I remember waking up to the sounds of machines beeping, people murmuring and an incoherent voice over the intercom. I opened my eyes and found myself surrounded by adults in white coats, shelves of patient files, and my mom hovering over me. The hospital laboratory staff, gathered around me as I woke up from my nap and they cooed in wonder, as if I was some baby born in a manger. But this wasn’t anything special. This was routine and at 9 p.m. it was finally time for me and my mom to go home.
Emigrating from the Philippines to the United States, my mom and I were strangers in a land filled with opportunity. Leaving the comfort of her career, our house, her family, our friends, and my father, my mom made the difficult decision to move to America hoping that some way, somehow, I could find success. I was five at the time, and for the few lonely and difficult years where it was just the two of us, my mom would dress and bring me to kindergarten in the morning and then take me to the hospital afterwards to complete my homework, have dinner together, and sleep in the laboratory break room as she worked two shifts to bring food to the table.
During that time, I kept to myself a lot, afraid to speak up because the English language was too daunting for my Tagalog tongue. I didn’t know it then, but she understood my shock when I couldn’t make friends as easily as I did back in the motherland; eventually my mom only spoke English in the house and encouraged me to do the same despite my protest at the challenge. As my understanding of the language improved, she finally brought me to the library telling me that the best way to keep learning is to never stop reading. After my first afternoon tryst with the written word in my town’s small public library, my mom presented me with my own library card. Subsequently, I would bring back a stack of books as often as I could, often failing to notice my mom’s own arsenal of language aids, dictionaries and thesauruses—always ready for her in case I ever struggled with the language.
Even now, my mom continues to be a never-ending source of superhero energy. My teacher, my tutor, my vocal coach, my best friend and my rock, from my youth, she fostered a spirit of academia in me, embedding the belief that I can never stop learning. In her I saw and still see the value of hard work, family and responsibility. She just finished her Master’s degree in Education and Health Sciences despite the hardships she has faced in light of my father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and working double shifts as a high school teacher and medical laboratory scientist. For me, it’s amazing how she still finds time to encourage me to take risks, go to Andrews University despite the cost and distance, and buy me at least one new book every Christmas because, as she always says, “you’re still not done growing.”
But she wasn’t always my hero. Sometimes she was the villainous force that threatened to take my freedom and fun away. Around the time I was seven, Mommy became someone I dreaded seeing when I returned home from school. In those days, the only thing I ever wanted to do was watch a little TV, read a few books or even play some video games—but not with my mother on duty. From the moment I stepped foot into the house, she would immediately escort me to piano and order me to practice, repeating her catchphrase: “If you can watch TV for an hour, surely you can practice for an hour too.” And I hated her. Mostly because she was right.
As I pressed each key and steadied my hands, the music I made, no matter how perfect or precise, always carried an underlying tone of fear. The penny balanced on the top of my outspread hands served as a constant reminder of discipline, form and parental supervision. I remember feeling my mother’s eyes hovering over me despite knowing that she was in the kitchen or in some other part of the house; she was always watching and listening, ready to give her critique on my posture or mistakes or something else that she could find error in. She was the bane of my pre-adolescent existence, a warden I was stuck with until I became an adult—a childhood prison of one-hour practice blocks, never-ending lectures and 8 p.m. curfews.
Transitioning into the teenage years carried with it its own baggage as well. At that time, home was two hours away from the big city, two hours away from the piano teacher, two hours away from our extended family and two hours away from Grandma in the hospital—two hours too far. In the year between eighth and ninth grade my grandma had been staying in the intensive care unit after a heart surgery and several strokes. Most of her children lived close to her hospital; my mom didn’t.
I first saw my mom cry when my grandmother died during my first year of high school. It was a full week of nothing, at least from her. Every day, my mother disappeared into the isolation of her room after work, and only reappeared to make sure the meals were prepared and that I was ready for school. No words. No lingering comments—just her ghostly presence nudging me in the right direction. The entire ordeal felt surreal as my mother became an ephemeral being—a fleeting image of her once vigorous self. In that week, our home felt empty but we carried on because life couldn’t and wouldn’t wait for us. And it was life and all its business that made her blame herself for Grandma’s death. “I worked too hard; I never spent enough time with her,” I heard her whisper once when I passed by her bedroom door. For a minute, I saw my mom shattered, broken and human—a human who never stopped moving despite her difficult circumstances, a woman who was stronger than a superhero, and a mother who learned just as much as she taught.
Tonight feels lonelier than most, and maybe a little angry too; the wind continues to howl outside and the lights keep flickering on and off. At some other point in my life I’d be scared, but there’s a solace that comes with age. Still, I find myself needing comfort under the duress of school, relationships and responsibilities. This paper I’m writing mocks me, cursor blinking on a blank white page, and I’m frustrated. It’s 9 p.m. now and I’m still anxious to find some inspiration, and then my phone vibrates—it’s Mommy. Immediately, my anxiety kicks in and I begin to ask myself: “is something wrong? What did Dad do this time? Is there an emergency? She never calls this late.” I take a pause and laugh, my God, I’m turning into my mom. I pick up the phone and when I hear her voice, I know I’ll be okay.