For most of my life, I didn’t believe that my mother was my real parent. I told myself that perhaps my father had an affair with a younger woman who had died from childbirth, and that my mother, out of moral obligation or familial duty, must have agreed to raise me as her own.
To a child with an active imagination, it was the simplest way to explain the level of detachment that I felt in our relationship.
When I came along as her last child, my mother was 38. Not entirely maternal, she worked as a street vendor selling homemade foods when my father wasn’t able to keep a job. But everywhere I looked in our small village in Vietnam, I saw tender-hearted women who gave up everything to raise their children, and to maintain their households, and who were generous with their hugs and kisses. My mother was the opposite. I felt resentful and alone, wanting what other children my age had — a mother who was present.
If our relationship had been fractured since I was young, my father’s death only drove us further apart.
My father and I were very close. I was his youngest and only daughter. He died from cancer two months before my high-school graduation, unable to fulfill a promise he had made to me. His passing was devastating, not least because I was growing up and getting ready to go out into the world.
My mother wept openly and loudly, making the grandiose gestures that are expected of grieving women in South Vietnamese culture. I, on the other hand, was always the quiet one. As an introvert, I found it difficult to explain to her that I preferred to grieve alone and process my loss internally.
My apparent lack of emotion infuriated my mother. For 17 years, on every anniversary of my father’s death, she would casually mention that another year had gone by, and how sad she was, and how mad she was at me for not acknowledging his passing or how I felt about it.
Facing my mother’s expectations, I felt that nothing I did pleased her.
We moved to Portland, Ore., in 1995. The years went by. I was 28. Without realizing it, I had become a working parent myself.
In an attempt to reconnect, I invited my mother to live with our family when my first child was born in 2013. She had been living nomadically, hopping from one place to another, with people she met through her church; we needed childcare. My mother agreed, and continued to live with us until my daughter was almost two years old. In that time, raising my daughter together defined the extent of our relationship, which remained fragmented. My mother moved out in 2015 to live with my brother.
It was April 2020 when my mother called me out of nowhere. She asked me to drive her around town to run a few errands. She was diagnosed with cancer in October 2019, and a physician advised her to stop driving while she received treatment.
I said yes. She was lonely, I figured, and I had time on my hands, having lost my job early into the pandemic. At first, it was a simple trip with a driver-rider efficiency. My mother never had the gift of gab, but slowly, over trips to grocery stores, food pantries and the bank, she opened up. I began to see my mother in a different light.
Her life was dictated from the moment she was born a female in a tiny village in Northern Vietnam. She was denied an education and came of age during the tumult of the Vietnam War, and went on to survive famine, fertility issues and several surgeries in her youth. At 17, she was arranged to marry my father. At first, she began working outside of the home out of financial necessity; later, it became a way to exert her independence.
Perhaps I hadn’t paid enough attention to how she was able to make it work with so little, and started to realize how much wisdom I had gained from her subtle ways. I began to understand that she shows her love not through hugs and kisses, but through her actions. She paid for part of my college education and stepped in to help me with childcare when I needed it most. Most importantly, she remained steadfast in her strong work ethic and belief in family, despite facing cancer and loss. These are the values that I will carry on in my life and into my children’s lives. My mother is the strongest woman I know.
My mother recently celebrated her 73rd birthday (and six months cancer-free). Spending time together over the past eight months has allowed for more communication and understanding between us. Our phone calls grew longer and more personal. Her voice is more animated, her tone dulcet. I look forward to seeing her face, if only through video on some days, with my smiling kids next to me. My kids genuinely love her, and she adores them.
When I complained about my mother’s work as a child, I remember her constant reply: “Someday, when you have children, you’ll understand.” Now I finally do.
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