All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them – Karen Blixen, The Human Condition
2 days ago, I woke up, disturbed by a dream: I was in a bookstore and it was Christmas. At a distance, my mother was giving out presents to everyone. My brother came up to me, waved his present in my face and taunted, “You don’t get any present because you don’t deserve it!” I sat down and cried.
I was jostled out of that dream, not only I was feeling immensely sad and helpless, more importantly, I was very disturbed by how close it echoed my subconsciousness and reality. Even though I had stopped talking to my mother for my own mental health sake, she still disturbs me in my dreams.
In the years when I was still in contact with my mother and had serious problems with her, my social circle was quick to criticize, judge and condemned my behaviour as someone ungrateful, difficult, sensitive or like my Christian ex-boyfriend described me as “evil”; most of the time, sympathy laid with my mother. But my aunts and grandmother were quick to point out to my mother at how harsh and unfair she had discriminated against me. For what transgression? Even I was baffled at what I had done to deserve this. No matter what I do, nothing pleased her. If I didn’t do according to what she wanted, she would be so incensed that once I ran off crying and trembling to the core. Woe befell onto me if my father was ever upset with me and my mother knew, my mother would use that as an excuse to mete out the silent treatment and pull out the “I don’t deserved a place at the dinner table” card on me for a whole month. What about my siblings? I never saw them gotten any punishment. I was delegated as the nightly dishwasher, while I never saw any of my siblings done any household chores. Yet week after week, my mother complained that we treated her like a maid and never helped her in any household chores. I occasionally vacuumed and mopped the floor, hung the clothes out to dry, washed the dishes for the whole family every evening and yet I was accused of not doing any work. I could scrubbed the pot sparking clean and burned the midnight oil studying all night, and yet praise was never ever doled out to me. “Why don’t you use your common sense?” berated my mother if I did something “wrong”. When I became an adult, her smarting comments gave way to loud sighs.
Life outside home wasn’t exactly peachy. I dreaded the weekly gatherings with my paternal relatives: “Go back to your (maternal) grandmother, you are not wanted here” yelled my younger cousin when she lost to me in our games; “Why are you so stupid!” exclaimed my older cousin when I went to her for my Maths problems (my school gave us 100 Maths questions that was supposed to be for gifted/advanced students) and I could not understand how algebra works (I was only 11, I hadn’t even started algebra); to escape the intolerable discrimination and feelings of being unwanted, I got myself lost in books, yet my older aunts and uncles taunted, “No wonder your father lost in mahjong, you brought him bad luck by reading books!” (In Chinese, the sound of the word, book 书 shu, sounds exactly like the word, losing 输 shu, even though both are different characters and meanings). Even my own father started to believe that I never brought him any luck; he said when I was born, he was still living in a rental room. When my brother came along, he could afford a car. When my sister came along, he could afford a condominium. To cope with the painful awareness I was the unwanted one, I started to draw cartoons. The more depressed I got, the happier my cartoons became. The more I drew, the more I destroyed them by burning or tearing them up. I never got to develop my voice to express my sorrows so they were expressed in twisted ways – by tearing up my cartoons in frustrations. Since I couldn’t destroy myself, I could at least destroy my own creations. At the same time, for some unknown reasons, I gave some of my works to my friends who claimed that they still kept it after more than 15 years. They helped me believe that I have talents, that I am useful, that I am appreciated for my talents. And that saved me from completely destroying myself – I never picked up smoking nor drinking. The greatest achievement? I am still alive and didn’t commit suicide.
The fact that I chose to live and the belief that I can survive gave me the courage to seek a new life outside Singapore. “If God and miracles are real, show me!” that was the dare I made the day I decided to move to Turkey 12 years ago. I was looking for a place I belong, a place I’ll call “home”.
The story I tell of myself is vastly different from the story my mother tells herself. “God will never listen to your prayers because your heart is not right!” claimed my mother one day when we went out to pray together. I was then going through a divorce, getting out of a horrible abusive marriage. Like what my mother believed, I bought into the belief that I don’t deserve happiness and that I deserved the threats, taunts verbal abuse and and beatings my ex husband and ex boyfriends were delivering. But my late father believed differently, “The trials she is going through are tests, it will get better!”
When my father was dying on the hospital bed, his group of friends came by to visit him while I was there. One of his friends’ face lit up when he realized I was that oldest daughter my father had so proudly spoken of, “You are the one who lives in Turkey? Do you know how often your father spoke of you, how proud he is and how brave his oldest daughter is, living aboard all by herself. I can still feel that warm glow eminating within.
I stopped talking to my mother when it became clear that all my life, she has been projecting her fears, disappointments with her unhappy marriage and her unhappiness onto me. I remembered how pale my own mother became when she learnt of my new found friend who left her deeply unhappy mother who was stuck in resentment for years by her husband’s infidelity and ultimately divorce, and moved aboard upon her retirement to create some distance between herself and her mother. Since then her attacks on why I should move out of Turkey increased, with each attacks, I became increasingly distressed. She even demanded that I should travel to Australia with her to look for houses she can buy (for herself) so that I could move to Australia and study there. “What about my son? He has started school in Turkey.” That was the real concern for me because my son really loves being in Turkey. “You’ll both study one year and if you can’t stay in Australia (of course, I couldn’t stay after finishing masters without long term visas and Australia is not giving out visas for Psychology graduates), we’ll decide then.” That was her reply. It wasn’t good enough to ensure the best option for my son. I understood she never wanted me to live in Turkey at all. I could feel her fear of abandonment when I learnt that my brother had restricted her access to his apartment by demanding she returned her spare key when he realized that our mother had let herself into his house without his knowledge or consent. I could sense her loneliness when my sister started dating and working and she was coming home late every night. But I could not change her opinion of me. “I only have two children (that is, my brother and sister) because they live in Singapore with me and you are not getting a single cent from me because you don’t deserve it!” That was the threat she gave me when I was asking about my father’s inheritance and why my siblings each gotten a Mercedes car while I was left in the cold. I couldn’t stand the visits any longer because all she would talk is the “gifts” she bought for her two children and questioned why they wouldn’t use her gifts. I was completely baffled with each visits I learnt a few months late that a relative died and no one bothered to inform me about their passing. It was puzzling as to why my mother kept such information from me when we were still chatting weekly by Skype video, she never answered my questions. “You never see me as one of your children anyway, not in my life.” Those were my last words to her. With all hopes dead, I simply pressed the hang up button and grieved for a mother whom I never had and the maternal love I had not and will never experience in this lifetime.
It has been more than a year since I spoke those last words to her. Yet her “you don’t deserve it” still haunts me. I stumbled out of bed, into the kitchen, into the delicious smell of the omelette where my better half was slogging away, making breakfast for our sons and us. He turned around to when I told him of my dream. He reached out and wrapped his arms around me. So this is the story of love I have been telling myself I deserved and worthy of having it, and it took me almost 40 years to finally live it.