Fierce Mother in Body and Spirit

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I got to spend another Mother’s Day with my mother this year. It was the first year in my life that I realized this day wouldn’t always be a given. My mother is 90 years old. She almost didn’t make it out of the hospital last Fall.

This tenuous reality makes one think broader than the muscle memory of Mother’s Day that can make this holiday rote – get the card, the flowers, the meal, the smiles, and pictures. Knowing this Mother’s Day may be the last with my mother, I observed her with a deeper presence and honesty that was both precious and heartbreaking.

Mom has Alzheimer’s, she needs a walker to go anywhere. She’s fallen multiple times which have required the ER and hospital stays. Mom has caregivers 24/7. Mom’s movements have slowed to a pace that is sometimes sloth-like. She needs to stand and stabilize herself before she can even take a step to walk. Her eyes wander into another world in which I can’t accompany her. Her hand shakes when she holds her teacup. She is a frail elderly person.

It’s heartbreaking to watch. My mother has been the strongest woman I know. She’s the first in our female lineage to choose the person she married. She’s the first woman to be college-educated though her family was wealthy (which she accomplished by running away from home so she could secretly take the nursing college exam because her patriarchal brother didn’t think money should be spent to educate her). She’s the first to have a career. She’s the first widow to support herself financially. She’s the first elderly female in my lineage to live in a home she owns.

The idyllic American mother is portrayed as someone who hugs, bakes, and defers to her husband in a loving and affirming way. My mom was none of that. The best word to describe mom is FIERCE. Tough. Focused. Unyielding. Razor-sharp – in her words and actions when her kids or husband doesn’t respond as she expects. Mess with her family and mom would never hesitate to take you to task like a mother cougar protecting her cubs.

I thought Mom was always that tough. But she wasn’t. In recent years, she revealed that she was made to be this way. Mom was teased as a crybaby, even into her teenage years. She was too softhearted and didn’t retort quickly enough in a family whose wit-in-self-defense was equated with worthiness. She was scolded for speaking up and running around their compound with her male cousins. Given the family’s standing and reputation, her grandmother thought she needed to behave appropriately as a girl.

All that changed after they escaped to Taiwan after the Communists took over China in 1949.

Survival became the family’s focus. Their wealth was left behind on the mainland. Her mother lost her power as her eldest son took over the family. As the only girl with 3 brothers, Mom held no status.

Yet in the new world, Mom gained a new freedom she never had in Ganzhou. Mom was never the same again.

I was 5 when Mom went to the US from Taiwan. Her nursing specialty allowed her to immigrate to the US in the early 70’s. We all emigrated a year later. Dad was a policy analyst at a prestigious think tank in Taiwan and gave up that career to come to the promised land. Dad was a thinker and an intellectual. Not a feisty survivalist. Mom had no choice but to become fierce.

Imagine this. One year after coming to the US, Mom convinced a school principal to allow her non-English speaking kids to attend his school because it was right next to the hospital where she worked. Mom went right back into that office when her 10-year-old son was held at knifepoint and asked how this could happen to her child. Mom and Dad saved up enough money to buy a house after only 5 years in the US (they came with little, having to borrow money from friends to come to the US). After my father suddenly died of a heart attack when he was 59, my mom’s world shattered (from which she’s never recovered). Mom fell into a deep depression but never stopped working as a nurse while insisting that I return to Business School. She told me she could take care of herself. Mom’s ferocity would not yield even in the worst tragedy.

Sitting with her this Mother’s Day, I watched her with a presence of love and appreciation I haven’t been able to muster these decades of my life. I know my mother has loved me so very deeply. She’s advocated for my voice, dreams, and being in a way that no one ever advocated for her. But her ferocity has made her feel callous and unapproachable most of the time. Pleasing Mom wasn’t a want but a necessity.

I often wonder why Mom doesn’t appreciate all the goodness in her life. She’s always commenting on how everything could be better than what is. For me, that’s felt like an incessant commentary about me never being good enough. The hurdles just keep getting higher and higher to jump. It’s only as she’s lost her capacities that I’ve come to understand that mom’s constant push was a push for sustained survival. Sure I’ve had my own life challenges. But when I step back, I’m fortunate to have had the luxury to contemplate my life and make choices that give me joy and purpose. Yet I’ve been able to have choice precisely because of the base Mom provided me through her tireless ferocity. Mom’s need to survive these many decades didn’t allow her the privilege to stop, smell the roses, and appreciate her life. She was always pressing forward. She had to overcome real barriers and tragedies. Burrowing forward had become the habit of her life.

Since Mom’s disease has worsened, I often feel nauseated when I’m about to see her. Even as I approach her home I want to run away. I want to be anywhere but there. As I observe my feelings, I feel such confusion and guilt. Why is it that when I’m not with her, I miss her and worry about her? But when I’m about to see her, I want to be at the other end of the earth.

Since her hospitalization, I’ve spent every Sunday with Mom and have allowed myself to truly be in the presence of my mother. Sitting with the nausea and resistance, I’ve come to realize that these deeply uncomfortable feelings are actually my heart breaking. Watching my fierce mother evolve into a person who can’t take of herself has been devastating. Answering her time and again about how my father died and when he died makes me relive the worst day of my life every time she asks. Knowing that my mother will only disappear more into her forgetfulness of her life is like watching a terrible car wreck in slow motion with no way to make it stop.

This Mother’s Day, I dared to sit quietly and allow myself to be with Mom fully, both enjoying this time with her and allowing myself to grieve.

When I stood in her living room, rolling Mom’s hair before we went out, she said to me, “Yee-Huei, if I ever get that Alzheimer’s disease, that all those old people get, just don’t worry about me, just leave me be, because I’ll be too much of a burden.” I was standing behind her rolling her hair. She couldn’t see me. Tears trickled down my cheek. I couldn’t even answer her because I would have just burst into tears. So I just asked her for the next roller. Eventually, we did what she loves to do – to drive around and see people in the city. We got into the car, walker and wheelchair stowed in the trunk and I drove her down Boylston Street, passed the Pru, stopped in Chinatown to buy her favorite treats, and then returned on Storrow Drive. At the curve by the Footbridge in Cambridge, where we’ve driven together for decades, I reminded mom that to the right was Harvard College and to the left was Harvard Business School, where I went to school. She perked up, as she always does. “Your father and I were so proud. Our child went to Harvard. Many people didn’t think much of us. But when I told them that my daughter went to Harvard, they respected us.” I tell mom back, “if it weren’t for you and Dad and your hard work, I never would have had the opportunity.” I have a difficult relationship with Harvard and what it stands for in terms of patriarchy and perpetuating the haves and have-nots. But when I hear my mother’s sense of comfort and pride that her daughter attended these schools, I’m reminded that my going to Harvard was the most I could do, as a daughter, to help my parents feel worthy in a country that didn’t see or value them. It’s taken me decades to realize that my earnestness to do well and to make it into and through Harvard was so much to ease my parents’ experience of pain and loss as immigrants who had given up an alternative life of ease, status and belonging had they stayed in Taiwan. It was, for my mom, a reflection of her striving for her worthiness, as a person and as a mother.

As the road turned past Harvard, Mom thinks we’re in New York City, on the windy road of the East River Drive, about to head to the Wall Street area, where my dad worked. I tell her, it’s a similar-looking road, but we’re in Boston now. We’re going back to her condo in Arlington. Mom goes quiet. She’s lost again. I hold her hand and smile. She smiles back at me.

My fierce mother, I admire you so.

With all my respect, awe and love.

In Gratitude.