Once upon a time, in the Southern Resident community off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, a female orca gave birth to a calf but the baby died within the hour. The mother, known as Tahlequah or J35, carried her dead calf for a number of days, attracting worldwide attention in her spectacle of grief. More than a week passed and Tahlequah showed no signs of letting go, but as she became weaker the other female orcas in her pod took turns carrying the dead calf in a stunning display of maternal support and community.
This was no mere gesture. The calf weighed 400 pounds, and it’s estimated that the orca pod swam around 1,000 miles during what came to be known as the “grief tour.” Millions of people around the world empathized with Tahlequah and responded by creating essays, poems and artwork. We are naturally captivated when animals act in ways that seem to fit a human narrative; we instinctively project our own emotions onto other species. Orcas may actually be worthy of the comparison. Among the most intelligent and sensitive of mammals, they travel in organized clans, have complex social interactions, and communicate in a distinct language. Orcas live in matrilineal groups and stay with their mothers their entire lives.
After 17 days and several waves of news coverage, Tahlequah finally released her calf back into the ocean. The writer Lidia Yuknavitch tweeted:
Yes, I know I am not this Orca. But her letting go of her dead calf rings through my whole body. Letting my dead daughter go took over a decade—and her life and death became my writing. Sending human mammalian love to an Orca—for what is carried…
I, too, was touched by the story and thought about my own experiences with grief. I tweeted in reply:
I am thinking, our astonishment at the grieving orca reflects a terrible blind spot in our culture. No one who has lost a loved one stops mourning in one news cycle. We carry the grief for longer than anyone ever knows but it is invisible, which only multiplies our pain.
People are uncomfortable with the orca’s spectacle of grief, as though it is abnormal and unhealthy. No. We are the ones who are unhealthy. We expect and push people to get over profound sadness and loss too quickly.
For most people, Tahlequah was a heartwarming story about the power of a community of mothers. For me, it opened up a wound that I didn’t yet have the words for.
I grew up in a typical nuclear family: father, mother, sister, brother. We were four sides of a table, a perfect, stable square. We’re from Taiwan originally, but lived in the U.S. for most of my early childhood where we gained American citizenship and I grew up speaking English. After that we lived in Hong Kong for a decade, where my brother Ted and I attended an American school.
When Ted and I graduated from high school, we always knew we would go to college back in the States, but we didn’t really think about what came next. Ted moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at USC. By the time I started college at U.C. Berkeley five years later, he had finished his studies and was back in Hong Kong. Fast-forward a few years: Ted took a vacation in Thailand and liked it so much that he decided to stay. Martial law was lifted and democracy emerged in Taiwan, making it safe for my parents to return there after 19 years abroad. I stayed in the Bay Area after graduation. Within a few short years we all dispersed to different countries, separated by borders and oceans, our own miniature diaspora.
From age 19 onwards, I lived on my own in the States with no relatives nearby. I remember sad, solo fast-food meals on Thanksgiving because I was one of few college students not traveling home for the break. I didn’t attend my own graduation ceremony because there was no one coming to watch me walk in my cap and gown. I stressed out whenever I had to complete an emergency contact form, because I did not have someone local who could claim me if I was hurt or got in trouble. While these were lonely experiences, I didn’t dwell on them or hold any of this against my parents. I simply accepted that we were different from other families, that this was normal when there was an ocean between us.
As an adult I visited my parents almost every year and saw my brother every few years. Ted and his girlfriend had three kids, and I eventually married and had one. We settled into a comfortable status quo of periodic visits to Taipei and Bangkok, and the easy harmony of grandparents enjoying their golden years with small grandchildren.
Then the health issues started. My brother was only 46 when doctors discovered an aggressive tumor in his liver, and he died just nine months later. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and suffered an agonizing descent into dementia that lasted more than a decade. My dad never expected to outlive his son and his wife, and his heartbreak hastened his own decline and passing. Within a six-year period I lost all three of them.
One by one, the sides of our perfect square collapsed. Even though we lived an ocean apart for more than two decades, each loss was like sawing off a table leg, causing the whole structure to wobble and fall. Although my brother and my parents weren’t present in my daily life, they provided an invisible scaffolding that I didn’t realize I depended on until they were gone. All the things that proved I had a home in California—house, job, passport, driver’s license, ability to vote—were the result of choices I had made, rather than natural ties to a culture and community. It was a one-sided equation: I could claim it, but it did not claim me. The only true unit of belonging I had that was intrinsic and undeniable and could not be undone, that understood my complicated identity without needing an explanation, was my family.
With each loss, I traveled overseas for the funeral then returned to California where I would be showered with condolences for a week… then nothing. There was no grave for me to visit. No fellow mourners to share my loss. No church or temple to advise me on the right rituals. My grief was a secret painfully apparent to me but invisible to others, like a fresh tattoo on unexposed skin. My sorrow was like a stone dropped into a lake that immediately sank to the bottom and made no ripples; like hearing deafening music that no one else could hear. It felt to me like a form of madness, this loneliness that was too profound for words.
The first time I saw “Maman,” one of a series of monumental steel sculptures by the artist Louise Bourgeois, was in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, where I was on vacation with my husband and son. Since then we’ve also seen the giant mother spider at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Someone who wasn’t familiar with Bourgeois or her work might be surprised at the association of maternal feelings with an insect that usually triggers an instinctive loathing. But a quick look at the descriptive label reveals that Bourgeois appreciates the spiders’ industriousness and skill at weaving, a reference to her own mother who was in charge of mending tapestries in the family atelier. She describes spiders as friendly creatures that provide a valuable but thankless service to humans by trapping and eating other insects. Cleaning up, removing obstacles, finding food, and defending the nest: these are all classic examples of a mother’s work.
Like mothers, spiders can inspire awe and fear disproportionate to their size. So it’s fitting that Bourgeois made the sculptures dramatically oversized, up to nine meters high. Their huge, elongated shadows represent the enormous influence mothers have over their children well into adulthood. Although monstrously large, as if made for a vintage Japanese disaster movie, getting close to Maman brings an unexpected feeling of intimacy. You can stand underneath her. You can be enclosed and sheltered by her, the same way your mother once enveloped and surrounded you. The spider mother appears delicate with her fragile skinny legs, but she is literally made of steel.
Maman is stronger than she looks. She is your first and forever home, and she weaves the world into existence.
Native American mythology is filled with tales of a goddess/ancestor called Spider Grandmother, who weaves the web of creation from which all other living things emerge. Numerous other myths around the world depict spinning and weaving goddesses; the making of textiles was considered a distinctly feminine skill. In her essay “Woven,” Lidia Yuknavitch shares a Lithuanian myth about the water spirit Laume who brings blessings to women who are good weavers and mothers, and judgment to those who are greedy, foolish or do not protect their children. Weaving, creating, and mothering are intertwined and celebrated as women’s work. But the flip side is that being deficient in these arts can lead to violence and punishment.
Every culture has its ways of defining acceptable womanhood.
My own mother did not weave or make clothes, though she did own a sewing machine that she used mostly for hemming and small repairs. But like most mothers she was a weaver of community, responsible for maintaining the social fabric that cushioned our lives. For decades she had a box with a hinged lid designed to hold index cards for recipes, but she used hers as an address book. It was a bright sunny yellow with a design of red poppies, and she kept it long after it started to rust at the edges. I still remember my mom’s neat handwriting on each lined card, and how my own card had been whited out and overwritten numerous times due to my frequent moves. In college I lived in six different apartments over four years; seven, if you count the year I studied abroad in Paris.
My mom’s recipe box held addresses and phone numbers for the families we went to church with, my dad’s Bible translation colleagues, and others who were part of a large network of Taiwanese Americans on the East Coast and beyond. The box followed our family from place to place: New Jersey in the 1970s, Hong Kong in the 1980s, and then Taiwan in the 1990s after my parents moved back there for good. I never really thought about the recipe box or what it represented until the 2000s, after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The first sign that something was wrong was when she struggled to grade papers and keep up with her work as a professor at Taiwan Theological Seminary. She also fell behind on filing their U.S. taxes, something she had always handled and that my dad had no idea how to do himself.
It was around this time that my parents stopped sending Christmas and birthday presents to me in California. Though the gifts were always from the two of them, my mom was the designated gift shopper and the one who kept track of birthdays and special occasions. I received cards and a check for a couple of years, signed in my dad’s handwriting, then those stopped too. As my mom slipped further into dementia, it became increasingly difficult for my dad to fill all the gaps.
In retrospect, this was a much bigger deal than we were willing to admit. Not because anyone resented the lack of gifts, but because my mom had always been known as an extremely thoughtful and tasteful gift giver, someone who put a lot of effort into beautiful wrapping paper and cards because she took genuine pleasure in it. What hurt was the loss of this part of her personality that we so admired, this form of expression she had lovingly cultivated over a lifetime.
The most refined aspects of her identity were the first to go, followed by the ability to care for others and ultimately the ability to care for herself. In between one of my visits to Taiwan and the next, my parents’ household spiraled into complete disorder. My mom was no longer capable of basic housework or hygiene, and my dad struggled for months until he hired a housekeeper to help with cooking, shopping, cleaning and laundry.
In happier, healthier times before the crisis of dementia, my trips to Taiwan had been filled with outings to Taipei for shopping and eating, and visits to museums and sights in the surrounding towns. My parents enjoyed playing tourist with me. We also often visited with relatives on both sides of the family. I saw my dad’s family the most because they lived just blocks away from my parents’ apartment, and we always made a trip north to Tien Mu to see my mom’s brothers and their families. It wasn’t until near the end of my mom’s illness that I realized I hadn’t seen any of my mom’s family for years, because my dad hadn’t thought ahead to make arrangements with them. That’s when it really hit me that my mom had been the nucleus at the center of all family gatherings, the planner who brought everyone together.
I didn’t notice the unweaving until it was too late. The next time I saw my mom’s relatives was at her funeral.
I became a mother myself at the age of 38. I was lucky that I had a smooth pregnancy with no complications. We hired a doula to hold my hand and coach me through the contractions and pushing. My son arrived at nine in the morning, and all day long the nurses and staff were in and out of my room, constantly checking on us, until the evening when it became dark and very quiet. While my husband napped on an armchair, my baby and I stared at each other in the moonlight and tried to adjust to this new reality. It was like we were meeting each other for the first time, but also, paradoxically, like we had known each other forever.
My husband’s mother came from Canada to stay with us for a month after the baby was born. I was grateful for the help, but cautious because my husband’s relationship with her was strained. She was volatile and had strong opinions, and I did not want to clash with her over our different approaches to raising a child. The unspoken arrangement was that she would take care of my husband and me, and I would take care of the baby. She managed the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, and had jurisdiction over the entirety of our apartment except the master bedroom, the inner sanctum where I stayed with the baby and where she only appeared when invited in.
My mother-in-law was a superb cook and she fed and cared for us well, in addition to spoiling her grandson with toys and clothes. I became closer to her over time, and somewhere inside me a door I had forgotten about swung open. But it would not open all the way, because what I really wished for and could not have was my own mother by my side. By then my mother was living in a senior care facility in a suburb of Taipei. My dad worked during the week at home, then commuted two hours north every Friday so he could spend the weekend with her, although the house rules required him to sleep in a separate guest dormitory. Neither of them could travel anymore; their last international trip had been to California to attend my wedding four years before. When their grandson was born, they shared their joy and well wishes over the phone.
After my mother-in-law left, we were on our own. Because we didn’t have any relatives near us, there were no extra hands when we needed them, no sources of maternal wisdom, no endless supply of hand-me-downs. I learned how to be a mother from my friends and from the internet.
My son is 11 now and for the most part I think we’ve done a good job raising him. He visited his Taiwanese grandparents several times and has good memories from before they got sick and passed on. He also spent time with his Canadian grandma but hasn’t seen her in several years. For complicated reasons we are no longer in touch with her, and the story behind that particular pain isn’t mine to tell.
I envy my friends who have healthy parents that live nearby, who have the ability to slip out for a spontaneous date night or to take off on a weeklong, kid-free vacation. How I wish we had occasional help that we didn’t have to pay for—something my friends take for granted—although it was never about the money. How I wish I had a sibling or cousin with children in the same city so that we could send our kids to the same school, share dinners and holidays, coordinate vacation plans, and so on. How I wish my son could grow up with a clan, a group of mothers and children traveling together through life like a pod of orcas, always looking out for each other, secure in their belonging to something bigger than a family of three.
The older he gets, the more I worry that I have not done enough to knit a tapestry that will enfold and protect him, that will open doors and give him room to stretch while keeping him out of harm’s way, that will imprint a pattern so deep and recognizable that he can always find his way home. This is what I am most afraid of: that I will be exposed as the mother who cannot weave, who cannot on her own produce the work of many hands, the unseen web that no one notices but everyone needs. Try as I might, there is no material stronger than kinship.
I used to visit Taiwan almost every year. When I was younger, my parents would make a big deal out of taking me around to see all my relatives. There would be many dinners in fancy Chinese restaurants where we’d get a private room and enjoy an elaborate ten-course feast. No two meals were the same, although I came to understand there would always be a whole fish and a soup course at the end. The occasion for the gathering would be “Gu-lace-uh tńg-lâi” (Grace has come home) and I was always amused by the formality of it, as if my aunts and uncles thought each visit might be my last.
When my parents were still healthy, we were constantly invited to social gatherings—lunch at an oolong tea plantation, day trips to see artisan pottery in Yingko or the Ju Ming sculpture garden, outings to the golf club where my cousin was a member. There was never any shortage of things to do or people to see. But once my dad’s health started to decline, my trips were less about sightseeing and more about going to the hospital and navigating a bureaucracy that was totally unfamiliar to me. There were many things expected of me as my parents’ daughter, and my cousins took turns chaperoning me to renew my Taiwanese passport, enroll in national health insurance, pay hospital and hospice bills, visit a notary to draw up a will, pay property taxes on my dad’s apartment, open a bank account to handle funeral and estate expenses, and so on. I was not consulted on any of these things but simply showed up when I was told to, brought my Taiwanese ID card, and got used to signing my name in Chinese characters. I let my cousins do all the talking for me, understanding nothing except the obligatory backstory when they explained to each new clerk that I was the one who grew up in America and forgot how to speak Taiwanese along the way.
Only when I returned to California did I appreciate the power of this network in Taiwan, and the fact that it sprang up unbidden to meet my needs, already knowing what do to and where I needed help, without me ever having to ask.
Once when I visited Taiwan more than a decade ago – before my son was born, before my dad got sick – I woke up with intense abdominal and back pain triggered by an ovarian cyst and possibly a urinary tract infection. I felt alternately chilled and feverish. My dad called my cousin Un-liang, an OB/GYN, and she recommended going straight to a specific lab to get a blood test and urine test. My aunt and other cousin picked us up in a taxi and the four of us went to the lab together.
I did the urine sample first, then sat down to have my blood drawn. I held a cotton ball over the inside of my arm while we waited for the lab results, then suddenly felt very nauseous. I stood up to go to the restroom and immediately felt light-headed and closed my eyes. I felt myself sweating and hyperventilating as the blood drained from my head. I began to collapse, but there were people on either side of me holding my arms – my dad and my aunt, and the lab technician and doctor – and when I started to fall they slowly lowered me to the ground where I laid for several minutes. I remember how cool the floor felt. A thin tube was inserted into both of my nostrils, followed by the command to “Breathe!” I inhaled the oxygen weakly at first, then more steadily.
My body melted into the floor. It felt good, peaceful, the way you are supposed to feel at the end of an intense yoga session when lying in savasana, dead body pose. I had the contradictory sensations of feeling light as air, almost high, yet firmly rooted to the ground. I heard the murmur of voices but didn’t understand what was being said. Once the nausea passed and my breathing returned to normal, I had a strange sense of well-being; a profound sensation of letting go and being held as I fainted, of being slightly outside my body as though observing my pain instead of living through it. But I never lost consciousness – on the contrary, as my body went limp, my perceptions intensified. The feeling of complete and utter vulnerability took me by surprise, because I had not expected it to be so beautiful.
More than a year ago I began to feel an acute and specific fatigue. I was spending a lot of time doing and organizing things for other people, but my labor felt invisible. I took charge of group projects. I planned outings and dinners. I bought more books than I could possibly read, attended nonstop literary events and cheered for my friends’ successes, all while working at a demanding full-time job. I did all of these things willingly, until I reached a point where I felt completely hollowed out. I was putting so much energy into my community and it wasn’t being reciprocated.
Although I was desperate to exhale and unwind, I was afraid that if I pulled back, the things I cared about wouldn’t happen, or worse, I would be left out and life would go on as usual. My absence would not leave a hole in anyone else’s Thanksgiving or birthday or baby shower. Everyone else was already secure in their own clan with their own built-in schedule of rituals and celebrations. Even though I have excellent friendships, I still felt as though I was on the margins, so my subconscious reaction was to try to move closer to the center by being the one who organized things. The only way I could guarantee myself an invitation to the party, I reasoned, was if I planned the party myself.
My exhaustion carried on for weeks. I could barely drag myself to the grocery store or cook anything that required more than two steps. My husband did more than his share at home, but even then, I struggled to summon the energy to do the few things required of me. The thought constantly spinning in the back of my head was, Can someone else do this? Does it have to be me? I fantasized about having a sister nearby, on whose sofa I could collapse and who would happily feed my family if I was too depleted. I thought about how much more time I’d have for myself if I wasn’t always the one who had to drive my son to and from every guitar lesson and basketball practice and play date. I dreamed of how nice it would be not to have to pay for 10 weeks of summer camp, because as a working parent with no family nearby, I had no other choice.
It seemed like everyone else had a support system to help them, that they could count on without even asking. For a while I withdrew from my social life and felt hurt and resentful, until I finally realized that it wasn’t my friends who were letting me down. It was not their fault. What was causing my depletion was the absence of a familial support system, an unforeseen consequence of my family history and the forces of diaspora that had separated me from my relatives and landed me in a country where I was comfortable with the language and culture, but had no network to sustain me. Where I had to do everything myself.
Distributed computing is the model that gave us the internet. When multiple computers are networked together, they can process much larger computational loads than they can handle individually. The effort is shared among all the member computers; the more members there are, the stronger the network and the greater its overall capacity.
All social media is built on this foundation, with the goal of connecting more people and broadening the network. It mimics the way we build communities, but it is not a substitute for the community, even though the tech companies would like you to think they are synonymous.
Just as larger networks are more powerful and resilient, smaller networks are less capable and more fragile. Every gap is a threat, every hole has the potential to grow bigger, to loosen and unravel the web. A true community, like a tapestry, is both the structure and the story. It provides both form and meaning, and one can’t exist without the other. An online social network, while beneficial, can only go so far. I can’t call my Facebook friends to pick up my son from school if I’m going to be late. I can’t expect my Twitter friends to bring dinner over if I’m feeling burned out and unable to take care of anyone.
And so I come back to the orca and her lesson for me: I can’t bear the weight of my sadness alone. I need a pod to lessen the load, to help me carry what I can’t carry myself. There’s a Vietnamese expression of condolence that captures this feeling perfectly: “chia buồn” translates to “dividing sadness” or “sharing your sadness” to convey that you don’t need to bear your burdens alone.
From the spider mother I’ve learned that weaving a strong network is the key to survival. The electronic kind is good for connecting people but it’s not a substitute for physical presence, for the hands and feet and backs that can actually lighten your load. Apart from giving birth, building the network is the most important women’s work, and the most significant act of creation that makes everything else possible.