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On Death and Ambition


My mother was an ambitious 14 year old. Born in Taiwan, she moved to the big city on her own and started working full time by the age of 16. She made a bet with herself to make her first million dollars by the time she turned 30. And she succeeded, ahead of schedule. She traveled the world courageously and I was born out of her bravery and ambition. My mother knew she had a duty to bear a child to fulfill her familial obligations. Yet, she gave no care to gender when gender was so important. She felt her duty complete despite my being born a girl. She was only 25 years old when she had me, her only child.

Inside her womb, I received what she consumed. She nourished me with coconut water, live and vital from the shell, tropical fruits borne from the rich soils of the island, classical music, and science fiction literature. I received what she consumed and she was consumed with ambition.

I won’t know this about her, or myself, until 25 years later, exactly at the age she had me, exactly at the time she made her ambitious one million dollar bet.

One day my grandfather passes away from cancer. Death is always sudden.

My mother flies back to Taiwan a whole person and returns to Vancouver a figment.

She says a dying person reveals a certain clarity around you. When you have to wipe down your own parent’s sick body. You can’t even wash the hospital smell out of your own hair and clothes.

She continues to clean his sheets. His waste. His body dies a little everyday while her body lives on, still cleaning him, awaiting her father’s imminent death.

Death is… undignified for the body, she says.

Shortly after my grandpa’s death, I visit my parents’ home to eat, sleep, mourn with them. I was still in university, with no real job. My only ambition at the time was finishing my undergraduate degree.

My mother sits at my bedside. She talks, and cries quietly while I pretend I am asleep. It’s getting later and later but I force myself to stay awake in order to pretend to sleep.

I recall what she says only in fragments that my memory struggles to piece together.

My mother says, “one of my biggest regrets in life was using work as an excuse to not see my father when he was alive. When he called and just wanted to talk, I was always short with him. When he wanted to see me I never seemed to have the time. Time was only afforded to work.”

“I wish I could have spent just a moment more to talk to him,” my mother says. “I wish I could hear his voice, if only for one more minute.”

“I didn’t even have that extra minute for him.”

“I will never get that time back.”

I can recall this only in fragments that I struggle to piece back together. And yet I won’t fully remember this moment until later when my own ambition would become the very thing that would distance my mother and I.

A week passes.

A month…

Then a year…

My career began to grow at age 25, and now, at 28, I can see the patterns recreated out of the umbilical thread that weaves through my mother and me. Her pain is visceral and I am already full of regret.

Then a year turns plural and these years would measure the distance between my mother, and me. I too, begin to forget.

“I’m too busy to talk, mom.” I would say.

I work. And I forget some more.

And then at age 28, full of ambition I finally remember what my mom says.

And suddenly it’s clear.

I am repeating my mother’s cycle of regret.

Last year, I work up the courage to call my mom. To close the distance borne out of the ambition that we share.

I say to my mother, “do you remember when you were talking to me after grandpa died, and I pretended to be sleeping?” I am asking my mother to remember, out loud, so that I, too, can remember.

“Of course,” she says over the phone, without missing a beat.

In this moment I wish to be free from pain and loss through the wisdom of my mother’s own sorrow. My recollection of that night by my bedside is the only escape I have from the cycle of ambition and regret.

I work up the courage to quit the job that started my career.

My mother says, death reveals a certain… clarity around you. As your heart breaks, piece by piece, the remaining core grasps onto anything – anything – to keep on beating, or stop beating all together. It wants to reach outward, break through the skin of your chest because it is in agony and wants out. It feels trapped inside the body. When it is so vulnerable, the heart, embraced and protected by the body, still wants out.

Like a breaking heart, my mother is still trapped inside her regret.

I am asking my mother to remember as I tell her my fragmented memory of her regret, so that I can remember too. So that I am no longer trapped inside my own regret. So that I will remember not to forget her.

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