by Kellie Young
The future destiny of a child is always the work of the mother.
-- Napoleon Bonaparte
The tires crunch heavily over the rocky path, crackling in the still morning air. The truck's headlights flood the darkness in front of us, slicing through the heavy veil to illuminate an unpaved road overshadowed with sweeping branches. When the car has gone as far as it can, we kill the engine and let the silence engulf us. We slip off our seats, tuck our surfboards under our arms, and creep through the trees until the sharp rocks beneath our feet smooth out into fine sand. Only black shadows on the beach, we are utterly and completely alone, blending in with the deepness of the sky and sea.
Quickly, before the sun rises.
My stomach flips as the cold Pacific swallows me up, but even more striking is my mother's voice that begins to scream in my mind, freezing me in the water.
Hannah rushes out to meet the black water, her body and board colliding recklessly onto the rough surf. I hesitate before leaping in after her. My stomach flips as the cold Pacific swallows me up, but even more striking is my mother's voice that begins to scream in my mind, freezing me in the water.
You're going to get swept out by the undertow! You're going to get eaten alive by a tiger shark! The coral is poisonous! Get one shard in your toe and you're going to have to chop it off-the entire thing! What are you thinking? Do you want to die? Come home!
"I'm going to be fine, this is fine, nothing's wrong, everything's okay," I chant in time to my thrumming heart, as my arms pull me further from home. I paddle away from my mother, but her voice only becomes muted, a humming background that does not fade until my arms are outstretched on a perfect wave, greeting the day.
My mother's voice has been a constant presence throughout my life from when I was little ("Kellie, get down from that stool! You're going to fall off and break your leg!") up through high school ("No, you cannot go to that concert-what if someone starts a mosh pit and you get crushed?"). My life's roadmap is littered with my mother's interjections and fears about the horrible things that can happen in life. Everything constitutes a risk, and as sentient beings, we should know better than to take those risks that could (and would!) prematurely cut short our lives. No one better embraces Murphy's Law1 than my mother. Her love is thick and binding, and as my mother, she has always felt responsible for my personal safety; her love constantly drew me back ("Kellie, did you hear what I said?").
How could I not hear?
Her cautious attitude toward me was not unfounded. When I was young, I was the maverick. I launched into situations without hesitation, tackling all obstacles, physical or otherwise, by tucking my chin down and charging forward. Once in December, when I was twelve, a great and wonderful lightning storm blacked out the bright afternoon sky. Angry, gray clouds blotted out all semblance of time and the rain fell so thick I could not make out my neighbor's plumeria tree growing just outside my window. Naturally I ran outside. I slammed the front door behind me, welcoming this phenomenon by whooping and hollering down the street. I had never seen lightning so close before; the electric charge in the air felt energizing. It was only after my t-shirt stuck to my chest and shivers trembled through my body that I discovered the locked door. My parents found their cold and slightly sick child shivering on the front steps when they pulled into their driveway later that day.
My thoughtlessness was a danger to myself, my mother concluded, and she determined that if I lacked the capacity to think ahead, she would do it for me. Now whenever I see electric storms, I imagine those poor souls unlucky enough to be struck down by those lightning bolts of doom.
It would be a tragic death, and at my funeral my mother would cry out in sorrow, "If only she had used a toilet seat cover!"
My mother's reach, however, has always extended far beyond natural disasters and the obvious everyday life-threatening situations. I have often imagined a rapist or mugger waiting in the shadows to attack me as I walked by myself on a sidewalk of a lonely street. Even if I were with a bunch of friends at the mall, my mother's voice would scream at me to stay away from all suspicious looking adults. If I accidentally looked into strangers' eyes, crazy, irrational thoughts would immediately flood my mind. They were kidnappers, ready to seize me and hold me for an obscenely large ransom, which my parents would have to pay to retrieve their most beloved daughter, forcing the entire family into the utter depths of poverty. Public restrooms were equally dangerous. The toilet seat was swarming with germs so terrible that if I were unfortunate enough to touch the seat with my bare skin, I would contract a disease and die too quickly for doctors to make a saving diagnosis. It would be a tragic death, and at my funeral my mother would cry out in sorrow, "If only she had used a toilet seat cover!" My induced vigilance in public restroom hygiene has called for excessive amounts of the finite paper resources in the stall. For this I am certain that I am on the hit list of countless custodians under the alias: "girl who clogged the toilet with twenty seat covers and yards of toilet paper."
I often feel overwhelmed with the number of decisions that seem to overrun my life, each demanding an extraordinary amount of thought and contemplation. With my mother's voice insisting on caution, I often find myself torn between several paths, trying to project which road will lead me to the best outcome. Once an ingenious, spontaneous idea strikes me, it is abruptly and violently reeled back in. My friends often throw up their hands in despair as I wage war with a restaurant menu. Often I stare between the listed options, calculating the value of each potential meal according to price, nutritional content, and taste, before ordering. "Yes, that is my final answer." After living eighteen years in a house filled with my mother's warnings and cautionary instructions, I unconsciously had begun incorporating her perspective into my own.
Whereas I had been the somewhat unwilling recipient of this seeming oversensitivity, my mother's situation as a child-adult fostered the growth of these ideals for the survival of her family in a new world. When my grandfather immigrated to paradise with his first wife, he found that life did not simply improve with tropical sunshine and democracy. When his first spouse died, leaving behind four teenagers, he returned to China and brought my grandmother and my mom back home with him to Hawaii. With my grandmother taking care of the first family, my mother was left to care for herself and her three younger sisters. She was brilliant at juggling work at her father's general store in rainy Manoa and schoolwork, graduating from high school as the top mathematics scholar. Her decisions were all based on taking care of her family, making sure lunches were packed, laces tied, and her sisters equipped with everything her family could afford. In fact, my mom and dad's first date was picking up my aunt from school. My mother's hardships taught her to be cautious and to make wise choices.
Having everything (two parents who do not believe in corporal punishment, a financially stable home, abundant opportunities for obtaining a good education), I am buffered from the reality that so educated my mother. Our middle class status put me at the bottom of this learning curve. Since I could not be poor, my mother made her voice my teacher, hoping I could learn from her what she had learned from life. "Are you listening to me, Kellie?"
The home is now empty. All three of my older siblings are in medical school and one is even married. I am the youngest of her followers and am so far from home (a twelve-hour flight with stopovers, six time zones, an ocean, a continent away). In the winter, when I stare out my window at the grey, frozen courtyard covered in brown snow, my mother is staring out of our home window at the brilliant, bright blue sky hanging over the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
At the end of summer 2007 when I was at the airport, not at all ready for MIT, my mother checked (four times) the gate and boarding time, even though I had already checked (four times). Separated by towering metal detectors and the mob of people being herded through them, my mom and I shouted our parting farewells. However, our real good-bye was minutes before I turned my phone off for boarding in the form of a text message: "Don't fall asleep at your connection. Someone might steal your laptop. Love you."
She slows down my recklessness, throwing caution and wisdom back into the whirlwind of my mind.
My mother's voice in my head is something I cannot shake or hide from, but neither is it confining or oppressing. I can sneak out in the morning to surf dawn patrol and meet the eyes of strangers in malls or bars. However, I make these decisions fully aware, consciously, and carefully. Even with so many miles between us now, she is everywhere I go; she is the undercurrent pulling my thoughts, her thoughts, to the forefront of my mind. She slows down my recklessness, throwing caution and wisdom back into the whirlwind of my mind. Although at times her/my fears catch me, freezing me momentarily before I leap, she is me, and her voice steers me clear of jumps I realize I cannot make.
When my dad is working at the office, my mom sometimes comes home early by herself. All her life, she has always looked after someone, making sure shoelaces are tied and lunches packed. Looking at her spotless house, which in my younger years was fondly nicknamed "pigsty," she likes to call me to talk about her day, my day, and what I should be doing with my life ("Are you studying for the MCATs?"). Occasionally the line phases into static, the airwaves between Boston and Honolulu too filled with distance, and when it's over, my mom will always be frantic on the other end saying, "Kellie? Hello? Can you hear me? Are you still listening?"
"Yup, still listening, go ahead."Endnotes
1. Murphy's Law is a fundamental principle normally associated with pessimists. The paraphrased law is "if anything can go wrong, it will." There is a sense of doom and uncontrollable fate associated with the law and its principles.
<wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn>. Web. July 30, 2010.