Where do I begin? Well − I had a magical childhood, largely because of my mom. Growing up I never saw her rest for a minute yet she was always spirited and oozing with energy. She kept herself busy with fun and meaningful projects but always had ample time for us. She was always doing something, whether it was entertaining friends, trying out novel recipes, taking intricate Batik lessons, conducting baking classes or helping underprivileged kids read and write. She was the ultimate fun mom; her smile was contagious and I don't remember her ever being unreasonable or unduly angry. She was the epitome of sacrifice, always putting her family, friends and complete strangers before her own needs. She was always happy and always on the go and always very, very thoughtful. (She even gave birth to me on Mother's Day!)
My mom made ours a happy home. Even though my parents had an arranged marriage, they were a match made in heaven − best friends and soul mates.
They did everything together and she kept dad grounded for she was the practical one and he was the dreamer. They completed and complimented each other even though they had never met until the day of their wedding, and they remained fully committed to each other till the very end. After my dad unexpectedly fell ill at the airport during a routine business trip and passed away soon after, my mom's spirit was broken; she became stone cold and emotionless. I, a thoughtless, immature teenager, could not stand to see her lifeless and so I rebelled − doing the things I knew she despised just to stir some emotion in her. My selfish plan did not work the way I had hoped it would; mom was not the same. It took almost ten years for her to smile again. In the meantime she had to learn to live life without the love of her life. It was heartbreaking watching her do the everyday, mundane things that dad had sheltered her from because she was his treasured, humble queen. It was a beautiful, rare love story that had tragically come to an end and I hated being a helpless spectator.
Slowly her life resumed some normalcy; she went back to school to become a dedicated Montessori Teacher and eventually a beloved Administrator. A staunch supporter of kids, she had found her passion and a way of dealing with her pain through teaching.
Accolades and recognition poured in but above everything, she did what she did with love, passion and compassion.
Mom never remarried, never looked at another man and always spoke of dad like he was still alive. In fact, she hung a giant portrait of dad right across from her bed soon after he passed away and I swear she had regular conversations with him. She also convinced us that he was watching over us, guiding us through thick and thin and therefore no harm would ever befall us. One day when I saw her missing dad more than ever, I boldly asked her: "Would it have been better if Didi (my older sister) or I had died instead of dad because then you both could've grieved together and helped each other out?" Without wasting a breath, she said, "Of course not, this was the only acceptable choice because I would never wish this kind of pain upon your dad plus you girls have just begun to live your beautiful lives; I am happy that he died happy- the only way he deserved in life and death." Even though I was very young, I remember those words clearly for I realized how selfless and strong she was even in the midst of her unbearable pain.
The next phase of her life was a fulfilling one. Her favorite pastime was spending time with her grandchildren, whom she adored. She would make the grueling 16-hour flight anytime she could to be with them. She was the loving caregiver of four doting grandkids when they were infants and the quintessential modern grandma when they were older-- smart, fun, and full of energy. On my birthday, the year when my son was barely four, he made a card for me with the words "Mom, I love you" beautifully handwritten. That evening my baby spelled out words one after another as grandma looked on proudly. I was elated, mostly because I had no idea that my little guy- who couldn't sit still for a minute- had learned to write. It was the most heartfelt gift I've ever received- the fruit of two months of secretive and patient coaching by grandma. That was my mom: thoughtful, persistent and incredibly proud of everyone around her but never her own achievement.
Today as I watch mom during my annual, insufficient visit with her or "talk" during my weekly, long-distance call to her, my heart breaks. She is nothing like what she was just a few years ago and her pain is hard to swallow yet she never complains. The bastard disease sucked her very being. The chemo damaged her strength and eventually her kidneys, which abruptly stopped working. Her best friend is her bed; she clings onto it as if afraid to let go. Her eyes are closed, often in deep sleep as if she is rehearsing for what lies ahead. I get angry and tell her to stop sleeping. She complies, trying to distend her eyes but they don't cooperate. When her eyes are open, she stares far away as if she is reaching out to the memories that are too distant to grasp. When I ask her what she is thinking, she looks at me with sunken eyes and barely utters "Nothing". And she still gathers up the strength, grace (and the audacity) to ask me how I am doing. I get angry at nobody and cry when nobody is watching.
I think about how things changed so much in such short a time. Mom was always particular about dressing well; her sense of style was classic. In fact, many years ago when she worked as a young Secretary for a famous British firm, she was consistently voted "Best-Dressed"- a title she proudly lived up to until recently. Now the same impressive and impeccably dressed lady wears baggy nightgowns all day, hand picked by her caregivers because the loose clothing does not hurt the many channels and punctures on her arms needed to keep her alive. Gone are the occasional lipstick breaks and the powder sessions that she was famous for. I angrily question what went so harshly wrong and why but get no response. Mom always believed and taught us that good things happen to good people; unfortunately this did not hold true for her in the end although she never hurt a soul.
A family friend who comes to visit every Thursday battling a hectic commute after work recently apologized profusely for having missed a visit. I told her that she shouldn't feel guilty because mom doesn't remember her visits anymore; she looked at me clearly dismayed and said, "I come here for the precious smile that greets me every time- the only thing that is left that reminds me of the countless, beautiful days spent with her." She is right; mom's smile still has the power to melt one's heart. Now the woman with a reputation of walking upright with her head held high needs to be held while taking a step forward. In short, the fiercely independent lady is completely dependent for every step of her life. Yet she greets everyone who comes to visit her with a smile even though there are not many words left.
And although I do everything to go on with life, I am sick and tired of carrying this burden inside of me. Where did my mom with her boundless energy get lost? Why is the love of her life, smiling down upon her from across the room, completely powerless when she needs him the most? I know that life and death are a part of being, yet I cannot stop thinking about how empty my life would be without mom. How does one move on when her roots are broken? How does one fly when her wings are clipped? Maybe someday I will be strong enough to let go of this pain but for now all I want to do is cry my heart out and remember her with every breath I take and every tear I shed. The truth is that most of all I cry because I have become selfish enough to wish that she suffer no more.