My mother and I had a volatile relationship. She had a hair-trigger temper when it came to me, and when she became angry, she lashed out, striking me with whatever she could grab (frying pan, cutting board, belt). If nothing was close at hand, she'd grab handfuls of my hair and bang my head into the nearest wall, or kick my thighs. The violence ebbed after a few strikes, to be followed by hours, days or weeks of silence. If I kept up with my chores the way I was supposed to, I was rewarded with silence. I envied my younger sisters their ability to climb into her lap and cuddle with her, and longed to feel those arms around me, hugging me close. Her only means of affection for many years were to allow me to kiss her on the cheek. When I hugged her, her arms remained at her sides. When I said, "I love you, Mommy," she'd reply, "Me, too."
I don't remember when I first incurred her violent anger. I have flashes of affection from my younger years; the most vivid, lying on a couch with my head in her lap, while she gently stroked my hair. I think I was six. I'm told she was very affectionate when I was a baby and toddler, and photos back that up. showing me dressed up to the hilt and my mother, equally fashionable, posing with me. Photos show a charmed life and maybe it was. I only remember bits of my childhood, during which our family dynamic changed, twice. The first change came when my older brother and sister joined our family. This happened when I was four (I think), while my father was in Vietnam. One day, I had an older brother and sister. They were my mother's children from a previous marriage, and my father adopted them so we could be one big happy family. Within the next three years, our family had grown again, as my two younger sisters entered the world. In a space of four years, I went from being an only child, to the youngest of three, to the middle of five.
By all accounts, and for as long as I, myself, can remember, I've been a handful. I took, "don't do that" as a dare to, in fact, do just that. I once fell, chest-deep, into a clay pot filled with kimchi because I had to figure out just how deep that pot was (it was buried in the ground, with only the lid showing). Another time, I took one of my dad's razors and tried to peel off my fingerprints because I didn't like them. I melted a box of crayons on a space heater, to see how long it would take the solid wax to begin breaking down from the heat. I spoke and acted without thinking, then made up incredible tall tales to try to avoid being scolded or punished.
Sometime after we moved, en masse, from Korea back to the US, the rages began. I can't pinpoint the first one. From our time in the US, they seem to have always been part of my life. The rages also had a soundtrack of admonitions, recriminations and threats. The most common: "Why can't you be like (older brother), (older sister)? They never cause me any trouble." "Why can't you do anything right?" "What's wrong with you?" "What did I do to deserve such a child?" and my favorites: "One day, your father and I are going to get divorced, and everyone will know it's your fault." "One day, I'm going to die, and everyone's going to know it's your fault." I believed every word she said, and promised her (and myself) that I would do better. But those promises only lasted a few days, at best.
Things got worse when we moved to Germany just shy of my 13th birthday. High school, hormones and constant tension at home. I couldn't seem to stay out of trouble. I couldn't seem to just do what I needed to do to maintain silence (aka: peace) in the home. Years later, a therapist helped me figure out that I pushed her buttons to get attention from her. I craved more than the silence that accompanied me walking the straight and narrow, doing the chores I needed to do, not sneaking out of the house while my mother was at work or league bowling, often imploring (or bribing) my younger sisters to remain silent. She always found out, though, and I knew she would, and the punishment would come.
Days after each rage, I'd come home from school to find a gift of some sort on my bed; magazines I'd been coveting, clothes, cash to buy a favorite album. At the time, this confused me. I later learned this was her way of apologizing. During this time, I had taken to closing myself up in my closet and screaming into my clothes. Sometimes, I ripped a piece of closing to shreds, or ripped up a book, or smashed an album into pieces. I wrote short stories filled with anger and murder, always of the contract-killing type. At school, I released anger by punching lockers, the wall, and one time, my best friend. Once, I cut a blouse she had given me to pieces so tiny, they resembled cotton snow. I remember sitting in my closet with a pair of my mom's hair-cutting scissors, laboring over each tiny snip of the blouse. When she found the remains of the blouse and the scissors (I hadn't thrown them away, but stashed them in a bag in the corner of my closet), she grabbed the scissors and rushed at me. I don't know whether she would have stabbed me with them. I didn't wait to find out. Instead, I ran. Out of our apartment, out of our building and up the street, stopping when I reached a friend's apartment. My best friend lived in my stairwell, but I was afraid to go to her place because it would be too easy to make me come home. The friend whose house I did run to, took me in and convinced her parents to let me stay with them. I was there for a few days, going to school in clothes borrowed from her. After several days, my father came to talk to me. We both cried and he convinced me to come home. My mother stopped hitting me after that, but the soundtrack continued, with the same general message: "You're a fuck up." "What did I do to deserve you." "You'll put me in my grave." By this time, I believed that I would never amount to anything good, so why even try. However, I found her stoic silences more hurtful than the physical attacks or the soundtrack. To this day, I have a really hard time with anyone giving me the silent treatment.
There were also good times during these years - family drives around the German countryside, trips to Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. I got to go to Spain twice (once for spring break and once for graduation trip). I got to go to (then) West Berlin as a sophomore, and Wiesbaden as a junior, after being selected as being one of the top tenors among DOD students in Europe. But these good times didn't come without stress and tension, because I continued pushing her buttons. I couldn't seem to stop myself.
Once we moved back to the US, I left home to live in New York City. I moved home twice during this time; once while looking for new work and a new apartment, the other, to recover from a pretty serious drug addiction.Although there was still stress, the tension seemed begin thawing. My lack of money-saving skills frustrated her, but I began to understand she was scared about whether I could take care of myself. I always managed to scrape by (and still do), but there was no foundation on which I could rely, should I get into financial trouble. I learned she only trusted me to take her to New York City, when she had to renew her visa. My older sister, who had lived in NYC much longer than I, offered to take her, but she said she preferred I take her, because I knew the "streets" better. That day was one of the happiest I remember having with her. Her visa renewal would take several hours, so we went to lunch, then went "shopping" at Bloomingdale's, one of her favorite stores.
We didn't start to mend our relationship until I moved to Alabama. Our phone conversations became less one sided. After several years, she began asking me to come home, but I couldn't afford it, or my schedule wouldn't allow it. She let me babble on about my work and I learned later that she was happy I had found a career I liked; that I was no longer "Queen of the Part Time Jobs," as she'd dubbed me during my NYC years, when I couldn't seem to hold onto a job for longer than a year.
Living so far away from home, my parents didn't tell me that my mom was getting sick. Very sick. My older sister flew me home one Thanksgiving to surprise our mother, who had taken to asking me to come home, more and more. She was happy to see me, and hugged me tightly (this is the first and last hug I ever remember). The food was bland because of her liver issues, and she seemed to tire easily, but this was a good evening. This was also the last time I saw her.
The last time I spoke with my mom was the day she was flown by medical helicopter from New Jersey to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one of the few hospitals in the US at the time that performed liver transplants. The phone conversation was very brief, but the message was one my mother had reportedly wanted to tell me for a while:
Mom: "I love you. Everything I did was to make you stronger, better."
Me: "Shh... save your strength. We have plenty of time to talk about this. I love you, Mommy."
Mom: "Me, too."
The following day, my father called me from my mother's hospital room at UPMC and said she couldn't talk because she was on a respirator, but she wanted me to know she loved me very much. Something sounded wrong about this, so a friend drove me from Alabama to Pittsburgh. We drove all night, but by the time I arrived, my mother was in a coma from which she would never emerge. Doctors did everything they could to control a raving infection that was attacking not just her liver, but kidneys, too. She was placed on 24 hour dialysis while they worked to lower the astronomical ammonia levels in her body. When they finally admitted defeat, they removed her from life support and allowed us to take turns sitting with her until she stopped breathing on her own. My turn came in the middle of the night. I brushed her hair and rubbed lotion on her face, then sat next to her and rubbed lotion on her hands and spoke to her, I apologized for being such a fuck up and for stressing her out so much. I apologized for making her sick and begged her to fight to survive. To my utter shock, she gripped by hand, then began convulsing. I remember screaming for the doctor, absolutely certain that my mother was coming out of her coma. But the doctors came in, checked her out and told us there was no change. The convulsion was part of her brain shutting down or something like that. Later that morning, as my father, sisters and I battled rush hour traffic to get to the hospital for our next vigil, my mother died. The date was May 8, 1991. My mother was 51 years old. I was 27.
I didn't cry the day she died. I didn't cry at her funeral, although I pretended to sob, hiding my dry eyes behind dark sunglasses. I didn't cry while going through her things. My eyes remained dry as my older sister divvied up jewelry according to my mother's wishes. The same soundtrack played on repeat through my grieving brain. I had killed my mother. I had put her into her grave. I didn't deserve to grieve. I was the bad daughter.
For the next year, I lived like a zombie. I worked. I drank. I worked. I drank. My car, a 1978 Chrysler Cordoba, which had served me well for four years, died in a parking lot. My father bought me a zippy new car, a 1992 Plymouth Colt, and drove it to Alabama from where he was working in Texas. On May 8, 1992, as I was driving home from work, the dam broke. I drove and cried. Drove and screamed. Got pulled over by a cop, who took pity on me and urged me to go home.
The past 24 years have been difficult, becoming gradually less difficult, then bam! more difficult. I've learned this is normal. I am a mother. I've never raised a hand to my son and never spoken negatively to him. Anyone looking at me would see someone who's successful at her job, passionate about advocating for her child. Half of a comfortably married couple. I've been diagnosed with depression and medicated off and on. I've been diagnosed with ADHD, which finally describes a LOT of my behavior growing up.
However, the soundtrack continues, unabated. I live each day, waiting for the other shoe to drop; for people to finally see through my illusion of stability and success, to spot the fuck up who can't do anything right.
I've never considered my mother to be "abusive," even though technically, she was. I've always blamed myself for triggering her anger, and as unreasonable as it sounds, I still blame myself a bit for her death, although logically, I know that liver disease killed her. Therapy has tried to teach me that I need to let the past go and embrace the future. I try, every day, to do just that. Some days are great, until I make a mistake or hit some other type of emotional speed bump. The, the wheels come off and I go from Su the Human, to Su the Fuck Up (in BIG, NEON LETTERS). The slight difference between then and now, though, is that I'll hammer the wheels back on and try to move forward. It doesn't always work, and I'm in the process of finding a therapist who can help me reach the next level, and change the soundtrack in my mind to something more positive.
Of all the photos of my mother and me, there's only one in which we're both smiling. I think I'm around four, and we're definitely in Korea. I'm sitting on her lap and my mouth is wide open in laughter. She's smiling, too. I don't know what happened that day, but I'm glad I have the photo. I also realized I don't have many photos of me smiling with my son. I'll have to remedy that today.