On Being My Mother’s Daughter

By Catherine Wang

The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

— Elizabeth Kubler Ross

There’s nothing like a mother’s love. How accurate this must be, and how sad we all must be for taking them for granted, for mistreating them in moments of anger or frustration, for being children. But in truth, our mothers are our molders.

When I was younger, my own mother practiced a fine-tuned parenting technique meant to keep me blissfully ignorant. All mothers try to shield their children from grief and catastrophe, whether it is squabbles with their spouse, financial rumbles, or emotional tumult. They do this because we are young and impressionable, because the words may be too weighty for our ears to hear. So they tell us simply, “I’ll explain when you’re older.”

After what felt like a lifetime of hearing this mysterious little phrase, the day of reckoning came. We were sitting on our double beds in Florence after a long day of touring and my mother decided that I was finally “older.” She started a story that ended with our eyes watering, a long embrace, and meek smiles.

My life has been a quiet one—ridden with momentary bursts of grief and excitement. Even in these moments of intensity, I have found peace. Pico Iyer wrote, “Movement never makes sense unless it has a changelessness beneath it.” He tells us that all of our explorations are only as rich as the “still place” we bring them back to. To me, this is peace. My mother—she is my still place.

v  v  v

When my mother was 30 years old, she was apprehensive. She moved across the world to settle on American soil. She left behind her son, her books, her friends, and portraits of her family. She took her husband of four years, a toothbrush, two pairs of shoes, and 40 American dollars. After spending three short semesters in school, she earned her nursing degree and began a lifelong career in the business of helping the helpless. While this was a considerable “downgrade” from her medical degree in China, she was eager to provide a steady income for her husband, who was trying (with little success) to pass his American board examinations.

Four years later, she gave birth to her only daughter. They thought they might name her Suzy, and later settled on Catherine. I couldn’t be more grateful. When her husband insisted they send their newborn back to China, my mother cried. She had already forfeited the right to raise her only son and couldn’t stand to see her daughter, an American citizen no less, be shipped back to the country she had purposefully left behind.

“I begged him for hours and hours and days and days not to send you home,” she tells me. “I told him he wouldn’t have to do anything, that I would take care of everything. I told him I’d work my twelve-hour night shifts, take care of you during the day, clean the apartment, cook dinner, do the laundry, and get the groceries. All he had to do was let you stay. He wouldn’t budge, and when I came home one day, you two were already on a plane. I cried for another week after you left. I didn’t see you again until your dad brought you and your brother back to the States about a year and a half later.”

v  v  v

I am seven, and I have the worst dreams. There’s one that repeats—I’m sent to an indoor pool filled with sharks. I am terrified of the dark. I sleep in the living room for six months. On the nights when daddy doesn’t come home and mommy has to work, I lie awake, counting the dots on our plastered stucco ceiling, waiting for the sun to come up. Mommy’s shift starts at 19:00 and ends at 07:00 the next day. Mommy taught me military time. Mommy never gets home until 08:00. Daddy gets home at 04:00. Sometimes daddy never gets home.

Mommy gave me her work number, and sometimes I call. I ask for Paige, her American name. The operator asks me what floor she works on. I don’t know. She asks me what my mommy does. She’s a nurse. The operator tells me to hold on, and asks if my mommy goes by another name. I pause and tell her Yupei. She redirects me to the “P-C-U.”

“Hi sweetie, what’s wrong? Can’t sleep?”

“No one’s here…”

“Turn on the TV and watch a movie until you fall asleep. Daddy will come home soon, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.” I fall asleep halfway through The Sound of Music. I wake up in the morning when mommy opens the door. She sits down on the sofa and gives me a long hug. Daddy isn’t back yet, but I have to get ready for school, she says.

v  v  v

When my mother was 35, she was furious. Her husband had been cheating, her son was a hoodlum, and her daughter was failing math. She was still paying all the bills, working far too many hours, and pretending that this had been the plan all along. She even caught him chatting on the phone with his mistress once. The woman’s name was Penny. Days later, my brother and I were herded into the family van, my father intent on taking us far away. He had pushed my mother down a small flight of stairs as he hurried us along into the car, intending to make a speedy getaway. My mother hopped in before he could lock any doors and demanded that we all get out and have lunch. I remember looking at her bruised face and bleeding knees, wondering why she was so frantic.

“It’s all very silly, when you think about it. It’s like you know that you know, but somehow you have to see it with your own two eyes. I almost took an entire day off from work to spy on him, but doesn’t that say something? Sometimes, when you want things to work, it’s better to abandon reason altogether.”

My parents were never divorced, just for the record. My father wanted one desperately, but my mother believes in committing to your choices, even if they turn out to be horribly wrong. She refused to oblige, citing her two children as reasons for the impossibility of the proposition. They lived together, for the most part peacefully, until the very end.

v  v  v

When my mother was 40 years old, she grew tired. We had just moved across the country from a small suburban town in Virginia to the heart of the Silicon Valley. After a decade of working 12-hour shifts for as many as 10 consecutive nights, she decided to dial back her hours. She worked tirelessly to clean our front yard (no grass, only rocks) and maintain the kidney bean-shaped pool in our backyard. To her disappointment, the promised home renovations never came, the rocks only bore weeds, and the pool grew a thick layer of leaves every autumn.

When my mother was 45, she was disappointed. Her son, though never a sterling academic achiever, was accepted to the University of California at Irvine. After his first quarter, he was issued a warning of academic probation. After his second quarter, he was put on academic probation. By the end of his first year, he was sent packing. He remained in Irvine to attend a local community college, which he quit promptly before disappearing altogether for quite a long time. The last time he returned home his body was already worn down by copious amounts of marijuana, nicotine, heroin, and hard liquor. His skin was graying, his teeth yellowing, and his eyes glossing. My father left dents in the wall. In retrospect, it wasn’t too terrible. The small snaggle of torn wood on the door leading into our garage reminded us that a chair leg in the door meant a chair leg directed away from my brother’s face.

“Anthony was smart, you know. He was very good at math and science. You’re smart, too, but in a different way. It took about three eternities for you to learn your multiplication table. But not with your brother—he just understood things and refused to work hard. We had the opposite problem with you.

“He’s trouble, isn’t it? But he doesn’t mean to be.”

“Yes, yes something like that. Your dad and I fought a lot about him. It’s the only thing you can do when someone else raises your child for you. Your dad was just defending his mother, and how she raised Anthony. A fundamental difference in how child rearing should be executed, that’s what it was. So we fought, and while we fought, your brother grew away from us—he grew resentful.”

v  v  v

I am 11. I am on the cusp of everything fabulous about junior high school—overpriced clothes from Hollister and Abercrombie, snarky girls who cut gym to experiment with stogies in the parking lot, and getting lost in it all. Big brother comes home for a visit from college. He asks me how I’m doing. I ask him why mom and dad are yelling.

“They’re arguing about who screwed up raising me so bad.”

“That’s not true, they don’t think that!”

“Easy for you to say—you’re their angel. You live to please.”

“They need something to be happy about,” I joke.

“Yeah, yeah I guess they do. Maybe I just can’t help but make them mad,” he smirks.

“Any advice for high school? I’m pretty nervous…”

“No heroine and no cigarettes. That’s just trouble. Stick with weed. Inhale the good shit, exhale the bullshit.”

v  v  v

When my mother was 48, she was mourning. Her husband had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and her son was still nowhere to be found. Pancreatic cancer kills 85% of its victims within less than five years of diagnosis. No other cancer is more efficient. First, they said it was a gallstone. Then they told her he had a year. Then they told her he had a few months. Then they told her they were sorry for her loss. He was 49 years old when he passed—a pitiful six months post-diagnosis.

Before the end, he saw his son (for the first time in two years), to whom he could only utter the words “I hate you” before drifting back into a heavy cloud of medicated drowsiness and toxicity. He saw his only daughter graduate from middle school. He saw a wife that had loved and cared for him hover by his bedside each night, despite the atrocities of unholy proportions he had committed against their marriage.

“If I were dying, I would apologize for everything that I’ve done wrong. All I ever wanted was an apology. Even on his deathbed, he couldn’t find the strength to give me that.”

v  v  v

I am 14. Nobody comes to pick me up from swim practice that afternoon. Soaked through my sweats in chlorinated water. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. My uncle’s small black sedan pulls up—I see my aunt and mom in the back seat with red eyes swollen shut. So we go home, sit quietly, hold his still hands, feel the heat of his body dissipate into the air.

Then we’re in some church I’ve never even seen before. I peer into the open casket, notice the waxiness of his face (it’s the preservatives) and the straightness of his suits (he hated suits but loved ties). Now we’re listening to someone my dad didn’t know talk about what an honorable life he led. How would he know? I listen to my brother talk about how this turn of events is really going to help him put his life back together. Who else didn’t buy that? I listen to them play “Dance with my Father” by Luther Vandross, which is probably the most conventional song I could’ve chosen.

Then we’re out in Half Moon Bay, perched on one of Skylawn’s many grassy hills. People say nice things (because you can’t talk about the bad things) and throw me some sad looks. I gaze out over the rolling hills, hear my mom weep, and watch my brother work the crowd.

Better men have met worse ends, I say to myself.

My mom would say that I’m not being fair. She would tell me that I’m remembering too much bad and too little good. I toss away the former and settle for an in-between. Whoever he was—villain, hero or both—he was my dad. So I weep too, for all the parts of him that are gone.

v  v  v

When my mother was 50, she was recovering. She had her appendix removed on the surgical floor of Reston Hospital. She is a nurse just a few floors above, in the progressive care unit of the same hospital. Left untreated, a ruptured appendix is deadly. Her surgeon scolded her for waiting so long before getting her abdominal pains investigated. Apparently, she had been going to work for two weeks with a ruptured appendix, a condition so painful, said the doctor, that it would push most patients into a delirium.

“He just kept telling me that I needed to take care of myself and to think about my daughter and how she needs me and how it’s selfish of me to be so careless. I cried because I knew he was right. When you walked into the room and saw me with a G-tube running through my nose and a plastic bag draining my bladder—that’s when I knew I had to start taking better care of myself.” It’s like death knocking at your door eager to collect all the people you care about, I think to myself.

v  v  v

I am 18. My mom sits me down to give me all the usernames and passwords for her bank accounts, safety deposit box, and brokerage accounts. She tells me where I can find her passport, dad’s death certificates, and the expensive jewelry. She reviews her will and tells me that my aunt and uncle will take care of me if anything should happen to her. It’s one of those conversations that make you want to jump out of your skin and nosedive into the ground.

“Just take care of yourself, Ma, and we won’t have to worry about any of this!”

“You need to know this. You never know what will happen.”

“But can’t I pretend that I know exactly what will happen?”

“You can, but it will make life harder when unexpected things come up.”

“What will I do without you? I’ll never know how to cook that tofu-dish-thing that you always make. I won’t know how to handle all the stocks. I don’t know how to pickle cabbage or change the air filters. I don’t know how to sew, knit, reupholster the dining room chairs, or replace the locks on our doors. I don’t know where the lawnmower is, I can’t lay down brick, I don’t know how to polish silverware with toothpaste. I have no idea how our health insurance works! I just…”

“It’s okay, it’s okay! You don’t have to know now.”

“But you just said…”

“Catherine, how do you think I learned how to do any of those things? My mom died when I was fifteen. You will figure it out. We are capable of anything. You will learn how to do everything that you need to do, for yourself and for your family, I promise.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because that’s what I did, and you are my daughter.”

v  v  v

My mother is 54 years old. We talk nearly every day. Sometimes we talk about our story as mother and daughter. Most days we just talk about school, the weather, and all the other little things.  In these moments, it’s easy to think that I’m nothing like my mother. She is old-fashioned, foreign, and not the least bit sentimental. She doesn’t understand why I wear skateboard shoes (when I do not skateboard), why I hate math, or why I like to keep my hair unreasonably long.

Then there are those moments when I wonder why I ever thought I could disentangle my own personality from hers. When I occasion life’s lowest valleys, I find my mother. Not because she enjoys these pits, but because life has imbued in her a skin so thick and a heart so beaten that only she can be my still place. This place—where I can stew in my own anger, sift out my sadness, ravage in fear, weep for no reason at all, weep for everything, plant my successes, and bury my failures—my mother has given me.

I know the day must come when I will not smell her perfume or hear the last traces of her Chinese lilt fill up the house. Even on that day, I will have her—I will keep my still place. This is how I know we must be united in all of our suffering and joy, how I feel the strength of bonds only blood can make. This is how I know that her fortitude shines through me with the all the light of her beautiful spirit.

Catherine is currently a junior at Duke University majoring in Biology (with a concentration in Neurobiology) and minoring in Chemistry and Psychology. She is an avid reader of any and all coming-of-age novels and takes as many English classes as possible lest all those science requirements drive her crazy. In her free time, Catherine enjoys blogging on the fly, traveling, running, and photography.

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