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How you’ve made me

14/12/2019

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Mai Le

mai

The doctor informed me that I had a few days before she would pass away, due to the irreversible damage from the stroke. He urged me to make arrangements for her dignified death and take as long as I needed to mourn and spend time with her.

Once she was a much-talked-about flight attendant, enjoying the abundant company of accomplished first-class travellers and lavish acquaintances with chartered planes’ guests and private jet owners. For most of her life, she was on the go and absented from mine. However, despite her popularity, at the end of her life, no one was there but me, her only daughter.

Not one of her famed lovers; neither was my father. If I knew who he was, I would have written to him. Yet, all I knew was that my mother met him in Moscow in the 1980s. She knew of the unwanted pregnancy when it was too late to abort. They mutually agreed that my whole life would be financially taken care of by him. In exchange, their involvements, his identity, and my existence were never to be discussed. Sometimes I fantasised that my father was a secret agent and that his concealed identity was for our safety; instead of the crude thought that I was perhaps the product of a whirlwind extramarital affair.

The only mark of him in my childhood was a collection of poems by Alexander Pushkin. This book was a gift from him and hence dearly treasured by my mother. I hadn’t comprehended how precious it was to her until that memorable summer day when I was seven years old. As she prepared to depart for her next flight, I tore the first poem out of this book and folded it into a paper plane. “Bon Voyage mummy!” I cheered, hugged her with a sweet innocent smile and put the paper plane inside her uniform’s pocket. As she unfolded the paper plane, she realised what I did to the treasured memory of him, and burst into tears. She did not reprimand me that day, but the sight of her sobbing was the one I’d never forget.

As I grew up, I saw lovers come and go from her life. She was once this energetic, much-envied lady who left her daughter for days with the nanny to pursue the next excitement. Yet, in contrast, in front of me was her in a coma, bedridden with only days left to live. “Despite the coma, she can still hear you,” the doctor advised, “Other family members in your situation have found it consoling to pour their heart out to their loved one before their final moments”.

After the doctor left the room, the veil of quietness overwhelmed me as I held her hand sitting by the bed. “Where should I begin, mother?” I broke the silence by asking myself.

“I have a life of emotions to share with you, yet you were never there. Every week I wished you never had to catch the next flight, leaving me for days. Times and times again, I felt so alone, because you were never home. I wish I could hate you, but you are my mother.” I started to speak my thoughts out loud to untangle my bewilderment. This was my last chance.

“You wanted me to be like a princess because you wished you were one. For the short periods that you were at home, you always scolded me for my poor manners, but you were never there to teach me to be the high-class girl you aspired to. You required me to be elegant. You hated my clumsiness and messiness. You brought me to events surrounded by people of the class you didn’t belong. You pressured me to get married early because you never did. Have you ever seen me as your daughter or just your failure-in-waiting that requires fixes? Have you ever seen me, or did you just see your expectation of me?” My voice became fainter with every word. “Who am I but a mere reflection of what you want me to become?”

“I long for every time you return.” I continued my monologue, “You only seem happy when you’re proud of me; so I only provide you with pleasant news when you are back. How I only informed you about my excellent grades. How I didn’t speak about my loneliness or the fact I was bullied – since that would bother you. I wanted you to be happy. This has become a habit. I never tell you of my failures but only my successes. Because I believe when you’re proud of me, you will love me. I somehow think I needed to earn your love, that I am only worthy of love when I have good news for you the next time you return.”

“Growing up with your aloofness, I found you as a reason to keep striving for more and keep living in the future. My yearning for you has cursed me, so much that I have never been able to live in the present. My happiness stays in future moments when you will return. I seek to earn your love with more achievements. Yet, as soon as I achieve something, the little joy in me is diminished as I quickly move onto the next one. I feel this is a never-ending road to earn my worthiness, because of you. Will you love me when I am better or achieve more?”, muttered I.

“For my whole life, I have yearned for love. Perhaps that’s because I was never loved by you. Perhaps you loved yourself more. Perhaps you loved me like a product of your making. Did you accept me for who I was, mother? I kept looking in men for the love I never had from you. I settled and married a man who loves me more than I love him, just to prove to myself that I can be loved by someone.” I asked her a question, which I still did not have answers to and probably never would. “I know my existence was a mistake, but do you love me, mother?”

“The agony is, after all these years, I still want to be comforted by you even when I loathe how you treated me. I wished you could have said that I loved me; you never did. Yet, after all, I could not grow to hate you. I really tried.” I started to sob, and said: “I love you, mother.”

My tears blended with my unintelligible voice “Here I am in front of you; not to confront you but to face a life that I’ve never lived for myself. Now I’m stuck. I’m stuck in this life of your construct, but it is collapsing mother, now that you’re gone.”

As I wept, there was a knock on the door. It was the estate lawyer who took care of my mother’s will. As he noticed my teary eyes, he profusely apologised, “Pardon me… I just finished a meeting with the doctor and thought I should visit your mother. It seems that now isn’t the right time, though. I will leave this flower bouquet here.”

“Thank you”, replied I.

“Your mother also said I should give you this envelope separately from the probate proceedings. The next time we meet might be procedural; therefore, it is perhaps better that you receive this now,” said he, as he handed me the sealed envelope from my mother.

After some more pleasantries, he left. I was not ready to read what was inside that envelop. I put it aside and sat down next to my mother in silence. I did not keep track of the time, and before I knew it, it was already 7 pm and dark outside. The visiting hours of the hospital would soon lapse, so I gathered the courage to open it.

Inside the envelope was the paper plane I once folded thirty years ago, which she somehow still retained. I unfolded it, reading the poem I tore from Alexander Puskin’s book.

I loved you; even now I may confess,
Some embers of my love their fire retain;
But do not let it cause you more distress,
I do not want to sadden you again.

Hopeless and tongue-tied, yet I loved you dearly
With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
So tenderly I loved you, so sincerely,
I pray God grant another love you so.

Below the poem was her handwriting.

“I’m sorry. I love you.”

After reading that, more tears streamed down my face as I held her hand and whispered into her ears.

“Bon Voyage, mummy.”

Written by Mai Le

My name is Mai. I am originally from Vietnam. After my university years at LSE, I worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. After a wonderful time there, I started several of my own business as well as helping others on theirs. I've always been building communities and businesses for as long as I can remember, and absolutely thrilled to see others enjoy what I've built.

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