• Lijing Cobb

Are you ok?

Something heavy fell and made a distant crashing noise. My husband jumped up from his sleep, scratching my hand with his rough fingernail in the process, and asked, "Are you ok?"

ANNOYED, I responded automatically, "Not anymore."

Yes, it's in those moments of reflexive exchanges that I know, the road ahead is long, arduous, and full of twists and turns. No matter how "great" I'm doing in my lucid moments, deep down in that dark chamber where ghosts live and butterflies suffocate, another me bides her time, waiting for the right moment, when I'm least aware, to strike and draw blood.

No, I am not ok.

The kids had a two hour delay for school yesterday, so as I sat at my computer the two younger ones kept coming into my office. With the patience of an angel I explained to both of them on their separate visits that I needed uninterrupted time to write so that I could finish more quickly to fully dedicate myself to the next thing. Except in the case of an emergency, it is best that they leave me alone, so I can be focused and more efficient. With their unnecessary interruptions, I said, I lose the thread of my thoughts and have to reread what I just wrote over and over again in order to find the thread to continue on. Fair enough, right?

"But," my 7yo protested, "it IS an emergency! I need a hug and a kiss!"

My 7yo, my mini me, the one who was the closest to my mom's heart, constantly says these words to me these days: "Mommy, I need you." "Mommy, I just want to be with you." "Mommy, huggie and kissie?" In some ways I couldn't comprehend that. Why does she need me? What's so great about me that she sees, but I don't? Is the mere fact that I'm her mother enough to qualify me to be her best go-to whenever she needs something? What did I do to deserve such blind devotion?

When she was wrapping up her shower yesterday, my mini me said to me through the shower door:

"Mommy, can you get my pajamas out and lay them on my bed again, like you did yesterday?"

"Why do you want me to do that babe? Isn't that something you can do for yourself very easily?"

"I know. But since you never do that for me ever, can you just do it for me sometimes? I mean, only if you want to. You did it for me yesterday and I loved it. It made me feel special."

Then I insisted on talking about "the more things you can do for yourself, the better off you are." Really? Deep down, I knew I didn't believe a word I said.

When I was little, I wished that someone, anyone, would do things for me, things I could do for myself, things I did do for myself because no one else would, so that I could feel that I was loved and cared for. I wished to feel the warmth in my heart and the smile on my lips, knowing that I was not alone and loved.

"You should do this for yourself, but just so that you know I love you, I'll get your pajamas for you again tonight." I compromised.

"Okay mommy! Thank you!" She shouted from within the shower door, delighted at her fortune.

Earlier yesterday, I drove the girls to their gym for ninja training. My mini me had been asking me to watch her for the hour and half when she was there (I'd always just drop them off and leave to get other things done) for a while, so I decided to stay last night. All of us walked into the gym together, with my two girls bounding into the building ahead of my son and me. After we entered the building I suddenly remembered that I forgot to lock the car, so I retraced my steps. When I got back into the building, my 7yo was just reemerging from her set of double doors, eyes brimming with tears, arms stretching in front of her towards me. Hugging me, she sobbed and managed to get these words out:

"Where did you go mommy? I thought I lost you! I was so scared!"

Reliving that moment and hearing these words again now, I had an epiphany.

On July 19, 2021, at the foreboding hour of 1:15pm (1:15am in China), I received a WeChat call from my sister. My heart sank. When I picked up the call my sister was sobbing. There was no more mother. We lost our mother. She was gone.

I collapsed onto the floor. I kept saying no to the phone. I was beating the floor and shaking violently. I refused to believe it.

I had picked up my kids from summer camp and we were all gathered around the table finishing our lunch. They saw me. They tried to comfort me. They started crying when they couldn't stop my continued wailing. They must have been so scared.

That was 6 months ago. I had not thought about what effects my mom's passing had had on my kids, especially my little one. She remembered my mom. She was the one who kept sneaking into my mom's bed night after night when she was not allowed to sleep in my bed. My mom would complain in the morning how miserably she slept because of my daughter's practicing jiu-jitsu and karate on her during the night, yet night after night she opened her arms and welcomed my daughter into her bed, knowing that another night of unrest was in store. I know, without the shadow of a doubt, that she loved being interrupted in her sleep by my little one. She loved being needed and wanted. She'd had enough rejections and abuse in her life from her previous sleeping partner.

My little one, out of the blue one sunny afternoon, asked me where my mom had gone.

"She died." I was too busy wallowing in my own sorrow to notice her distress.

"Yeah but where did she GO?" The then 6yo insisted.

"I don't know, babe." Tears started streaming down my face so I could no longer see her face.

"So when will we see her again?" She kept going.

"Never. You will never see her again." My face was now contorted by the pain that statement had conjured up. I allowed myself to be covered under the blanket of mourning, and I don't remember how the 6yo received that information.

But now it all becomes clear. Over the last 6 months, persistently, if I turned a corner too soon and out of sight for my 6-7yo, she would freak out. Tears in her eyes and arms stretched out towards me when I finally re-emerge in front of her again. And over and over again, I got ANNOYED that she was such a basket case. "What is wrong with you?" I had secretly nursed this question every time I saw her like that. Sometimes when I drove her to her activities like normal, she would bound out of the car, only to return a few seconds later frantically, crying, "Mommy, I don't want to go. I just want to be with you."

I did not understand it. I did not see it. I was too absorbed in my own world of loss and pain to notice that I had passed on the very same thing I dread to my little one.

I lost my mother and I can't do anything about it. My daughter, with all 7 years of life, love, and wisdom, is trying to find her way through my grief. With her tearful eyes and outstretched arms, she's asking me to please not leave her like my mom left me, without a word, without an explanation, without telling me where she went, without any hope of seeing her again. My 7yo wants no part of that.

While my grief is mostly silent, in the passing moments when I saw my mom hovering over the stove, walking down the stairs, sitting over at the corner knitting, or at the table playing solitaire, my 7yo's fear is loud and vocal. She's been trying to communicate her fear of losing me over the last 6 months, and it is only now that I see. There is nothing wrong with my child.

I sat and watched her and my older daughter while they received their training last night. My 7yo looked over in my direction often, and when she caught my eyes, her eyes glinted and she gave me a bit smile, blew me kisses, and put her thumb up. In her water breaks she sprinted over to me for a sip of water, along with a hug and a kiss. But I never caught my 10yo looking over in my direction once.

Revelation after revelation. My 10yo just woke up when her alarm went off at 6:40am for zoom school, and she walked in on me sobbing. We hugged and I started apologizing to her for having pushed her into a grownup too soon. You see, I have a 10yo first born who's never given me any "problems." She's only 3 & 1/2 years older than her youngest sibling, but I've been calling on her for help like she's her sibling's babysitter for years now. She does almost everything for herself, and she (not me) taught her siblings how to do most things by themselves.

The more she's treated like a grownup, the less she comes to me for help and guidance.

On the car ride home after gym, my 10yo laughed at my 7yo for hugging and kissing me during her water breaks (ah, so she did look in my direction!). "Who does that?" She asked. "You don't see the ninjas on TV hugging and kissing their moms during competition!"

"That's ok," I interjected. "She just wants to know that I'm there and watching her, and she's happy when she gives me hugs and kisses. Some people are like that. That's ok."

I don't know what went through their minds after I said that, but no one said a word about my 7yo's hugging and kissing fits anymore afterwards. I imagine that the little one had a radiant smile on her face. But I can't see what expressions might have found home on my 10yo's face.

She has, like me, learned to be independent too early in her life. She had stopped asking for help as long as she's not absolutely confounded. She kept having these cold sores on her face for no apparent reason at all, and I know that I only get cold sores when I'm really stressed out. Yesterday morning, because of the two hour delay, she was confused about her schedule, and she asked me for help. Twice. At the time I didn't realize it, but I'm glad that I was able to guide her to find a solution both times. For the rest of the day she acted like a child again, yapping constantly and loudly, for no apparent reason at all.

My 10yo has been told and expected to "figure it out" on her own not only for her own problems, but sometimes for her siblings' as well. I have repeatedly asked my kids to "figure it out" on their own when a fight broke out and there seemed to be an endless amount of bickering amongst them. Did they figure it out? No, because it kept happening. They couldn't figure it out. They haven't been taught by their mother HOW to figure it out.

The reward of patiently waiting for my blog to be finished was the promise of a snuggle session. My 7yo got hers, and my son wanted one too, so I obliged. These days, I find it easier and easier to oblige. As I lay on top of him, crushing him with the weight of my love and full attention, he giggled and tried to breathe. Then as I looked him in the eyes, tears welled up when I saw him, the 9yo boy who wanted my love and attention. I saw him. I buried my face in his neck, and started apologizing to him.

"I'm sorry I've been so rough on you. I'm trying very hard to be better to all of you and..."

Without letting me finish I heard him say, "I'm sorry too mom. I know I've been bad, and I knew I was wrong but I kept doing it. I'll try to be better too and listen more." He's crying too, my dear boy, holding onto me, patting my back.

"Let's both try to be better to each other, and love each other the right way, is that ok?"

"Yes. Yes." He hugged me closer.

A discussion on strategies ensued. He said that he often feels overwhelmed. There are too many things he needed to do, but he didn't know where to start, so he ends up doing nothing.

Me too, son. So I said:

"You know, if I ask you to go from our house to my studio in one giant leap, is that possible?" (my studio is over our detached garage, which sits about 70 feet away from the house).

"No!" He shook his head emphatically.

"How about 5?"

"Still not possible."

"How about 10?"

"Hmmm... only if you have REALLY long legs!"

"How about 50?"

"Yes! That's completely doable!" He beamed.

"So you see, when you are overwhelmed with too many things on your mind, don't try to take 1 giant leap to go from the house to the studio. That's impossible. Take 50 steps instead, and that's doable. The important thing is to take the first step, and the rest will follow."

"That makes so much sense, mom! Thank you!" He hugged me even closer, with happiness oozing out of every pore of his being.

So back to this morning, when the thump woke my husband and me up, and he asked if I was ok. In annoyance I told him, not anymore.

Am I ok? Yes. And no. The healing of a lifelong wound does not happen overnight. The grief over the loss of my mother will never completely go away. I have to reconcile myself with that and face the pain, instead of going into hiding when it strikes. The road ahead is long, arduous, and full of twists and turns. But then when I do allow myself to look up and around in the moment of grief and healing, to see what's still unfolding right in front of me when time seems to be suspended in my lonely world of hurt, I see that my choice affects my children heavily, fundamentally. I have a responsibility to these human beings that I brought into this world. I want for them what I did not have but wished I had with every breath I take.

I want them to know, without the shadow of a doubt, that they are not alone, that they are loved, that I will never leave them, and that they can always be a child in front of me.

And I hope that one day many years from now, when I read these words and stories again, I'm able to tell myself that I held myself accountable for these words. That I am truly no longer ashamed of who I am and my struggles.

I hope that one day, when the loud thump wakes me and my husband up, we would both scratch each other with our rough fingernails and ask the question simultaneously, "Are you ok?"

And then know that we are.

My mom is looking down on us. We are ok, mom. Working on it.

My now 7yo and my mom belonged together.

We were together then. We are together now.

On one of my birthdays I took my mom to a river cruise in Cold Spring, NY, to see fall foliage. Just the two of us. We didn't do that often enough.

I wear this vest my mom made for me as much as I can. I think of it as a hug from her. It keeps my heart warm.

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