A Month After Mother's Day
As you know, I’ve been wearing glasses since kindergarten and even though Dad is always trying to get me to take them off for picture taking, you’ll see that I’ve managed to keep them on in almost every photo. In my developmental years my glasses were a part of my identity. I was that girl with the ponytail and glasses. I revelled in being identifiable as if my glasses gave me a reputation. I remember when I was in fourth grade and first started writing an action adventure novel, the main character was basically a Mary Sue version of myself (even writers have to start somewhere, ok) and her two main features were her long black ponytail and her glasses.
It’s been a long time since 4th grade. I cut my hair and I’ve kept it short. I bought contact lenses. I even started wearing them.
I don’t like mirrors very much. Seeing myself always unsettles me, but not in the “oh, I’m ugly” kind of way. I just don’t recognize my own features. That cognitive dissonance between how I think I look and how I actually look weirds me out so I don’t own any mirrors and I rarely look into one. Despite that, I saw myself in the bathroom mirror the other day. I saw myself, with my not quite shoulder length hair and my face unobstructed by my glasses. I recognized the face that I saw in the mirror. It was near identical to the face I’ve often seen in the photo albums Dad keeps in our living room cabinets. I’ve gone through those photo albums so many times before because I enjoy peering into those captured moments of my dad’s life before me and my brother, enough times that when I saw my reflection I looked away instantly. In my bathroom mirror, Mom, I saw your face. And that scared the hell out of me.
There aren’t a lot of stories about people like you or people like me in the media. Maybe that’s why I was always reading, to try to find similarities between myself and the characters in every story, to try and understand what I was experiencing. Maybe that’s why I started writing, to bridge the gaps between the stories that I lived but could never find and the stories that actually existed. Or was it to build bridges as if something existed on the other side?
In stories about cancer patients, the onlookers sitting by the bedside always talk about how disturbed they feel when their loved ones are slowly shrinking and morphing in front of their eyes as the illness changes their physical form. They talk about being unable to look at the transformation, the visual reality of being sick.
Those photo albums are mostly filled with pictures of you. Then eventually, me and my brother start becoming the focus, but even then it’s mostly pictures of us. In the early days when you were still living in Maryland, my dad must’ve made you pose a thousand times. Or were you the one who was always stopping him and making him take pictures of you? In those photos of pre pregnancy days you looked so calm and really, quite beautiful. I know that my brother and I got our genetically blessed facial features mostly from you (sorry Dad). There’s photographic proof that you were very beautiful, standing by the Delaware River in your tan colored fall coat. Maybe that’s why when I picture you in my mind I think of the way you looked in those pictures rather than the way you look now.
Mother’s Day was last month. I didn’t call you. There’s a lot to unpack in those two sentences and I don’t know where to start. To begin at the beginning would be...taking the easy way out. So I’ll begin with this year’s Mother’s Day. I didn’t call you. In fact, this year I barely thought of you at all. In the last five years or so, I’ve been trying a new tactic with handling Mother’s Day and that’s to focus on someone else. Instead of letting the day feel heavy, weighed down by constant reminders that others have mothers who they can celebrate or write heartfelt Facebook posts about, I have been teaching myself to use this arbitrary day to appreciate the mother figure in my life who was there for me when you weren’t.
I’m trying to be as open and neutral and maybe even kind about everything I want to say to you, but there’s just no way for me to put this without it sounding harsh. You weren’t there. Luckily for me, someone else was.
I’m proud of how I’ve been handling Mother’s Day recently. When I was in high school they would issue us agendas for us to keep track of our homework assignments. The agenda also had most major holidays marked just like a normal calendar is marked. Each year as May approached I would see the reminder for Mother’s Day and black it out with a sharpie so I wouldn’t have to look at it. I remember this clearly because in Junior year, my friend noticed the hand drawn redaction in my agenda and asked me why I had blacked out such an innocuous holiday.
Mothers are revered in every culture, probably because of their role in both childbirth and antiquated household roles. Celebrate your mother because she literally created you. Celebrate your wife because she created your children. Celebrate the matriarch because without her, most of your households would probably have collapsed and combusted at this point. Take one day out of three hundred and sixty five to make her breakfast and show your appreciation for her back breaking work. Take her out for dinner and give her a glitter covered card so that she knows she hasn’t been completely forgotten amidst the hustle and bustle of your own career (this applies to both husbands and children who have grown up to be working professionals).
Since you are a Taiwanese Buddhist like myself then you know that every year, Mother’s Day is also Buddha’s birthday.
Strict Buddhists live a vegetarian lifestyle. Unlike the rest of your family, you were never as strict with your dietary habits, but I remember you used to practice a custom every year where you were vegetarian from May to June, the time period between my brother’s birthday and mine. To you it was a way of celebrating and showing your thanks to the universe for gifting you with your beloved children, or so I imagined. I didn’t get a chance to ask you for your reasoning, but then you stopped and it was too late.
What did you lose after giving birth to your children? Through rough estimates and morsels of information from Dad, I have some theories about how and when you started to change. Soon after my brother was born, you had to deal with the stress of moving again for Dad’s career. You found yourself in a new state with no friends and no particular plan to make any. You were trapped in our modest townhouse with two young children and brain preparing to turn itself against you.
I have been told by relative after relative that the most important priority for the eldest child is to “help your mother,” “take care of your brother,” and “be an obedient girl”. Sometimes I am glad that my memories as a very young child are foggy and out of focus. Sometimes I am very afraid. What if the day that everything started to change was set off by a tiny, unhelpful, disobedient elder sister who was just a child. What if she thought she was just a little girl and didn’t realize she was actually a butterfly with dangerous wings?
Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder of the brain, setting it apart from the other, more well known mood disorders such as depression or bipolar. The first time I encountered schizophrenia in the media was in a high school health class where the teacher played A Beautiful Mind, the dramatized biopic about the mathematician John Nash and his struggle with schizophrenia. Since that in class screening I have not tried to watch the movie again, but certain scenes have stuck to my memory. When Nash started leaving his letters at a drop off point created by his delusion, letters that no one ever picked up or read, I felt my story converge with someone else’s story in a way that made me want to empty my guts onto the ugly blue carpet of the classroom. Then, at the scene when Nash was subjected to electroshock therapy a horrible feeling overcame me. The feeling became a fully formed thought and that thought gave me such overwhelming guilt that it clumped together into a heavy, inescapable stone that settled deep into my stomach. It was the first time someone else’s story had no need for any kind of bridge in order to reach my own, but rather than feeling relief, I felt nauseated.
In the scene where John Nash is sent to a mental institution and strapped to a chair, the audience is meant to feel pity for him. While watching him thrash about and howl in agony, one is supposed to think, how awful, how inhumane. No matter how ill he is, the sympathetic new advocates of mental health awareness agree, he doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment.
At sixteen, full of rage and loneliness, I honestly thought: I wish that could’ve happened to you.
I haven’t told anyone this until now, but I found one of your old “journals” while cleaning up around the house. Should I be thankful that in your delusions you believed you were communicating with English speakers: the President of the United States, the Princes of various European countries, even Warren Buffet. This was during the peak of the Great Recession and you had so much to say about the rising and falling of the stock market. Your interest in economics spilled out from inside of you and turned into desperately scrawled words, which at the time was advice in hopes of improving the international economy. Now it is a tangible proof of an intelligence you once carried inside of you, a deep well filled with your curiosity and ambition. Did the source of that spring run dry or did you give it all away?
What did you lose after giving birth to your children?
I’m sorry if I’m asking too many questions. As I’ve gotten more comfortable with writing this, I realize there are just so many things I wish I could go back and ask you. Let me now try, instead, to ask a question to the present you. Do you remember the attic door right outside of my bedroom? It was the kind of door that’s really a rectangle cut from the ceiling with a single cord hanging subtly above our heads as we go about our day. The kind of door that we label as one that leads to an attic when really there is no attic, just a field of pink fluffy insulation and sometimes a nest of pests that Dad has to get rid of. Over time I’ve learned that every house has different attic doors. Some like ours, have ladders. Others don’t. Some are hidden in closets or tucked away in the corner of a bedroom while ours is out in the open, in the hallway of the second floor, right outside of my bedroom. Do you remember that attic door, the one you can pull down before unfolding the ladder that’s attached? The one that started to creak loudly every time it was opened or closed because of how often it was being pulled down then pushed back up. The one that broke because it wasn’t meant to be opened and closed multiple times a day for months on end. I remember that attic door. The sound of its creaking, the gentle thud when it was fully open, the much louder sound it made when you pushed it up towards the ceiling to slam it shut. Do you remember?
In your letters, in parts I tried to focus on less, there were also declarations of love for men you’ve never met. Your handwriting grew frantic with pleas for help that you were so intensely certain would be read by the people your letters were addressed to.
When I first found them, I thought I would grow closer to you by running my fingers over those crisp journal pages. I thought I could somehow absorb the emotions you poured into your writing and pretend those emotions were meant for me. The ivory paper, its color preserved by the shadows in which it had stayed hidden for all those years, seemed expensive. In fact, the whole journal looked expensive, like the kinds of journals at Barnes and Nobles I would always admire but never even think to buy. I wondered then how many more beautiful, expensive, journals had been filled with your delicate, spidery handwriting. How many of those journals that I coveted as a child, did you buy for yourself and then discard.
While cleaning, I also found a birthday card in the corner of my room. A cheap Hallmark purchase with a cheap Hallmark message. The only thing in your handwriting was the date and your name. The intimacy and sincerity that I had experienced while reading your journal felt like a fever dream. A delusion of my own.
How many letters did you write to the ghosts in our attic?
You are still alive, but I feel as if I am writing this letter to a ghost.
I have tried to tell your story, our story, over and over and over. First in a screenplay, in an outpour of teenage frustration and bitterness. It was the first screenplay I ever tried to write, the one that carried me to college where I kept writing. My freshman year I attempted a play told from the husband's perspective. My way of trying to understand. Then I tried again, this time with countless poems that turned into lyrics that turned into songs. I was reproachful, regretful; first, trying to understand until it became too much. I turned around instantly. I tried instead to not understand, but it was too late. Once a reader's thoughts have been ensnared by a story, it is too late. Our mind cannot escaped once its been lured in by unanswered questions and overtaken by unfinished fragments of lives. Our spirit chains itself to what is basically another spirit, a life of its own. Even after we've bookmarked the page and put it away, we still feel the narrative of someone else's story reaching out from its temporary home on our desks or in our bags. Even when we put it aside, knowing we have other more urgent things to focus on, we've already made the mistake of beginning and the call to continue what we have started is too strong to ignore. You've touched my pages, it whispers to you with a trickle down your spine, I've touched your deepest sense of being. I must be finished.
Mom, you once held me closer than anyone else ever held me. Once, I crawled under the covers to join you on the sprawling California king bed that dad bought for the two of you. My tummy ached with sharp stabbing pains, more than my tiny body could bear, and as a result I reached to you for comfort. In this singular memory I have of your embrace, of the feeling of your arms, you wrapped your body around mine and rubbed my abdomen, your hand moved in slow, soothing circular motions with the faintest pressure until my breathing became steady and deep.
Mom, from all those years where you carried and held me, all I have left is a few brief moments in the darkness of the night. Mere minutes in which I didn't even get to see your face. Yet I cling to that memory now with urgency and desperation because without it I feel that your motherhood will fade away as well. As much as I've renounced you in my words and actions there is still a faint glowing ember inside of me that is still willing to call you mom. No matter how many times I write about characters with dysfunctional mothers, each one of those characters will still try to reconcile. This is not an obligation I feel as a daughter, but an obligation as someone who has felt like a mother to the boy who was supposed to be her sibling. As someone who fed her friends as best as she could, provided them homes because their parents couldn't, and willingly takes in every and any person feeling lonely or lost. As someone who has tried her best to be the ultimate mother because she knows how it feels to lack one. As someone who might actually become a literal mother in the future and who will love her children no matter who she might become. I feel obligated to still call you my mother, to tend to the ashy, dying embers of what was once a child’s love. Even if I never understand the way you see the world I can understand at least this much: a mother who tried as hard as you once did deserves a child who tries to give a second chance.
I am scared of becoming you, Mom. I live in constant fear of the reflection I see in the mirror. But if your daughter can still try to call you her mom, can still gently blow on that last lump of coal inside of her so that it stays warm, so that it continues to glow with something she might try to call love, then maybe the ones who she holds closer than anything she’s ever held will try to love her no matter who or what she becomes.
Gini Chang is a Taiwanese American playwright, screenwriter, poet, lyricist, and prose writer. Gini was very fortunate as a child because she grew up surrounded by storytellers in both her family and her community. She was raised with stories that share joy as well as fables that taught lessons. As a result, she considers herself first and foremost a reader and a listener. She is also passionate about writing stories that explore intergenerational conflicts, mental healthcare, and education. With her writing she wants to reach out to American audiences that she feels have been neglected up until very recently- the audiences that look like her as well as the audiences who feel or think the way she does. Gini is currently working on a musical based on a Chinese folktale about the most infamous woman in China, the villainous Pan Jin Lian who cheated on then later murdered her husband, or so they say. She is also writing a collection of horror short stories and producing an album of original music. Gini loves storytelling and what she wants most of all is to have the opportunity to meet new people to help her learn how to tell her stories in more exciting ways and to work together with in order to help them share their stories as well.