Saturday, December 21, 2013

In memory of Nancy Wong Chin-Lee, my mother

Namukale (caregiver), Mom (Nancy W. Chin-Lee) and Vanessa (my daughter) taking a selfie.
My mother, Nancy Wong Chin-Lee, (1928-2013) passed away on Oct. 21, 2013 at age 85. She had struggled with Alzheimer's for nearly two years. I wrote this poem in Feb. 2013 when her language diminished to 4-word phrases.

Dad and Mom

Four Words

I miss my mother.
Before the dementia, she would gush with stories, waterfalls of memories, cascading unfettered. 
Exciting stories, tragic ones, some impossible to believe…
The men she could have married,
Her mother in the old country, walking in the village with a maid to carry her books, crying for her home as she had yet another baby.
The stories of Baltimore and Harrisburg, when the truant officer knocked on the door and she was pushed into the coat closet…the ugly tales of survival, the family skeletons, the betrayals…
My mom taught me to love, to tell stories, to speak my mind.

I miss her laugh, her tears, her words, flowing, never stopping, entertaining us.
I even miss the racist remarks, the things I shuddered to hear, because that was all of her, flaws and all. 
I miss her words.
Her stories fed me, washed over me, drenched me with her life, a life I have always been part of.
But now, just four words:
“You are my daughter?”
“Thank you for coming.”
Glimmers of clarity, drops of hope, just tiny drops.
I am thirsty for her words, that former feistiness.
Now just four words.
She smiles.
My daughter asks me, “Will you be like that one day?”
I nod, “Maybe thirty years from now? I don’t know.”

She will be saying, “I miss my mother.”
Dad (William Chin-Lee) and Mom (Nancy W. Chin-Lee) 


I consider this day a celebration of my mother as she lived a full and long life, accomplishing so many things. She was a very strong person with strong opinions and as most of my close family knows, I sometimes clashed with her. But I am deeply thankful for everything she did for me. She has had such a deep influence on who I am.

My dad, being a wise soul, knew how to live with her: just let her have her way, at least, most of the time. She gave so generously to all around her, especially to us, her children. She helped us with our homework, cooked delicious meals, and encouraged us when we were down.

Many of you know how she flew to Taiwan when I had my car accident as a junior in college. I know how hard that must have been for her as she spoke no Mandarin and really didn’t like to travel. She was also a wonderful grandmother and I remember how she and my dad took care of Vanessa for an entire week when Vanessa was just a baby so I could have a break.

What I loved about Mom the most was her storytelling. She could make anything so funny and dramatic. We would be laughing so hard we might wet our pants and the next minute, we’d be crying a river. I hope I inherited a tiny bit of her storytelling ability. I once tried writing a novel based on her stories and I proudly gave her one of the drafts. She read it and must have been satisfied enough because I didn’t hear any criticism. One day I’ll try to revive that draft and share it with the world.

In one true story she told us her family was “adopted” by the local Presbyterian church in Harrisburg. The church ladies came and gave her and each of her brothers and sisters a gift for Christmas. But her proud dad, my grandfather, seized all the gifts and threw them out, saying his family would not take charity.

She was heartbroken to give up her toy, but then something else happened. She and Jim, her brother, sang in the children’s choir for Christmas eve. One reason she joined was to get the candy canes! She and Jim were ushered into the sanctuary, wearing their white choir robes. Then it happened. She heard angels singing: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” She was so transported by the music of the choir that she believed the angels had arrived and were bathing her in God’s heavenly music. Tears came streaming down her face.

When I listen to great music, I sometimes cry, too! I recall her words and nod, “Yes, there really are angels and they are singing to me, taking me through the sky and into heaven.” Now I imagine my mom as one of those angels, watching over all of us. I feel happy to know that she is still on my side and singing better than in real life (cause she sang horribly off key!).

To all of you and especially to my dad, remember I love you.

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