For Pearl, on Her 35th Birthday

The last time I saw you was on September 4th, 2021. I was visiting my parents for the long weekend and came to your parents’ condo, just a few miles away; they were away at a church retreat, your husband was getting a haircut, and your friend Anna — possibly the best friend who’s ever lived — was taking care of you. I had picked up Taiwanese food from Oakland Tea House, because we had planned to have our next hang there. But then you had a brain bleed, likely a side effect of the experimental chemo you were on, so bringing Oakland Tea House to you as you recovered was the next best thing.

We had retired to the living room after eating. You were laying on the couch, in a fresh change of clothes after a drainage bag mishap, and I sat in a chair next to you. I asked you if you were still seeing clients.

“Yeah, I am,” you said.

My eyes grew wide. “Why?” I asked.

You looked over your shoulder at me. “It’s who I am, you know?”

That’s pretty much everything anyone needs to know about you.

***

There’s a thing that happens when you’re a therapist, especially a therapist who is female, Asian American, Christian: You get used to having mildly unsatisfying conversations in your everyday life. People not asking how you’re doing, or asking without giving you ample time or space to answer meaningfully; people not knowing what to do with your feelings when you share honestly; people not going beneath the surface to the level you want to reach. This isn’t anyone’s fault — it took me years of professional training to learn how to engage like this, to be able to empathize and attune, to be comfortable sitting with things that are unpleasant or unresolved. I don’t blame anyone for not connecting at the level I would often like to, but it makes me all the more appreciative of the few who do.

You were one of those rare people. No surprise, perhaps, given that you were also an Asian American Christian female therapist. But when I moved back to Michigan in 2018, even after not seeing you for years, we were able to get to that level almost immediately. You made plans to see me at my parents’ house; since being an Asian American Christian female therapist often means carrying a disproportionate amount of the load in my friendships, your effort alone was a gift, especially given how young my kids were. You asked me how I was doing and made time and space for my many feelings, your attention breaking only when my children demanded it. And you reciprocated — you told me very honestly about everything that had gone down since we last saw each other over a decade before, about the cancer and being in and out of chemo, about how foggy you still felt, about John, about your families, about caring for a full load of clients even as you had so many needs of your own. You showed up, literally and figuratively, and after months of pure chaos — having my second child five weeks early, moving across the country with a six-month-old and a three-year-old and no permanent home to speak of — your presence with me was a balm. You received me into a new chapter of my life with such care, and in this moment of massive upheaval, it was everything.

You showed up like this for everyone in your life, personally and professionally. I still don’t understand how you did it. When I was a therapist, my social circle shrank as my caseload increased; after being so present with clients all day, I had little bandwidth to engage with anyone else. But you didn’t seem to have the same limitations. In all your years as a therapist, you somehow managed to care for all your clients while investing time and energy into your friendships from every chapter of your life. And you did this even as the cancer kept returning, even when it spread, even when chemo failed and failed again. I would have stopped caring for anyone but myself, and no one would have faulted me. But that’s not who you were.

***

After I left you and got in my car, I made a commitment to visit you every time I was in town to see my parents. The next time would be October 9th. I would bring cider and donuts from the Franklin Cider Mill, which had just opened for the season. I would get to meet John, like you said I would. Your birthday was a few months away and I would write you a card telling you how much you meant to me, because birthdays are a socially appropriate time to do that, and I thought we still had time.

We did not. On October 2nd, I got a text from Liz Lai: “Pearl died at 9:50.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

I thought we had more time.

I drove to my parents’ house on October 9th as planned. Only instead of having cider and donuts with you and John, I went to your funeral.

The church was packed; it was one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever been in, since you were the only person I’ve ever met who had equal numbers of Asian, Black, and white friends. A parade of people came to the podium and talked about how you had impacted their lives and I feel like four of them said you were their best friend, because if anyone could handle having four best friends and also take care of people for a living, it was you. Your boss said that even as you got sicker and could only see clients over the phone, for shorter sessions, not a single one of them wanted a new therapist because your love and care for them was so palpable. It was a beautiful service. Yet all I wanted to do was jump out of my own skin, so much did I hate the fact that you now existed only in two dimensions, in the photo on the front of the ceremony program, in the slideshow that soundlessly looped in the background.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself drifting into an alternate reality where you were alive, where you had been able to get married when you wanted to, where you had the kids you wanted so deeply. This was the life you should have had, had cancer and chemo not taken so much of your twenties and thirties, and it was so much easier to imagine than what had actually happened. My mind kept shifting to the reality that made sense instead of the one that did not.

***

It’s been over a year. I no longer imagine that you’re still alive, but I still think about you all the time: Every time I try a new Asian place near my parents’ house, because you would have tried it already and given me an accurate read. Every time Robert and I go to a restaurant in Detroit, because we had talked about eating our way through the city with our spouses. Every time I hear Ace of Base, because the last thing you ever told me was that “All That She Wants” was your favorite song from the ‘90s. Every time I eat PopCorners, because you recommended them to me when I needed pandemic snacks, telling me your dad keeps four big bags in his bedroom “just in case.” In my mind, you are as present as you ever were.

I do not know where you are otherwise, if there is any kind of life after this one. I do not know why the best people are so often the first to go. But I do know how profoundly lucky I was to know you, to be loved by you, to be the beneficiary of your friendship and care. I love you forever.

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