassed and helpless, not knowing how to deal with these strange emotional feelings.
My brother, John, looked at me and yelled,
“What’s wrong with you? Get a hold of yourself and stop acting like a baby,.” Brother Jim yelled.
“I feel so bad, I should have visited her, Mom wanted me to visit her before the operation,” I said to my brother Jimmy. “You guys were at the logging camp and I was the only one that could have gone to see her”. This did not get any response from my brothers. “It’s my fault she died, it’s my fault, oh God, it’s my fault.” I was getting to a point of losing control.
“ For Christ sakes, cool it, you’re making like a crazy monkey!” said John.
“I don’t care what you think, I know I let Mom down, I didn’t visit her, when she desperately wanted me to visit before her operation. I did this to her, it’s my fault that she died.”
The next day, our family went to the hospital to view Mom’s remains, and I was afraid to look at her. We viewed my mom’s body and I was again in shock seeing her without life in her. I had never seen a dead person before, and Mom’s viewing put me into a deeper feeling of guilt and regret. A thought entered my mind that I was responsible for her death. I could not shake off this thought as it felt it was embedded in my heart. I could not get rid of it in my mind.
The funeral was arranged and the burial service was at Forest Lawn cometary one week later. There were about one hundred relatives and friends who came to the funeral and burial service. I don’t remember much of the service, as I was still sad and inattentive in the service as well as at the burial ceremony at the graveside.
Two months after the burial of Mom, the guilt feelings had a stranglehold on my thinking and actions. I was feeling lethargic and less interested in doing things I used to enjoy. The strangest thing that happened to me as I became extremely confused and angry.
I was returning home after school, walking the route I usually take. Hastings Street is a busy street with people roaming in and out of stores, cars coming to and fro, and streetcars buzzing along their tracks, stopping to drop off and pick up passengers.
I wasn’t paying too much attention to the traffic and I looked at the streetcar picking up passengers on the corner of Hastings Street and Abbott, right at the corner of Woodward’s Department Store. I stopped suddenly in awe. I thought I saw my Mom and became suddenly filled with surprise and joy. I was so elated I started to yell,
“Mom, mom it’s me, wait for me”, as the words rolled out of my mouth. The streetcar started to close its doors and chugged off rolling east to Main Street.
“Hey, wait, my mom is in the streetcar,” I shouted to the conductor. There was no response. I started to run along Hastings Street, dodging people the best I could to catch up with the streetcar. By the time I neared the cross street of Carrell and Hastings Street, the car left to the next street of Columbia Street. I was getting exhausted, and it continued to the next stop, with me trying to catch up, but to no avail. It continued to Main Street, and I could not run anymore. I was devastated. Catching the glimpse of a person looking like my mom sent me into a tailspin. I was in a delusional state, but I did not recognize it. Seeing Mom was my only thought, it was truly wishful thinking.
I even had the notion that my mom really wasn’t dead. She just left us for some other reason, without explanation. Seeing the streetcar getting out of reach, out of sight I felt my mom abandon me again, and she wasn’t dead, she was on the streetcar. My feelings were an extreme disappointment and then I became consumed with anger. Why is this happening? Why is Mom leaving me? Mom isn’t dead! I saw her in the streetcar! I’m sure, I’m sure! I started to become very sad and felt empty. I spoke to no one in my family about this. I felt dejected. I felt strange. I felt life was not fair. But I realized maybe I made a mistake, and all my feelings were merely wishful thinking. I hope this memory will disappear.
Eight months had passed since Mother died. During this period I did not want to go out with my friends or to play any of our sporting games. I lost interest in learning anything at school. My behavior at school was troubling for the teachers and I was not paying attention in class. They said I seemed preoccupied. The teachers tried to cope with my changed attitude and behavior. They became so concerned, a referral for a special counsellor was asked to consult into my changed behavior. Permission from my father was not asked for. He previously gave his consent to school officials for any intervention for discipline or services for his children. He trusted their knowledge and authority. So I became involved with a special counsellor. I believe the counsellor’s name was Miss Robertson.
Our session was held in my elementary school, in the nurse’s station.
“Jackie, you seem so different in the last few months. Miss Williams said you were her best student, but now you’re almost going to fail.”
That jarred me to attention. I really liked Miss Williams, my favorite teacher. I enjoyed her teaching social studies. “Yeah, I guess I should try harder,” shrugging my shoulders.
“Are you sad about something?” Miss Robertson asked with genuine concern
“I just feel bad and sad.” It was hard for me to tell her my feelings as I was scared.
“Jackie, you can trust me, I’m here to sort out some of the problems you may have.” She sounded so concerned about my feelings, it gave me some comfort that I could talk to someone about how I felt about “my problems”. She was so friendly and warm, it was easy to talk to her. We were in the interview for at least thirty minutes, and the topic of the counselling session covered my relationships with my family, who I was most close to, how my mother’s death affected me. I poured out my feelings like running water overflowing a glass.
“I really miss my mom. She left us so suddenly. She didn’t have to die. She wanted me to visit her in the hospital and I didn’t. She was very disappointed.”
“Why, what happened. What made you feel this way?”
“I wanted to go to a contest and be with my friends. So I refused to visit her. Then she died and I feel I caused her to die.” Telling her these things became easy. She was very attentive and showed her interest in my disclosures.
“Jackie it’s ok to feel bad for losing your mother. But blaming yourself for her death is not your fault. She died because of not surviving the operation she was undergoing. You not visiting her before the operation, did not have anything to do with her death. You did not have anything to do with it.” She reached out her hand and held it tightly and continued. “You have what we call prolonged grief, which many people have when their loved ones die. You are not any different.”
“But I still feel strange, like I’m missing something, and I know it’s what I did.”
“It’s more than that, you also have feelings of guilt.”
“Guilt? I didn’t do anything to be guilty!”
“No, it’s not that you did anything wrong, it is just a term we call guilt, a feeling that you are responsible for something to happen, even if you did not have anything to do with it happening.”
“How long would it last, this guilt feeling. I really don’t understand.”
“It will last as long as you feel you are responsible for whatever happened.”
I started to comprehend. It felt like a ton of bricks was off my shoulders, but I still had those sad feelings. “Gee, Miss Robertson, no one ever told me that. I kept everything to myself and I didn’t want to explain it to anyone. I think I understand. I felt guilt, eh? Hope it gets better soon.”
Miss Roberson laughs, “No, Jackie, you were never guilty, you were sad for sure, about all the things that happened when your mother died, and feeling sad is ok… it’s part of life.”
“I still don’t feel that good right away, will I?”
“It’ll take time to come around, just go about what you were doing before, go out and play with your friends and be yourself. You’ll do ok, but remember your sadness will go away eventually, good luck and see you around.”. The counselling session ended with some small talk and she gently terminated the interview.
“Thanks, I will try and remember all you said. It’s good to talk to someone who understands. It was nice to talk to you, it helped a lot.” The session ended.
Two months after the counsellor’s intervention, I was playing softball with my friends. I suddenly realized I didn’t have that heavy feeling in my chest anymore. The sadness seemed to disappear. After the game, I thought about why I felt relieved and remembered Miss Robertson’s comment. My sadness, complicated by my grief reactions due to thinking I was a cause of my mother’s death, was understandable. But when I reached a point of accepting that I had no responsibility for mother’s death, the guilt will disappear, I remembered what Miss Robertson said. I thanked God in my thoughts. But I had one more thing to do.
The next day I asked my father to take me to Mother’s graveside. He looked at me in surprise and asked, “How come? You don’t like going to the cemetery! ”
“ I need to buy some flowers on my own. please take me?” He still looked perplexed but he also looked pleased that I would pay homage to Mother.
One hour later we arrived at the cemetery. Father drove up to the gravesite, cleaned up some of the weeds growing around the copper plague. I then put the flowers in the holding container, arranging them so they stood up and looked pretty. Then I said firmly, with my father at my side,
“Mom, I now realize why you wanted to see me. You were very sick. I was selfish not visiting you when you asked. I was very sad for a long time and felt it was my fault you died. I miss you terribly. You will remain in my heart and in my mind for the rest of my life. Mom, I will do honor to you and our family. I also apologize for my selfishness and ask for your forgiveness.” In visiting my mother’s graveside with my father, I felt a tremendous feeling of relief, as the emotional burden I carried for nearly a year was finally extinguished.
Jack Say Yee was a social worker and clinical counsellor who became the first Chinese Canadian elected to the Vancouver School Board in 1973. Jack grew up on the edge of Chinatown and mainly lived and played in what is now Gastown. His parents bought and ran the Butler Hotel at 110 Water Street, Vancouver, starting in 1942. In this story of a young Canadian Chinese boy who adored his mother, Jack recounts how he dealt with an emotional event that involved his mother. This affected him with lingering bewilderment, anger, and sadness for nearly one year.