A Chinese mother's love and stoic resilience
I wrote a short story about my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis a few years ago, during a long train ride to Boston. It sat untouched in my Google Drive folder for years until my friend Annie invited me to write a piece for her new site, Renegade Media, a platform that highlights intersectional storytelling and thought-provoking commentary from individuals of all backgrounds. You can find the published version on her site here, or I welcome you to read it below.
The fragrant olive tree, known as the sweet osmanthus, is my mother’s favorite. When I was a child, we had a humble little tree in our front yard, and I still hold fond memories of standing beneath it, basking in its deliciously sweet fragrance that danced with subtle notes of ripe summer peaches. When all other flowers waned in the late summer, the osmanthus flourished in full bloom long through the autumn. Its white flowers were small and unassuming, perhaps even invisible from afar, but they had to do very little to envelop you in its intoxicating allure.
The osmanthus is native to southern China, where Chinese mythology describes one growing fervently on the moon, tamed only by cutting it every thousand years to prevent its beauty from entirely consuming the moon. Its commanding aura and generous growth know no bounds.
This is my mother’s favorite tree. I suppose familiarity is comforting. I think of her whenever I catch its scent.
My mother laid the pathway for my life when she left China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. At a time when children were ripped from schools to labor in rural fields and when my own grandfather was brutally beaten for being wealthier than most, my mother realized there was no future for her in China. Her education was abruptly and permanently halted. There was nothing left for her. Young, brave and limited in options, she fled to Hong Kong. Thanks to generous relatives and a lot of luck, she turned the page to a new chapter in Maryland.
She continues to pay this generosity forward. From as early as I can remember, my mother has been a selfless spirit. In the dead of winter, she was the first to wake, dragging my protesting body out of bed in time for 5 a.m. high school volleyball practice. While my father often traveled for work, my mother stayed home and cared for my younger sister and I.
Every day, she packed our lunches. Every night, she locked herself up in the kitchen, painstakingly preparing something akin to a Chinese banquet. Petite pork dumplings she’d spend hours filling, folding and pinching. An entire snapper she’d purchase from the market to scale, clean, season, and steam. Childish, ungrateful and too often preoccupied with online chats with my friends, I’d sometimes dismiss her calls to dinner.
Every time I had somewhere to be, she chauffeured me in our petite Honda Civic. Every single orchestra concert I had, she was there. Every late night I spent slaving away on a school paper, she would silently slip me a bowl of cut fruit and slink away. Always pitted, always peeled, always perfect.
My mother and I did not talk much about what I was learning in school or about my greater professional aspirations. I can only venture to guess that she felt she did not have much to add there. We did not ever talk about romantic relationships either, though they were nonexistent and thus inconsequential at that point in my life. Verbal encouragement was sometimes few and far between, but her actions spoke when her words were absent. For every highlight, for every upset, she was there.
My life changed dramatically once I graduated from high school. Suddenly, things were moving at an exponential pace. Soon after college, I was in San Francisco, distracted by the new experiences I could now afford with my new salary. Then I moved further away to New York for a summer, where I got lost in a new relationship and lost even more of the little headspace I had for family back home.
Sometime in the winter of 2013, I received a call from my godmother while I was out at dinner with my then-boyfriend. I remember that night vividly. The air was cold and crisp. His nose, runny and wet, was tinged pink from winter’s touch.
She called to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. While I was gallivanting about in New York City, my mother had been delivered a death sentence. The subsequent silence lay way to the sound of my heart shattering into a thousand pieces. I broke down in tears and crumbled before my boyfriend.
I was confused, and I was angry. How does someone, so soft and gentle, so loving and demure, deserve this hell? Why did this have to happen? Why her? So many questions, no answers and, more importantly, no real plan. I can tell you now that there is no greater awakening than when death emerges at your doorstep.
The months to follow were long and complicated, but my mother persevered. Through the doctor’s visits and mounting medical bills. Through every poke and prod. Through every incision and every extraction. Through the changing of every dressing, the draining of every tube. Through countless sleepless nights and painful mornings. Through the myriad of pills she may have to take for the rest of her life. Not once did she complain, for she suffered in silence.
I took time off work to help her back in Los Angeles after her surgery. I continued to support her from afar and over the phone, but like the unrelenting osmanthus, she held herself up, masked in grace and humility. Flesh and bone are weak, but there is strength in her silent resilience.
I think of her whenever I smell this tree. I find comfort in knowing that its love and beauty know no bounds.