“Found out my mom just died,” read the text on my phone.
It came as a surprise, and I read it slowly out loud to my dad as we drove back from a weekend at our cabin. We continued the drive largely in silence.
When we arrived, an eerie stillness consumed our house, and we found my mom sitting in the middle of the couch, little balls of tissues littered across her lap, spilling onto the floor around her. She held the phone to her ear speaking Malay to a family member back home in Malaysia, and the conversation moved from soft words to full body sobs without warning. She was inconsolable.
My sister and I never met our grandmother. To be correct, we have never met anyone on her side of the family. Our entire lives we spoke of Malaysia like a distant pen pal, affectionately and hopeful for a future encounter, followed by futile attempts for one to actually transpire.
Almost thirty years passed without my mom visiting home, and she rarely spoke about it. My dad was the one who told us stories, and my sister and I loved to ask. I remember how my dad’s eyes always sparkled as he looked overhead, lost in memories of the past, a nostalgic smile playing across his face. He recounted how he and a fellow Peace Corp volunteer happened upon my mom and her sister one day, a meet-cute like in the movies. A real life chance happening. My dad was an eye sore with his bright red hair and white skin against all the dark complexions of the natives. One day as he and his friend walked home from their workday, two little Malaysian girls stopped them in the middle of the road. They wanted to strike a deal: if they tutored them in English, these girls would help them learn Malay.
Four years later, my dad fulfilled his service in the Peace Corp and left Malaysia with my mom at his side, his newly wed bride, and they left for the States where they would begin a new life together. Over the course of our lives, my parents sprinkled stories of their courtship for my sister and I to piece together. Stories of my dad going to my mom’s house every afternoon to have tea with her family. Of how our grandfather was a kindhearted man with a fiery, light-hearted spirit and a soft spot for a good joke. Of how my mom and her siblings used to play with their neighbor’s pet monkey, sending him high into the trees to retrieve coconuts.
But what we received was only tidbits for which we always had to fish.
“Why doesn’t mom ever talk about Malaysia?” I asked my dad in recent years.
“Your mom grew up very poor. I don’t mean poor by American standards, but poor by Malaysian standards. A Third World kind of poverty. I don’t think she likes to talk about it,” he replied.
For me and my sister, we held private discussions for as long as we can remember. We wanted to know about our Grandparents, our six aunts and uncles, our handfuls of cousins, and the life our mother had before we came along. However, all questions were met with simple, short responses, never elaborating beyond the immediate question at hand. Some questions didn’t bait her the way we hoped and only elicited a simple, “Hm- I don’t remember. It was very long ago.”
However, after two decades of “maybe one day’s,” my parents prompted our wishful plans into action.
“Girls, next summer we’re all going back to Malaysia.”
We had no way of knowing that after thirty years, we scheduled our trip just one summer too late.
The grief was nearly palpable, heart wrenching in a way that sends your gut to your throat in a panic, lost for the appropriate words and actions to console. I felt helpless seeing someone I cared about suffering such a painful loss over someone I never knew. I sat with her through the tears I feared would never cease, trying to understand beyond her loss. The tears that flowed she shed from love and loss, but the hardest sorrow to endure was that of guilt. Guilt from never going back to visit. Guilt from creating a life across the world that she never went back to share.
She asked me simple, honest questions that broke my heart.
“Nikki, if I were dying and you lived far away, would you come see me?”
“Of course I would, Mama.”
“I hope you would.”
I sat through painfully honest conversations between husband and wife, private conversations between lovers who traversed through the bulk of their lives in union.
“Can you imagine losing a spouse?” my mom asked.
“No, no I can’t,” was my dad’s simple response.
“Or a child?”
We sat in a contemplative silence. They looked at me, and I knew in their minds they allowed that normally unthinkable fear to consume them for one brief minute. Someone had to interrupt that awful silence.
“I just ask that whatever happens, let me die first. I have to die first. No matter what. Celebrate my life and dance at my funeral. Spread my ashes at the cabin to Earth, Wind, & Fire. Just let me go first. I can’t live without you guys,” my dad said quietly, surely.
I couldn’t take it. The presence of death loomed too heavily, and these morbid thoughts pushed my own tears to overflow in abundance.
It was a hard week, and I struggled to handle a guilt and grief that I couldn’t call my own. We never did find a cure to the sorrow, but we did expedite arrangements to actualize the trip we always said we’d take. “One day” turned into a date in late September.
Schedules remained hectic and life went on, even after we’d purchased our plane tickets, and I didn’t give the trip much thought. “Yea- we’re going to Malaysia,” I’d tell people. Many didn’t know what or where that was, and few responded with thoughtful looks, questioning, “Oh yea- isn’t that where your mom is from or something?”
Thirty-six hours before our scheduled departure time, I lay awake in bed thinking I should probably pack, wondering what I should pack, and suddenly realizing the gravity of the impending venture. Soon my mom, my sister and I would board a plane and fly halfway across the world, to a new world that our mother used to claim as her own.
I contemplated the many struggles between mother and daughter throughout my teenage years, the numerous instances where my seemingly overbearing mom and I would exchange harsh words. We spent days afterward avoiding each other in silent frustration, our home transforming into a passive aggressive battle zone.
My dad would quietly try to explain, “Girl, it’s how your mother was raised. It’s how she grew up.”
“Well, she’s not in Malaysia anymore,” I would angrily rebuke. “Tell her that’s not normal here.”
I had never been, so I didn’t know.
Those memories of my adolescent outbursts bear lots of guilt, and as a single adult, I struggle to understand how anyone rises to the challenge of raising children. And then I think about my mom, marrying a man and moving across the world to a country where she didn’t speak the language. She told me once that she largely taught herself while my dad was at work, dedicating her time to watching children’s shows like Sesame Street. Seven years later, they made the decision to raise a family in her newly adopted home. But how hard must it be to raise a family in a culture you couldn’t call your own?
My sister and I asked these questions our entire lives, struggling to piece together why things were certain ways for us when they were so different for our friends. We wondered about how our mother had developed some of her idiosyncratic behaviors, the ones that we love and others that we’d simply love to understand. Sometimes we’d ponder life in Malaysia, wondering what it would be like to look like everyone else, to be just two more faces in the crowd.
But now, as adults, we finally have the opportunity to experience and explore it for ourselves. After two decades of living as a solid family of four, we will encounter for the first time the people and places that our mother used to call “home.” My sister and I carry with us two lifetimes worth of questions. One trip, three childhoods explained.
We are set to travel this weekend to a new world. A reconciliation of past and a discovery of present. A mesh of reality and childhood stories. And a future with new and renewed family.
This weekend we leave for Malaysia, a different kind of home.
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