It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

Photo of the Eiffel Tower on the Seine. It is a cloudy day.

I was 15 when I first went to Paris. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years, on a trip with my high school French club. My brother, French teacher and his wife were among the chaperones. Aside from being the first time that I was sexually harassed (at least twice, actually, having my butt pinched as I stood in the entranceway to the mall at the Louvre and then in a shoe store, where the salesman tried to tell me how much he’d love for me to take him back to America and would love for me to come with him to see Paris– it was a lot, but that’s not what this post is about), it was a pretty magical trip.

My mother, for her part, took a trip to the East Coast of the United States to visit friends near Schenectady, where I was born, whom she hadn’t seen in years. I was happy for me and happy for her that she was coming back to a life where she finally had both the financial and mental freedom to travel and to send me to places that we could only afford to dream about when I was little and she was struggling.

As a single mom who hadn’t taken care of the finances previously, she had to figure out how to support a little girl, a college student, a car note, and a house note, and how to do so navigating multiple jobs. It meant we didn’t have much time.

I had no way of knowing that we still did not have much time.

This would be the last summer before my mother died.

In late September/ early October, I returned to Paris. I had come back to France in college, spending a year abroad in Bordeaux and then building relationships that had me come back every six months until I married, and then not again from just after my son’s birth to last year. France was still a magical place for me. It was a place where I was home even though I was not home. It was a place my mother’s death did not haunt me or follow me. It was a place where I felt free from who I was back home in the states.

And when I returned last year, it was all of that again for me. When I returned from my trip, my daughter asked me if I would take her. I promised her that some day I would.

She replied cheerily, “Great, so how about this summer?”

“This summer seems a little soon,” I responded.

“Why?” she asked.

I paused. I didn’t really have an answer for her. My answer typically would have been that she is too young to “get the most” out of the trip. But really, is she? I am good at saving airline and hotel points. I imagined (in October) that the pandemic would be in a better place (if it were now, I may have had a different answer). At any rate, I investigated points conversions, bought our tickets and soon, we will be off.

It is the summer between my son’s sophomore and junior years.

My father died last year, unexpectedly, and ironically when I had returned to France.

I will be department chair in the fall, returning to a 12-month position.

There are many transitions.

I am grateful for these moments, this time, this trip.

I am grateful for the space to take it, and the time to devote to my little girl.

I know that time is fleeting, that it is precious.

And, I know that, in taking time with my girl, I am also healing myself, the little me who wanted so desperately all the time she could get with her mother, as if she knew somehow that time was short.

Time and energy are precious. Mine is so often, so easily, given away.

I am grateful for the gift of time to make memories, for the space of my life to step away.

And the space to come back to myself again.

Fathers Day

Photograph of an Chinese man holding a small Taiwanese American little girl who is his daughter, in front of a church. She is a baby with a pacifier and a white dress with a red checkered kangaroo on it. He is wearing a suit.

Tomorrow is the first Fathers Day since my father passed away suddenly last October when I was away in France, between my sister’s birthday and mine, with his last communication wishing me a happy birthday just a couple days before he passed.

It is the first Fathers Day where he is not alive, but it is one of many where he is not present.

The picture with my father at the top of this post is one of a few that I have. My mother and father divorced when I was a toddler, and I have no recollection of ever living with my father. He was in Asia most of my life, and came to visit once a year (or so) between the divorce and when I turned 6 or 7.

I don’t have many memories of my father in my childhood, only that once I waited for him because he said he would come. I watched out our large bay windows, as it rained hard outside.  I waited and waited, but he didn’t come.

When he did come next, my mother told him that he had no right to keep me waiting like that; they fought. The other fight I remember my mom having with him was about taking me anywhere alone. She was afraid he might try to run away with me, steal me to spite her. Maybe it was the same fight. I don’t remember.

But I do remember that I didn’t see my father between 7-16.

I deeply wanted a father who was present. I felt an inconsolable silent melancholy when father-daughter dances happened or during every Fathers Day in my childhood. I didn’t let on that not having a father bothered me. I didn’t want to hurt my mother. I celebrated my mother on Fathers Day because I didn’t know what it was to have a father to celebrate. But what I did know is that it was lonely.

My father returned to the states when my mom died, to attend her funeral. He was at my high school graduation. He came once when I was in college and I had dinner with him and my cousin in San Francisco. He came to my wedding and I invited him to join my brother in walking me down the aisle of my wedding which he did. I saw him when his mother, my grandmother died, and he came to the states. It was my son’s first birthday, now over 15 years ago. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last time we would see one another in person.

It is strange to me that I can almost count the number of times I saw my father, in person, in my life.

I would exchange messages with my father via e-mail occasionally. I would ask about his new family in Myanmar, who I only heard about through my brother until randomly, when my sister was 12 or 13, he asked me to send books in English to her for her studies.

When the deadly government coup happened last year, I wrote him to check up on my sister and his family. He wrote back, “I’m surprised you remember that you have a family.” Channeling my mother’s rage and my own that I, his child, had ALWAYS been the one to reach out to him and had no obligation to him or his family, but cared because I loved the sister I had never met. It shocked me because he had generally been kind to me prior to this interaction, which was my effort at checking in with and seeking to help my family. I wrote a strongly worded e-mail back and started communicating just with my sister. This was my first time experiencing his callous accusations, and I made it clear to him that it would also be my last.

My father calmed down and apologized. I forgave him.

He was nothing if not consistent in his life, speaking before he thought, in ways that were hurtful to those who most loved him.

And I am nothing, if not forgiving.

In the brief period between when my sister arrived in the US, just over a year ago, and his death 8 and a half months ago, I probably talked to and saw my dad (on video calls) on a more regular basis than I ever had. My sister was used to having him around (by phone & video call at least), so we talked almost regularly. These three months helped me see my dad as a (very fallible) human being.

My relationship with my father wavered between non-existent, inconsistent, approval seeking (I somehow felt if I could be perfect enough, I could get him to notice me), and finally accepting.

My father was who he was.

And who he was is often the antithesis of all I strive to be.

But also, he is a large part of me.

And he is the father of my brother and my sister. They are gifts to me, in all of their humanity.

I loved my father, in spite of all the things, the complexities, his humanity and imperfections.

He has taught me, in his absence, so much about humanity, pride, and a deep desire to fix what is broken.

He has taught me the consequences of being unkind to those who love you, but also that even for those who are unkind, there are still those who are loyal to them, that no one is really unlovable.

He has taught me that people are infinitely complex, that they can be deeply revered by some and despised by others.

He has taught me that there can be so much good in a legacy that comes from a deeply flawed individual.

He has taught me that we can’t deny who we are, any of it, that humanity is about embracing all of who we are, if we want to be in true community.

I feel a deep sadness that there is no longer hope for further mutual repair of any type of relationship with my dad. Among my siblings, I am the one who never grew up living with my dad and spent the least amount with him. For me, there is not anger or resentment, nor is there loss in the traditional sense. There is only emptiness.

That emptiness carries forward in my life to this day. I don’t know how to celebrate Fathers Day because I don’t understand it. I am terrible at celebrating the father of my children (my husband) and his father (my father-in-law), my brother (who is a father and was always a father-figure to me growing up), or the people closest to me who are fathers. Most of these people are AMAZING fathers. I love them and honor their parenting. They have helped me reconstruct an understanding of fatherhood and co-parenting.

But Fathers Day itself still creates a lot of cognitive dissonance for me.

Like Mothers Day, Fathers Day is complicated for many people (including me). I get it and, for myself, I am working on giving myself grace as I try to figure out how to make space for all of it. I wish there was some better resolution, but for now, there is only a void, a longing, a profound and enduring sadness as I long for something I have never known, and as a daughter, now, will definitively never know.

Waking Up

Photo of a young Asian American girl (the author) and her mother in metal frame that is an angel with sunflowers all around the photo

Early this morning, I dreamt of my mother.

This doesn’t happen often, and this was a strange dream. My mother was the age she was when she died. She resembled a picture we had blown up for her funeral. She was smiling. She was teaching in a school with mostly Black and Latinx students that had clearly been recently painted, not so different from the school I taught at during my whole middle school career. I saw her there, and then when I came back to see her, she was gone. There was a young man in her place that resembled a friend from the Bay Area, where I used to live. I opened the door and asked where she had gone.

A round-faced boy replied, “That lady? She got really sick and left.”

I had many questions in the dream. Why would he call her that lady? (It was said matter-of-factly, without contempt, just as a point of information) Wasn’t she the teacher? I asked about the teacher and he knew who I was talking about. He didn’t correct me, but didn’t say her name. Why didn’t she call me when she got sick? Where did she go? Where was she now? Did she get COVID for the second time? (I remember thinking this in the dream) Should I call the doctor?

Then I woke up.

None of this makes a lot of sense. My mother never taught in the US (only for a few years in Taiwan). She would be in her 80s if she had not died in a car accident over 25 years ago. Yes, she disappeared, in a sense. Car accidents take people away suddenly. Yes, I wondered how she could be there and then not there. She was so real and then she was gone. But aside from that, it didn’t make a lot of sense.

It was a disorienting start to the day, a day that promised to be long.

It was my first big day of being president of the California Council on Teacher Education, a big day because I was hosting and facilitating a hybrid leadership retreat on my campus. A day focused on humanizing leadership because that is who I am.

Today, I planned in our core morning activity (one that asked us who or what we bring into our work that is beyond the professional) to talk about my children. They are safe to talk about. They are my compass points and guiding lights in much of my educational work. But as my mother came to me this morning, I changed my mind and talked about carrying her, carrying the grief of premature loss, remembering the way my world shattered when she left it so suddenly, and how, as a teenager, I rebuilt. Little by little, moment by moment, day by day.

That has been the way I get through many days. I am sad most days, but I smile because I hold sadness alongside gratitude. I am grateful nearly every day, for the community of people that hold me up, for my mother and grandmother’s legacy, for my children who are gifts, not only to me, but to the world. And the gratitude buoys me because the weight of the sadness is a lot. These are not always safe things to talk about in one’s first big day in a leadership role. But who would I be without my mother? And so, of course, she is who I bring.

It is the end of the day. It has been a beautiful day, full of humanity and community, building together, and the reminder in multiple ways, that we carry wisdom from the work done in the past and those who came before me. My mother is speaking to me through those in my community. Do not be foolish, and start again from nothing, when we stand on the shoulders of giants, when there are legacies of wisdom. Respect your elders in a completely different sense that honors their contributions and keeps them alive.

I am sad ending today, and I am grateful.

I carry the sadness and the gratitude carries me.

I am both/and.

It is not easy.

Little by little, moment by moment, day by day, I am building from the legacies of those that came before me.

Little by little, moment by moment, day by day, I am rebuilding upon a strong foundation of my foremothers’ dreams and all they poured into me.

Little by little, moment by moment, day by day, I am carrying and being carried by my full humanity. I am learning to embrace it, to be with it, to sit quietly at the end of the day with a warm cup of tea and write about it.

I am learning to breathe and be, in the brokenness and the wholeness of my humanity.

In the Smallest of Things

Photograph of two bright bouquets of flowers

I had a great day today.

And I also had two panic attacks today, which were not great.

I just returned for several days away for a work conference, am hosting a retreat next week, and then hope to take a vacation with my 7-year old which we’ve been looking forward to for months (provided that we don’t get caught up in the current COVID surge). This morning, I had a series of great and productive meetings, humanizing but intentional, and moving work of my heart forward.

Then, when they were done, at separate times in the day, the panic set in, quite suddenly and fiercely, stealing my peace in waves of uncertainty.

Panic attacks are hard. They are exhausting both emotionally and physically. I have had both panic and anxiety attacks for at least 15 years. I have learned to be with them, make space for them, breathe through them, mask them, function in spite of them. But they are still hard and very draining.

This evening, after my second panic attack, I texted a friend to check in. While waiting for a return text, I went shopping at Trader Joe’s. I had planned to buy flowers for myself, and chose a bouquet that was vibrant and beautiful.

Then I turned around and saw a display of peonies. I love peonies.

So I debated about whether to put back the flowers that I had chosen and get myself the peonies, which would also require filler flowers because there were just five stems. They weren’t as good a “value.” They weren’t yet in bloom. What to do?

As I stood there, my mind drifted to my mother, as it often does when I am buying myself flowers. My mother hated cut flowers when she was alive. She thought they were wasteful because they would just die. It was like throwing money away, she used to say.

But everything dies. And everyone.

I had to unlearn that ephemeral beauty and the joy of individual moments are worthless. In fact, what I’ve come to learn instead is that they are sometimes the most precious things in their short and vibrant lives, in our short and vibrant lives.

I had to learn that things that had “no purpose” actually, in fact, had such an important purpose. That time that had “no purpose,” time not doing all the things, actually was the most important time. Time to be present. Time to breathe. Time to be.

My mother didn’t have a chance to know these things. She didn’t have the same life, choices, or circumstances that I have. But I often remind myself that she dedicated much of her life so that I could have this life, these choices, and the best of the circumstances I have.

We are not the same. We might never have seen things in the same way. But, she would have wanted my happiness.

My mother loved me like I love others.  But, she did not love herself so I did not learn to love myself.

We are not the same. We might never have seen things in the same way. But, she would have wanted my happiness. Just like I so desperately wanted hers.

It would have made her sad to know that I have panic attacks. I probably wouldn’t have told her. Maybe she had them too and never told me. I don’t know.

And maybe, just maybe, because she knew it made me happy in a way that she might never have understood, she would have bought me flowers on days that were hard and great at the same time, or on days that were just days because every day deserves beauty.

Probably not, but that is okay.

I have been mothering myself for 27 years, trying to honor who my mother was in the way I made choices in my life. But in honoring what my mother may have done, I may not have honored what she would have wanted.

I cannot know these things. All I can do is carry her with me, and her mother before her and all of my foremothers. I carry them in my heart, and with them, I carry all that they carried. All the love they gave, all the sacrifices they made, all the dreams they dreamed. And in healing myself, I am healing them.

Today, I bought myself a bouquet of prearranged cut flowers…and a bouquet of 5-stem peonies, with another small bouquet of filler flowers to keep the peonies company.

Today, I talked to a friend who reminded me of who I am. I texted with friends that made me laugh. I arranged my flowers, one bouquet for the kitchen and another for my “office” in my bedroom.

These are small things, perhaps the smallest of things.

But we are healing through them, in the humanity and grace of accepting all that is and is not. It is there that peace exists for as long as I can be with it.

For that, I am deeply grateful.