Hi all. I hope you’re doing all right. I’ve been better, but I’m also doing okay. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about my mom.
A person I really respect, a Jesuit priest at BC, told me that presiding over funerals is the strangest for him, because it’s the time when people are most willing to listen. I’ve been feeling kind of off lately and I don’t think I was able to place exactly why until then.
To start: I’ve written a lot of things about how grateful I am to my mother. I could do another one, and actually probably thousands more, and they’d all be different, but instead I want to talk about it more openly, and honestly.
I know so little about my mother. I know she is the youngest of seven children, and she wasn’t quite spoiled (they were too poor) but she was deeply loved and treasured. The girls of Korea at that time almost never went to college, but since she was the Last Love of the family, her parents scrounged up the last of their money to send her to college, Kyung-hee, where she was famous for her pretty looks. That last story was relayed to us by one of her friends, at which my sister and I said, “You were popular and you married Dad?” Anyway, they got married in Korea shortly after college, and then moved to America in pursuit of my dad’s job and education. My mom, who wasn’t as good at English or as well-educated as my dad, spent her days finding work selling Tupperware, babysitting, and teaching children English before she had children of her own. All of these details have been told to me, and I never quite understood it until I was packing for Japan and my mom was helping me think of presents for my host family, one of which was a series of our favorite children’s books for Nao to read. These included Dr. Seuss books and the like, and my mom and I talked about our favorite kids’ books (mine was, The Giving Tree), when my mom whipped out this sucker, one that I know we’ve had in the house since we were little: Guess How Much I Love You.
I’ve read it a great number of times, but only now did I notice the longer words circled in pencil, the dashes through compound words, the synonyms scribbled in the margins. It turns out that this well-preserved copy, as old as I am, was the exact copy that my mom used to teach English. And then the floodworks opened. My gentle mother, who is so sweet and forgiving that it can be frustrating for those who know her, is someone who still gets Christmas cards from the kids she babysat twenty years ago.
My mother had a life of her own, the same way I have a life of my own. She walked down the streets, thinking idly about abstract thoughts, maybe wondered if we were alone in the universe or how many ants there were in the world. She dressed up and flirted with boys, gossiped with friends, crammed for tests. Well, that’s all. The letter:
I can’t stop thinking about my mom’s life lately.
Rather, I keep thinking about her death. I don’t think about death often, because I don’t think much of it; I’m not personally afraid of it, and the question of mortality has haunted enough big thinkers and philosophers for long enough that I won’t pretend I can solve it for myself, so I choose not to consider it at all. But with my mom, death seems so vivid and imminent and inevitable. I keep thinking about when she will die, and what I will do, and what I’ll have to live for when she’s gone. My mom is fifty-seven but I’m not disillusioned enough to believe she’ll live past seventy. She works every day in a Subway store that she’s owned for ten years, and whenever I go home she has new burn marks and scars on her wrists and ankles, popped veins in her arms from overworking the muscles in pulling and inserting pans of bread into the oven, new grey hairs from the stress of churlish and inconsiderate employees. She wakes up at six to open and comes home to cook dinner, she has constant health imbalances, and she laughs about it like it means nothing.
I know she’s not happy with her life, and I’m not happy with her life either. She was meant for more than an existence telling high school kids what to do or making sandwiches with mass-produced ingredients for rude and ungrateful customers. She’s too smart to be happy with that, to pretend she’s a “sandwich artist” when she knows she’s a knob in a capitalist machine; she was meant to converse with people and teach children and make art and read novels with mugs of coffee in pretty ceramic cups. She told me that she tells people that she’s a business owner but in the end it’s just a title; she has to work just as senselessly and endlessly as the high school dropouts. And one day, and if it goes on like it is now, one day soon, she will die.
You said last night that funerals are strange because it is the time when people are most willing to listen, to open themselves up for answers to likely unanswerable questions. Well, I feel like I’m living my mom’s funeral every day, and I listen to her and hold onto her every word as if they are her last, or like she is stating her own eulogy in real time, because I am so terrified that it is. It’s like I’m living two timelines at once, one where she is dead and one where she isn’t. I call her every day and we talk about nothing; we joke and laugh and gossip, but everything feels so transient, like a pause. I’m scared that she’s fading from life. I’m scared that she’s already faded and she’s trying so hard to be as colorful as she was meant to be, but how can she when she’s suffocating? I don’t ever want to hear my mom cry again. My mom is fifty-seven but she’s awfully childish; she was the youngest of seven kids, her name means “Last Love,” and she was spoiled for thirty years until she became a mother. She holds her feelings inside herself no matter how you prod, and then suddenly erupts with everything at once. She sent me to college and told me never to feel inferior to others because if I do, I will let people step on me and I will have the same life that she does.
Those are words I never wanted to hear. She told me that three years ago in October, in a dark car, and I couldn’t see her face but I could hear her vowels catching in her throat. I thought it was awful and selfish of her to tell me that, to tell me about how unhappy she was. I knew I’d never be able to stop thinking about that. To know that she was miserable for the rest of my life. And she is going to die one day.
Maybe I can get a nice career and a nice husband with a nice temper, a nice house with a fireplace, and she’ll be happy that her daughter doesn’t live the same way she does. But when will that be? I’m not smart like Walker or charismatic like Rachel or interesting like Ameet. I’ve depended on luck and my personality and a simple fear of failure to drive me forward. I might make my mom proud one day, but it won’t be before she dies.
My mom is fifty-seven and I only noticed when went home from college for the first time, when I saw her face after not seeing it for six months. I love her to ends, love her, and for the first time I felt guilty for loving her. I wish I hadn’t been born, and I wish I didn’t exist. I wish my endless fuckups wouldn’t exist because someone better existed instead. I wish my mom had a daughter who was confident she could make her proud, because she was capable and proper and in touch with reality like a healthy person would be. (I don’t really wish to die, but I do wish to not exist. Does that make sense? I’m saying you don’t have to worry about me, in case you were.) It’s not nihilism and I know that death is part of the just natural processes of old age, of the natural relationship between parent and child, but I don’t want to think theoretically like that. I’m not interested in those comforts. My mom means more to me than everything else combined. I know I’m going to lose her one day, just like everyone loses everyone at some point, but it’s less about me than about the fact that she’s here right now and I can’t erase her discontent. I experienced my first and only death in high school, when I was fourteen, a family friend, and I went to her funeral and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Her body is right there, lying still in a casket; we are speaking about her, to her, with her, but she can’t respond, not concretely, not anymore. We had our chances, and now it’s too late. What is the point of regrets? Why can’t we just act in ways that we won’t regret?
My mom is the only person I really care about, even if that sounds awful. She’s the only person I live for. If she’s gone, I don’t know how or why I’d continue. All I can do now and all she wants me to do is study, and to do my best, and sometimes I can’t even do that.
Anyway, that’s me right now. I know it’s a lot. And I know that it must sound awfully ungrateful, to mourn a living person when there are billions mourning the deceased. Maybe you think it’s stupid to even think about. Maybe I’ll be able to think less about it now that it’s written down and not bouncing around in my head. I’m sorry it’s so long but I really do feel better (worse, actually, but it’s also better that I feel worse, I think) after writing this.
To everyone who has a person they love and are afraid to lose to death, I hope you have an outlet for yourself just as you are for me.