Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Motherhood

I'm reading Motherless Daughters, a book by Hope Edelman about women who lost their mothers, many at young ages. Edelman lost her own mother to cancer when she was 17, when her mother was 42. The book is about how women, children suffer, grieve, and struggle to find a way to continue living after losing their mothers.

I'm reading the book on my computer in the middle of a local Starbucks. It's packed in here. At times I find myself ducking behind the computer because I feel the tears coming.

I can't stop thinking about my own children as I read. It is one of my greatest fears, that something may happen to me or Jeff or both of us, and our children will have to suffer the pain of such a loss. I can picture their little faces, mixed with confusion, fear, shock. How could they understand such a devastation? Who will comfort them? It makes me feel panicked just to think about it. And I think about how it would be better for all of us to go together than to put our kids through such misery.

Jeff and I are practical. We have our paperwork squared away. We have amazing friends who have agreed to step in if anything should have. We consider them family, and their children love ours. We know our backup plan couldn't be any better, but I also know that if anything should happen, our children would be thrown off their tracks forever, psychologically and emotionally.

I think of these women who suffered such devastations in their lives, and I think about how sheltered and privileged my life has been. No serious tragedies, no horrible misfortunes. Not even a broken bone. My own family intact. Healthy, beautiful children. The thought makes me want to cross my fingers.

The book also makes me think about the role of motherhood. Until now, I had focused mainly on keeping my children healthy, clean, fed, rested, and educated. But Edelman writes about what she misses about her own mother:
Even now, her absence remains a terrible hole. No home to return to for a holiday celebration. No one to tell me what I was like as a child, or to reassure or comfort me as a mother. 
I paused over her line about not having someone who knew her as a child. We are witnesses to our children's lives. Witnesses with the best seats in the house. We hold in ourselves an archive of their lives, the most pivotal moments as well as the mundane, from their first breath until our last.

I replay in my mind the moment my son was born over six years ago. My obstetrician pulled him out and plopped him right on my belly, his umbilical cord still in tact, his body still slimy. He took a second to shake off the shock and then started screaming, maybe at the indignity of it all. I started bawling because I couldn't believe this little person was real, that he had come into my life.

I think about the privilege of being a mother. This exceptional place that we hold in the hearts and lives of these little people who grow up to run this world. My four-year old daughter loves to say, "Mommy is all mine, all mine." She most frequently says it to Jeff. Sometimes, she tells him not to touch me, or to wait his turn before touching me, because I'm all hers. And I love being her magical, special person, not because I did anything in particular, but simply because I am her mother.

That thought makes me want to be a better mother. To give them more hugs. To console them better when they cry. To listen more attentively. To articulate more clearly to them what they mean to me. And to build a reserve of my love in their hearts, just in case.

It also makes me want to document our lives better. So that I'm not the sole curator of our archives. So that their future self-understanding, their future well-being will be less dependent on me.

I know it's not enough. It will not ward off the pain if some tragedy should befall our family. But I know of no other way to protect my children.

For me, becoming a parent has changed my attitude toward survival. Before, when I was alone, I never particularly cared about it. Not in some morbid way, but I figured I'd had a good enough life and when it's time to go, it's time to go. Now, I can't afford not to survive. My children need me. I have to stick around. I would guess many of those mothers who left their children behind felt the same way.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Time Of My Own

Growing up as an immigrant kid, I watched my parents struggle a lot. They worked painfully long, labor-intensive hours, often more than 14 hours a day with no real breaks, six days a week. They could never catch up on their sleep and had no time to spare. I remember their exhaustion stretching out like a rope of molten glass, drooping from its own weight, threatening to crack with the passage of time.

As a teenager, I tried as much as I could to help. I cooked dinner, washed the laundry, cleaned the house, helped out at their store. And I was hyper-aware that I should never impose on their time. I remember one time I returned to law school after a visit home. I accidentally left something behind at my parents', perhaps a watch. When I mentioned it to my roommate, she casually suggested that I just call my parents and ask them to send it. I thought her suggestion absurd. No, that's not possible, I said to her.

But more than with regard to time, I knew I should never impose on them emotionally. We weren't an emotionally open family to begin with. But the idea of bringing my personal issues into the household, where my parents' stress already stretched out the seams of our family fabric precariously, was unthinkable. When their frustration and unhappiness started to swell and they started unfurling their anger at each other, we just quietened our breaths and sagged against the cold, desolate walls.

I learned to be accommodating. To figure out a way to help quietly. To identify the areas of need so that I could find a way to fill them. I took it upon myself to play that role. I had to help us. I was the only one who could do something. There was no one else.

To do what, exactly? I'm not even sure I understood. To reduce the level of unhappiness in our family? To minimize my parents' stress? To free them from the unrelenting demands of survival? To create a sense of order when we felt none? To find some sense of security, some assurance that we will all be okay? Maybe all of the above. I'm not sure.

All I knew was that the situation felt desperate.  I had to do something. I had to find a way to help us, to get us out of the morass. So I stepped onto that hamster wheel and ran as quickly as I could.

After years of living like this, it didn't even occur to me to think about what I needed or wanted. In that context, all of my problems seemed so trivial in comparison. I couldn't even call them problems. They were nothing, insignificant bothers that didn't even merit mention. What are the worries of teenage girls? Weight, boys, popularity? None of them mattered, I told myself. Nothing mattered more than our survival, our survival as a family.

I don't think I even realized that I was effacing myself. I remember how detached I felt from my emotions at times, as if I were watching myself from the outside. I remember never crying. I remember constantly feeling guilty for whatever free time I had, for the smallest luxury, like treating myself to a piece of cake, and comparing myself to my parents who worked nonstop. I remember always fulfilling all of my duties first before I allowed myself to do what I wanted. I remember never asking for anything. Never making demands for myself. Simply biting down on that bullet and doing whatever it was that needed doing.

Ever since I became a mom, I realize that I've reverted to that role.  Of putting my head down and doing my part. Meeting everyone else's needs. Trying to make everyone else happy. Doing things for myself only when it didn't upset anyone else's needs or plans.

Of course I've heard all that talk about how motherhood requires balancing one's own needs against others. I heard all that, but it seems impossible to do at times. And selfish.

Despite myself, I've been bulging at the seams, steam leaking out of my ears and my nose. I could feel the frustration building over the day, over the week. The week would pass with me driving the kids to school, then picking them up, then driving them to taekwondo or swim or dance, killing time while they attend class, walking up and down the aisles in Target, Costco, Von's, picking up their toys yet again, preparing their meals, vacuuming their crumbs, bathing them, getting them ready for bed. And a thought would quietly appear, My life has to be more than this. And another thought, I'm getting so old. And I would try to push those thoughts away.

Then a week would hit where the kids get sick, and I would be homebound for days. The three precious hours I had to myself while my little one went to preschool would be taken from me, and those thoughts would keep resurfacing. I have nothing to show for my time. Just scrunched up balls of kleenex, red noses, and mounding anxiety about the minutes, hours, days slipping by. Those days would inevitably end in a blow up. A blow up about how I'm doing nothing with my life.

"Nothing" is a cold word. It slaps you across your cheek and says, Do something! Just do something! Figure it out! It doesn't leave room for excuses, and it does nothing to console the deep sadness I feel about how I spent my 44 years.

Jeff would try to talk to me about hiring a regular babysitter or switching roles and him taking a turn staying with the kids or figuring out what it was that I would rather be doing. And I found it difficult to say out loud that I just wanted time. Time to myself. Time to figure it out. Time to explore.

It just seemed too selfish. We are where we are. We have children, children I desperately wanted. We aren't retired. We need to make a living. It didn't occur to me that I could ask for something like that. It seemed impossible.

But the other day, Jeff asked me why I didn't relax with the kids. Why did I always go running off to this store or that? Why didn't I just sit with them and play?

I responded honestly and said that I just needed to get through the day, to pass it as quickly as I could. I just needed to pass the time.

He looked at me for a long time. Very quietly.

Then he said, "We need to make a change. You can't live your life like that."

He offered me a deal. Take a year. Do whatever you want to do. Just write if you want to. Or take classes. He told me I earned it after taking care of the kids for so long.

I didn't believe him. I know his anxieties about money, our future security. I know his goal-driven personality. How could it possibly work?

But the next day, he quit his job. He's been handling the kids' drop off, the pick ups, taking them to swim and taekwondo after school, planning some of the meals, and doing the grocery runs.

It's been a week. I've been writing, and I signed up for a bunch of classes at the community college.

When I was growing up, my family always needed things from me. Everyone else's needs always trumped mine. Their needs were always more desperate, more urgent. No one ever stopped to ask what I needed.

No one has ever done anything like that for me. Put my need above theirs. Put time back in my hands.

It makes me want to cry.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Moment

The sound of our kids' heavy breathing fills the small hotel room. T is under the covers, smack in the middle of the other queen bed about 3 feet away, with the sheets tightly tucked between the mattress and the box to keep him from rolling out. Our little S is curled up in her sleepsack in the pack-n-play by the window, her hair tousled around her face like a protective cloud. The kids passed out immediately after a busy day of visiting old friends and jumping around in an indoor playground. When we drove into San Francisco mid-morning to meet my friend and her daughter at the Academy of Sciences, my six-year-old T, who lived in San Francisco from birth until the day after his first birthday, said, "I love visiting my old friends."

It is only 9pm, but Jeff and I are lying in the dark, whispering to each other, my head on his shoulder, warm under the cover. We hadn't had much time to talk during the day since he came on the trip for business and allowed us to tag along only if we agreed to leave him alone to work. We left him to his meetings after we grabbed my Starbucks in the lobby in the morning and returned after a giggle-filled dinner.

In the dark, we talk about anything and everything: our schedule for the week, funny things the kids said during the day, his mother's declining health.

I don't even remember what it was I said, but he tells me, "You're a better person than me."

"No, it's not true. That's not true. Why would you even say that?"

"You are a good person," he says.

"What does that even mean, to be a good person?" I ask.

"You always try to do the right thing," he says.

And at this comment, I feel my eyes well up. He doesn't see me cry, but I feel the tears roll down my face.

"But it doesn't do any good. It doesn't make any difference."

He pulls me in closer and tightens his arm around me. And by his deep breath, I know he understands.

He kisses the top of my head and says, "It'll be ok."

I lie there as his words settle around me. I recognize the weight of his efforts -- to try to fill the void that he didn't create, to help heal what he didn't damage, to try to compensate when others have failed. I think of the weight he carries for me. And I hope I have the fortitude to do the same for him when my turn comes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Little Reminder

The day before Halloween, my son's class had a day-long Halloween party. The teacher told the kids they could dress up, and the parents were sent an email reminder the night before. When I dropped off my son T at school in his storm trooper outfit, he was greeted by an Iron Man, Elsa, a unicorn fairy, a baseball player, and a host of other luminaries in miniature sizes.

After some effort, I huddled his class together to take some group photos. The little ones were giggling and squealing at each other, the way six-year-olds do. I took a few photos before the kids ran off to chase each other around the playground.

As I turned around to grab my three-year old daughter to make my way out, I noticed one of the girls from his class. She was sitting by herself on the bench, her shoulders hunched, heaving up and down, her hands cupping her face, and her eyes flooded with tears. I knelt down to ask her what was wrong, and she stammered through her sobs that she didn't have a costume. No one else saw her except for another mom standing nearby. We met eyes, and I knew she felt as heart-broken for this little girl as I did.

I grabbed my daughter to get her to her school in time for her party. As I scurried toward the car with my daughter in my arms, I could not get little Diana out of my head. I wondered what her parents were like. I had met a lot of other parents in the class, but not hers. I wondered if they were one of the two parents who didn't have an email address. I also wondered if they worked long hours and whether the family celebrated Halloween.

I had about twenty minutes to get my daughter to her school. As I buckled her in, I ran through the list of stores in the area and realized that CVS would be open. Surely, they sold costumes even if the choices were limited. I did the calculation in my head. If I drove to CVS, that would take five minutes. And if I carried S and didn't let her roam in the store, maybe we could be out of there in five minutes. That gave me ten minutes to drive back to the elementary school, drop off the costume, and then drive my daughter to her school. I was so used to rushing with the kids in the morning that I had to remind myself that being late to preschool was okay.

As I was driving toward CVS, I saw the Halloween store that we had just visited a couple of days ago. I knew they had an array of costumes. At the red light, I called the store to see if they were open. A young lady answered and said the store wouldn't be open for another 20 minutes. I pleaded with her and asked if she could make an exception for me. She got off the phone to talk to her manager and finally came back to say that she would let us in.

I u-turned the car, and parked as close as I could to the store entrance. I grabbed S out of her seat, and said, "Let's go get Diana a costume!"

She was so excited. She said, "Yeah, Mom! We can give it to her and say, 'Diana, this is for you!'" 

We rushed down the aisles looking for the kids' section. We finally found the row of little girl dresses. I grabbed the first poofy dress that looked about her size, plunked down my credit card, and thanked the cashier profusely. Then it was back to school.

I parked again, grabbed S out, and then we sprinted toward the school, the Cinderella dress blowing in my hand. We signed in at the front desk and rushed out to the playground where the kids were still gathered for their costume parade. I found one of the parents from the class and practically threw the dress at her.

"This is for Diana! Gotta go!"

S and I ran back to our car and rushed to her school. We were just ten minutes late.

Later, one of the moms who was volunteering in T's class texted me to say that Diana was thrilled with her costume.

The day after, at our friends' Halloween party, I recounted the events. My friend's dad, who was listening quietly, started nodding along. His eyes softened as he said, "She'll remember that when she's grown up."

When I dismissed his comment with a retort that she's only six-years-old, he said, "No, I know because I was one of those kids. And I remember every time someone did something nice for me."

Maybe she'll remember or maybe she won't. But I'll remember it -- as the day I played the role of the fairy godmother and how magical it felt.

Where I Am

For the past couple of weeks, I've been feeling different. Not as anguished. Not as dejected. Not as aggrieved. The intensity has subsided, and gone is the constant agitation. I don't know what happened, but I no longer feel as if I'm in the middle of a heated ongoing conflict. The crisis has passed, and I feel like I crawled out of the wreckage and am watching an ambulance drive away.

Maybe it is because three of my girlfriends from law school flew in for a getaway weekend. We did the typical things. A spa day. Dined out. Joked about past boyfriends. Gossiped about who's where and doing what. But we also laughed. The kind of laughing you do with friends who know you. They also let me cry in front of them as I filled them on all my family drama. They listened, and tried to advise me, and listened some more.

I've been blogging about the situation with my sister, but I haven't talked to too many people about it. Mainly because I can't stop myself from crying whenever I talk about it. But I let myself cry with my friends in the middle of a festive restaurant as strangers laughed in other corners of the room and as our bowl of orecchiette turned cold on the table. As I talked, I saw the understanding in their eyes. Not just an understanding of my point of view, because they didn't agree with everything I said. But they understood the depth of my calamity. And they understood the context. And the impact it had.

Maybe that's all it took. For someone to understand the situation. For someone to listen and to nod along.

Others have listened and nodded along. Jeff. A few other close friends. But it was different this time. Maybe because I was able to tell the whole story, from beginning to end. Or maybe because these friends knew me from a different time and knew how things were 20 years ago.

I've been struggling with this on my own for so long. Internally. Trying to understand it. Trying to make sense of it. And reeling from the disappointment I feel toward my family. Their inability to help, to be the kind of family I want them to be.

But I'm beginning to realize that it is my perspective that was faulty. I always assumed that my family would be there for me, to help me in times of need. That now seems so naive. I think back to the way we grew up, and I wonder why I even picked up that ideal in my head. Why did I ascribe such attributes to my family, when I can find no evidence of them in my memory? Most memories I have of my family are of me trying to help them. Of me cooking for them, listening to and absorbing my mother's sadness, trying to make them happy. And not vice versa. What I remember are my parents' absence. Absent at my high school graduation. At my college matriculation. At my college graduation. Of me helping my sister, and of her not even considering that she could be in a position to reciprocate.

I don't know why I thought my mom should be able to help us. Maybe because I could think of no one else who could, and I thought surely, my mother of all people should be able to. But she has never been one to help me, at least not when emotions are involved. She comes from a culture that believes emotions should be tamed, not caressed. I remember when one of my friends died in college. She gave me one firm hug, and then told me not to think about it anymore. She believes bad things happen if you voice it. That articulating it makes it come true.

I was never able to rely on them. I knew from early on that I was on my own. That if anything needed to get done, I would have to do it.

Maybe I attributed such ideals to them because I was in a void. In their absence, I was free to construct a family in my head, a family of perfect people.

I'm learning that people can disappoint you. Profoundly. And in a way that is critical. But I'm also learning that I have to work through the disappointment. There is nothing else I can do.

I am where I am. And I'm okay.

There has been a difference. It feels as if someone focused the lens. All of a sudden, I am looking at my kids with all of me. They seem clearer. I find myself wanting to absorb them fully. To take them all in. Maybe this is what happens when you clean out some of the clutter in your head.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Telling Our Stories

I've been blogging off and on for a number of years. I started my blog after I lost my job after suffering a miscarriage. I suddenly had a lot of time and a lot of emotions. I started writing in a way that made sense to me - in a deeply personal way about deeply personal issues. One of my writing teachers had once told me to write about things that matter to me. I took his advice.

In the earlier years, I wrote regularly. I wrote about my miscarriages, my feelings of loss and pain. I wrote about my family, our immigrant experience, and the complexities that came with that. After I had children, my time became constrained in a way I had never previously experienced. I neglected my blog to pump, to puree my children's squash and sweet potatoes, to give them baths, to teach them the alphabet. I also entered a hiatus after my mom found out that I was blogging and rebuked me for telling our family's stories.

My blog, though, is one of the places that I always intend to return to. Even when I hadn't written for almost a year, I was shocked to discover that a few people were still reading. Over the years, a number of people have reached out to me by email to tell me that they read my posts, to tell me stories of their own. I have always been so grateful for those snippets of connection. They feel magical, because all I did was write, and from somewhere out in the world, someone understood my thoughts and experiences and found it meaningful enough to reach out.

Every once in a while, though, I am reminded that I am writing publicly about very personal issues. Just on Saturday, I received a comment to a post I wrote about my estrangement from my sister. Someone wrote:
Uh, it's hard to understand what you're going through without understanding the reason that your sister "estranged" you. What did you do that made her cut you out of her life? fyi, it's usually not just one thing, but a series of things over time...and then the final breaking point Without explaining what happened, you seem to be hiding the truth, as if you know that what you did was wrong, and you don't want people judging you, agreeing that your sister is right to have "estranged" you. Maybe it's that guilt that's eating away at you now.
In the grand scheme of things, it's not an unduly harsh comment. But it's clear from the comment that the reader hadn't read too many of my posts. And she/he didn't know that my sister estranged me without explaining much. The comment stopped me -- and intense emotions spiked to the surface. I found myself getting terse with my children and Jeff and withdrawing from the party we were attending.

Later, I went back and re-read my post, wondering if I wrote it hastily or insensitively. Maybe I did, and I am not very good at deciphering the effect of my own writing. But I had tried to convey my feelings of loss, sadness, and desperation. Despite that, I felt as if all the reader could do was judge me, both as a person and as a writer. And it stumped me that someone would read about someone else's painful experience and think first to judge rather than to try to sympathize.

I immediately wondered if I should stop blogging. I do it so infrequently these days that maybe it doesn't really matter. And I could write for myself or just for my friends. But I soon realized that I was being impulsive. I often read personal essays in the New York Times, and I peruse the comments section. And I am shocked by the horribly mean comments, callous, judgmental -- all these adjectives that we would never want ascribed to ourselves. And the web is a terrible place for people to show their vulnerability.

I wonder about this lack of sensitivity that I see around me. People failing to understand each other. Turning to judgement rather than to understanding. Assuming that what is on the surface is all that exists. Failing to grasp each other's pain.

I know that growing up as a Korean-American child of immigrants, I often felt that people couldn't understand what I was experiencing. That other people didn't know what my family was suffering and could never see the world as we saw it. I think part of the reason I write is to try to explain our lives, to try to make sense of it. To understand the pressures of geographical and cultural displacement juxtaposed on the web of biases and assumptions my parents had as products of their own upbringing. To try to decipher the complexities of family dynamics in the context of our immigrant experience. Writing about my experiences is for me a work of analysis, a form of therapy.

I also write to affirm to myself that our lives don't have to be a dark secret. Not everything worked out as it should have, but we are still living out our lives and we don't have to be invisible. I also hope that someone could benefit from reading about my experience. Maybe it'll help someone understand something about his/her own life. Or at least not feel so alone. Or maybe they'll learn what not to do.

I once read somewhere that others being unaware about your suffering is a form of suffering in and of itself. Applying that concept to other emotional experiences makes sense to me.

So I'll keep writing for now, however sporadically. And I'll look for others who tell their stories. Oh, I'll also work on growing a thicker skin.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Grounding

There are those who connect us to the world. Those who love us, care for us, look out for us. Those who ensure that we don't lose our grounding. Who ensure that we don't drift too far off of the ground, higher and higher into the air, into that infinite space. Holding onto us like kids gripping balloons at the state fair.

They grip the string more tightly when the storm comes. And steer us away when we veer too close to a sharp edge. When the wind blows too much and we start drifting away from the usual friendly faces, they tug us in closer.

These days, I can't help but notice all the broken strings around me. The large one that used to lead to my sister. The mainstays to my parents fraying, more and more, day by day. And so many friends I have lost along the way, who wouldn't know whether I'm still alive or dead, but who would surely remember me fondly if I weren't here.

I hold on so desperately to the one leading to Jeff, but with just one grounding point, I feel myself spinning and thrashing even in the mildest of storms. I sometimes reach out to grab the ones leading to my friends, but at the end of my tether, I often feel too exhausted to even try.

I feel lighter these days. And the lightness is unbearable. I am all too conscious of the empty spaces inside me that used to feel filled.

When I talk like this, Jeff gently reminds me of those who rely on me to hold onto them. Like our little ones. Himself.

And I see it. How grounding others can ground us. How the four of us form a huddle, however small. So I hold onto them, and let them hold onto me until I feel myself settling back down.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Lesser Version

I am a bad mother. Even though this is my fifth year in this role, I find myself worsening, not improving. I see it in my son's eyes. A sweet, serious, and sensitive boy. Older than his five years. One who surprises me with how much he understands. He watches me when I lash out, when I scream and lose it over something seemingly trivial. A TV show that wasn't turned off when I requested, a dirty sock in the middle of the kitchen, a meltdown that I can't shut down. Sometimes, his eyes well up, and other times, he just stares at me, eyes wider than usual, with sorrow and profound confusion.

Little things throw me off these days. A sense of stasis is gone. Trivial events feel like crises. A spat between my children feels like doom, a sign that our future that will surely fail. I find myself constantly muttering, "goddammit, dammit." It's as if all my fears are actualizing, even though they are not, at least not all of them. I still have a loving husband, two beautiful children, my home. Nothing terrible has happened, at least not in my immediate world. But I feel as if the world has revealed itself to me in its naked, unadorned form. It's a world where animals prey on each other, where people are left forgotten, a place where nobody really cares. It is a world where families abandon each other, where people fail to live up to each other's expectations.

These days, I feel as if my ideals of family and relationships were solely that -- just ideals. Concoctions. Figments of my imagination.

A friend recently told me that disillusionments can make us stronger once we confront the disillusion because we can then proceed to work with the truth.

For me, the truth -- at least this version of the truth -- feels unworkable. This unwelcome truth feels like a lie, a letdown, a hopelessness.

I don't know how to find my way back to optimism.

Every negative twist or incident -- however trivial --  feels like proof. Proof that life really isn't what it's cracked up to be. Proof that things really go to shit in the end.

In the midst of all this is sorrow. And fear.

I used to think that I had coping skills. Ability to face some of life's adversities. But any that I might have had now eludes me.  I guess abandonment by a person who was a central character in your life can do that. It can make you realize how alone you are in the world. You are in the negative. Minus one. Minus one person who provided a pillar for your existence. Minus one person who connected you to the rest of the world. Minus one person who saw you. But the effect is magnified because it robs you of all the optimism that you had carried previously. Now everything takes on a negative hue, and it is through this light you assess the damage.

Coping means that you have some reason to look toward the future, to propel yourself forward, to want to move future. And with fewer reasons, your coping skills are bound to diminish.

Jeff is the only one I can rely on these days, and when he's out of town, as he is this week, I feel panicked, vulnerable, alone. It takes effort to keep myself together. To make the kids' lunch, to feed them breakfast, to get them off to school, to occupy myself until I have to pick them up, to take them to their activities, to put them to bed, to endure the night.

I would like to find a way to reclaim some of my inner peace. To regain that unquestioned optimism that things work out in the end. To have a solid inner core that can absorb shocks and disappointments. To speak to my children calmly and with control. To not be rattled.

But today, I feel myself damaged. Afraid and unsettled. A lesser version of my ideal self. In this state, all I can do is ask for forgiveness, as inadequate as it is to undo what is already done.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What is Inevitable

Whenever I cry to my mother about how my sister estranged me, she tells me it's just the way things are.

"All siblings grow up and go in different directions. You now have your own families. You just aren't going to be as close as you used to be."

She says it as if it's natural, inevitable.

Whenever she says this, I protest. With tears, with a barrage of words, with rebuke. You know that's not how it is, I cry. That's not what happened. I offer up evidence of other families who vacation together, who celebrate the holidays together, who don't give up on each other.

She responds that life is inherently lonely, that we all ultimately die alone.

One time, when I complained to my mother about my failed relationship with my sister, she said it's because I'm too strong, too hard. "You're incapable of understanding other people's weaknesses," she said.

Another time, when I grumbled about my sister for abandoning me so easily, my mother said, "Do you think you're perfect? Do you think you are without fault?"

I've begged my mother for help. To help us in a situation where we seem unable to help ourselves. She said, "What could I do? How could I possibly help you? You're grown-ups. You created this fight by yourselves."

I've learned not to bring her up. To pretend all is well. I sit by in silence when my parents talk about her in front of me, trips they've taken with her, meals they've shared. I've sat by their side, with my eyes averted, my head slightly bowed, my breath stilled, as they answer her calls, doing what I can to avoid bringing attention to myself.

I find my mother's failure -- or refusal -- to understand incomprehensible. I've tried to see it from a different perspective, from the perspective of a person who believes life is suffering. I've tried to view it in the light of her own estrangement from one of her own sisters and thought about what kinds of psychological barriers that might impose. I've tried to imagine the perspective of a person who believes herself to be powerless, who has lived in this country for more than 35 years and has yet to learn how to speak the language or how to drive, who relinquishes all control to her husband.

Against these factors, I weigh my efforts to convey the depth of my sense of calamity. I have sobbed in front of her. I've talked to her of how I can no longer trust people, how I couldn't rely on anyone else to stay by my side when my own sister abandons me. I've told her how I'm persistently angry, how I cannot shake this feeling of betrayal. 

She seems to lack the ability to absorb my words. She stares at me with disbelief. 

"You have everything you need," she says. "You have two well-behaved children, a good husband, a large house. Why harp on this one problem?"

I do not know how to make her understand. I lack the skills to convey to her how alone I feel these days. How I now feel like I live my hours on the verge of an impending crisis, of yet another breakdown. How one minor spurn, one signal of rejection, or one careless word is enough to spiral me into a hole of despair. How I feel more like a stranger here on earth, with few friends I feel I can turn to. How what I now see are inevitable doom, inescapable failure, impending betrayal. 

I think about the notions of family I used to take for granted. How I simply assumed we would grow old together. That we would be at each other's weddings, play with each other's children, travel together, laugh together. It never occurred to me that we would throw each other out for whatever the reason. I did not fathom that forgiveness would abandon us after our fights, no matter how terrible. 

And I never thought to question whether they were worth it. That my family was worth whatever effort I put into it. That they were worth however much time I spent with them. That they were worth however much money I spent on them.  

Now, all I see are wasted effort, time, and money. 

I regret the trip I took to Paris with my sister. I regret the countless times I hosted her in Chicago, San Francisco, DC. I regret considering her needs when I purchased my house in San Francisco. I regret including her in so many of my gatherings with my friends. I regret all the times I put her ahead of my friends, ahead of my own needs. I regret the countless hours spent talking to her on the phone. I regret all the segments of my life wasted on her.

And despite myself, this sense of regret projects into the future, and I fear what will become of my relationship with my children, with Jeff, even as I cling to them for one vestige of hope. 

My mother's responses make me reconsider the family we were. What were our values? What did we believe? How did we treat each other? How vastly did we fail to understand each other?

I wonder if all these notions of family I held were fabrications on my part. Mere wishful thinking. Social norms I blindly adopted for our family. Unquestioned assumptions that would inevitably reveal themselves to be false with the passage of time.

I do not understand my mother's refusal to help, her claims of inability. I think about what I would do for my own children if they were in such a crisis. What I wouldn't do to help them salvage their relationship. To keep our family together.

It seems that my failed relationship with my sister has exposed other rotting parts. Or maybe the whole family was perfectly healthy, but one weak point has jeopardized the rest, like removing one cherry stem can cause the whole bunch to drop. I would like to believe that we haven't been decaying all along.

I would also like to believe that her words came from a place that contains no malice, no ill-will, but from that crevice where we lack easy access to other words, to words of sympathy, words of understanding. I would like to think that I have the fortitude to withstand these words without suffering too many bruises.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Black Mission Figs

Back, when I was working, I used to buy the most beautiful figs for my mom. On farmers' market days, I would shoot out of my office at lunchtime, hoping no one would pin me down for needless small talk or some random assignment, head straight for the elevator, ride down 24 stories, and beeline for the Ferry Building. There, I would scurry past rows of tables, push through mobs of leisurely shoppers huddled around the stands sampling pieces of apples and persimmons, and scour for sightings of my black mission figs.

As soon as I found them, I would zoom in and scrutinize them for imperfections. Were they ripe enough? Over-ripened? Were they flattened, mottled, punctured? Were their stems intact? I would hold up each basket to examine the fruit on the bottom. Were those on the bottom crushed by the weight of those on top? I would resist the urge to pick them out individually to examine them. Once I was satisfied of their perfection -- soft and dry to the touch, full and plump, skin taut, with each holding its own shape -- I would plunk over my money for as many baskets as I could carry.

On the way back, I would stop by CVS to pick up some disposable plastic containers. Then, back to my office where behind closed doors, I would arrange the figs in the containers one by one. First, a row on the bottom, right side up, each of them resting snugly side by side to keep them from moving around and bruising each other. Then, another row on top, but this time upside down, in order to fill a layer in the gaps created by those on the bottom, like the way teeth of a zipper meet. After I securely filled all the containers, I would grab a FedEx box from my secretary's desk and fill out the form with my personal use ID.

Then, I would place the sealed box on my secretary's station.

"Could you please send this out for overnight delivery? Please make sure they are for delivery by tomorrow, not two days."

All afternoon, I would keep my eye out for the guy making his rounds on the floor to ensure that he picked up my box for overnight delivery. I imagined the sealed box, with my rows and rows of perfect figs waiting inside, forgotten in some dusty corner of some overheated truck or dropped by mistake by some careless worker. That night, they would journey across the continent from Northern California to New York while I slept.

On days when farmers' market was not open, I would taxi to Whole Foods to find my figs. One time, when I was checking out, the cashier was stunned by the amount of figs I was purchasing.

"What are you doing with all these figs?"

"I'm feeding my mom."

Fig season passes quickly, and I would send them to her just a few times before they were no longer available.

The morning after I sent them, I would await her call.

"Were they damaged?" I would ask. "Did they get ruined on the way?"

"They made it over okay," she would reassure me. "They are perfect."

Then, she would tell that she will eat some and freeze the rest. And then for many months to come, she would call to tell me how much she enjoyed the frozen ones. Like little popsicles, she would say.

Once I called some fig growers that I found online to ask if they shipped out to New York.

"No, not for home delivery," they said.

The other day, while I was at Lowe's, I picked up a fig tree for my mom, something she had been wanting for some time. It is still a young tree, inconspicuously bearing just a few green pearls among leaves the size of my hand. I imagined them ripening over time into the kinds of perfect figs I used to buy for her. Jeff drove it over in the back of his truck to their new home while they were unpacking. In their new complex, they have no yard, but we gave her an enormous pot we had lying around our own yard. I think it's big enough to hold the tree, with some room to grow, at least for the time being.