Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Sort of Love Letter

For those of you who don’t know, I’m the oldest of three: I have brother who is almost three years younger and a sister who is ten years younger.  Like most sibling relationships, there have been/are contentious moments, but for the most part we love each other. More importantly, we like each other. One of the best things that has come out of this situation with my mother, is the big chunks of time I’ve been able to spend with my brother and sister. Sure, it has been chaotic and slightly annoying at times, but when the house empties out and everyone returns to his/her respective homes, I miss them.

I don’t really remember too much about those blissful 2 years and 10 months of sibling-less life, but I’m thinking I had it pretty good.I do remember visiting my mom in the hospital after my brother was born. In my memory, the room is dark and bluish—whether from paint or lighting, I don’t know. I felt nervous and uneasy seeing my mom in that hospital bed. And there he was, a little bundle taking up space in my mom’s arms. My dad was holding me, and I tentatively accepted a butterscotch candy (man, I loved those things as a kid) as a peace offering.

These things have a way of working themselves out, though, and my brother became my first friend. He was my partner in crime as we gently unwrapped the Christmas presents one year while my parents were out or as we thwarted one particularly terrible babysitter’s best-laid plans. He was a willing playmate who (usually) did what I told him to do (come on, we know I like to be bossy!). And for a long time, he was my biggest fan—he looked up to me, wanted to do what I was doing, and wanted to be where I was. This, of course, was alternately endearing and annoying.
But in turn, I was fiercely protective. For a span of time while we were kids, I’d wake up almost every night to make sure his blanket was on him because I had this bizarre notion that as long as the blanket was touching him, nothing would be able to hurt him. And once, when we were living in Hawaii—we were probably 5 and 3— a homeless man started hassling him while we were waiting for the bus (my dad was around FYI, so there was never any real threat). He kept trying to engage with my brother, saying that we could call him “Uncle Charlie.” My brother obviously felt threatened because he climbed up the bus sign pole (he was a monkey, that kid!) and started growling and barking (did I mention that my brother was also weird?). I didn’t care how big the man was or how unsettling he looked, I yelled at him to “leave my brother alone!” and told him that he was “NOT our uncle!” We were probably quite the spectacle. But we were a team.

Years later, my sister’s unplanned arrival shook up the family dynamic again. I’d asked my parents for years and years if we could have another baby, particularly a girl. They laughed. They told me no. And then one day when I was 10, my mom told me that she was pregnant. Weirdly, my reaction wasn’t what anyone expected. I cried. I wasn’t angry, exactly, I just have a hard time with change.* But in no time, I was elated. We spent time picking out her name (i.e. vetoing my mom’s TERRIBLE name choices), talking to her through my mom’s growing stomach and waiting impatiently. The morning she was born, my dad woke me up around 4:30 am and told me I’d have to get my brother and myself ready and off to school. Downstairs, I heard my mom tell my dad that they needed to leave because her water had broken. I was nervous, a little scared and really excited. So I waited until it was time to get up and woke my brother up to tell him that our sister was being born. We got ready for school, ate breakfast and headed off to the bus stop. My sister was born sometime shortly after 9 am, and my dad skidded in, late to my award ceremony, to give me the news. For the rest of the day, I couldn’t think about anything else but getting to meet her.

*Actually, I have a difficult time with the idea of change. I’m incredibly adaptable once it actually happens. It’s just that, well, I’m a worrier (yes, I know, you’re shocked), and the unknown always sends me into a bit of a tailspin.

With my sister, it was a different kind of love affair. We all loved her and doted on her. And we all agreed that she was the happiest, best-natured baby that ever existed; she was charismatic and hilarious even as a baby. I fed her, changed her diapers, put her down for naps and played with her at every opportunity; she was my very own real life baby doll. I’d rush home from school most days and creep up into her room to nudge her awake and then pretend like she’d just woken up on her own.* I adored her, and I tended to her with a certain maternal care—especially in those early years.

* I’m pretty sure my mom caught on to my tricks pretty quickly, and I’m not sure how she didn’t just kill me then. Now that I’m the mother of a fairly finicky sleeper, I’d seriously contemplate hurting the person who routinely woke my kid from his naps. Lucky for me, my sister was never crabby when I pulled this.

My own growing pains got in the way for a little while. And for a long time, I was in the closet with my sister because my mom asked (or rather, demanded) that I not tell my her about my sexual orientation until she graduated from high school.  So our relationship felt very much like it was in limbo for the greater part of her teen years and my early adulthood. Until very recently, I’ve carried around a lot of guilt for my absence in her life, even though much of it wasn’t in my control. I can’t tell you how often I felt pangs of remorse for those moments of missed connection between us when I could see that she was walking away crestfallen at my emotional distance—distance that I didn’t really know how to bridge. But this experience has changed the dynamic of our relationship in ways that I’m immensely grateful for.

With both of my siblings, I’ve always felt, somehow, light years older. It’s due, in part, to the kind of responsibility and expectation that comes with being the eldest, especially in my family. Perhaps some of it has to do with life experiences. And maybe other parts of it were born out of a certain necessity.  But for a long time now, I’ve played a particular role in our relationship. Since my parents have been out of the country for the past decade, my partner and I have been the stand-ins. We’ve been the go-to people for all kinds of life scenarios. I’m not lamenting this fact; I’m glad that we were able to be there in those moments, whether they were crises or accomplishments. I do think, however, that while playing the role of a parental stand-in, I forgot how to just be a sister.  So I expected, when we entered into this illness with my mother, that the roles would stay very much the same. And there have been moments where this dynamic persists, but I’ve found that things have begun to rearrange themselves between us; we’re finding a new kind of equilibrium. Sitting around late at night, laughing at my parents’ foibles, discussing their unflagging denial, and coming to terms with their paradoxical strangeness and familiarity has united us in a kind of solidarity. For now, at least, we are living in a different reality than they are and that binds us to one another. Beyond that, though, are the ways in which they have each made space for me during this time. You know, in the ways that I’ve been accustomed to making space for them—space for me to be the petulant child, the annoyed daughter, the exhausted parent, etc. We’ve begun, I think, to see each other as real people and as adults on common ground, rather than caricatures in some shared parody of a childhood. This time in our lives has been emotionally tempestuous in so many ways, but they have filled me with gratitude and affection. So, for the many ways that my brother and sister have enhanced my life with all their crazy-making, shit-starting, unwavering and big-hearted love, this is my sort of love letter to them. I’m so lucky to be their sister.   

Friday, July 12, 2013

What’s Yours is Mine, and What’s Mine is Mine...

People keep asking me how I am, how my mom’s doing, how things are going, etc. Typically, I don’t know how to answer so I mumble something like, “she’s doing pretty well right now” or “things are going okay, and I’m fine.” The truth is that most of the time, I don’t know. I’m discovering that death and dying are difficult, but not always (or at least not immediately) in the ways that we imagine or expect. My parents aren’t interested in dwelling on or discussing death, so we don’t. And for the time being, my mom is stable and well enough that while the C-word is still the elephant in the room, we’ve learned how to walk around it without stubbing our toes. In the meantime, it’s easy to get bogged down in the everyday task of living. It’s easy to forget why we’re here together and what we’re doing.

As it turns out, my almost two year old and I are having similar issues. Namely, sharing is HARD. These days it feels like nothing is my own anymore. Everything is up for grabs: my spot on the couch, my television, my car, my time, even my food! The other day I went to Bloomingfoods (the local co-op, for you non-Bloomington folks) to grab a few things for dinner and decided, while I was there, to make myself a salad for lunch. Before I came home I asked everyone if they needed/wanted anything, but they all said that they were set. So I returned with the groceries and my delicious salad in tow. I purposely waited until my son was done eating his lunch because sometimes the up-and-down of mealtime is exhausting and because sometimes I just don’t want to share (parents, you know what I mean, right?). So you can imagine my irritation when I prepared to take the first bite of my salad and a pair of chopsticks swooped down in swift Mr. Miyagi fashion: “Oh! Let me have some!” my mother exclaimed, while quickly relocating half of my lunch to her already-emptied plate. “Was this just for you? Or was it for all of us?” she asked. “You can have as much as you want,” I replied. On the inside, though, I was annoyed. It’s always like this. Someone goes on an ice cream run and she says over and over that she doesn’t want any. But we’ve learned to bring her some anyway or get a larger size than we’d intended for ourselves, because her spoon will inevitably make it into the cup—and probably more times than the ice cream’s original owner.

It’s not that I begrudge her the food. I’m happy that she’s eating, and that she has an appetite. (It’s kind of a running joke in our house that my mom is the resident compost center. She eats all the time these days, and she’ll take care of any leftovers on someone else’s plate. She’s always been a little bit like this, but I think the steroids have given her appetite a serious boost.) I recognize that when I have that impulse to throw myself on the floor screaming, “MINE!” it’s not about the food or the car or the television, however much it feels like it in the moment. It’s about desperately trying to reclaim a little corner of space for myself. 

The Korean sense of community and loyalty is sometimes stifling and oppressive in its expectation and demand, but it’s also one of the most astounding aspects of the culture. In Korea, as in many other countries, it’s not uncommon for several generations to live together. There, you’ll also find communal bath houses that families (usually separated by gender) frequent together; employees mill around willing to offer a hand, literally, in case the patrons would like a good scrub down.* In 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, tens of thousands of people participated in a gold collection campaign to help their nation repay their IMF debt. And in 2007, entire towns banded together to clean up a coastline after the oil spill. They lavish newlyweds with exorbitant sums of money, everyone bringing their own money-stuffed envelope to contribute to the pot. They bring food by the truckload on a daily basis during times of crisis, and they pray with a kind of fervor and devotion that I’ve rarely witnessed elsewhere. Closer to home, when my parents left Korea, they did so thousands of dollars richer from all of the gifts that both friends and strangers bestowed on them. I’ve been indoctrinated with all of these reasons why “Korea is best” and, like a good student, have since filed all of this away in that folder of my experience labeled “the Korean way.”

*I get a little weirded out by all the bodies in the locker room at the Y, so those communal baths (jimjilbangs) consist of a little too much closeness and sharing of bodily space, fluids, etc. for me. 

I feel, strongly, my sense of duty and obligation as the eldest and as the child of a Korean mother. But I am also compelled, as a daughter, by my love for my mother and by the impulse to draw her near during this time and make sure she has whatever she needs. Still, sometimes I throw twelve internal tantrums a day, crying out for space. It feels like nearly every inch of my house has been invaded and snatched up by alien creatures. These people gave me life. I grew up with them. But I haven’t lived at home since I was 18 years old, so at times they feel foreign. Their habits, their practices, their beliefs—they aren’t mine. If you move in with your parents later in life, I think you expect to sacrifice a little (or a whole lot) of your personal space, habits, etc. You revert to the dynamics of those early years when you were the child and they were the adults. But what happens when your parents move in with you? When you become the caretaker and they become the ones being cared for? Well let me tell you, they bring their baggage with them, and those bags are bulging with parental-ness, with past practices, with questions and assumptions. At least mine did. The thing is, they’re no different. They’re the same people they’ve always been. I’m the one who has changed. I don’t think we ever stop being parents. As we grow into new ways of being in the world, however, we do stop being children in certain ways. I’m working to find the balance between the life I’ve carved out for myself and the life that they carved out for me. I’m struggling to discover a way for both of those narratives to exist in the shared space between us. But it’s not an easy task. Some days there’s less of me than I’d like. On those days, I remind myself again why we’re here, and the big picture comes back into focus.

These days, however, we’re just muddling through the day-to-day, and some struggles, apparently, are universal. Last night my partner stopped to pick up ice cream for everyone on her way home. This time I wasn’t really feeling into it, so I asked my mom if she wanted to get a medium cyclone and share a little bit with me. “No!” she exclaimed, “I don’t want to share tonight. I want my own!” My eyes bulged, “SERIOUSLY?!” Ugh. Well okay, then. I get that. But geez. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Thousand Words

I’ve been going through old pictures lately—scanning, saving, and uploading. I’ve looked at these albums so many times over the years that I know which pictures are in which albums (and there are A LOT of albums), and I know which pictures I’ll see before I turn page; they’re old friends. As the past rushes up to meet me, it grounds me in the present moment: “I was there, then….I am here, now.”

While I was growing up, we moved every 3-4 years because my dad was in the Air Force. Moving meant purging and packing. I was good at the purging. I didn’t attach strongly to many objects. Aside from my ever-growing collection of books, I carried only a few objects from place to place. But the photo albums, those were dear to me. I would haul them out of their closets or cabinets and spend time studying them, remembering moments, people, and feelings.  

My mom took pictures all the time, and she liked to direct the shots. She was sloooooow about it. She would give orders and wait until we shuffled ourselves into place—our very own Olan Mills (there are some truly ghastly real-deal Olan Mills’ specials tucked away somewhere). But she was also really good at capturing those candid moments as well—laughter, tears, surprise, etc. I’m terrified to think what she might have been like in our age, the age of the smart phone, with constant access to a camera. Back then, there were still rolls of film to develop; you couldn’t get too click-crazy. I suppose she would have been much like I am now: I take pictures of my son nearly every day. Between the sleep deprivation, relative sameness of our days and the passage of time, I’m sure I’ll forget much of his growing up. Not the big things, of course, but those quiet, funny or tender moments which begin and end in a matter of seconds before the next tantrum happens or our collective attention wanders to something else. These pictures don’t account for all of those gaps, but they do fill in the spaces a bit. They act as signposts, marking time for us.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve discovered that these old photos function in another way for me. Often, they are windows into things I didn’t know/couldn’t see/didn’t understand when those pictures were taken. Although the pictures have remained unchanged, the stories they tell have shifted over the years.  When I look at them now, I see them not only as my child-self but also as my adult-self and, now, as a mother. Looking at them I discover lost tableaus of tenderness. I catch glimpses of parental pride. I recognize the tedious work of childrearing made somehow more perfect and less mundane by the lens.

Life tick-tocks around us. Our bodies succumb to gravity. We bald or go grey. We move in one direction, from birth to death (unless you’re Doctor Who, I suppose).  Photographs, on the other hand, are amaranthine and ephemeral: they outlast us, and they expire the moment they are taken. They show us everything and nothing at all. Sometimes they lie to us. Sometimes they tell us more truth than we can otherwise tell ourselves. And sometimes they reveal love stories that got buried beneath scraps of pain, heaps of time and whole junkyards of silences and secrets. So I keep looking.