Leaving Home and My Mother's Rise From the Dead...TWICE.
On the night of my High School graduation, my Mother laid a map of the United States on my bed and asks me where I’m moving to in 2 months. I was absolutely terrified. You see, I didn’t think college was an option for me that year. My parents couldn’t afford to let me go and although I had received my acceptance letter from Biola University several months prior, a glitch in their system ruined my financial aid eligibility, consequently leaving me no choice but to rescind my enrollment. My plans were to leave the following year with a new set of college applications. I didn’t anticipate that my parents expected me to leave home in 2 months and in a panic, my first thought was, “To do what??”
Then, I cried.
My Dad took my leaving the hardest. Not because he had never experienced a child leave the nest before, but rather because my departure was filled with seemingly insurmountable uncertainties: If I wasn’t going to attend Biola, would I go to school? If so, where? If not, what would I do? And most importantly, how was I going to support myself financially? Despite these questions and my Father’s hesitation to send me out into the world on my own unprepared, my Mother was adamant about my leaving and encouraged me saying, "You'll figure it out along the way." I knew I had to. I had no choice.
The 10-minute car ride to the airport was filled with some silence, but mostly tears. We walked to my gate leisurely and deliberately, as if time would pass slower if we did (this was when family could walk you to your gate). The announcement to board the plane eventually invaded the speakers and before I could gather my things, my Mom hands me an envelope. My eyes grow wide. My parents couldn’t have possibly had any extra money lying around to offer me. Before I could protest, my Mother says, “This is yours.”
Allow me to explain.
As a freshman, I ran for my High School’s Track Team. I acquired a modest amount of gold and silver medals and was primed to obtain a Varsity letter, but in the middle of Track Season, my parents asked me to get a job to help with household expenses. So, I left my teammates to be a bookshelver at the Kahului Public Library (how fitting, I can hear you say). After some time there, I worked in retail at our local shopping center where I was employed until I finished high school. The check my Mom handed me at the airport was money I had earned myself. Every paycheck I gave her to “help around the house” was instead put into a savings account under her name. By the time she withdrew my money, it had reached 5 figures. She advised me to use the money sparingly, with the exception of purchasing a vehicle so I could get to school and work. Since Maui didn’t have any freeways (and California had enough for the world), it was a priority for me to learn how to drive on the freeway, on top of finding a job. I tried my best not to touch that money. It eventually ran out. I purchased a 1998 Ford Tempo for $500. Then, to alleviate the dwindling down of my bank account, I found a job working the front desk at an ophthalmologist’s office, and I charged students at my college $5 a page to proofread their research papers. I had a “9-5” and I went to school Monday through Friday from 6pm to 10:30pm, and all day on Saturdays. I also sang in nightclubs on weekends for tips (I've never told my family this. I apologize to family members who are offended. My hustle was strong and it was real). I learned how to drive on the freeway by waking up at 2am every morning, practicing how to get on and off the freeway ramps and learning how to maneuver my vehicle in and out of traffic.
In addition, my Mother also included the following advice: Don’t show weakness, others will exploit you for their benefit.
This advice helped when the vehicle I purchased started giving out on me and I found myself at the auto repair shop more often than I could afford, negotiating my way through car parts and repairs. I honed my negotiation skills there and it is how I developed my thick skin and a tough exterior. This was how I survived a new world without my parents. Those of you who have known me during this time will know that I wasn’t the "softest" person to be around. On one hand, it prevented anyone from stepping all over me like a doormat. On the other hand, I was misunderstood often by those within my culture. Like my mother, my personality was the antithesis of what Filipino women were expected to be: quiet, soft, demure, and agreeable. We were neither of those things. I don’t know how much of my rough edges I’ve been able to soften over the years. Softening just happens from life, naturally. But like my mother, I couldn't be pigeon-holed. If I’ve learned one thing about myself since I left home, it’s that just like my Mother, I can’t be fenced in. Many have tried to but they found that fencing me in is like holding back the wind. If you’ve ever attempted to hold back the wind, you may notice that it grows more furiously. In addition, my Mother was also often misunderstood. Like me, she was judged because of her unconventional personality, especially in a culture that normally didn’t let their children loose in the world at age 18. But to understand my Mother is to understand where she came from.
My Mother is the youngest of 5 children, the daughter of a school teacher and a school principal. She was only a year old when, during World War II, Japanese soldiers invaded her home and took her father as a prisoner and held him in custody in a nearby facility. Her mother, my Grandmother Leonarda, was soon working for these soldiers washing their uniforms and cooking their meals. My Mother’s father was eventually killed by 9 vicious blows of the bayonet after having dug his own grave. After his death, my grandmother became a Guerrilla Fighter in his absence, helping defend the little island they lived on. My grandmother would not only lose her husband, but brothers-in-law and cousins who were executed with my Grandfather. With my Grandmother having to work as a day-laborer to support 5 fatherless children, my Mother was eventually sent off to foster home after foster home. The effects of the radiation of the atomic bomb that blew over Hiroshima traveled to the area she lived and caused her to have boils all over her body and so, as a toddler, she lay in the hospital for months recovering. Growing up, I saw the large, deep scars that indented parts of her body. When she speaks of that time, it is as if it had just happened yesterday.
My Mother has died…TWICE. Once on a boat trip to a neighboring province, and the second time on the day I was born. In both instances, she had flat-lined and was pronounced clinically dead by medical professionals. Both times, she has claimed that she did not see the bright light at the end of the tunnel that most people who’ve undergone near-death experiences speak of, but rather she spoke of the dark demonic forces that tried their best to keep her there. Both times, she has resurrected and lived to tell the tale. It was in the second instance where she gave her life over to Jesus Christ. She is still alive today.
In her 40’s, she had her 6th and 7th children, doctors telling her both times to abort because of the risk of Down’s Syndrome due to her mature age. She refused to listen. It is due to her deep belief that life was not hers to take that my sister and I are alive today. She tried her best to acclimate herself to a culture and a time that she was unaccustomed to. During a time where women her age were too scared to drive, she vowed to get a driver’s license and finally received it after 5 failed road tests. Giving up was never in her vocabulary. During a time when most women in their 50’s were content enough to settle for jobs most readily available in the Hotel industry, she decided to go back to school instead to get her teaching credentials to be a teacher in the public schools my siblings and I attended. In my Mother’s eyes, age was never a liability.
My Mother was a survivor since before she could walk and it’s how she lived her life for herself and for her children. She is our champion and the consistent voice in our head telling us that we could be the best in anything we did. Most people would consider this typical of an Asian Tiger Mom but for my mother, it was to show the naysayers and the hecklers that we could rise above our circumstance. Every essay we turned in, every science project we constructed, and every school club we signed up for carried the heavy weight of her demand that we give our best no matter what (and yes, sometimes that meant she expected straight A’s). Anything less than our best effort just wouldn’t be good enough. My Mother has taught me the importance of perseverance, to not just be a strong woman but a woman of strength, and to never be afraid to try something new.
So in light of her Birthday, I raise my glass to my Mom: a faithful champion, fighter, and survivor with a lioness tenacity to protect, defend, and encourage. The older I get, the more I realize that she was right all along…about nearly everything.
Happy Birthday, Mama...
(This blog post was originally posted in my previous blog site 4 years ago as an homage to my mother on Mother's Day. I've done some revisions. My mom celebrated her 74th Birthday on December 7).