Spring, and the hardest trip home I’ve ever made. Confession time. A confession I’d promised myself I’d never make.
For years, it’s been so easy. I’ve never had a reason.
Now I do. He’s sitting beside me, his hand resting lightly on my thigh.
Chi Ng. The love of my life. The man who assures me moment to moment, with every glance, every smile, every stray and tender touch of his hand, that I am the love of his.
Sorry, Mom, but the time for secrets has passed.
You have to understand about my mother and me. How deep is the love between us. How we have stood alone together against the world for all my 25 years. From the day I was born, there has been no one who really mattered in her life but me, and before Chi, no one but her who really mattered in mine.
You have to understand how much she has suffered because of me. How much she has endured. How much she has sacrificed.
You have to understand how much I love her. How much I owe her.
And although she hasn’t mentioned it for years now, I know she has our future plotted: marriage, children, grandchildren, a new richness of family life to come.
I know how hard this will be for her. I know I will end her dreams.
Sorry Mom. If I could change it…
With Chi beside me, I would not change anything.
Can you understand that, Mom?
Can you understand that if there were a way to love him without breaking your heart, I would take it?
My mother was 38 when she had me. A plain, pudgy woman, as she’d been a plain, pudgy girl. In my heart, my mother is the most beautiful, the most loving mother ever – but I’ve seen the pictures. I know what the world sees. I know how she has always seen herself.
The world is a cruel place. That’s what made it all possible: how the world saw her, shaped her possibilities. That’s why a handsome young waiter at a Caribbean resort was able to single her out. Woo her. Make her believe.
My mother’s not stupid. Don’t think that. She is, in fact, smart as hell. She’s a lawyer for God’s sake, a government tax lawyer, a heavyweight. She’s smart and strong and unbearably determined.
If she were not all these things, I would not be here.
But my mother is also a woman, and at that point in her life, she was a very lonely one. A woman who had never known a man’s love. If she thought this Caribbean waiter her one chance, her only chance – can you blame her for taking it?
Especially now, with Chi in my life.
Chi, who has turned on the sun, teaching me how we are, all of us, made for love. Before Chi, I did not know this. Before Chi, I hid the depth of my loneliness from even myself.
What I’m saying is – I understand my mother’s surrender to a handsome young waiter on a Caribbean beach.
I understand how she looked for reasons to believe.
I understand how she found them.
And because it gave me life – I’m grateful.
It was years before she told me the whole story, and by then I’d pretty much pieced it together from the snickering family gossip. How the smart but homely old maid daughter had returned to Ottawa deeply in love with a 20 year old boy, determined to find a way to bring him to Canada, determined to marry him.
Everyone tried to warn her: family, colleagues, even the immigration lawyer she consulted.
Immigration fraud, they said. These guys will do anything for a Canadian or American passport. Once they get in the country, they all disappear.
She would not be warned. She would not believe. He loved her, he had to love her. He wanted to come to Canada because he wanted to be with her. They’d talked about all through that wonderful, wonderful week. She believed.
And then she discovered she was pregnant.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” she told me. “Finding out about you.”
She decided to give her beautiful waiter the wonderful news in person. A surprise visit. What could be more romantic?
You can imagine what happened. You can imagine how she felt when she found him making the same declarations of love, the same promises of marriage, the same plans for the future – in the US this time – to another lonely woman staring down middle age.
“I don’t blame him, really,” she told me a couple of years ago, wise now with the benefit of years, of distance. “He was desperate, too. Desperate for opportunity, for a new life. His father was a white American boy, slumming in the islands for a few months. He left his mother pregnant.” She smiled then, a kind of wicked, playful grin. “Your father was a good man – or at least, not a bad one. No worse than most. And he was very, very handsome. Look in the mirror. You look like him.”
But you can imagine the advice she got back then. An unmarried, middle aged, professional white woman bearing the child of black Caribbean waiter she’d never see again.
She didn’t listen.
She bore me anyway.
Bore me, and kept me, and raised me, and loved me.
I did inherit my father’s looks. A blessing, I guess, in a world that values physical beauty so highly. My plain, pudgy mother is fair-skinned, light haired, blue eyed. My father told the truth about his own white father; my eyes are not brown but blue green.
Like the Caribbean at dawn, my mother says.
Chi says they are startlingly lovely against light coffee skin, dark, glossy curls. When he stares into them, his own eyes black fire, I believe him.
But they were a curse, too, my father’s looks. They drew attention to me in ways with which I’ve never been comfortable. For as long as I can remember, people stared, especially when I was with my mother. I grew up with whispers about how I couldn’t really be hers.
But I was, I am, and for so many years, it has been just the two of us. And when I learned the things I learned about who I am, I promised myself it always would be.
I meant it – until Chi.
Chi is the only guy I’ve ever met who is even shyer, even nerdier than I am. 26 and already working on his second PhD. Speaks five languages (when he can overcome his shyness to speak at all.) Brilliant photographer. We’d been working away side by side in the same lab, under the same thesis advisor, for three years before we dared to look into one another’s eyes.
How we managed to bring down the walls at all is a miracle I still don’t understand.
I don’t need to.
What matters is that somehow the walls did come down. Now the love between us is so strong, so real, that I cannot live without it, without him.
My beautiful Chi, who speaks to me with his eyes, his hands, his very breath.
Chi, who I love enough to break my mother’s heart.
My mother lives in the same small two storey house in which I grew up. When I was a kid, it was in a nice enough area of west end Ottawa; today the area is hot, hot. People pay ridiculous prices to tear down these modest houses on their generous lots, replacing them with million dollar monster homes. New neighbours walk their designer dogs and designer babies to Starbucks, LuLu Lemon, Mountain Equipment Coop.
It’s to the Starbucks that I take Chi now. He wants to come with me, but I owe it to my mother to talk to her alone, to try to explain. I cannot do this by phone, by letter.
And I owe it to Chi to protect him. I will not let him watch the heartbreak. He has had enough. His family has disowned him, despite the fact that he has been the best of sons, the best of brothers, hard working, loving, loyal. Despite the fact that he has exceeded all their lofty ambitions.
Sometimes, at night, he weeps. I rock him in my arms until he falls asleep. I am his family now – but I know I can never give him back what he has lost.
I enter the café with him, wait while he orders a latte, sit with him at a table by the window. The weak spring sun pours in, lighting up the delicate features, porcelain skin, blue-black hair. I reach out, touch his cheek with the back of my hand.
“I love you,” he says softly. “Be strong.”
I smile at him as I leave.
I decide to walk to the house. It’s only a few blocks, and will give me time to pull myself together – now, on the way to my mother, and again on my way back to Chi.
My mother is, as always, thrilled to see me. She wraps me in her arms, and though she is a small woman, I feel completely enveloped in the warmth of her hug. For three breaths, I allow myself to accept it. Then the sadness of endings seeps through.
“Where’s your car” she asks. “Your luggage?”
I let her go, step away. I undo my jacket, but I don’t take it off.
“It’s down the road. I’ll get it in a minute. I need to talk to you first.”
She looks up at me, her eyes wide and serious. “What? Has something happened?”
I watch her for a moment, and then I nod. I take a deep, deep breath. I’ve rehearsed this so many times, but now that the moment has come, my careful, practiced words disappear like mist.
“I’ve met someone,” I say finally.
Her face lights up, and I cannot bear it. I drop my eyes.
“You have? That’s wonderful. Darling, I’m so happy! This is the best news you could have brought me.”
She sounds it. So very, very happy.
I cannot look at her. I cannot speak. My heart is beating so hard that I expect it to resonate through the room. I think of her dreams of the future. I think of Chi, waiting for me. I think my heart is going to break.
Finally, I feel her hands on my shoulders. “Look at me,” she says softly
“When do I get to meet him?” she asks. Her mouth is smiling and her eyes are full of love.
I try to speak, but nothing comes out.
“Really, Matthew,” she says. “You have been the centre of my life since the day you were born. Did you really think I didn’t know? Now, when do I get to meet your young man?”
“I can go get him,” I say. “He’s waiting for me at Starbucks.”
“At Starbucks! I thought I raised you better than that.” She shakes her head in mock disgust. “You get down there and get him right now.”
I wrap my arms around her, and hug her hard. My heart feels like it will burst with joy.
“Matthew?” she says, in a small voice.
I pull away and look down at her.
“I am glad you’ve finally told me. But --,”
Oh god oh no oh god—.
“Sweetheart, there was never a time when you had to keep it secret. I’ve watched you struggle with this for so long, and I’ve felt so helpless. There was nothing I could do until you told me. I love you, baby. There are no conditions. I thought you knew that.”
I feel the tears at the back of my throat.
“Sorry, Mom,” I whisper.
“There’s nothing for you to be sorry for,” she says. “Now, go get that young man of yours, and bring him home.”