Yesterday, my mother was baptized. As I couldn’t be present at her baptism and the preceding testimony, I pressed her to tell me what she was going to say. This afternoon, she emailed me an English-translated transcript of the speech she gave.
Her baptism testimony was the most communicative I’ve ever heard her in 22 years. Standing before the large congregation comprising the local Chinese Christian church, she spoke openly and honestly about the past 30 years of her life in the United States. She spoke about her strained relationship my father after he fell ill with Parkinson’s disease and became physically disabled. She spoke about the terror she felt after her breast cancer diagnosis (her own father passed away from cancer decades earlier). She spoke about the weariness and weakness brought on by healing complications and necessary second, third, and fourth surgeries in the same year. And she spoke about her unwillingness to burden her children with what she felt to be her own problems. But she also spoke about the support of the church community, and the gratitude she felt. She spoke about the consolation she found in prayer, and the strength she found in finding God.
These things she had never said directly to me or my brother. For over two decades I’ve had to decipher whether “I’m tired” simply meant that she was tired, or that she was depressed but unable (or unwilling) to say so directly. Superficial arguments always ran much deeper, and bad news was delivered when she could no longer hide an emergency. But that speech was written with an openness and a vulnerability that I had never heard, that I found almost hard to believe.
So my first reaction to her words was that of skepticism. Especially about the God part. When my father was baptized less than two years ago, I looked upon his decision with the same cynicism. Part of me wanted to blame his “Parkinson’s brain,” the idea that his disease would eventually take hold of his rational faculties. Don’t get me wrong; I was glad that he had become a Christian, that he had beliefs to share and a community to share them with. But both he and my mother had spent most of their lives dismissing and even scorning religion. God doesn’t exist. What proof is there? Faith is blindness.
But this time, I could not blame my mother’s conversion on a mind-altering disease. And I also could not deny that she had changed for the better. That she had become happier, and her relationship with my father more harmonious. Could it be that her brush with mortality caused her to reassess her priorities? Maybe. Could it be attributed to one of her surgeries which helped resolve problems of chronic and debilitating pain? Probably. That going to church and bible study gave her a community to belong to and a support system? Yes, certainly. But perhaps she did also gain faith. Was that so impossible or so wrong? When I discussed this with my brother, he argued that the motives behind a good deed do not negate the goodness of the deed. And perhaps that’s true, and perhaps that’s enough.
But one more thing that strikes me is the public nature of her testimony. Dozens of people – an entire church congregation – heard her testimony. They listened to her stories. They received her confessions. They heard her promises. And in some way, they will hold her to her words. Perhaps these words were meant for my brother and I – the private conversation she could never have with us – but not for us alone. They were private words that had to be spoken in public.
I spoke with my mother briefly on Sunday evening, and she said she was surprised at how many people cried, how many people were moved by her story. When I, again, told this to my brother, he said he wasn’t surprised.
I think there’s something to be said about the public confessions of private matters. Narcissism aside, there is something deeply cathartic about confession. I am glad that my mother found a forum in which she felt comfortable expressing herself. Some words are more easily spoken to the world than to an individual. There is also something brave about presenting yourself honestly to others, for them to understand you, and to judge you, and perhaps to hold you accountable for your words.
Note: I realize that another barrier to communication between my parents and my brother and I is a language barrier. Even given the circumstances and the desire, without a translator at home, my mother probably couldn’t have communicated these thoughts in an eloquent and unbroken way as she did in her native tongue. It’s a struggle I’m sure is familiar to the children of many immigrant parents.