It’s Monday night and I’m packing up for a weeklong work-cation—i.e., a trip consisting mostly of work, with feeble attempts at trying to enjoy an environment that isn’t home. From Los Angeles, a flight to San Francisco never breaks an hour and a half, and while it’s a trip I used to take every two weeks, I’m a total wreck. I’ve spent all day stressing out about it, double, triple checking if I have enough clothes, if I packed enough underwear (does anyone else always pack extra, just in case?), and whether I packed too many tops with stripes on them (I did). It’s the first time I’ve hopped on a plane in almost three years. I’m nervous. I’m nervous about COVID. And for the first time in a long while, I’m nervous about being away from home.
I’ve never been nervous about being away from home. Well, not since we left the Philippines for good. After that move, we moved every year for several years, and home eventually took on an abstract concept rather than a physical space. In short, I grew up detached—mostly out of necessity but also out of fear. It becomes hard to yearn for something when history shows you it will not stay.
This home I am in now is the first home I’ve ever created for myself, and I put it together as I was making my way out of incredible heartbreak. In essence, it is my metaphorical and literal safe space. Is that why I’m afraid to leave it, even for a short while? Am I afraid that it won’t be as I remembered when I come back?
I guess I won’t know until I step out the door.
I’d been in a funk for several weeks. I was grateful for the success I’ve experienced with work, yet on the other side, overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility paired with a profound unknowingness. I felt paralyzed, both emotionally and physically, often straining to get out of bed. I woke up with the news today that there may be another Zika outbreak, which was followed by the impending doom to follow if we don’t figure out the climate crisis, which was then followed by economists weighing in on why my generation is financially screwed. I clicked off and decided I’d spend my energy on only one crisis today.
I’d forced myself back into a routine the last couple of weeks. I cut out junk and forced my body to move. I told friends I wouldn’t be available, as I needed space to process what I was feeling. They understood, of course. They are full of love in that way.
I went back into my garden, tending to my rose bush that bloomed with an even greater abundance after I’d pruned it liberally in an attempt to rid it of aphids. My dwarf banana tree sprouted a pup, which I repotted. My baby avocado tree stood up proudly. My sampaguita are taking to their ladder, two vines climbing up in parallel in a double helix. The heirloom tomato seeds I planted months ago have grown tall and are in need of a new trellis.
As I worked in my garden, the neighborhood toddlers would pay me a visit. They would come to see George, my cat, who they’d grown fond of. Months ago, it was just one. Now I have three toddlers playing in my yard. They came every day, and soon, my afternoons and early evenings at home were spent laughing with them, playing pretend, about Everything and Everywhere All At Once.
I saw that film this evening. I walked out after the credits, tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was exactly what I needed. “Don’t look at me!” I scowled at my friend as we left the theater. “I look ugly.” We laughed and parted with a hearty embrace.
Two photos with pieces from the same artist, taken twelve years apart and on opposite coasts.
I took a ceramics course for a month and have probably taken about seven courses in total. Despite my inclination for making all kinds of art, working with my hands, and all the classes I’ve taken dedicated just to throwing, I can safely say that I can barely make a bowl, haha!
This set of classes, I decided to let loose. Generally a detail-oriented and meticulous person, the best gift I’ve learned from making art is that this is a space where I can allow myself to be free. And with that, I’ve rediscovered the childlike joy and wonder of play for the sake of play.
I drove to Beverly Hills to my friend’s place. We had plans to carpool to the Getty for our monthly afternoon of sketching. “Hi, I’m here!” I was running late and I knew our ticket window to head in was closing. Already figuratively out of breath from rushing over, I felt my face turn red when she kindly reminded me that our tickets were for tomorrow.
I took my consequential embarrassment as a cue from the universe to slow down. I’d started to feel so much pressure heading into my 36th birthday, checking off now seemingly arbitrary boxes and scrutinizing what was left on my lists of to-dos without taking the time to breathe. I took my sketchbook and headed to a local cafe to sketch outside in between bites.
I sat under an umbrella as the sun beamed a very welcome warmth. A soft breeze rattled leaves in the trees. Birds chirped and skipped alongside my table. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend that this pandemic was over.
A jazzy version of “You Are My Sunshine” played over the loudspeaker. I’d always loved this song, and every time it plays, I’m reminded of my grandma singing it to me, holding me close to her while she combed through my hair.
I thought I was going to lose my father. Two months ago, my dad noticed a mass growing on his chest, one that I dismissed so easily when he jumped in on a video call I was having with my younger brother a month ago. “It’s not going away. What do you think it is?” I had a quick glance and told my dad it was probably nothing. I assured him that I would look at it when I visited home.
With my dad’s and my birthday being so close together and ongoing concerns around COVID, this year, we decided to combine birthday dinners to one weekend. My parents living over an hour away from me usually means staying the entire weekend and taking my cat with me. I have to plan this weeks ahead.
And then it happened. My parents said something that triggered old, deep, painful wounds. “Your dad can’t make Saturday dinner. He has to work over time,” Mom said. Suddenly, my chest flooded with feelings of abandonment, bitterness, and loneliness. The oldest sibling, a daughter, a latchkey kid, and an undocumented immigrant, I had a role to play in my family, and while it is one that I honor seriously, it is one that’s led me to develop a crippling anxiety that I’ve only learned to manage well in the last few years. Deep down, I was also angry that my dad, a senior, was being asked to do over time for his manual job. And with that, I was angry that my dad, at retirement age, felt the need to do over time. With this flood of emotions came the cries of a child—likely that little girl in me who never felt she was allowed to be young. I acted out, hurt, wounded, ashamed.
Struggling with my sense of boundaries but still committed to seeing my family, I cut my weekend visit to lunch. I arrive home, and Dad is waiting patiently on the couch watching TV. “No George?” George is my cat, and I’m tickled that this once grumpy, anti-pet dad now baby-speaks to my cat whenever he sees him. I shake my head. Immediately, he gets up and asks me to look at his chest lump. At this point, this is the first time I’m seeing it in person, and it is much larger than when I’d seen it on video a month ago. Its border is smooth but irregular, and with my dad’s smoking history, I start to worry.
A memory flashes in my mind just ten years ago when my mom was telling me about a biopsy she was going to have. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I responded. The weekend passes and I forget about it altogether, until my mom calls me Monday first thing in the morning. I was a medical student rotating through the neonatal unit at the time, and my mom was not one to call during work hours. Finding the call unusual, I picked up. “I got the biopsy results back.” For a moment, I’m confused. I walk into the hall to get some privacy. “I have cancer,” she spoke softly. The rest of the day became a blur.
At that time ten years ago, I thought about my brothers, the younger still a teenager, who might lose their mother at such a young age. I thought about our own fragmented relationship, one that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to, one that still needed so much tenderness, and one that may not see me graduate with the MD that would make her so proud. I needed more time. Please, more time.
And we got it. My mom has been in remission since having surgery and completing multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Our relationship changed after then. We changed. It was the beginning of a new chapter that we were all ready to start.
After examining my dad’s chest, whatever I felt before didn’t matter. I suspected something serious, but I wanted to be wrong. I wanted more time. Please, more time. My dad tells me that it’s time to head to the restaurant and rushes me to the car. I try to make the most of our lunch, swatting away any distracting pings of worry.
Immediately after getting home, I hop on my parents’ computer to write a message to my dad’s doctor. I describe my observations with great detail, hoping he’ll take my doctor speak seriously and order urgent imaging. My dad has already scheduled an appointment later in the week, and I wrote that I would be calling into the appointment to ask questions and make sure I catch details my dad isn’t able to follow. This is now the third time my dad is bringing this up with his doctors.
My parents urge me to go home before it got too late, but not without sending me home with food and fruits. I’m racked with anxiety and sleeplessness the next couple of days. “Go to sleep,” Mom insists. It’s 8:30 pm, but I’m exhausted.
My mom sends me a text during the afternoon on Lunar New Year. “Imaging consistent with benign tumor.” I’m relieved, as if I’m taking my first breath after coming up from under the water. This was the gift I’d been asking for. It was the only gift I wanted but the most precious one I could dream up.