Monday, August 10, 2015

In the end

Her left hand was cold and motionless. I intertwined my pudgy, pink fingers between her delicate icy ones, trying not to look at the missing fingernails or last vestiges of ones the chemotherapy hadn't rotted away. It was so hard sit and listening to the water-choked gurgling that was her breathing. I hope you never have to listen to someone drown from the fluid in their own lungs.

It had only been a week since my mother had broken the news to us. Sitting upright, skinny but with a swelling belly of liquid bile from her failing liver; hospice was finally being brought in she said. While she never explicitly said that this was the end, we knew there was no longer an occasion to feign hope of a miraculous turn-around. Anger rose and fell between tears of disappointed acceptance. She'd never live to plant next year’s garden, never live to start that business she always talked about, never live to meet grandchildren. After that devastating meeting with my mom, siblings, and uncle, gathered around my mother's blanket-laden perch on the couch, my sister and I returned to her house to stew over the inevitable. We sat paused over cups of tea, between bouts of haunted silence we posed questions of what could or should have been done – and more importantly what do we do now?

One of my mother's last requests was to have a funeral service and burial in the style of her religious community; the ‘Seung Hwa’ ceremony of Reverend SunMyung Moon’s Unification Church. Funeral services of any faith are costly, and the estimated costs of my mother’s impending burial was weighing heavily on our minds; there simply wasn’t any money to cover the services.

Seung Hwa of Reverand Moon's eldest son, Hyo Jin, who passed away from a heart attack. Yay cocaine.

My parents had spent most of their life employed in the service of Reverend Moon and his ‘providence’. Once joining the cult back in the 1970’s both had only ever held employment in one of the companies or organizations that belonged to the Moons. The time commitments they made that didn’t fall into free labor category never resulted in pension or a retirement plan - they also never amounted to much income. In fact, it was more often than not that my paternal grandmother paid the rent on whatever home our family resided in at the time, purchased new cars for my father, and paid off the expensive student loan debt he acquired from a PhD he never used lucratively. Thus, with most of the financial bases covered, it gave my father the ability to strut about in a suit with a briefcase, rub shoulders with important members of the church, and have an office in the Unification Theological Seminary without the added pressure of terms such as ‘401K’, ‘retirement’, or 'affordable healthcare' that wasn’t government sponsored. My father could spend the measly income he earned on new toys for himself such as new MAC laptops and Nexus cellphones, while my mother watched from the couch as she lay dying from the lack of care that Medicaid could provide. Services from Sloane Kettering or The Cancer Centers of America simply were not within our family’s financial means.

This was also true for covering the costs of my mom’s Seung Hwa funeral ceremony. None of my siblings worked jobs where we could tuck thousands of excess income into savings, and my mother’s brother worked as a translator in Mexico for less money than any of us were pulling in. The committee of Unification Church members who were helping to organize my mother’s funeral proceedings came over to discuss details, and when they mentioned the cost of her Seung Hwa services  a member looked to my father and asked if there was money set aside to pay for the funeral. He deflected responsibility by insinuating that my mother’s recently deceased parents had set aside funds for her in a bank account, when my usually mild- mannered uncle cut in with “No. There is not a fund.”
At one point my sister was asked to take out a private loan in her name to cover the costs, which seemed unfair as she still carried the weight of student loans. One of my younger brothers had offered to throw all of his savings to help cover part of the funeral, and my uncle suggested we reach out to the Unification Church community for help. As an outsider from the church who hasn’t been exposed to its culture of financial vampirism, it seemed like a logical proposition to my uncle – after all in the real world one’s religious community is meant to provide support to those in times of need. But how could we ask that of Reverend Moon’s ‘first generation’ of followers? People who had spent years living out of 15 passenger vans and fundraising for his cult movement byselling trinkets to strangers.

My mother with the Reverend and Mrs. Sung Myung Moon at a CAUSA event.
People who had tithed most of their income to Moon’s church - instead of paying for their kid’s braces, paying for their children’s education, learn how to invest the money they did have, or setting aside for retirement or worse. This is the conundrum many of us ‘second generation’ face as we approach our late twenties or early thirties. We, the children of parents who chose ‘God’ and a false idol over their own means, are now left with the realization our parents are entering their senior citizen years with no monetary means to support them.

After the meeting with our mother concerning the impending involvement of hospice, my sister Jennifer looked up from her cup of tea-gone-cold and asked; “What do you think about crowd funding?”

As in Amanda Palmer-and-The Art of Asking-crowd funding? Kickstarter and IndieGogo? Was that possible for people like us? I mean, it made sense for the whirlwind/creative/feminist/musical force clad in a kimono+arm warmers that was Amanda *Fucking* Palmer, but who were we to ask the people of the internet for help? 
What would make anyone want to reach out and help us when it seemed this was a situation of my parent’s own making? Could you even make a crowdfunding page for something concerning medical bills or anything unrelated to the receiving of a preconceived product or service? If we had we known that in less than two weeks my mother would pass on we would have begun investigating options sooner.

We took an evening to meditate on the possibility of a crowd funding page, and by the next morning my sister had set up a page on with a campaign acknowledging that our mother was losing her eight-year battle with breast cancer, and explained the financial predicaments we found ourselves in with wanting to fulfill her last wishes.

            Admittedly, I was incredible nervous…and ashamed to ask for the help of others. Many of my friends and coworkers were unaware of the religious cult I was raised in, nor my family’s financial/power dynamics that had resulted in the Give Forward page for my mother’s funeral. After estimates from the local funeral home in town and online research about the average funeral costs in 2014, we decided to set the campaign goal number to $10,000. The account was set up where we would receive email notifications if the campaign page was shared on social media or if it had received a donation, and to my surprise we pulled in well over two-thousand dollars on the first day of it being online - more than $1,500 of it coming from people in my specific social circle. My mom passed away two days after we launched the GiveForward page, and her Seung Hwa funeral services were scheduled for three days after she died.
We surpassed the ten thousand dollar goal with the help from our coworkers, our friends, our friends parents, our significant others and their parents, and even some members of the Unification Church who found it within their means to give money in tribute to a friend. Ultimately, every penny donated through the crowd funding was used to cover the cost of the funeral services and the headstone placed above my mother in Tivoli, NY. We are unsure where the checks and money that were handed to my father at the funeral went, yet he asked us to make a donation from our crowd fund money to give to the Barrytown Unification Theological seminary and to those who presided over the arrangements.

Many Unification Church members were dressed in white or light colors (as do Koreans at a funeral,) when we arrived at my mother's Seung Hwa. A man who had never met my mother emceed the services, making grand proclamations about her character and dedication to God. Those who knew her and planned the Sueng Hwa for my mother, knew so little about her that they chose ‘America, The Beautiful’ as a funeral hymn – because of her allegiance to America? A man whom both my parents had worked for in many capacities over the years, Dr. Bo Hi Pak, did not attend but sent a letter meant to be about my mother but instead glorified “True Father” (Reverend Moon.) Someone even had the audacity to hire a photographer to document the entire event, a young teenager whom my father waved over to the family table at the funeral reception to “take a group photo”. Despite being an innocent party, I ripped the teen photographer a new one as he attempted to photograph me with a table of my friends. Who wants to pose for pictures on the day they bury their mother?

I am sitting here in a coffee shop in Queens writing this 6 months to the day of my mother’s passing. My love and gratitude goes out to the friends of mine who went out of their way to be there with us on the day of her funeral; those who dropped their previous engagements and drove hundreds of miles out of the way to be there. My love goes out to the ones who couldn’t make it, but sent money and love even if they themselves were experiencing battles with cancer themselves. So much love to the friends who sat with us and witnessed one of the strangest events they’d ever experience - a Unification Church Seung Hwa is nothing like what one’s contemporary understanding of what a funeral should be.

There are days where I have to pull out a brown leather-bound photo album off my bookshelf to remember who she really was. It was the last gift my mom gave to me, compiled with the remaining energy she had before she became bedridden. The album is full of pictures of my mother and I together, beginning with a photo of her in a Mexican-style day dress with her hands laid on a 9-month baby bump. By pouring over these pictures I am reprogramming my brain to remember the love, the dreams, and the flaws she was as a person before she became before she lay cold in the hospice hospital bed in her bedroom. I held onto her still hand, feeling the echoes of butterfly twitches that pulsed in her wrist tendons after there was no more breath to breathe, only fluid. 

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