As I boarded the bus departing Ithaca last Saturday, my mother called after me, “Why do you always leave so soon? … Don’t forget to call home often! Call me if anything happens. Have a safe trip!” I rolled my eyes and looked up the bus driver who gave me a sympathetic smile as I maneuvered my bags down the narrow bus aisle.
“Yeah, ok,” I replied to my mom without looking back. “I love you, but you’re such a hypocrite,” I wanted to turn back and tell her. But instead, I threw by bags down and settled into my seat.
The first incident was in 2010. I was a sophomore in college when my father was hospitalized for an emergency. As I was not living at home, I did not witness the incident and only learned that something was wrong when my mother called me to ask me if I had a spare copy of the house keys. She explained that she was at the hospital, she had locked herself out of the house by accident, and my younger brother wasn’t answering her calls. Confused, I answered no and asked her if everything was ok. She quickly dismissed my concern and reassured me it was. Not reassured, I called my brother, who alerted me he had just learned that my father had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance and that my mother was with him.
Later that night, after confirming that my father would be ok, my concern and anxiety for him turned to anger towards my mother. Why hadn’t she told me as soon as it happened? Why did she lie to me on the phone? When I confronted her, her replies were dismissive. I was at school and she didn’t want to distract me from my studies. It turned out not to be an emergency – everything was ok. There was nothing I could have done and she didn’t want to make me worry unnecessarily.
I grew even angrier. He was my father and I had a right to know. I was nineteen – an adult now – and she didn’t need to protect me like a child. Would she have hid this from me forever if I had not found out from my brother? I felt betrayed, as if she didn’t trust me – or trust that I could handle the truth.
Over the next five years she continued to downplay incidents. When my father was hospitalized under the same circumstances again, almost exactly three years later, it took a confused text from my brother (“mom said dad’s in the hospital again, do you know what happened?”) and a game of phone tag with my mother before I finally got the truth. She reassured me my father was fine. She didn’t want me to worry and didn’t want me to interrupt my grad classes and make the trip home (I did anyways). Nearly two years ago, she called to tell me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would get a mastectomy the following week. She promised she would be ok and that I didn’t need to make a trip home for her operation (again, of course I went home). Each time I berated her attempts to shield me from worry and “unnecessary life interruptions” and urged her to tell me as soon as things happened.
A little over a month ago, I received a late-night call from my father. “Your mom found out last week she has a tumor in her uterus. They don’t know yet if it’s cancer, but she needs surgery to remove it.” I thanked him for telling me, and promised I would call her soon. As soon as I hung up, I started to cry angrily into my pillow. Of course she didn’t tell me again. Of course I had to find out from someone else. Why would I have expected any different?
It was 1am, but I needed to talk to someone so I called one of my friends living on the west coast. He listened patiently as I cried into the phone, and then told me exactly what I needed to hear. “Eva, I’m so sorry, that sucks. But really think for a second. You can understand why she doesn’t tell you, right?” His parents were Korean, and in this respect just like mine – the worse a situation was, the more covered up it was and the less it was discussed. Our parents truly thought that they were doing right by protecting us from unnecessarily worrying about a situation we could not change. It was simply not in their culture to share, but to brave on in solitude. “If anything happened to my parents, I’d probably find out only after they died.” I laughed like it was a joke, even though we both knew it wasn’t. He made me promise that when I did call my mother that I wouldn’t lose my temper and yell at her.
A week ago, I received a holiday card from one of my best friends in college. Over the past year or so, he had stopped responding to my texts and calls. The card included a few words updating me on his life, and ended with an apology for being ” a shitty friend and bad at keeping in touch.” The thing is – I don’t think of him as a shitty friend. Yes, I missed hearing about his life and hearing the sound of his voice, but he had been really important to me in college and I’ll always remember that.
As I struggled with family emergencies and other personal hardships, throughout college I was incredibly fortunate to have a few good friends who I could rely on. Friends who were patient listeners and non-judgmental confidants. Friends who gave sympathy but never pity, and were able to dole out no-bullshit advice and tell me to shut up when I was whining. While my mother may have spent her entire life safeguarding her emotions and maintaining a solitary front in the face of adversity, I never had to carry my emotional burdens alone if I didn’t want to.
I do understand why my mother chooses not to tell my brother and I when confronted with difficult situations, but I still don’t think she is right. I don’t know if she will ever be able to lean on me and to share in the way that I want, but at least I am grateful that I have people who I trust and who I can count on. Who I can call at any hour of night to share my burdens and my problems, and whose burdens I am always glad to share as well.