Today is Just a Day

Mothers’ Day has always been a day of conflict for me. When I was a little girl, and my elementary school teachers would help us make cards and gifts to bring home for that special day, I always presented them to my mother, heart bursting with pride, hoping she would see how much I loved her by how much glitter I glued on the construction paper. Of course, my mother was an artist, a world-renowned artist. “Thank you, that’s nice” was the best I could hope for, and one raised eyebrow at my stick-figure drawings told me my artwork was not so nice. I recall most of my time with my parents filled with my yearning for a mom and dad like my friends’ moms and dads; parents who enjoyed their children and who wanted to be parents. My parents always reminded us that #1 all three of us girls were meant to be boys to carry on the family name, and #2 my mother was especially careful to let us know that she never wanted children (we interfered with her blossoming art career) but she did it to make our dad happy. My childhood heartbreak gradually hardened in my teenage years, into a resolve to find or make a family that would love me as much as I loved them. I stopped paying attention to Mothers’ Days because the only mothers I ever met who I wanted to thank, already belonged to other people like my friends. Oh, how I coveted their moms. My best friend Kirsten’s mom even let me call her Mom while we lived in Shanghai. For years, that gave me the greatest comfort.

Finally, I grew up and had the baby I always dreamed of loving. The moment our eyes made contact, I felt hit with a bolt of lightning; THIS was what I was meant to do, to be the most loving mother to this baby girl. Every single bad memory of my family took a back seat to my new priority. As a first time mother, I had very little to help guide me. Not only were my parents completely disinterested in being grandparents, I was quite certain any grandmotherly advice was useless, coming from a woman who never wanted her own children. As my baby grew into toddlerhood and her independence grew, little conflicts arose. Tempted to lose my temper in the face of tantrums or naughty behaviour, I always stopped myself with one thought, “What would my parents do?” A very twisted version of What Would Jesus Do…whatever the answer, I made a deliberate choice to do the OPPOSITE. My parents would have spanked a toddler who drew on the walls, spanked a child who wanted to wear her underwear on the outside of her pants, spanked a child who talked back. My father always told us that children were cabbages until they were old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. I chose to learn about the concept of Time Out, let my child choose her own clothing, and learned how to use my words. I am sure it was much more frustrating and time-consuming to do it the long way, versus the shortcut of beating. But I have very clear memories of the leather belt with moons and stars cut into it, that would beat my bare legs and bottom until those moons and stars were imprinted on my flesh. I will never forget the fear and dread when my father would tell me exactly how many smacks with the belt I would get; most of the time in the double digits. I would know it was coming because if I talked back or lied or did anything wrong in my mother’s eyes, she would screw her face up in rage, point her finger at me, and scream, “Just WAIT until your father gets home!” And when I was a teenager, and the only thing I did was roll my eyeballs, as teenagers do, she didn’t even wait for my father. Her teacup full of hot green tea would come flying at my head. Maybe that’s why I became a goalie in soccer in high school; I learned to not flinch in the face of flying objects, to take the impact on my body, and to keep going.

As the years passed, the negative connotations I associated with Mothers’ Day slowly faded. Gradually, Mothers’ Day ceased being about my mother, a reluctant mother. I started to see that it was a day about any human being, man or woman, who CHOSE to care for another. My own children brought me homemade cards of construction paper, glue, and glitter, on the breakfast tray in bed. I have saved every one of them. My oldest, Emily, ever since she could write, has written silly poems and hilarious rap songs. I cherish every one of them. Even when I went into labor with my youngest, Simon, little Emily made colourful little posters to tape on the hospital room wall to cheer me on, “Laber is Fun!” I still have that little poster, misspelling and all. “Laber” isn’t all that fun, after all, but this family sure is. Last year, my husband cared for me and the children while I battled breast cancer; he became the best example of a mother I have ever known. I look around my life, and there is no more room for bad feelings on Mothers’ Day.

This morning, for the first time, I woke without my husband and my oldest child on Mothers’ Day. Markus is out in Seattle, working hard to make a new home for our family to move to next month. Emily is in Phoenix with her best friend to celebrate her graduation from university. Feeling slightly sorry for myself, I opened my eyes to find my two younger children, Hanna and Simon, holding a tray of breakfast and a coffee in a Love Cup. “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mama, we love you!” A feast of eggs and kale and onions, and their happy faces beaming at me while I ohh’d and ahh’d. Simon told me, “My gift to you is that I am going to scoop poop in the yard and mow the lawn!” And they both promised to help me clean the house for company tonight. That’s a minor miracle right there. I opened my email, and there was a letter to me, from my Emily. Not her usual funny rap or poem, this is what she wrote:

“Hi Mama Bear!

This isn’t my usual rap, because I felt that I had a lot to say that wouldn’t be very easy to rhyme. It’s Mother’s Day! You’ve gone through three “labers,” none of which could have been all that fun. You’ve raised one semi-adult who has so far managed not to perish out in the real world, one sassy teenager who loves to shock us all with her rebellion and independence, but who will one day undoubtedly shock us with incredible success, and also one hilariously weird boy who has the exterior of a hardened thug, but who’s insides are filled with love and an amazing sense of kindness. On top of all of this, you work hard to maintain the most beautiful marriage that I have ever seen.

When I was first processing that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, they were some of the scariest feelings I’ve ever felt. First off, what kind of universe did we live in if someone as caring, sweet, and undeserving as you could possibly be dealt an early entry into Heaven? I realized we had all taken you and everything you did for us for granted; something I still sometimes catch myself guilty of. You are the only constant I’ve had in my entire life and I’ve literally known you for forever. How am I supposed to ever be expected to navigate through this stupid world without you to call and complain to? Without you to cry and scream and vent to, without hearing your 100% honest advice on something as small as what to buy at the grocery store, all the way to making life-changing decisions that I’m too weak to deal with on my own? That’s why when you were diagnosed, I never really considered it an option that you could ever disappear from my world. Nothing was strong enough to take you away from me, because you are mine and I couldn’t let that happen.

This was a very idiotic and naive approach to your newly discovered cancer. Because I wiped away this possibility, I did not embrace the seriousness of your illness, nor how important it would be for me to move back home. Even when I finally did, I look back and see how little I contributed to the family, how much more I could have done to lessen the burden of your surgery and healing. I know I can’t make that time up to you, but I am sorry for being a noob.

I have so many amazing memories of times we have shared. Obviously we have had some really bad times, horrible screaming fights and sometimes deafening bouts of silence. You’ve said before that you have blocked out most of your negative memories from your childhood, because they were too painful to keep around. But I think that the reason I remember less of the bad and all of the good is not because the bad is so bad, but because the good is so great. You and Papa have given us such an amazing life, full of the most love and laughter out of family I could ever imagine. I love when we’re all out for dinner, and half the conversation is purely brought-up memories that make my mouth burst out with laughter, and my heart burst with all the love we all share.

You are the coolest, funniest, most welcoming and biggest hearted mom (and person) I have ever known or even heard about. Even without ever meeting you, my friends give you rave reviews. I’m so sorry it took me so long to realize that I chose the best possible person to not only raise me, but to be my very best friend. I love you the most and I hope you always know that.

Happy Mother’s day Mama!!

Love,
Emmy”

Mothers’ Day is not a happy day for many people. But I believe you do not have to settle for what Life dishes out to you. If you can survive to adulthood, you can make the changes you need to find happiness. Leave the bad behind, or if you choose to keep it in your heart, use it to make your life better. There are some shitty moms out there getting some pretty damn good love from children that deserve more. Stay strong, kiddos. There is love out there, and it doesn’t have to come from your bio mom. If you can’t find it, you make it yourself. The more love you make, the more love just bubbles up and overflows.

This is it. I am here. I made it. I am the mother I always wanted, with the children I always wanted, in the family I always wanted. Dreams do come true. Happy Mothers’ Day to those who can, and I wish a Future Happy Mothers’ Day to those who will make it so down the line.

Tiger for Dinner and Snakes at the Supper Table

When I was in Grade 4, my father was posted to the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  Coming from Moscow and winters so cold our spitballs would freeze into deadly bullets, it was quite a shock to find ourselves in the tropics.  Gone were the roly poly Babushkas selling the freshest baked bread.  They were replaced by riots between races, blazing hot sun, and durian (fruit that smells like the Dead).  In Moscow, we lived in an apartment, and the closest we came to wild animals were the little tadpoles that my big sister brought home from a pond she explored on a school fieldtrip to the country.  The tadpoles grew up and the tiny baby frogs hopped out of the fish tank and disappeared, only to be discovered weeks later behind the couches; desiccated little mummies of despair.  In Malaysia, there was more animal life than we were prepared to handle.

The embassy gave us a lovely large home to live in, with a housekeeper (amah, who we always called Ayii) and a gardener.  Marble floors downstairs, wooden parquet upstairs.  The entire living room downstairs could open up onto our marble patio with sliding doors the length of the room.  Not that we ever did that. You see, there were snakes.  Not just any snakes; poisonous snakes.  Snakes that you see in horror movies — 6 foot cobras just taking strolls through our garden.  Our gardener was a very large Indian man named Gabon.  He was a giant, but he was gentle; so gentle that his religion forbade the killing of any living beings.  So these cobras would be throwing a party in the back yard, and my mom would call out, “Gabon!  Please kill the cobra over there! “And he would smile at her, nod his head, then pick up the cobra by the tail and fling it over the garden hedge.  For all I know, it could have been the same damn cobra coming back into our yard day after day, with Gabon throwing it over the hedge over and over again.

When Gabon was off, my mom would take matters into her own hands.  She’d be talking on the phone with my dad in the middle of the day, gazing out on the patio, see a snake slithering in the grass, say, “excuse me, Dave, I’ll be right back,” put down the phone, go upstairs and get my father’s gun that was hanging on the bedpost (we’ll talk about my dad later), come back downstairs, pick up the phone and say, “what were you saying?” while she took aim and shot at the snake.  It got to where I didn’t even look up from my book at the sound of gunfire.  Just another day at the Hess Residence. 

The snakes seemed to live on the philosophy that what was theirs was theirs, and what was ours was theirs too.  We would be eating dinner, hear a soft “plop” sound of something falling out of the honking big plants my mom insisted on displaying all over our house, someone would yell, “SNAKE” and we’d all jump on top of our huge round dining table, screaming for Ayii to come kill the snake with a broom. 

And it didn’t end with our house.  We lived about 30 minutes from our school, the International School of Kuala Lumpur.  It was 30 minutes if you walked on the road with the other civilized people.  Someone in my family came up with the Brilliant Plan to send my sisters and me through a local rubber tree plantation as a shortcut.  Yes, the walk would take only 15 minutes.  But those would be 15 minutes of weaving around smelly rubber trees with sticky sap oozing into grimy harvesting cups, slapping ourselves silly through swarms of malaria-ridden mosquitoes, and shuffling through underbrush SEETHING with poisonous snakes.  Forget about the modern worries of pedophiles and serial killers that could be lurking in jungles, lying in wait for 3 tasty little girls walking to school…that never crossed anyone’s mind in 1978. 

My sisters and I did our best to protest this dangerous idea: why couldn’t we ever be like other normal kids and have our parents drive us to school???  My father’s response was, “You are not normal, nor will you ever be.”  This sentence went on to forge the 3 of us girls into the absolute raving lunatics we are today.  My mom’s response was, “LOOK!  I found these perfect little snakebite kits.  They have a razorblade and a little rubber suction cup, and directions showing you how to slice open your snake bite and suck out the venom.  Also, here are 3 large wooden walking sticks.  Beat the bushes – that will scare away the snakes.”  Well, there you go.  Problem solved.

15 minutes of terror and dozens of mosquito bites every morning, followed by 15 minutes of terror and more mosquito bites in the afternoons.  The moments when we would burst out of the jungle onto our school soccer field felt like we had reached the Promised Land.  Going home, the jungle would spit us out onto a paved road, and we would silently say a prayer of thanks for one more journey survived.  We knew that the rest of the walk to the house would be safe.

Well, relatively safe.  There was a large Monitor lizard that lived in the coconut trees in the grassy area between our house and the main road.  When the herds of sacred cows were grazing there, he kept to the treetops.  Actually, when the sacred cows were there, we all had to steer clear.  We were forbidden to shoo them away.  We were forbidden to even talk to them disrespectfully – after all, any one of them could have been somebody’s grandma or grandpa, according to the Hindus.  They just wandered all around the city, pooping and eating wherever they pleased.  ANYWAY, the monitor lizard must have been resentful of his house arrest and one day came running towards my big sister like he wanted to eat her for dinner.  This thing was at least 5 feet long, big and green, and his mouth was open as he aimed for her.  Of course we all screamed (and when Hess Girls scream, we make a sonic boom), so he veered off course right before he hit her, and ran up another coconut tree.  The 3 of us shakily wobbled our way home, grateful for the opportunity to live to see another day.

The wildlife was out to get us, the heat and humidity were out to get us, and at times it seemed our own mother was out to get us.  She had some weird ideas.  First of all, the 3 of us girls came to that country with waist-length beautiful hair.  The first thing my mother does is sit us down, put bowls on our heads, and cut off all of it.  I kid you not.  And these were not just haircuts, they were butchering.  She kept muttering, “Oh, that’s crooked.”  Snip snip.  20 minutes later my hair was above my ears, and it was STILL crooked.  A truly awesome look for the first day of school as the fat new kid.  One night, she sat us all down at the dining table and said she had a surprise for dinner.  She told us we had to close our eyes and take a bite.  We were all wary of this.  My parents used to tell us to do that every time they wanted us to try things like sheep’s’ brains and pig intestines, “just try it first and THEN we will tell you what it is!” – With evil grins on their faces.  Anyway, we were gullible (still are) and took big bites and chewed.  And chewed.  Funky meat, tasting slightly ammonia-like…”what is this, Mom?” (even my dad didn’t know).  Her bright grin and the word, “TIGER!” shocked the hell out of us.  Apparently our amah’s family had hunted a tiger (yeah yeah, I know – illegal, horrible, etc) and had presented my mom with some of the meat.  It was a great honor.  However, as my big sister and my dad pointed out, it was also full of feline parasites so we should all “SPIT IT OUT SPIT IT OUT!”  That was another moment when I wondered, “Why can’t I just have a normal family?”

One night our house was robbed while we were sleeping.  The robbers left knives next to my little sister’s bed.  The very next day, while my dad rigged the house with an advanced alarm system, my mom went to the local SPCA and came home with 7 dogs.  SEVEN, yes SEVEN dogs.  Aw, cute, you say?  Guess whose job it was to be the family pooper scooper?  Sue Lin Freaking Hess.  And when I pointed out that I was in danger from snakes in the garden while I was doing my vile job, guess what my mommy did for me?  She came home with 5 full-grown geese.  Not just any geese.  Attack geese.  But did they attack snakes?  No, they attacked fat little girls with crooked haircuts.       

Malaysia was not all terror-filled and deadly.  Well, other than that time when there was a riot and people were chopping each other’s heads off with machetes and we were forbidden to leave our house for days…ummm, where was I?  Oh yes.  There were rambutans – a heavenly sweet juicy fruit that resembled furry lychee.  And there were gentle orangutans.  And ditches next to the roads that were filled with gloriously colored guppies – the kind of guppies that you would pay hundreds of dollars for from fancy breeders in pet stores in North America. We just scooped them up in our hands and ran all the way home to plop them into our fish tanks.  And there was Christmas in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (the cleanest place on earth), and once a week there was Little House on the Prairie on our tiny little black and white television in our kitchen; commercial-free except for the 5 o’clock Muslim prayer that we would happily sing along to, having no clue as to the meaning of the words. 

For one hour a week, I could pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, living far far away from the poisonous snakes and the dreadful heat, living in the kind of wilderness where the only wild animals were bears and wolves and coyotes and HEEEYYYYYYY, I guess you can call me Laura, y’all.

Create Your Own Joy

I wrote this in 2006, one year after my mom died:

The year passed so quickly. Since Mom died last year, our lives have all gone on as busy as before, if not busier. The kids were all in school, Markus worked more hours than he spent at home, finding himself drawing closer to someone else that was not me. No friends, no family, what do I do for me? I can’t remember when I stopped smiling. But I had. I hadn’t even realized the year had passed to the day, until Annie reminded me that Monday was the day Mom had died. How odd it crept up on me, when I had been thinking about Mom so much in the past few weeks. Those weeks had been filled with my feeling nervous, trying to be brave and beginning something new among strangers. I had joined the Waikoloa Canoe Club, hoping to find something that could make me feel happier, fulfilled. To cope with the possibility of being left alone by my husband, everyone’s advice always seemed to be, “don’t hope for someone else to make you happy – make yourself happy.”

What do I know about paddling? Nothing. I didn’t even have the proper equipment or clothing, just a scruffy t-shirt and some shorts. Hunting through my closet before my first practice, I found a pair of red beach shoes – the kind you wear to protect your feet from sharp coral. The tops had been cut to enlarge the opening. Eyes widening, I realized that they were Mom’s – she had worn them towards the end of her life, when her feet were too swollen from her chemotherapy and steroid treatments to fit into her other shoes. I immediately slipped them on and went to my first paddling practice. The club members promptly put me into a canoe, handed me a paddle, the Steersman yelled, “Paddles Up! Hooki!” and we were off, headed for the most blazing sunrise. No time to think, only to imitate the paddler in front of me, remembering to breathe while pulling the paddle through the water, tasting the splash of saltwater on my face. We stopped in what felt like the middle of the ocean, and I looked around for the first time – we were surrounded by crystal clear water – you could see straight to the bottom. And the canoe rocked gently, and nobody spoke to break the silence; we all just breathed. Then, we turned the canoe around and paddled back to shore.

Once on the shore, the spell was broken, and everyone else began chatting with each other, all close friends. Feeling very awkward and out of place, I could only look down at my shoes. My shoes. Mom’s shoes. I smiled, thinking how ironic it was that I had worn her shoes out to the ocean. Mom couldn’t even swim. She hated being out on a boat. My only memory of being on a boat with her was when I was a little girl. I think we were on a cruise and I had just chewed a piece of chocolate flavored gum, and went to kiss her goodnight, and she promptly ran away to vomit. I remember thinking she threw up because of my kiss – Mom and I were infamous for not getting along. Now that I am a mother of a teenager, I know Mom loved me the best way she could. I looked up, smiling with those thoughts, and found myself smiling directly at a very nice teacher from my children’s school. Eyes lighting in recognition, she pulled me into her circle of friends and introduced me to more people than I could possible remember the names of. They were all so warm and welcoming, happy that someone new could enjoy their sport.

The head coach gave some brief instructions, and we were off again, “Paddles up! Hooki!” This time, I had room in my head for thought. I thought about what Mom would have done if she had been given more time to live, if she had been given those 15 years to live life with good health instead of fighting her cancer. I thought, maybe she would have been brave and tried new things. Maybe she would have learned how to swim; gotten her driver’s license, even! Maybe she would have traveled to Hawaii and played in the ocean with her grandchildren. She spent so many years waiting to get better, and the next thing we knew, she didn’t get better. I could hear her, then, in my mind. She was whispering to me, “Don’t let your life pass you by. Try this new thing. Meet these new people. So you’re scared…when has that ever stopped a Hess? Did our dragging you all over this planet to countless new places not teach you anything, girl? Do you know how many strangers I have had to meet in my life? Don’t you remember how many scary things I have had to face? Do this. I’m with you. Look at your brave red shoes. Feel the air breathe into your two healthy lungs, be thankful. Feel your strong back and arms pull on that paddle, be thankful. Raise your face to the sky and feel the sun on your skin, be thankful.”

Those red shoes have been on my feet as I learned how to paddle, as I learned how to “Huli” (flip over, flip back, bail out, and keep going), and as I learned how to be brave on my own. One day, I heard, “Go, Mama, Go!” and looked up to see Markus and Simon cheering from the shore – my whole team laughed and I was so happy. One day I got into the canoe without any horrible bruising. One day my paddle finally entered the water without a splash. One day we were sitting in our canoes on a sea of glass, and a pod of whales swam by, spouting and breaching. And during every night practice, we would paddle into the sunset, and I would ask Mom silently, “What do you think of THAT? Can’t beat the Hawaiian sunset, eh?” All the while, I smiled.

That was three weeks ago. I have paddling practice 3 days a week. I can smile and chat with more than a few people on the team, and I feel strong and confident about this new skill. Sometimes Markus and the kids cheer from the shore, and sometimes I go alone – but I am not lonely when I go alone. I have purchased brand new clothing designed for being in a canoe and a wooden paddle of my very own. But my shoes remain the same. I still wear Mom’s old red beach shoes that are cut open on the top. They don’t match anything I wear to practice, but they are Mom, and she needs to come with me while I paddle out to sea. We have our first 10-mile race on May 13th. Go Mama, Go!

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