At this time last year I was enjoying the lovely warm weather of Sydney, Australia. What a fortune, and what a luck that I would be visiting this country so far from my home country. How could I, a girl born in the foothills of Northern California, a girl raised on welfare by a single mom, a girl who thought I would die poor and young and alone in my small hometown, how could I be sitting on Bondi Beach getting absolutely sunburnt with one of my closest friends, who was also getting similarliy burnt, how?
I ask myself this question sometimes. How am I here? How can I be here? I’m in awe of it. I should ask it more often and hold that awe, and wonder, and gratitude in my heart- I should hold it in my heart till the moment I die. And, then at other times I ask the same question, but the question comes with waves of pain. How can I be here and she couldn’t?
I never wrote about my trip to Australia or Viet Nam, because four days after I returned to China after my vacation, my mother died. I never got to tell her about my trips. We had a smattering of e-mails while I was traveling, and she expressed how cool she thought it was that I was in Viet Nam, and she looked forward to reading about my time in Australia. I didn’t write about them because I felt so guilty I went to those places. So guilty I didn’t go back to the States to visit her. I didn’t know, I’d tell myself. I didn’t know she was going to die. I did know, we all die, everyone dies, but I didn’t know she was going to die on February 19th. Still, my ignorance of the date of her death brought me little reprieve from my feelings of guilt. I was a bad daughter because I couldn’t save her. I feel this way, I felt this way, I feel this way, I felt this way…
My mother struggled so much in her life. Struggled with so much pain. Pain from an abusive mother, the pain of feeling abandoned by a father, the pain of losing her sister, pain of a failed marriage, and the pain of marrying a second man who harmed her child. So much pain. My aunt died when I was five year’s old. I still remember it because I was there. I remember my mother shaking me awake from sleep, and tearing me from my bed. I remember the lights of the ambulance as they bounced off the roof of my mother’s VW bug. I remember my mother’s long golden hair as she told me to keep my head on the seat and not to look out the window. I remember everything changed in that moment. My mother’s already tense and strained relationship with her mother became even more damaged. My close relationship with my cousins, my aunt’s two boys, was severed and we went from seeing each other all the time to seeing each other once or twice a year. Our family became only mom and I, and I became my mother’s protector. I threw myself between her and those who hurt her. I held her in my tiny and thin arms as she sobbed.
The last time I had seen my mom, I asked her why she could never heal from her sister’s death. She felt the pain of loosing my aunt as if she had died yesterday. My mother burst into sobs when I had asked her that question. I was frustrated with her. It had been so long ago why did she still hold all that anguish? That anguish had caused so many problems. I thought if she could just let go of it then maybe she could be free. “How could she leave me?” she cried. “How could she leave me with that monster?”
I could never get my mom to talk to me about her childhood. She’d tell a story about her and her sister from time to time, something funny, something that involved them getting in trouble. There were always beatings in the stories, but somehow my mother made these stories about their beatings funny. Gallows humor. I had asked her to tell me one happy story, and she said she didn’t have one. She wasn’t loved. I had told myself I would record her, get her story, her history, our history. I told her I was going to do this, and the last time we spoke in person, she finally said she was ready to talk, but it didn’t happen. I was too late. She was too late, and the lives of Letafae, Gay-Linda, Sue, and Harry all died. That history died one person at a time, and finally vanished with Letafae, my mom.
If there is one thing that I know about life the one thing that I have learned and know to be true, it is that love is powerful. It is the most powerful thing in the universe. It is so powerful that if you refuse to give it to a person, if you refuse to give love to a child you will damage that child. You will destroy the heart of that adult. I was loved by my parents. I was unconditionally loved by my mother. Unconditionally. There was so much love that she poured over and into me, and I loved her, but my love, the love of her friends, and the love she gave could not heal that wound that was created when the one person who loved her as a child died. It could not fill the missing love that my grandmother for whatever reason was unable to give. It could never fill the space that was emptied when her father left and never came back. The greatest power in the world is love, and sometimes that love has to come from yourself to give to yourself. She couldn’t do this. It wasn’t my job to save her, it was my job, my destiny, to love her. I loved her, and still love her, and will always love her. So, I didn’t fail.
I know that I don’t have to feel guilt over Australia or any travels. I know she would want me to write about them, because like my mom would say to me in e-mails. “Baby, that’s so cool.”
It’s almost a year now. A year since she died, and that guilt, that guilt I felt, I feel, I felt, I know that guilt is a lie. Through my tears and my pain of not having her here where I can touch her, and hear her laughter, inside that tender beautiful pain, there is only love.