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tombstone

 It’s a lovely day outside and I’m in a dank room writing another novel because someday I’ll be dead and a tombstone wasn’t good enough.

Mat Johnson (@mat_johnson)

I have been terribly neglectful of my blog, probably because I’ve been spending too much time on other social media like Twitter and Pinterest. Although this post is about writing, it has a different, more personal focus than usual.

My mother passed away very recently. As I’d said in my eulogy, she and I had a complicated relationship. She could be challenging as I know I could be a challenge to her. We came from different worlds. Our home was a kind of venn diagram of the Filipino immigrant experience. First and second generations under one roof could be a pretty volatile cocktail mix in my family. Nevertheless, I am grateful for it shaped me. She shaped me.

In my eulogy, I spoke of how my mother was an avid reader. When my brothers and I were very young, she would take us to the library almost every weekend, until I was able to go on my own. I spent the summers of my youth in public libraries. I got to know the Dewey Decimal system intimately. (I was one of those weird nerdy kids who thought those little wooden drawers containing cards cataloging all the books were cute and quaint. Obviously this was pre-computers.) Perhaps it was my need to escape the relentless heat of my upstairs bedroom or to get away from annoying brothers whose boredom could only be alleviated by my misery, that kept me going back. But this doesn’t explain the excitement, which I feel to this day, of being surrounded by rows and rows of books. I seemed to always have my nose in a book, as I do now, although nowadays they’re mostly book manuscripts.

Young girl reading books

There is no doubt my love for the written word came from my mother. It eventually, if not inevitably, led to me to become a writer. To honor that and my mother, at her services I read three poems. The first was “Cleaning House” by Michelle Macaraeg Bautista, a Filipina-American writer from Oakland, followed by an edited version of the Sandra Cisneros-inspired poem, “You Bring Out the Filipina in Me,” by Ryann Tanap, a Filipina writer in Thailand. I ended with “Your Clothes” by Judith Kroll.

My mother’s obituary, although succinct, is unable to fully capture her life, and to be honest, neither does my biographical essay about her, which was given out at her services. Writing about her in this way allowed me to access memories I thought were long forgotten. It also allowed me to see her in a different light. Friends and family spoke of her being a very private person. She had friends but no one close, like a best friend, to confide in. Even her sisters had lost contact with her. My mother was certainly an emotionally complex woman whose inner struggles may never be fully understood by those who loved and cared for her. I too am a very private person, and it is difficult to explore my relationship with her outside of my stories, which makes me think of Alice Munro’s short story, “Fiction.” Perhaps fiction provides a way in which I can discover the woman I never quite understood when alive, no matter how much I tried.

You can read my biography of her here, but please excuse the glaring clichés. I know I rail against them when I read book manuscripts but with only two days to write it, this was the best I could come up with in such a limited time. Besides, I think her life story (as well as my father’s) is too vast to fit in 1500 words. I have to thank my daughter, a fellow writer, for editing. She proved a ruthless editor, which I absolutely love about her, and the piece, although still flawed, is so much better for it.

In the light of my mother’s death, I see life everwhere around me. I see it in my daughter and my nephews and nieces, whose lives are just beginning, in my ninety-four year-old aunt who flew in from Arizona, whose difficulty hearing does not deter her from being engaged and interested  in people, and in a fractured family now ready to start healing. It also makes me realize how life affirming literature and art is. I’m reminded of author and VONA faculty member, Mat Johnson’s tweet above, and I realize that our affirmation of life is embedded in what we create outside of ourselves, be it our stories, our art, or our children. As I watch my mother being lowered into the ground, her tombstone yet to be placed next to my father’s, I can only think, no, a tombstone is never enough.

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