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.