Every Family Has a Story / by Stella Kim

For my hero, umma.

In the summer of 1994, my mom emigrated from Seoul only with her two children: me and my brother, Joon. I often flip through timeworn photos of the day we left Korea – it’s one of those memories from childhood that you remember so vividly. I had unloaded a bag of toys my mom had packed for the long flight over to New York onto the floor at Kimpo Airport. I remember tending to these out of fear of looking up at all the relatives gathered to see us off – something seemed serious. In all photos, my mom has her arms crossed in front of her, her hands holding onto either elbow. It’s something she does to this day when she’s nervous or shy. Her face was round and plain, and her eyes were lowered, perhaps in sadness, modesty and anticipation. She was only 30, and the heartbreak in her beautiful face was not obvious but implicit. She was so strong.

Mom was a nurse at the largest university hospital in Seoul until her first child, my brother, was diagnosed with Autism. After almost a decade spent grappling with the broken institutions of special education and social perception in Korea, she and my father agreed to have some time with this distance between them, so that they can effectively provide another chance at life for Joon. It has been 25 years since then.

She barely spoke a word of English at the time. Another strong memory of mine is when mom would carry a Korean-English dictionary with her to help guide daily tasks, like finding places, filing paperwork for Joon, even ordering a meal for us at the local fast-food restaurant. The little blue book still sits in our home, although unused. I’ve tried to toss it with other dated belongings through each relocation and move, but she continues to take it with her as one of her very few sentimental objects. I’ve silently inferred that it reminds her of her beginnings, her wishes and hopes for us. This was how and when she became a woman.

Like many immigrant families, we were unable to travel home to see our relatives for about five years due to visa restrictions after arriving in America. I remember painfully missing my dad as a little girl and hurting every time he left us after a short visit. I look back now and wonder how mom must have felt – I realize regretfully, I’d never asked. In those five years, mom lost her own father but was unable to travel home for his funeral. Dad visited shortly after bringing with him a video cassette that documented the ceremony. We sat in front of the television that night, and this was the first time I remember seeing mom cry. It felt foreign to me - I cried, too, not knowing how else to sympathize.

Growing up, very tersely put, I was an emotional liability for my mom. I think any daughter can resonate when I say that our mothers are our best friends, sisters, favorite people, our toughest critics, and also at times, our worst enemies. Our relationships encompass every possible aspect of good and bad. For us, I am somewhat like the (stereotypical) eldest son in our family given my brother’s condition; I’m seemingly aloof at home, and I show affection in the oddest ways possible.

The first time I lived away from home was in university. The morning of the move, I recall expressing discontentment towards my mom about the amount of Korean ban-chan she was packing for me. I knew this was her figurative, unsaid way of saying she’ll miss me, and I don’t think I was ready to receive it. After the move, I hadn’t walked her and Joon back to the car, let alone to the lobby. I know she was (and still is) upset about this; she thought I was heartless.

I wish I could tell her now it’s because I couldn’t watch her go.

At 60, mom looks like what she is – a mother of two grown children, a mellow wife, and a woman who had spent most of her life providing. Despite the demeanor of a gentle woman, her wrinkled skin and graying hair shows the years of giving, of enduring. She wears no makeup and dresses humbly, as if she had decided some time ago that these are her vices. She looks to me and Joon as steady sources of strength. She expects so little from this life and continues to amass the weight, as if she is not already overwhelmed. Her greatest wish in life is to delay her passing, enough so, to not leave Joon behind for me to care for alone. Sometimes, I find that unbearable.

This year, I gave my mom a card with flowers and a gift a few days before Mother’s Day. Gift-giving always becomes an awkward moment between us (and I write this with a smile on my face). I handed her everything in the kitchen, and she received without looking me in the eyes and thanking me almost inaudibly. She stood at the counter reading the card in her nightgown as I shied away into my room. I looked back and saw her holding onto her elbows again. She seemed smaller than I always remembered her to be.

I wish I could give her more, and I wish she would take it all without apology. I wish I could tell her that she has the right to dream, not for us, but for herself. I wish I can help her retrieve her youth and feel all the feelings again. I wish I can tell her, without reservation, that I love her.

And maybe we’ll all never feel satisfied with the little we give back, but here is to trying. Behind every mother, there is a story of sacrifice and grace.

Happy Mother’s Day, umma. Every day should be yours.