Because of her laughter, I used to think of her as a jolly soul. Someone who saw the levity in life, who found humor in the everyday. But as I grew older, I saw a different side of mother. The side that had always been there, but one I had somehow failed to see.
From my late teens, I had been my mother's confidant. She would often sidle up to me late in the evening to chat. I would be lying in bed nestled with a book under a tiny lamp, and she would peek in with any excuse. Do you need more blankets? Are you tired? Did you have enough to eat? I would answer and move over to make room for her. She would drape the comforter over her legs and start the conversation talking about any random tidbit from the day. After a while, though, the conversation would drift toward the all too familiar terrain. Her feelings of neglect. Her anger. Her day to day complaints and frustrations.
For years, I just listened and nodded along. "Oh, really, Mom?" "That's so hard, Mom." "You have to take better care of yourself." I was her sounding board. I was her listening ear. I was her daughter.
Sometimes, though, I didn't listen very well. I felt some topics were off limits, that as her daughter, I should not have to listen to certain types of complaints, like her gripes about my dad. "Mom, you have to find some friends to talk to. I'm your daughter. I shouldn't be hearing about this kind of stuff," I would say. She would respond that she couldn't talk to anyone else because such things should not go outside the family. And I was her daughter. Who else could she talk to but her daughter?, she would ask.
The fact was that even if she wanted to, my mom had no friends to talk to. After we left Houston in 1987, I don't remember my mom ever having a friend or any semblance of a social life. She and my dad just worked. They did not attend church. They did not meet with any alumni groups. They did not know anyone apart from a few Koreans they knew from the old days.
Sometimes I tried to help my mom. I often encouraged her to nurture her relationships with the few people she knew. "Let's invite so and so over for Christmas, Mom," I would say. "I'll help with all the cooking. And if they're busy, let's figure out another date." Once in a while, she agreed, but more often than not, she refused, saying that hosting others was an unnecessary expense. Week after week, months after months, I offered to drive her to church, even though I had no interest in going for myself. Once, when I was home for a college break, I took my mom to meet my friend Cynthia and her mom. We visited their apartment in Flushing and chatted over coffee and tea. When I was graduating from law school, my friends and I organized a dinner with our parents so that our parents could meet each other. And another time, I took my parents to my friend Grace's house for a Thanksgiving dinner. But those events never transpired into anything more than isolated meet ups.
I used to worry about my parents' funeral. Who would attend? Who could we call to remember them and their days with us on earth? And I couldn't even come up with one name apart from our small family.
Once in a while, we talked on the phone. They were usually more perfunctory than anything else. But sometimes, I would receive a call in the middle of the night, and I could hear her desperation and loneliness. Once, she crushed her hand in the car door, and she described the pain and her feelings of neglect. "It hurts so much," she cried. No one took her to the hospital, and no one took care of her. And I cried from 800 miles away, feeling helpless.
It took me a long time to realize that my mom could help herself. Before, I couldn't see that she could have taken herself to the hospital. That she could have walked out of the store and demanded a different work arrangement with my dad. That she could have taken a train or a bus to church. That she could have learned to drive. That she could have learned English. That she could have said no to whatever she did not want. I could not see that until recently. All these years, I felt so much pity, so much sympathy, and so much guilt for all of her sorrows.
Every time I heard one of her complaints, I felt responsible. I thought it was my job to find a solution. I would offer her suggestions and brainstorm to try to find that magical fix. Or I would drive to the store to buy whatever it was she needed. Other times, I would intervene and scream at my dad. Or at my brother. Or try to cajole my sister to see my mom's point of view. I didn't realize that she may not have been looking for a solution.
Over the years, her complaints have not changed. She repeats them to me, but not to the person who should hear them. She believes in restraint, the kind of restraint that practices walking away with one's civility rather than giving them a piece of your mind, the kind of restraint that elevates harmony over personal needs, even if it means walking on tiptoes day in and day out. I do not understand my mother's need for restraint, for secrecy. Or her sense of powerlessness. I've asked her many times why she doesn't change this or that. Why she doesn't speak up. Why she doesn't express her dissatisfaction and demand a response. She often responds that she herself doesn't know, that she is frustrated with herself. To me, it seems so simple, so easy. But she lives in a different landscape that I do not understand. She answers to some cultural norm that accepts Buddhist form of suffering, some inner psychological need that she herself may not recognize, some standard of civility that seems pointless to me. Maybe she cried because she needed someone's expression of care for her more than bandages for her hands. Maybe it mattered more to see my dad's willingness to compromise than to implement the change that she complained about.
I hadn't realized how deeply her sorrows and anger had seeped into my bones. These days, suddenly, in the middle of the day, I feel a tightening in my chest. A sadness creeps in. Tears well up. A sense of helplessness. And hopelessness. Despair. As I wait for the emotions to recede, my brain starts to process the scenario. A week spent at home with the baby. A desire to go somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere different. To see something new. To escape the familiar. And I remember my mother's constant longing to escape the confines of our hole in the wall burger joint, then the dry cleaners. Her frequent yearnings to see more, to see the world. And I realize that I'm consumed by her sadness even though I live in one of the most glorious places in this country with a view of the ocean in a spacious house, enveloped by the loving sunshine, just blocks from a beach.
Over the years, I have come to resist my mother's unburdening. I no longer want to hear her talk of her sorrows, her complaints, her frustrations. These days, I stop her short, and say, "Mom, you can change all that. It's in your power." And I proceed to advice her the steps to take, even as I hear myself sound like a know-it-all teenager. But I don't know how else to keep her emotions from oozing into my ears, into my bones. To keep these sorrows from settling in and filling up my well. And from overflowing when my own sorrows arise.
So many aspects of my life are answers to my mother. From high school on, I have always maintained close friends and kept them close to my heart. I always have confidants I can talk to about my deepest fears, worries, complaints, and I feel desperate when I don't have close friends nearby, like shortly after a move. And I like to have an active social life. I put in ridiculous efforts to entertain my friends. I invite them over constantly, and I make dishes with dungeness crabs, giant prawns, and nicest cuts of meat, despite the expenses.
And unlike my mother, I take pride in speaking out. In taking action. In finding my way out, whether it entails self help books, a run on the treadmill, a blog post, or a call to the therapist. If I feel wronged, I say so, and I'll raise the issue before I begin to stew. If I don't, I feel powerless, helpless, and I do anything to escape that feeling.
These days, I am on a hunt to find my equilibrium, to find whatever materials I need to fill in the holes in my life. I rebel against my mother's form of restraint because I'm living proof that it does not work. All of her sorrows and anger and fears still reside in me, and they threaten to grow, like mold trapped in the deepest corners of the closet. And I push aside the blinds, throw the windows wide open, reorganize all the crap, throw out what I no longer need, and let the sun shine in.