In the past week, I have had the unfortunate and fortunate circumstance to interact with the entirety of my social network — all the people that I’ve come across in my personal and work life.
It is funny that we think of social network messages as such trivial things. Of all the threads I’ve ever written, of all the stories I’ve done, I think these latest social network threads I will talk about here will be the ones burned in my mind. It’s like a water drop sending ripples in a still pond.
My mother passed away last Friday. I shed my first tears with my wife as I heard the news from the hospice nurse. It was just the two of us that knew she had passed from dementia.
I didn’t think she would be gone so soon. She had been diagnosed for perhaps eight years. We moved her near us in 2017. A year ago, we relocated her twice before finding an affordable place, given challenges with the way insurance works. She declined rapidly and lost her ability to walk.
She no longer recognized me around 11 months ago. This was a blow. I remember once considering moving my mother to a home far from me but close to her sister. But my cousin said to me, “You are the world to her.” Too quickly that changed to the reality that she had forgotten me.
She was hard of hearing, but lately I played her big band music on Spotify. When I did so, she held my hand. My whole family saw her on December 17. Then the facility had another COVID lockdown, and I couldn’t visit. The hospice worker filled me in and said she wasn’t eating enough. Still, when I saw her a week ago for the first time since before the holidays, she was skeletal. She wasn’t talking and could only eat puree. But she squeezed my hand, and a tear slid down her face. This might have been easy to miss. But a nearby worker noticed and said, “Look at that tear. Emotion.”
On the day she died, I visited my mother earlier that day, and thought she was going to still be there the next day. Her hand was more limp than usual. Her breathing was labored, but it was there. She didn’t eat as I tried to feed her. After I got the call, I returned at night to the place. The handful of caretakers on duty at her memory care place offered me condolences as I arrived for a grim confirmation. She was in bed. But she was gone. Cold. I got some partial hugs as I exited. The long goodbye of her memory-erasing disease was over.
The next day, I had to make some of the most difficult calls ever. I told two of my three children that their grandmother had died. They knew it was coming. I knew it was coming. But it was hard. I am tearing up now as I write this, remembering those calls. When I grew up, I didn’t know my grandmothers. They were alive, but I didn’t speak Japanese. I didn’t really get to know them. But my kids spoke often with my mother over the years, and she had known them since day one of their lives.
One kid was traveling, so I elected not to call. But the kid sensed something was wrong and asked. I called across many time zones and eventually connected, telling the sad news that my child had somehow already known. I called the reverend from my childhood church, and he drove for hours to reach us.
I called back a cousin who had told me that, just the day before, his mother (my mother’s oldest sister) had passed away at 105. And I called back to tell him that my mother had died just a day later. I called my own friends and told them. My news spread across my diaspora of friends and relatives in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Soon I was getting inbound messages before I called to tell them.
I posted the news about my mother’s death on social media on Tuesday. I put messages out on Facebook and LinkedIn first. Within an hour, there were 100-plus likes and an equal number of messages on Facebook. That never happens, given how the algorithm suppresses virality.
I’m grateful for the outpouring of support and kind comments I’ve received since sharing the news.
I feel like I’ve discovered that there are people in my community who are lurking out there in a good way. They’re just beyond my vision, on the edge of my network. I can’t see them. But when something big enough happens in my social life — like the death of a mother — it’s like a tingle on a spider web. There’s a vibration that is big enough to awaken the entire network.
Then they all come to share the sorrow with me. I looked at those sharing their condolences with me on LinkedIn. One woman I had met in person in October. The next person I had interacted with 30 years ago via The Asian American Journalists Association.
I had forgotten that I had known so many people. It was clear that many of these people had been lurking for years. Perhaps they liked one of the many photos I posted of my mother, and they remembered her struggle with dementia, which takes away your loved ones before they’re physically gone.
Many of the people in my network — I can’t remember them. My mother is the one who had dementia, but somehow the brain fog starts so early and it’s embarrassing when I can’t recall someone. I mean no harm by failing to remember. It just happens. And if it happens with you, forgive me.
To trigger some memories, I started liking the comments on Twitter/X from all of the people who offered condolences. Some of the people just had handles, but I had seen them there on my feed many times before and they left heartfelt messages. I liked all of the messages on the Twitter thread, but I left a single message in reply to all. I did that again on Facebook and LinkedIn. In fact, on Facebook, my account was restricted for six hours because they thought I couldn’t possibly be “liking” hundreds of condolence comments on a post about my mother’s death.
As I replied to each person, a memory of the last time I saw that person flashed before me. It gave me little moments of joy — the kind of moments that my mother could no longer experience. I smiled when a kind of celebrity in my network — someone from the game industry — offered condolences. A CEO of a very large company (someone I’ve known for decades) took a moment to send me a condolence message. That brought tears to my eyes.
But I also took notice when it was someone who was known only to me as a friend or colleague, or someone who knew my kids or mother, from many years ago. I was an equal opportunity weeper because the kindness of strangers matters in life.
Every now and then, a message from a sender brought tears to my eyes. When you’re immersed in such grief, this is a good thing. Because it’s hard to cry all the time, and yet you feel guilty if you don’t. If a simple message on a social thread can make me cry, I feel like that’s good for me.
This caring from the world at large makes me feel like I belong to something. I feel like I’m a part of the universe, no bigger than an ant, the son of a mother ant, within a galaxy known as the Milky Way. And yet I don’t feel like we are insignificant.
It was ironic that I was playing one of my favorite games of all time, The Last of Us: Part Two Remastered for the PlayStation 5. Among the small family that I had, I am the last survivor. My brother died 31 years ago. I remember driving for hours to get to him and not making it there in time.
My father died 26 years ago. I remember him taking his last breath in a hospital after a stroke. My mother was there, and she said, “He didn’t get a second chance.” Since that time, it has just been my mother and me. When she was dying, I was hoping that she would get that second chance. It was not to be.
This made me think of my own mortality, and the need to live well. My wife has a huge family that has welcomed me into the inner circle. In this generation of my family, I am the last of us.
But you can see something from this little exercise of exploring the virality of my social network. I am not alone. As the angel Clarence says to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is alone who has friends.” I do feel blessed to have had my mother around for 90 years. Whenever I did something like scoring a basket or getting a new job, she was always the one who was proudest. But I also feel blessed to have this network of guardian angels around me.
If you’re out there in a lonely place, you have to remember that. You’re not alone. Many people have told me this, and I will pass it on to those who need to learn it. You have touched the lives of so many people along the way, and they are just a spider web away from you. Their purpose out there in the Spider-verse is to help you. It doesn’t matter if you have a huge network. You only need your true friends when you need help. And if you are one of those friends, check in with the lonely outlier in your network, before you feel that web tingle. I believe that when pain is shared, it isn’t as sharp.
To all of you who are in my network. My little social kingdom. My community. Thank you for caring. Thank you for bringing the tears out of me. Thank you for taking my grief and turning it into some form of joy. All I can say is this. Well met.
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