Hello all, and sorry for the disappearance. It’s been very crazy the last three weeks, and taking the time out to post here was something I had neither the time nor the energy to do. But now I am taking a breather for the day and wanted to share some good news and bad news.
The good news: The semester is winding down, though I have an enormous amount of grading left to do. I spent the last couple weeks stressing out over my prospectus defense, which was yesterday. I feared I might throw up or burst into tears in the middle of it all, but I am happy to say that the defense went surprisingly well. My committee seemed impressed with my work, and I passed with flying colors. After the defense, I celebrated with coffee and cake with my dissertation director, my mother, and a couple friends. I cannot express how happy I am that’s over with. Obviously, I still have to write the actual dissertation, but having one less hoop to jump through means a LOT to me.
The bad news: My grandfather has cancer and is going down hill. We’ve known about the cancer for almost a year now, but he had been getting treatments and was stable for a long time, so we were cautiously optimistic he would pull through. However, in the last two weeks he has deteriorated rapidly, and the cancer has spread to his liver and pancreas. We are unsure how much longer he’ll be around, and this is almost definitely his last Christmas, so my brother and I have scrounged up the time and money to go to Arizona over winter break to visit him and the rest of our family. It’ll be the first time the whole family on my dad’s side will be in the same place in YEARS, so we’re going to try to make the most of it.
I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet that I may be losing my grandfather soon. I’ve already lost one. I’m sad, of course, but it doesn’t seem to have really sunk in yet.
I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to blog while I’m with family, so it may be after Christmas before you hear from me again. So: I wish you all Happy Holidays, whether those holidays include Chanukah, or Kwanzaa, or Mawlid, or Christmas, or just the simple joy of winter. I will see you all again before the end of the year.
UPDATE (Dec 11th):My grandfather died early this morning. I am heartbroken that my frantic attempts to get out to see him before he died have been for nothing. My father didn’t get to see him before he passed either, which is particularly horrible. My trip is now one for mourning.
In the realm of “seriously, what the fuck?”-ness, my mother declared today that my work just isn’t the same as her work, and hers takes precedence.
I mean, I already knew she thought that. It’s long been apparent in her attitude. If we’re both working from home, or if I’m working on the weekends, it is just taken for granted that I can afford to be distracted, to be constantly doing other things. I’m expected to deal with anything SHE doesn’t “have the time to deal with right now” and I’m expected to be doing things like dishes and laundry on top of whatever actual work I’m doing. Grading, and lesson planning, and researching, and working the dissertation (that she’s been shoving on me since I was five-fucking-years-old) just doesn’t count the same way. I knew she thought that. But she’d never said it out loud so bluntly before today.
“There’s just a difference, and you know it,” she told me today. No, no I do not know that.
The heady, sweaty fragrance
in the air
could be magnolias
if I didn’t know
there are no magnolias here.
But there –
makes jambalaya and donburi,
singing old Japanese
mows grass and picks pears,
muttering Cajun curses
at the Texan heat – there magnolias drown the air
with wild whiteness
and sweet-scented sex.
Wide, waxy petals drip from
tall, straining trees like
Eve’s forbidden apple,
And I want to
pluck them from the ground,
place them in a bowl,
on Grandma’s table,
on Grandpa’s desk.
But I am here,
where waves of grass are
far more common.
So I will have to wait,
and the magnolias will fall
Every Friday night, when I was six,
we danced –
to the Beatles, Patsy Cline, Queensryche.
We shoved the furniture out of the way,
played music as loud as a heart beat,
then Mama, Sterling, and me…
Sterling: three-year-old twirling hellion;
me: trying so hard to be like her;
Mama: singing her favorite songs like
they were pieces of reality –
teaching us the words to her life.
Later, we’d order pizza,
spread blankets on the living room floor –
our personal picnic ground, our sanctuary.
We’d watch Disney movies
long into the night.
We didn’t need money,
movie theatres, or theme parks.
We had Mama,
and we danced.
She wears her dress uniform,
the Marine Corps emblem shining
black like tangible pride,
medals hanging from her chest as if
that is where her strength is tied –
she wears them the way Kali wore her necklace of skulls.
Her voice is a
taste of steel and incense.
And given a war to wage,
especially in her children’s name,
she discovers a tiger’s kind of sense –
she will battle, first blood to final blow.
It doesn’t matter
who she has to fight, where she has to go,
she’ll stand victorious all the same.
The next day she is Shashti –
seated on the sofa like a lotus throne,
wrapping her children in lullabies,
riding the sacred tiger,
knitting blankets out of moonglow.
The walls sweat beneath your stare,
and tigers rage beneath your skin,
but I’ve become immune
to the eye that boils the winter air;
and the claws that tear you up in-
side only prove this peace is
a veneer of lies over lies
that try to cage the tigers in your veins
(whose bristling fur stirs your blood),
and swallows the screaming in your eyes.
We measure every word by cost and gain,
before we ever dare to speak.
My disappointment holds me down;
your fury keeps you entranced.
And it’s become a sad, cold fact,
that we can’t find a common ground.
But when I was six, we danced,
and that keeps me from leaving.
My mother was too young when she got married. A sergeant in the Marine Corps, far from home, lonely, and twenty-three years old. She was twenty-four when she had me, her first child. Twenty-six when she had her second child. And divorced at Twenty-seven.
I’m thirty now, and cannot imagine having been married – let alone, married, divorced, and the single mother of two young children – by the age of twenty-seven.
But my mother was lonely, and my father was charming in his own way, and he was too young as well – only twenty, in fact. When my brother turned twenty-one, I pointed out that that was the age our dad became a father. “No way in hell,” my brother said. My thoughts precisely.
My parents hate each other, I think. They are certainly incapable of speaking well of each other. Accusations fly on both sides, and I never know who to believe. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. I imagine the truth lies somewhere in between. They are certainly both very flawed people, whose flaws simply did not mesh well. They just didn’t fit. My dad is a functioning alcoholic, and never the most attentive of people – I cannot tell you how many birthdays he has forgotten, promises he has broken, and so forth. My mother was short-tempered and quick to feel injured or betrayed. They were both too controlling. They simply did not belong together the way some people belong together.
My dad remarried when I was eight, and has been happily married with two new children ever since, so he certainly capable of being a husband. Just not with my mother. My mother has never remarried. She has had a handful of bitterly failed romances since her divorce. She has never been really happy, I fear. And I fear she is simply incapable of living with or without other people for too long. I fear also that I will end up like her. Actually, I fear I have ended up with the worst qualities of both of my parents. But it is my mother who has been my biggest influence, as she raised us alone, with little more than the occasional nod or acknowledgement from my father, and so her life and her choices and her mannerisms have affected me the most.
Some memories of my relationship with my mother burn the strongest. Sadly, most are not pleasant. It is a curse of having depression that no matter how hard I try, the bad memories stay the longest and the loudest years, even decades later. Perhaps that is not my mother’s fault, and it should not color my relationship with her now, but there is only so much I can do to stop myself from feeling the way I feel.
I remember clearly my fifth grade graduation – a silly ceremony, of course, but it meant a lot to me at the time. My father failed to appear to the ceremony, though we all lived in the same city at the time, so I was already feeling sad and abandoned. After the ceremony, all my friends’ parents appeared with flowers and cards for their children. My mother appeared with my little brother in tow, weary and taxed and ready to “just get out of here now.” When we got home, I ate dinner at the coffee table in the living room, with the tv off and the lights dim, because my mother and brother were fighting again – screaming and slamming doors and throwing things they my brother was only seven years old at the time. Several months later, I found an unsigned graduation card in my mother’s desk and asked her if it was for me, and she had simply forgotten to bring it that night. She said no, it was for my cousin who was graduating from high school. Years later, I tried to discuss that night with her. She swears it never happened. I’m remembering wrong. I dreamt it. And how dare I say such horrible things about her when she worked so hard to be a good mother.
I don’t know. I don’t know if I dreamt it. I don’t know if I made it up in my head somehow because I wanted to make my mother the bad guy for some reason. But this is how I remember it. And I remember it clearly. And it has colored my feelings about my mother all my life.
I remember also finding her a sobbing mess on the floor of the kitchen when I was in seventh grade. Her up-and-down relationship with a fellow Marine had blown up in her face spectacularly. When I say she was a mess, I mean this sincerely. I have never yet seen someone melt down the way she did then. (I have no doubt there have been worse, but not within my personal experience.) She screamed and cried, sprawled on the cool surface of the linoleum, tears streaked down her face, her long dark hair plastered to her forehead and cheeks and neck, a fork – I think – still in her hand because she had been preparing dinner. I was twelve years old, but I stood there and hugged her and comforted her and assured her it was all right and he didn’t deserve her anyway.
It was from that moment on, I believe, I became less the child and more the parent.
That isn’t to say my mother didn’t take care of me. Of course she did. She provided for me and my brother. She worked so hard. She supported us in our education and our hobbies. She took my brother to baseball games and me to the ballet. She paid for piano lessons and drum lessons. She made meals and did dishes and laundry. All while working grueling hours as a Marine, and later, when I started high school, as a computer programmer in the private sector.
But emotionally, and sometimes functionally, I was the adult. I never came to her with my problems. To this day, she still does not know about half the things I went through as a teenager. She barely has an understanding of my depression, and she has never (and will never) know about my suicidal tendencies, despite knowing that I am on anti-depressants. I have comforted her through bad break-ups, and being laid off three times, and contentious/stormy relationship with my brother. I have reminded her to pay bills, and from the age of twelve often pretended to be her to call to have utilities turned back on when she forgot. By the time I started high school, I had taken to filling out checks for her and just handing them to her to be signed. When I was fifteen, I took over as the main housecleaner. By the time I was eighteen, I was cooking 90% of the meals in the house.
Because of my depression and anxiety issues though – my inability to drive being the main functional problem – my mother still considers herself the main caretaker to this day. I do everything except drive and pay the bulk of the rent (I pay other bills, but my mother has a better paying job now than I do as a poor adjunct professor), and that is enough of an excuse for my mother to believe she is keeping me afloat, taking care of me, helping the poor little girl who cannot function by herself get by in this cruel world. Never mind how often she borrows money from me, never mind that I do nearly all the household chores, never mind that she has flat-out told me she doesn’t know what she would do if I ever moved out.
And moving out is on my mind all the time. But I fear I can’t. My brother has already moved out, and that has made my mother an emotional, angry, abandoned mess again. For years I have learned that every tiny disagreement, every tiny moment of pulling away to spend time with friends or my father, every tiny moment of tension, is viewed as a moment of immense betrayal and abandonment. And my mother feels entirely betrayed and abandoned by my brother, who has been pulling away emotionally for years and has now moved in with his girlfriend. If I left… I fear to imagine it.
I do not believe my mother would kill herself or anything quite so dramatic. To her, suicide and other coping mechanisms like alcohol are the ultimate sign of weakness, cowardice, and moral decay. But she would make me feel my betrayal every second of every day. She would disown me in one breath and beg me for attention and time in the next. And frankly, I fear should would not be able to take care of herself in the most basic ways if I was gone.
I first heard the word codependency in high school. It was used as a disparaging joke. I don’t remember what exactly the joke was, but I remember looking the word up, and thinking “well, that kind of sounds like me, but not really. We’re not that serious.” A few years later, the concept of codependency had fallen out of favor, considered debunked, or inaccurate, or something. But just recently, my dissertation director recommended I read up on it. She sees it in me and she’s worried, I think. I was surprisingly, weirdly, happy she used to the word. I happy someone else sees it, and I don’t have to shout it from the roof tops and offer all kinds of proof before someone agrees with me. So, this is my acceptance and acknowledgment of the worry. She is right to be worried.
Every word of this fills me with guilt though. I constantly wonder if my image of my mother is too skewed by my own feelings of betrayal and abandonment to be true, or accurate. Can I possibly be fair to her? She has been an amazing mother in so many ways. Nearly all our lives, she raised me and my brother alone. And we never went hungry, we never went unclothed, we had fun, we had hobbies, we had good educations. Neither of us ended up on drugs or in jail, and we both have fulfilling (if not financially successful) careers. She loved us. Unconditionally. Even despite her constant feelings of being abandoned or betrayed. Even despite the constant fighting with my brother (who, I’ll be honest, has given plenty of cause for fighting in various ways).
She has lived through so much. An abusive father, and a mother who loved unevenly. One alcoholic brother. An alcoholic cheating husband. A short marriage and ugly divorce. The sexism and hardship that comes from being a woman in the Marine Corps. A miscarriage. Being a single mother on a very tight budget. Several volatile relationships. Being laid off three times in fifteen years.
She is strong, and brave, and intelligent, and compassionate, and fierce.
And I love her. Dearly.
Another clear early memory is a tradition we had when I was young. From the ages of about four of five, until I was ten or eleven, Friday nights were special. My mother would come home from work, exhausted, but happy to see us. We would push all the furniture in the living room against walls and into corners, we would put on music – mostly 70s and 80s rock, which my mother adored, and which is the staple of my childhood and current music tastes – and we would dance. We would dance around like idiots, giggling and goofy and happy. After a couple hours of that, we would spread a quilt out on the floor, and order pizza, and watch Disney movies into the early morning hours. After Friday we did this. When we were on a tight budget, and couldn’t afford theme parks or restaurants, we had this, and it was glorious.
I love my mother, dearly.
But she has sucked my dry in so many ways. Emotionally, mentally, physically, financially. I have given every ounce of myself to keep her happy and healthy. I have rarely said no. I have almost always thought of her needs first. I have learned to smile and nod when she says horrible things, or does things I disagree with. I have learned not to have an opinion – about what to eat for dinner, what to watch on tv, where to go to school, etc – until I have heard her say “I don’t care, it’s up to you” (and even then I now find it difficult to make decisions). I try my best to keep track of the things that will spark her temper – though some days there is just no knowing. If we are both upset, her sadness trumps my own. If I am angry, I am not allowed to show it, but if she is angry, I just have to understand she might say things she doesn’t really mean. I am terrified of the day she learns I’m bisexual. I am terrified of what she’ll say or do if I finally decide to move out. I am horrified to think of how she’ll behave if I’m ever in a serious relationship and move in with someone like my brother did.
I love my mother dearly. But I don’t know how much I have left. It might be time to walk away.
I hate asking for help. Hate it. With a fiery and pathological passion.
I don’t need help with my homework. I don’t need help with the dishes or the trash or the laundry or making dinner. I don’t need help fixing this stupid computer. I don’t need help carrying this immensely heavy box. I don’t need help up the stairs, yes even with these crutches.
Unfortunately, this also translates to: I don’t need to go to the doctor even though I’ve been feeling ill for weeks. I don’t need to “revisit” my prescription even if my depression is getting worse. I don’t need anyone to fix my fucking life. And I certainly don’t need help off this goddamn ledge.
Except, of course, I often do. I just cannot stand to ask.
This often means that when others ask for help from me, I get annoyed, even disdainful (not the healthiest reaction, I know). This annoyance rears its ugly head most often when my brother or mother (or many other members of my family) ask for help. In my defense, very often when they ask for “help” it’s not about need help, it’s about not wanting to do some menial task by themselves, or at all. My brother is perfectly capable of taking out the trash, even if there’s more than usual and it’ll take two trips – he just doesn’t want to do it, so he’ll ask for help, and get angry when I say no because “I’m selfish and never left a finger to help anyone.” My mother is the same way. If she can convince someone to “help” her or “do a favor” for her, so she doesn’t have to do it herself, she will.
I therefore I have a lot of conflicted feelings when people ask me for help with small or menial things. And I am absolutely incapable of asking for help myself. Unless I literally genuinely physically am incapable of doing something, I refuse to ask for help.
On other hand, I will drop anything and everything for a friend, or coworker, or student, if they ask me for help. I am constantly assuring my friends that there is nothing wrong with asking for help, that I want to help, that they deserve help. Perhaps I simply trust that they won’t abuse the unspoken rules. Perhaps I simply like them better than I like my family. I just don’t know.
A lot of this stems, I think, from my mother (I blame a lot on my mother, so healthy, I know!), who depended upon me from a very young age. I sometimes feel like we skipped the usual order of things, and went straight to me taking over the care-taker position. Not completely, of course, my mother worked (and still works) very hard to provide for me and my brother. Though money was often tight, we always had a roof over our heads, we always had food, and there was always a little left over for books and the occasional night out at the movies. But I have been very much in charge of my mother’s emotional well-being since I was eleven or twelve years old.
I remember so clearly many nights when I found my mother sobbing on the floor of the kitchen, and going to her to hug her and rub her back and tell her everything would be okay. And at that time, I took over sorting mail and opening bills and filling out checks for my mother to sign because otherwise she would forget and the electricity or the water would be turned off. And I found myself taking on a good majority of my brother’s care: keeping him out of trouble, entertaining him, helping him with his homework. Meanwhile also playing peacekeeper between my mother and my father, who had by this time already been divorced for eight or nine years (and still screaming at each other on a regular basis). I was eleven or twelve years old.
By the time I was fifteen I had taken over the responsibilities of cooking dinner and calling to pay bills over the phone and comforting my mother through three bad break-ups and supporting her as my brother began disrespectful and problematic in school.
I have never once gone to my mother for comfort or advice. I have never once told her about a bad break-up, or a fight with a friend. I have certainly never talked to her in detail about my depression, though she knows I have it. I am the responsible one, the dependable one, the steady one. I do not ask for help, I am responsible for giving it.
Perhaps I am simply resentful.
(In the meantime, of course, this also means: I never go to the doctor, I do not have a therapist, and I try very very hard not to burden my friends with my problems or my depression issues, but that’s a neurosis for a different time).
One of my clearest early memories is of me sitting in my grandfather’s Lazy Boy in the pre-dawn gray light, listening to my grandmother talk on the phone. I was about five years old, living in Virginia at the time but visiting my grandparents in Texas for the summer. It was probably only five in the morning, but I never slept well when away from home, and I was always an early riser as a child anyway. So I had crawled out of bed and joined my grandmother in the great room — a combo living room, dining room, and kitchen. It seemed my grandmother was always awake — the first awake in the morning, the last to bed at night.
So, I sat curled up in my grandfather’s giant leather recliner. My grandmother was behind me shuffling around in the kitchen. Her feet were heavily calloused from working in rice fields in her teens and early twenties, and created a soft shushing sound against the linoleum floor. Her slightly high-pitched lilting voice washed over me like a wave. But I couldn’t understand a word she said on the phone.
She was speaking Japanese, which I have never yet learned. In fact, no one else in my family can speak Japanese at all. In her teens, my grandmother stopped speaking the language, and later she refused to teach any of her six children how to speak it. It was only years later, when I was born, and my great-grandmother had come twice from Japan to visit, that she began to speak it again.
Her refusal to speak her own language haunts me some days. She learned early that “different” is dangerous.
My grandmother was born in San Francisco, the first child of two Japanese immigrants who had come from Hiroshima to Hawaii (which was not yet a state, but its own kingdom still at the time), and then from Hawaii to California. The path of many Japanese families in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In time, she would end up with ten brothers and sisters. And when she was ten years old, my grandmother and her entire family were locked away in Manzanar, one of the concentration camps the U.S. government built during World War Two to imprison Japanese-American citizens. By the time the war had ended, and her family was released, my grandmother had only five brothers and sisters. And her parents’ ancestral home, Hiroshima, had been bombed into oblivion.
Five of her uncles and cousins had fought for the U.S. during the war, members of the famous 442nd, despite the fact that their families — their sisters, their wives, their children — had been herded up like animals and left to rot in camps in the middle of the California, Arizona, and New Mexico deserts. Her parents returned to Hiroshima after the war. Meanwhile, my grandmother stayed in Los Angeles, went to school, worked as a seamstress, and was accepted into medical school at the age of sixteen. Sadly, she would never have the opportunity to complete her education, because her father developed cancer — mostly likely due to the radiation that still yet lingers in Hiroshima — and died. After that, my grandmother, the oldest child, was forced to quit school and work in rice fields in order to send money back to her mother and siblings.
So close to fulfilling the dream of all immigrants — a good education and successful career — and then her plans were ended. She married at the age of twenty; married my grandfather, a Marine and a Cajun from Baton Rouge, became a housewife, and gave birth to six children who would never learn her language because she did not want them to suffer the way she and her siblings had suffered. Because she wanted them to be as American, and therefore as safe, as they could possibly be.
As heart-breaking as this conclusion was, it seems to have worked. Her children, and their children, have been safe (relatively speaking anyway). All six children spent some time in the military, four years or six years — my mother staying the longest and making a career in the Marine Corps. And now, here I am, the first in my family to receive a Master’s degree or work toward a PhD, only the third to go to college at all, in some ways fulfilling the dream my grandmother had all those decades ago.
I am grateful for the chances I’ve had. There are few places in the world where a mixed race poor working-class family could make it as far as we have. But I can’t help but always be a little suspicious of our luck, and a little bitter about the chances my grandmother and all her brothers and sisters were denied. If I learned anything from my grandmother, it is that nothing is safe, and we must take nothing for granted. And some day I hope she’ll let me learn her language.