Thursday, May 7, 2009

Death in the Family

My mother has a candid way of talking about death. “If I ever get sick, I hope I go quickly,” she explains one night over the dinner table. “I don’t trust any of you to take good care of me,” she snaps her chopsticks at me, my sister, and finally my father.

“And I want you to scatter my ashes over my favorite place,” she carefully instructs while we try to eat. I immediately assume she means Loehmann’s on Wisconsin Avenue, the discount-designer where she once lost me but found a pair of Versace sunglasses for seventy-five dollars. She senses my misjudgment and clarifies, “I want you to spread my ashes on the hills of Tuscany.” My mother was born in Taiwan and has never been to Tuscany, but she lives vicariously through the movies. At least she didn’t say the bridges of Madison County.

After a long silence, she settles, “But I plan on staying around until I am eighty.” Looking at me, she confesses, “I don’t want you to be parentless.”

Although the thought of my mother fretting over my potential orphan-hood is touching, I wonder if she realizes that I will be well over forty by the time she turns eighty. With any luck, I will be grown with a family of my own, and the thought of her scrutinizing my every move until then from a rambler house across the street is terrifying.

I find myself laced with guilt whenever I consider my parents’ death. When the thought does comes up, I worry it will be the one time God is actually listening. Angered, he will find some way of punishing my lack of filial respect, perhaps by smiting my parents on my behalf or perhaps by putting me to death for my wandering thoughts. But I must admit that life after my parents seems just as intriguing and exotic as it does terrifying.

With my parents gone, nobody can tell me not to eat ice cream for breakfast. I plan on formally renouncing green vegetables. Every last one of my fantasies of frivolous disobedience can be realized without any sense of guilt. But life without mommy and daddy would represent a sense of freedom much more significant.

With my parents gone, I could get B’s and C’s in school without getting the piercing glare of disapproval and the accompanying lecture of responsibility. I could travel for the thrills, not to study abroad. I could take jobs for the adventure, not to further my career. I could be an artist, a writer, or a chef –not a doctor, lawyer, or chemical engineer.

When I was five years old, still young and naïve, I wanted nothing more than to be a farmer. One of my brilliant ideas was to take eggs from the refrigerator and stuff them in my blanket in the hopes that they would hatch into chicks. (In retrospect, my foray into the poultry business was an idea destined for disaster.) All the while, my mother laughed at my simple dreams, not because I had hidden eggs in a bed I would accidentally jump into later but because, “What would your grandparents think?!” They lived five-thousand miles away and I had never met them, I didn’t care what they thought.

Some years later, when I took the SATs during my junior year of high school, my mother frantically placed burning incense sticks in every corner of the house, an effort to beg my then deceased grandparents to lend a helping hand. When my scores came back, my mother was pleased. “You can thank your grandfather for that!” she clucked. Never mind the previous summer I had spent studying. Needless to say, this culture comes with a great deal of pressure. Along with my never ending quest to satisfy my parents, I am somehow expected to impress an audience that spans several hundred years.

Yet even more than my academics and my career are concerned, my parents have a hand in every facet of my identity. They tell me what I should say to sound more mature. They tell me what to wear to appear more professional. They tell me what kind of person I should marry because, ironically, they claim to “know what will make me happy.” Obviously I don’t always take what they say to heart. But their efforts affect me enough to want to lie when I do against their word. Either way, the control they have over me is suffocating. Sometimes I cannot even tell what I want anymore because I have spent so long doing what my parents want.

It’s sad to say, but I truly believe that I can only start living once my parents are gone. And although it would break their hearts to hear that I feel this way, I am thoroughly convinced that it would hurt more if they found out that I don’t actually want to be a doctor and I don’t really want to marry a Chinese girl. But even though my parents gave it to me, I should not have to owe my entire life to them.

Of course this could all be misplacement of blame on my part. I don’t have to listen to their advice. I don’t have to care what they think. Last summer at my sister’s college graduation, Oprah Winfrey told a captivated audience to do what “feels right.” My father quoted her for weeks afterwards, something I found to be strangely hypocritical. What if I had told him that it felt right to become a backup dancer for Britney Spears? My father is more of a subscriber to the school of, “Do what feels practical and fiscally responsible.” But Oprah was right, (as always). I can do as I please and throw honor out with window. After all, what’s more important to me, being a happy and true person or being a good son?

And there is always the possibility that their death would not change anything. What if I falsely assume that their physical presence is what keeps me in line? What if their constant nagging and prying has been so firmly entrenched in my psyche that I will always seek their approval, whether they are around to give it or not? If my mother had her way, she’d become omnipotent upon death and she would subtly let me know when she feels like I’m making the wrong decision by dropping boulders from the sky. Then there would truly be no escape.

I once read a scientific article that suggested our parents have very little influence over our behavior. Despite my background in science and my utter faith in the objectivity of scientific research, I view this conclusion with a certain amount of skepticism. My parents have always dictated my life, whether directly or indirectly. And when people call me neurotic, needy, insecure, and desperate for approval, I like to believe that I can blame my parents for that. But at some point, I will have to step out from their shadow, which protects me as much as it holds me back. And all I can do is hope that they will still love and support me, even though I will probably go against their will and scatter their ashes in the backyard.


Anonymous said...

I had to force myself to slow down and really read every word of that post - it's packed with some pretty powerful stuff although I'm not sure what to do with it - pressure from the family in some ways is a good thing - at least they care - and even though you might find disapproval to some things you choose, in time I think they will accept and support anything that makes you happy - maybe that's naive on my part, but I know in my heart that my parents truly care about my happiness over anything else

Anna said...

interesting - i don't have the balls to blog about something like this :D

Oldyeller said...

I hope that you are already starting to step out from your parents' shadow. It's inevitable as you become older--you develop a life, worries, responsibilities unrelated to theirs. You visit less often, get your own place & job. Their influence gradually wanes. My guess is that you'll be more successful financially than your parents.

So what's wrong with Ramblers anyway?

Aek said...

Can you truly forget about the past? The expectations and honor of ancestors? I don't know, it's part of the culture. This concept of familial honor, "face," is a powerful one.

Btw, that bit about you putting eggs under a blanket when you were 5, so cute!!

David said...


i'm gonna have to come back to this one.

Mike said...

I hear ya about the judgmental parents (my mother in particularly). But my solution won’t help you. I have four brothers. And my four other brothers followed my parent’s (mostly my mother’s) wishes. They continue to live within the same zip code we grew up and my parents still live. I escaped, but only because my mother had my four brothers to judge. I don’t care. I’ve never been close to my parents and never will be. But I’m almost happy.

I'm proud of you, thought, at least you scattered your mother’s ashes in the backyard, and didn’t toss them in the rubbish bin.