Inay, I’m done. Thank you.
Inay, I’m done. Thank you.
I’ve always been evasive when I write about love, if not metaphorical. It’s probably because it’s both my greatest strength and weakness. Somebody asked me one day what my strongest motivation in life was. And I came to the conclusion that it was love. It sounded so cliché at that time and I kept it to myself – because to me, people wouldn’t understand the depth of what I mean when I say that. That it didn’t mean I was in love with life. That it meant during my lowest points, it was love that saved me. Even when it was love that threatened to destroy me in the first place. That I consciously take care of my friends out of love, even when sometimes it’s easier and fairer to let go of them. That I am capable of inflicting much more pain on people who have inflicted pain on me, but I stop myself out of love. That my head and heart can sometimes be full of darkness, but I never let it out because I’m scared people will not be able to love me if they see that side of me. That I try my best to appear like the love I have in my life is enough, but the truth is I crave for a love that I might never find because I’m a complicated wreck brimming with an excess of intense feelings and emotions.
I’ve rarely prayed or wished for love, because I always assumed the universe already knew that was what I wanted the most. It felt so self-serving to have to repeat it in some form. I’ve gone through so many painful lessons in love now but even during the most heartbreaking ones, I’m always amazed that even after promising to completely shut love out of my life, it always somehow finds a way to come back. It comes back to remind me that it’s what gives my life meaning, whether that love soothes me or hurts me.
I’ve been completely conscious of the fact that it’s currently April. Yet a separate consciousness of me which keeps track of important family milestones was preparing for Mother’s Day this weekend. The mistake only dawned on me when I decided to check for the exact date, wondering why there hasn’t been enough fanfare for it on social media.
I’ve honestly been so busy lately that I’ve been thinking of you less. It’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life that I’m living through. There is a glut of things I have to figure out in moving forward in my life, and it leaves less time for my mind to wander. But you broke into my consciousness the night after my job interview. At that time, I hadn’t known that I would get that job. I had a vivid dream of the two of us, walking along a road I used to drive for you. Whenever you wanted to buy something for the house, when you had to go to your office, when you needed to go to the hospital. I was struggling to carry you behind my back. Not because you were too heavy, but because in my dream you were paralyzed from the waist down. I was scared I would drop you and cause you harm. It was the same fear I had watching you at the hospital bed one Christmas day, fully aware that you were dying. Yet while in the hospital your face wore a permanent grimace from all the inflicted pain to ironically keep you alive, in my dream you were smiling and even cracking a joke about how you could still flail your arms. Desperate to let you know, I kept telling you that I love you. In that hospital bed, I don’t even know if you remembered me anymore. But in my dream, you told me you knew. “I know”, with a smile. And that was the point I woke up.
You may not be on my mind the whole day. But you’ll always occupy my heart, whatever that construct is.
I fished out this photo from Facebook but I was hoping I could get the higher resolution copy. I opened my old hard drive and was disappointed to see that the one I brought here only goes back to 2012. This was in 2011, and that older hard drive was something I had left behind.
Heartbreaks can take many forms. It can be in a dark parking lot, sobbing inside a car in the arms of your newly minted former lover. It can be in a bedroom, surrounded by messed up bed linens with a liter of dried-up tears. It can even be a crisp sheet of paper, explaining a regretful decision and nothing much else.
For me today, it was inside the room of my boss for a year and my professor for 4 years, explaining to him that I had decided to move on from research after he had just surprised me with a meeting to tell me about an opportunity to continue working with him. I wasn’t prepared for that conversation, and from his face I figured he wasn’t prepared for my answer either. I had thought about this decision over and over, ever since I had accepted my current position. I had imagined it in my mind, how I would rebel against the impractical decision of not renewing my contract even if I did not have a new job to move to. I was sure of that decision, at least that’s what I felt. But in that moment that I struggled to explain to him that I felt I wasn’t cut for research, I backtracked internally and wondered if I was committing a mistake. If I really wanted to leave the wonderful family and friends I found in my labmates, and if I was really destined for more and not merely blinded by the infamous millenial propensity to keep looking for greener pastures. As I looked at how my boss slumped into his seat when I said I had made up my mind, it occured to me how much I had grown to appreciate him and this place. The same place that I felt tormented my mind and my soul. The same person I felt could have done better in guiding me during my PhD. I reminded myself that it was natural to feel this wave of nausea, it was something I had to get over and done with. Life is a long stitch of impermanent situations. I was grateful, but it was time to go. I just didn’t expect to tell him today. I wanted to tell him so many things, but the thought of him having had gone through so much better students leaving him stopped me. He’ll find someone much better. I walked out of his room apologetically in a daze at how life would throw me this curveball on the day of my first serious job interview.
On the train ride going to the company I had been recently pinning my hopes on as my ticket out of academia, instead of going through the material I had printed out to review, I found myself opening the email attachment with my book manuscript about my mom to stop myself from repeating the conversation with my boss in my mind. The publishing house I had submitted it to had not replied either, I had been banking on the promised “within 3 months”, but it’s been several weeks past that. I read through a few pages and stopped right before I teared up. It would take a couple of minutes to clear off red eyes. The last thing I wanted to do was show up for that interview looking sorry. Strangely, it brought me a calming wave. Knowing how my mom would have handled the wreck of nerves I currently had (she wouldn’t have shown it the slightest), I told myself out loud “I am my mother”. A couple of times. I thought there was no one beside me on the escalator, until a man walked up past me. I guess he knows who I am now.
I arrived a few minutes too early at the place so I bought a cup of tea at Starbucks and found myself seated in between a guy reading about batch chemical reactors and a girl with her color palette spread out as she lay-outed a website. Impeccable timing for my life choices to haunt me. This is happening, I would just have to deal with the consequence of my now verbalized decision.
Including this heartbreak.
I’m trying to remember you, before we both became much older and much recent. And I realized, I’ve never really talked to you.
Ama always used to say that I was your favorite over my brother. Whether it was because I looked more Chinese, or because I was born on the year of the Dragon, it was an unearned favor. Perhaps it was an entirely different reason. Most of our photos together were from a time I remember distinctly, yet they were long ago – before I reached eight. Looking at the photos often helped as I have always been fond of dusting off old albums and reminiscing every photo on lazy summer days, but I remember those moments for other things more than you. As a young girl then, I remember them for the adventures with Tita Anna, for the ribbon spaghetti of Mama Mila, for the hotel swimming pools and private club tennis courts, for the chandeliers and the fiber optic lights in your living room, and for whatever else imprinted memory of that period. They are several but they are limited. If I think about that time, my memory of you is often at the periphery, constantly smiling, constantly looking, but with little words in between. For many reasons I have understood yet not completely comprehended, for they matter not much to me today, we had even less memories as I grew up. When age gave me the knowledge of social classes and social structures, the consciousness of something atypical about our granddaughter-grandfather relationship became apparent. Being an introvert and a shy person, I often retreated behind my parents’ shadow whenever we had family dinners. Yet I remember you as nothing but a smiling and kind grandfather. As a person of opulence and wealth, yet a somewhat separate entity from what I considered family. I probably would not have drawn you had I been asked to draw my family in school. You always looked on me with kindness and happiness, yet you were unlike Lolo who would constantly rave and brag about my academic achievements. You, on the other hand, often held your silence. I wondered if you knew exactly what I do, or what you thought of it. I took your smile as an approval. It’s unlike me to start conversations, but when we both got older, I tried a little bit more. But I don’t think we ever got past much of the mundane things, my brother was much better at it. Yet I always had a lot in mind, perhaps you did too. Maybe we both weren’t fond of small talk and knew the more important things to talk about were things better left unsaid.
When Inay was slowly passing away, I saw how much more time you devoted for her. During her wake, you were an old man who wasn’t expected to sit so long in a memorial chapel, yet almost every day you went. You sat right in front of her casket, never complaining of anything but simply grieving the reality of losing. It was after this period that you talked to us more, constantly reminding us the importance of prayer and family – things we never even talked about before. You’d always surprise us every single visit, getting up after long bouts of being unable to rise from your bed, just to join us in a meal and tell us with no end how our presence made you so happy. Always. Repeatedly. I’m thankful to my dad for always prodding us to do more. To sing you Christmas carols and go to Church with you together. If it wasn’t for him, these memories before you passed away would have never been possible. Inay understandably never encouraged us to do anything for you. Regretfully it was still a little time for me, as I was already based in Singapore. Those times were sparing, squeezed on days before or after reaching the airport, and rushed on the limitation of distance, time and the reality of traffic. There are many little things I remember about you, like your perennial glass of Coke Light, your habit of wearing polos most of the time, and how you rolled your “r” whenever you said my brother’s name. Yet I know most things about you will be best remembered by Mama Mila and Tita Anna. The other things that I know of you, I know from other people. Things that happened in the past, things that were unknown to me as they happened, things that I will never understand, but things that will never change what you mean to me. While some of those are difficult to fathom and could betray my respect for you, I would rather accept the kindness that I knew of you. If it was part of all the good you did in this life, I hope you know that I recognize them as such. That I learned what I could from you and will take those lessons with me to do better in this world. For all the other pain you caused, I can only pray you’ve asked for pardon and that they’ve forgiven you.
It’s funny how people often look the same to us, no matter how much time goes by. But memory is sometimes a treacherous thing, they lead us to beliefs of suspended time and limitless opportunities. You simply became much too older, there was no denying it. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to witness still a substantial part of your life – to be part of your legacy in this world. Whenever people tell me I look Chinese, you’re always the reason I give why. Thank you, Grandpa.
I’m not good at making small talk – making conversation about mundane things. I struggle when my mind’s a blank and there is nothing conceivably genuinely interesting to talk about. These struggles often happen when I go for a haircut, ride a cab, take a lift with a half-stranger, and among other things, to tell my story today: when I go for a facial. That was where I first met Rebecca. I had recently escaped the wretched cycle of hard-selling from the two previous facial centers I had been going to. Naturally, I was wary of Rebecca when I first met her. She proved me wrong, she wasn’t that chatty to begin with. On our first session, she didn’t ask me to buy anything. I expected it on the second session, but the third and the fourth came without any question if I wanted to buy a new package or perhaps try a new product. I was finally free of the cycle. But the small talk, I needed to bear it. Because she was everything I wanted in a facial specialist, I made an effort to make conversation. It was strange in the beginning, I felt her strong compulsion to adhere to her stereotypes. She asked me about my work, my salary, my working hours – things I didn’t think were exactly pleasant to talk about. It didn’t help that she wasn’t familiar with a PhD is so I had to constantly downplay my life stories to “school”. Gradually and strangely, I found myself drawn to her. I realized, or at least want to think, that she actually tried to be friendly to me even if she herself wasn’t comfortable at it. She always tried to make conversation, even if it was both a struggle for us. She did extra procedures for me without me asking, and was actually very accommodating even if she came across as stern. I realized our innate cultural difference could be the basic reason why there was a seeming disconnect between us, but I surprised myself because I reached out to close that gap more than I usually would.
Last Saturday, during my first facial for the year, I gave her a box of cookies since the new year and the upcoming chinese new year were a great excuse for my gesture of gratitude. That’s another thing I’ve never been comfortable about. I’ve always felt conscious of being openly generous, for reasons I have not fully made sense of. I don’t like making people feel like they owe me anything when I give something. I fidget when people say “thank you”, even if it warms my heart. Just like when people give me compliments – I both abhor and like it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that giving gifts ranks the lowest in my love languages. In any case, it was easier to do that than tell Rebecca something sentimental. Right after our session, I offhandedly handed it to her just as she was about to leave the room. I already knew her for more than a year at this point, and had predicted her cool reaction upon receiving it with a simple thank you. We went through the accustomed routine of asking my signature for that session and scheduling the next. We said goodbye as usual. But somehow deep inside, I knew she understood what I meant to say.
That I simply wanted to say thank you.
I had taken to writing my 2018 goals this evening when I found myself trying to recall what I wrote last time. I had written one last year, not that I had the habit of writing every year. Last year just happened to be one of the years I did. I taped that piece of paper literally on top of my bed. In the position I figured would be leveled to my face if I was perfectly supine, back when I was still living in the student dorm. I had planned to see it before I slept every night, to reinforce my hopes into plans. And perhaps turn those plans into reality. I had probably stared at it longest on nights when I was farthest from what I had written. Truthfully, most nights last year I was too exhausted or preoccupied to have looked at it – I had little time to lay on the bed and admire my ceiling with the lights on. Most nights that year, I turned off my lights and headed straight to bed after cleaning up, in that order. And as the tendency with most things constantly around us, we lose consciousness of their presence with time. They blend into the habitual, their initial value fades. We forget their presence and underestimate their worth. What was once a shiny goal sheet had become a piece of paper I would only sometimes notice again. And the times I noticed it, I would always wonder if I would fail the year’s resolutions again.
Yet I was overcome with sudden gratitude. Finishing my thesis was definitely the first thing I had written there. I had received my PhD degree right at the beginning of this year. To write “that” book, which I had no idea of what it was to be about at that point in time, was also one of the things I had included there. And I printed the manuscript for a piece I had written for my mom at the end of last year. It was a small 60 pages, but those memories were precious. And while I had written India as a travel goal, I went to Nepal instead. Perhaps I should put something else just in case it works that way for dream places? The weight goal was something I never achieved because I had written (a perhaps unrealistic) 50 kg. Weight-lifting didn’t help. In any case, last year was the most consistent I had been in exercising. There were weeks I ticked 6 out of the 7 days. Though December was a complete fitness fail – nothing like the remnants of a holiday to motivate you into going back strong to the gym life.
I feel like I wrote something else, something along the lines of smile more often or be a better person. But it escapes me now. Interestingly, the ones I remembered were the actual goals instead of general reinforcements.
In hindsight, I never consciously pursued those things I wrote. The thesis was the only exception. It was a glaring, shouting, insistent milestone anyway to begin with. I had moved out of the dorm by July and had not posted the goal sheet in my new room. Needless to say, that goal sheet was out of sight and had long been forgotten when I actually finished my PhD, started writing the book, redirected my frustrations to exercise the most often and decided on a spur of the moment that I was going to Nepal. If it had worked its way successfully into my subconscious can be argued, but I was nevertheless thankful and awed at how things just somehow turned out fine in the end. My 2017 was far from perfect, it broke my heart in so many places, in places I doubt will ever heal again. In the same way, it gave me back so much – my faith, in so many things. I wasn’t able to finish writing my 2018 goals tonight because I ended up writing this post instead. But tonight’s gratitude was hard-earned, and it is but comforting to remember that however big my doubts and fears were when 2017 began, it had somehow worked out in the end. As with all dark periods. Dear reader, please remember that.