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.