Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Out of Gas - Part 2

Part 1: On Parenthood & Moving Out

I can still see them embrace. She’s kissing him, tenderly, one cheek then the other. I pause to see if she will cry, or allow herself to succumb to her true feelings kept hidden inside her – her baby is leaving; how to let go? There is no trace of sentiment. And as she pulls away, I see my brother, arms open, eyes fixed on her black hair.

I wonder if in that moment, if something needed to be exchanged between Mother and Son. Some last words of love, some life lessons, a story. Instead, mom says authoritatively as she walks away, “I’ll call you.”

The moment like many others, nameless, escapes, unscathed of any significance or meaning.

In the car, mom insists that I drop her off at the Caltrain in San Francisco, that she’ll take the train home to San Jose. The martyr in her insists. I tell her to rest and sleep, that I’ll wake her up when we arrive. I’ll take her home.

The space between us is filled with the sound of insects shattering randomly on the windshield and noise of the tires against dusty road. Mom shades her eyes with some mail from her purse.

“Vincent is so mature. He made several trips to prepare his place. He put too many things in his room. Why he didn’t find furniture there. He had to carry the loft bed from San Jose to Chico. He drove back and forth. His first place. Oh, he’s so responsible. That room is so small. He has too much stuff.”

“Well, he has everything he needs. The good thing was he took several trips so it wasn’t quick. He gave you time.”

I think of my own experience and the day I moved out. Packed, the truck was loaded and I was gone in less than an hour, leaving everyone confused and wondering if I was ever coming back. But I never did. I never wanted to come back.

“He’s so mature. He found the place, he managed the move and he did everything himself. He’s so responsible.”

“Well, it’s not that hard, ma. I found my own place and paid for it myself. Do you remember my first apartment?”

I test her.

“But you never came to my first place, did you?”

“Ah, your apartment, you shared a room with that girl, your friend from Santa Clara. What was her name? You paid $250.”

“It’s funny how you never came to visit me but you remember how much rent I paid. Mommie, that says a lot.”

The truth is she did visit me once when Vince was 10. She spent the whole time...complaining. All the games and guilt – a different experience from my brother’s. And the phone calls. Once, in tears, she cried dramatically, “we work so hard, from the time we come to this country. We lived in the apartment in Cunningham to the duplex on 10th and now we have a home, we have our own place, but where are you? You’re not here.”

Memories I thought forgotten. Why didn’t I correct her, remind her that she did come visit me? Instead, I accept the silence between us.

I continue to accelerate, speeding through landscapes, towns and cities, getting from point A to B. I don’t care about the journey; I just want to get home. I want the day to end. The sun moves and finally descends. Nightfall. We arrive in San Jose. I park outside in front of the driveway.

“Come inside, hun. You have to try these dried mushrooms that I got from Taiwan. You like shitake? They are delicious. And you have to take the banh uot and cha lua. It’s your favorite. Come in. Just a little, hun.”

I shake my head. I give my mom a big hug with all my being. She’s handled the day well. I give her what is left of my energy and pass it from my heart to hers. I wave my mom good-bye until I can no longer see her face and her silhouette against the blue- black sky.

I head home. I flick through the radio station not satisfied with sounds. Back on the highway, I start accelerating again. 100. 110. I think of my brother. I already miss him. I think of my mother. I’m sad. The past has veiled her memories. She’s no longer present. I replay scenes from today, from last week, last month. I replay the past. I replay the words, conversations that drain me, belittle me. I feel completely empty. I keep accelerating.

Almost home, only 10 minutes away.

As fatigue starts to settle, the car suddenly....jolts. The speedometer drops from 90 to 40 to 30... I pump the gas, but the engine starts to choke. The wheel starts to harden.

“Shit, no! No!!”

Forgetting to signal, I immediately pull the wheel to the right heading to the shoulder. Almost colliding with a car. It hisses and honks, lights flicking, a loud scream. I put on my emergency lights looking at the row of cars behind me.


With no time wasted, the car inches and crawls onto the curb until it finally dies.

I’ve run out of gas.

Shocked. I can’t believe what has just happened. I restart the car. The dashboard light engages but dies. Several times, I attempt to start the car but every time it dies. I slowly start to accept the circumstance and focus on how to get gas!


Luckily, the iphone is charged. The nearest gas station is only half a mile away. Exhausted and feeling down on myself...I start to laugh. It can’t get any worse. Only this morning I told my husband that I really wanted to go for a run but that I didn’t have any time. No time for myself. The universe listens and it has a sense of humor.

Not knowing if I'm going the right direction, I start to run. I start to realize, you run out of gas when you give everyone everything you have and you have nothing left for yourself. Why do we do this? Especially in my family where women are expected to play a selfless role. They say that to give is to love. But, is it a value that we should uphold at all costs? Does it makes us look better to be a martyr? Do we feel justified? Too often, I see my mother give and give. She does it unconsciously, mindlessly, painfully. Over the years, I’ve tried to help her. But I can’t make her change. I can't make her face her demons, make her take better care of herself, make her stop worrying. Make her happy.

I manage to get a gas container from a guy working at the Shell station. He helps me fill it and shows me how to use it.

“You muz pooosh back the nuzzle” he says in a thick Indian accent.

Drenched in sweat, I stumble back to the car. I feel the force and the gravity of the cars whirl by as they pass; I pull back the nozzle and connect it to the opening of the gas tank. The gas starts pouring all over my hands and over the side of the car. I try again. This time, more gasoline gushes onto my hand, and on the side of the car until there’s a pool of it on the road. Obviously the container is broken! After 3 attempts, I pray that enough gas has made its way into the belly of the car.

Blinded by wet hair, gasoline, I get myself back in the driver’s seat. I attempt the sign of the cross with my hand, left to right, top of the head, heart. I’m not a Christian, but nonetheless. I do another cross sign, this time right to left, not knowing if the car will start or if the car with me in it, will go up in flames.

I take a deep breath as if it were my last.

The engine starts.

I’m on the road with mom, earlier that day.

“You know Vince said to me, that you might not realize it now but it’s better this way, for your relationship.” I tell her.

“What? He moved out because of me, to improve our relationship? He told you this? He moved out because of me...that he thought it would be better?”

Sentences, dissected and reordered and warped. It’s always about her.

I want to give up and keep quiet.

I try again.

“Well, it’s like us. Remember when I moved out? Aren’t we closer now?”

She’s no longer with me. She’s somewhere else. Only the shell of her body, her mind has left me and I don’t know how to bring her back.

But I try again.

“It’s like a flower. As a gardener, you need to give the flower, sun and water. You have to allow the flower to grow. You have to let it grow, so you can enjoy it’s beauty, ma.”

She smiles momentarily.

We pass a landscape of gold hills, the color of desert sand. Surreal and other worldly. The slopes of the hill, undulating, like the endless curve of a woman’s hip against the clear azure sky. Mom takes out her digital camera and snaps away. We both look at each other and smile allowing the gold light and serenity of that moment to wash over our faces and carry us away. It's beautiful.

By Mai Brehaut

Monday, August 16, 2010

On Parenthood & Moving Out - Part 1 (For Vince)

It’s a Saturday, August 14, 11:10 AM. This is the earliest I’ve ever seen my brother on a weekend.

Pulling into my garage, the champagne colored Toyota Highlander is packed to the brim. I open the passenger door, and relieve my mother of the mountain of stuff from her lap: plastic bags of frozen tomato sauce, book shelves, school supplies.

My brother steps out of the car. Standing almost a head taller then me, he smiles and leans over for a hug. Athletic and sporting a Bruce Lee do with goatee, the kid looks effortlessly cool. You can tell on his face and in his being, his energy is nothing short of pure excitement and glee.

My mother looks around in the garage. She immediately spots the wedding present she gave us, hidden behind brown boxes, a re-gifted, kitschy, 70s embroidered tea towel, framed behind glass. In the center is a victorian couple with the traditional wedding gifts around the border with...1st year, paper, 10th year, tin...

“So you have no room in your house to hang it up?” She says in a way that shows her disapproval.

I see her look around my garage, not so much searching for other hidden gifts, but perhaps, so she can temporarily escape realization, glancing away from us to wipe tears from her eyes.

On my brother’s big day, I give him the ultimate gift. I spare him the 3 hour car ride with mom. At 21, he’s finally moving out of the parental nest. He’s learning to fly. Solo. Destination. Chico.

“Mommy, you’ll ride with me,” I tell her.

“Why, I want to stay with Vinh.”

“Mommy, I haven’t spoken with you in 2 months. Come on, you can fill me in on all the news,” I say pleadingly.

My brother whispers to me, “She’s scared of riding the car with you, that you’ll fall asleep. Just don’t tell her that you’re sleepy.”

I can’t help but laugh out loud. My brother’s comedic humor is always spot on.

I grab her purse and throw it in my car.

“Noooo. Why do I have to go with you? I haven’t spoken to Vinh. I want to talk to him, I want to go with him. What’s wrong, I want to ride with my son.” She climbs into the SUV and closes the door, puts on her Jacky O sunglasses and crosses her arms.

I look at my brother and hand him the keys to the Audi.

“Ok, do YOU want to drive my car?”

We swap keys. He gives me his and I climb into the SUV, adjusting the seat and mirror.

“What, what’s going on? I don’t want to ride with you! I want to ride with my son!”

“Mom, you have 2 choices, you can either ride with me in the Toyota OR with me in my car, up to you. Come on mommy, we don’t have all day. Just give the boy a break. It’s a long drive, we need to go.”

I avoid her eyes and start to negotiate with God.

Finally, she yells out OK, throwing her arms above her 4’11 frame.

During the drive, she reminds me every now and then that she doesn’t want to be with me. That she wants my brother. And that we should turn on some music in case I get sleepy.

The experience is... slow torture.

Her words are hard to take in but I don’t take it personally. I know she’s going through a tough one. Today’s a big day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about parenthood lately. I don’t know why. Maybe because I haven’t made the plunge yet but with increasing age, the topic knocks a little more sternly. It’s also one of those topics that I pull out every now and then to assess my own life.

As I look at my mom, I start getting pains in my stomach. I wonder if there’s a hidden secret behind parenthood -- my biggest fear -- that it's just one big psychological mess a la the movie, Groundhog Day where one's neuroses is relived everyday and if one hasn’t figured it out like Bill Murray, the kids eventually do, and they will move on into their own lives either burdened or liberated.

And, if we believe that we exchange energy with everyone, including our children, wouldn't it be possible to unintentionally exchange say, our unresolved baggage with them? All those white lies, unresolved problems, expectations, resentment, obsessions, depression, failures, doubts -- given out for free, donated en masse. Is there any hope? If one’s intentions are pure and focused on Truth and Love, won’t things fall into place and work out?

Grateful for my own experience, helping raise my brother when he was born, I know all too well that parenthood is not a cake walk even with family support and continuity.

Sometimes, I wonder why we get ourselves seduced into the hardest, darkest, most miraculous thing, often willingly?

And then, I see my brother driving in the car ahead of me.


He’s stepping forth into the world. Only 2 months ago, he faced his own acomodador (an event in our lives that is responsible for us failing to progress). And he accepted it and is walking toward the path of his own personal legend. His life is not like mine although we have the same parents. Given all the insecurities, given all my parents “special” gifts and the weight of expectations, guilt passed down from generations, he steps forth and does his own thing. He’s developing his own passion, building his own character, his own trust and respect with others. My little brother, my partner in crime when I used to work at my parent's Ice Cream Company in the summers; who used to ride shot gun in my ’85 Celebrity Chevy, eating Cluck U chicken wings, the barbecue sauce all over his lips, blissed-out, sleeping on the window. And now, the one who makes me laugh anytime of day. The one who is my ally at Thanksgiving. The one I go to for running advice. The one who looks like a greek statue. An assist coach, a confidante to others, an athlete, a mentor, an introspective soul, a kind person.

He has so many good things going for him than against him.

We arrive at his new apartment and I help him unload his loft bed, the 50lb bag of rice, a rice cooker, a box of mangoes, packs of chinese sausages - the asian essentials. We have lunch at a diner (he puts away chicken soup, a steak and fried chicken stripes, mashed potatoes, a slice of banana cream pie) and he takes us around the Chico campus. I’m proud of my brother and hug him many times before we leave him. He labors over the driving directions back home to San Francisco.

That night for the first time, I get a text:

8:44PM: “Did you guys make it back yet?”

Time flies. Precisely, 21 years and some change, 256 months, 92,160 days, 2,211,840 hours, 132,710,400 minutes. Time and memory, captured like photographs, sometimes blurry, fractified. The weight of time moves with lightness of feet like my brother’s, gliding over the track lanes.

Marianne Williamson imparted these pearls of wisdom. These words are for you, Vince. I love you bro:

“We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you NOT to be?? You are a child of God. Your playing small does NOT serve the world. There is no-thing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the Glory of God that is within us, ALL of us. And as we let our Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our Presence automatically liberates others.”

By Mai Brehaut

Part 2: Out of Gas (Read the second part of the piece here)

Vince crossing the finish line


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