First Blood: The Type Of Separation Anxiety No One Needs (Or Deserves)

“Why does it have to be you?”

"Atsushi" with her mom, circa 1996. [Credit: Dylan Balde]

The sight out my bedroom that morning looked spectacular. The sun was just beginning to rise and the sky was a soft orange hue, flecked here and there with yellow and blue paint streaks, like pastel colors or my favorite crayon set strewn across the cosmos. I smiled looking out, and excitedly thought about how it was the perfect day to go on an adventure—at least so I thought.

It was 1996. I was four. This was the day my mother had to leave the country for greener pastures because she couldn’t afford to support me financially; in short, the worst day of my life, to date.

The job market in the province has always been depressingly bleak, a literal hellhole, and her experience was no different. She knew from the start that she couldn’t possibly raise me by herself and still expect to make ends meet; it just wasn’t feasible. So, she left. She flew all the way to Hong Kong seeking more fruitful pastures. She left me in the care of my grandparents and uncle, and ventured outward in search of a better job. For many Asian families, single parents especially, this was the only recourse toward a better life. Bitter self-sacrifice and requisite separation. Reluctant abandonment. Necessary suffering. We were—are—no different.

My mother had no choice. My father is a deadbeat, abusive coward who couldn’t tell responsibility even if it hit him in the eye, and she is a single parent. It was either she left or we suffered, in poverty.

My mom is the strongest, most brilliant and loving and wonderful woman I have ever known—a massive contrast from my dad—and it broke both our hearts that day and in the many years after every time she had to stay in the country for only a week three times a year, effectively missing out on all my milestones and many firsts, and overall never having seen me grow up. She still classifies that bit as her biggest regret in life, because you can heal from abuse, but you can’t take back the years lost from years of absence, or recover from memories you never even developed. We still cry every now and then from the pain of loneliness and separation (we never grew out of it, neither of us), sometimes together, but mostly in private.

This is an ode to that painful memory. I love you, Mom.

---

I look out the window with a massive smile on my face. Today is going to be special. My mama and I are going on a trip, and it’s going to be one giant adventure, straight from the annals of Cartoon Network and the original Dragon Ball series.

I can see my reflection on the panels and smile even wider. I look like the Cookie Monster on his best day. Or Goku on really sweet Mars Bars.

“Where’s Shi-chan?” I hear a soft, croaking voice say downstairs.

“Right here!” I reply, stumbling on my way out the room and down the steps. “Don’t go, I’m on my way down!”

I look around as I break into a little run, and glimpse my grammy taking hold of some luggage, and my mother talking to my aunt in strangely hush-hush tones on the other side of the kitchen curtain.

I hurry to my grampy’s room to get dressed. It was empty, save for Samuel, our white-legged 4-year-old, busily sniffing the dusty carpeted floor. “Hi, Samuel,” I wave. He doesn’t pay me any mind.

I hop on one foot to try to get a better look in the mirror. They looked so serious, I ponder, thinking back to my mom and aunt sneakily conversing right where I’m too small to see or hear them. I guess they’re working out the details of our trip—or something, I don’t know. They didn’t tell me what the trip is for or where we’re going, I just assume it’s going to be somewhere exciting, and they’re probably just looking to surprise me. You know, like a gift. They’re good with these things, so I know.

I put on my favorite blue jumper, the one my mama got for free from the store catalog for being a good office lady. It’s my favorite jumper ever, and I smile just thinking about how smart I must look in it, and how proud my mom would be when she sees me wearing it. Underneath I have my favorite green t-shirt (it comes with the Nemean Lion, from Hercules!), also a gift from my mom, except she got this from that one time she was in Shibuya.

I stick my hand awkwardly inside my denim overalls, hoping to smooth out the creases on my t-shirt. It’s gonna be a great day, so I have to look my Sunday best!

I leave the room unsteady, wobbling around on my soles. This is how I always walk, but maybe it’s just the excitement causing a fit. I scoop up my shoes, my favorite sparkling indigo Peanuts shoes, and my 1-inch thick school socks sitting on the floor by my bag. My schoolbag is a velvety baby blue knapsack with a stuffed panda knitted in front. Another gift from my mother. I already prepared it two nights back, when I overheard my grammy and grampy talk about my mom finding a “golden egg” somewhere new we’ve never been to before. New, like dragons or something? They have dragons in China, right? It says so on TV.

I plop on the floor in the middle of the hallway, like I always do when I have to put on my socks and my shoes, and methodically drop my other stuff on the little blue plastic chair beside me. I grumble, undoing and tying my shoelaces a fourth time. This is why barefoot is better. I bite my lip impatiently as I try again.

The living room door swings open to my right, and I can hear my uncle in the process of suppressing another anxiety attack. He does this a lot when we’re about to leave for adventures and he thinks we’re moving too slow.

“It’s 4 past 6,” he seethes, tugging at his hair. “Where is everyone?” He notices me sitting on the floor. “Atsushi, can you call your grandma and tell her I already started the car?” I hold my bag and nod, rising to my feet.

I click my shoes against the floor, combing my hair gingerly with my tiny, rather scrawny fingers. It’s strange. Everyone seems so angry when they’re busy.

I look around and see my mom, coming over.

“Shi-chan?” she says, warily.

“Mama!” I break into a run, but trip. I look down and notice the shoelaces haven’t been tied properly. Again.

My mother kneels right next to me and helps me up. “Are you okay?”

I nod, embarrassed. “I’m still not very good with these,” I admit, reluctantly.

“Here, let me help.”

My mom is a genius. She ties my shoelaces in less than a twillisecond, and she doesn’t even have to ask for help. The shoes feel remarkably tight and comfy around my feet.

I’m still not the best at saying thank you, we’re working on that, so I throw my arms around her instead and give her the biggest hug my tiny arms can handle. She squeezes and firmly hugs back. I kiss her cheek and carefully pull away.

She’s crying.

I stare, taken aback. It doesn’t make sense. We’re going on an adventure. Of epic proportions! Nobody should be crying, least of all my mama. There’s something wrong.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer.

I glance around and notice everyone, even my uncle, standing at the drawing room with us, eyes uncharacteristically gloomy and downcast. It’s like someone turned the off switch on all the colors and smiles and happy thoughts in the room, sucking all the life out of everyone. Even me.

I back away, my heart beginning to pound, variably. “What’s going on?” I stammer.

I glance back at my mom, quietly demanding answers. She’s no longer crying. The tears have been messily wiped away to the side, leaving uneven streaks all over. Her eyes are red, and she smiles, seemingly fighting the urge to cry, again. Her cheeks are trembling. It doesn’t give me a very good feeling.

“Shi-chan, um,” she starts, but then her eyes begin to water. “It’s, uh…” She wipes them quickly, chuckling awkwardly. “Wow, this is hard.”

She turns and gives my grammy a weird look. It’s difficult to describe, I’ve never seen her smile that way before, but it left my grammy looking extremely gutted. Grammy turns away and wipes a stray tear from her left eye.

“Mama, why is everyone… crying…” My voice trails off as my mind tries to process the situation. “Did I do something wrong?”

Nobody answers. Mama just looks at the floor hard and makes a weird gurgling noise I can’t describe.

“I… I packed all my things today,” I say, warily, suddenly disconcerted. “I brushed my teeth, I cleaned my bed, ate all my meals— I was a good girl. I heard we were going on an adventure, so I… I…” I feel an awkward catch in my throat. “Are we not… going… anymore? Are we rescheduling? Is the jet broken? I can keep being a good girl, I…”

I watch my mama carefully, painstakingly, lay her backpack on the floor. She does so slowly, as if in agony, or duress, or shouldering an immense ache in her body. She reluctantly puts a hand on my shoe, and smiles gently.

“You’ve always been a good girl,” she finally says, her voice breaking just a bit. “Always. You’re perfect.” She tucks a stray hair behind my ear and smiles wider, but blinking away a few more tears. “You’re my little angel.” She cups my cheek tenderly. “But, it’s just going to be me today, baby. I’m sorry. Mama has to travel by herself today.”

“I don’t understand,” I reply. “You’ll be alone? Why?”

“It’s a work thing, baby,” she explains gently. “It’s not an adventure. I wish it were,” she jokes. I watch, quietly befuddled. This whole thing feels like one massive joke. Like the prank stuff I see on TV. I wait impatiently for someone to pop out from behind a curtain and yell, “Got you!” but minutes roll by and no one shows up.

My heart begins to feel remarkably heavy. I pick up my bag and hug it firmly against my chest. “But I already packed everything!” I cry, indignant. “And I kept all sharp objects from my bag like you always tell me to! I did everything right!”

“That’s good, baby. You’ve done well,” my mom smiles, gently pinching my cheek. “But it’s not you, baby. It’s just something I have to do. I’m sorry.” Her voice breaks again, but she manages to hold it in. “I’m really sorry.”

I feel like someone just grabbed a bucket of icy water and, like some meanie from the swells of Alaska, dumped it upside down on my head. My body feels stiff and cold. I can’t move. And my heart has slowed down to a point where I can almost feel it drumming… trembling… dying, in my chest. My throat feels so dry. I can’t speak at all.

“Okay, but… you won’t be gone for long, right?” I squeak. “You’ll be back here tomorrow after work and I’ll see you when I wake up, like always.”

Mama chokes up a bit, but fights it, and smiles. “Oh, baby. I wish. But not today, Shi-chan. Mama…” She takes a deep breath. “Mama won’t be home for a while.”

“How long is ‘a while’?”

“Maybe a few— a couple months. A year.” She takes my hand and runs her thumb across it, tenderly. “It’s difficult to say.”

My mind swirls in my head, and I feel like retching, inside.

She squeezes my hand. “But I’ll come home every Christmas. When school ends, and during your birthday. Isn’t that nice?”

I don’t answer. I feel sick.

“Three times every year. All the important occasions. I promise.”

And I can’t stand her smile.

“Atsushi, please look at me.”

I look up, reluctantly. She sounds hurt, and she looks heartbroken. But I’m hurting too.

“See?” Mama holds up her hand, palm side forward. It’s our promise print. It’s something we’ve always done to encourage accountability, and offer certainty when there’s none. To offer a handprint means to promise and never break it; to accept, means to believe wholeheartedly in that promise. And I can’t believe. I don’t have it in me to reciprocate.

My eyes well up. I pull my hand back, curling it behind my back, and adamantly refuse to meet her fingers and make the pact, acknowledge her promise. Suddenly I find myself unable to see properly, my vision abruptly clouded by fog and condensing, precipitating water. Tears—as it turned out—hanging from my lashes.

“No!” I burst explosively into a mess of early bird trauma and potato chip tears, my head harshly hung low. “That’s too long…” I hug my jacket and my schoolbag, which I stuffed the previous night with clothes, food, toys, and everything I thought I could possibly need on such an important journey, tighter against me. “I don’t want you to go!”

I sob into the front of my pack, tears, snot, and drool miserably and angrily staining the fabric. “You promised we’ll be together forever,” I cry between hiccups. “Till our hairs go gray. Till the sun dies off. Mama and daughter, together always. You promised.”

My legs feel strange. They feel like jelly, and also solid concrete—weak, sad, and insurmountably heavy, all at the same time.

“Shi-chan?”

I raise my head a bit, painfully reluctant, and see my mama holding out her arms, reaching for me. “Come here.”

I look away bitterly, my shirt and jumper puddled and dirtied with saliva and tears. I steal a glance and notice my mama already stopped crying, but instead just looks very sad, like she just won the best little keety in the world in a stroke of dumb luck, only to lose it the next day to someone else’s screwups. Or maybe even worse. I can sense her heart is heavy, maybe even heavier than mine, and her expression betrays a feeling of painful acceptance, and probably, as does mine. Grammy, Grampy, and the others look just as wrecked.

The sight alone crushes me, and I cry harder.

“Come hug Mama, Atsushi,” my mother calls out softly. “Come kiss Mama.”

I angrily refuse, glaring at her for a moment as if partially blaming her for it all. I know I don’t, but the pain has begun to cloud my judgment, as clouded as it already is at that moment.

“But why do you have to go?” I cry out in response, squeezing my bag even tighter. I can feel the zipper being lodged open, and some of my toys beginning to slip out. “I don’t understand— I don’t want you to leave!” I wail hard, louder and more hysterically than I ever did in the past. “I just…” I quiet down, sinking into my bag and slowly crumbling on the floor beneath me. “I just don’t want my mama to go.”

The silence feels gutting.

“Mama has to, baby,” I hear my mom reply, finally. Her voice betrays a hint, or more, of dejection. Maybe even regret. “Mama has to so you can eat, buy toys, watch TV, and go to school.”

But I don’t want you to go!

“But Mama doesn’t want to go.”

Why can’t I go with you?

“I would bring you with me if I could.”

It’s just not fair!

“I wish I could.”

If Papa were here, would you still have to go?

“But if I don’t do this, nobody will.”

Where is he?

“And I want you to have all the best things.”

Why isn’t he helping us?

“I want you to be happy.”

WHERE IS HE?

“Live a good life.”

It’s not fair.

“I love you.”

I crumple on the floor, defeated. My nose feels abnormally red and stuffy. My mom gently pulls me to her and sets me on her lap.

“It’s just not fair…” I croak, my body going jelly. My mom wraps her arms around my waist, hugging tighter than tight. “I still don’t understand why it has to be you.”

My mother makes a strange whooshing noise with her throat, like another kind of grimace. “It’s like I said. There’s no one else, baby.”

I don’t remember and have never met my father, but I have never hated another person in my short little life than I have right now. But I bite my lip and keep the resentment to myself. It’s not the right time. Maybe someday.

“That’s why it’s not fair,” I say, instead.

“I know. I’m sorry.” She strokes my hair, parts it neatly into a bob, and kisses me on the forehead. “Baby?”

I let out a vague “mmhmm” in response.

“Mama loves you very much.”

I pull back and stare at her, drained from all the crying.

She’s smiling.

But it’s a sad, disconsolate little smile, like the smile of someone hoping for more, but forced to settle for less. I clutch my chest as the pain starts to become distressingly stabbing. I heave as tears once again fall down my cheeks.

“So very, very much.”

She kisses me on each cheek and hugs me tight one last time. “Promise to continue being a good girl?” She ties my hair gently into pigtails. “Be a good girl for Mama, Shi-chan. Listen to Grammy and Grampy. Study well. Eat your meals on time. Don’t sleep very late, and make friends. And when I come home, you can tell me all about your adventures. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I feel weak. Like I’ve been emotionally eviscerated. I can’t even be bothered to wipe my tears anymore, much less cry and be embarrassed about dripping snot. I feel cold all over, too devastated to do and be anything else.

My mother eclipses all that in a single hug—as all good mothers do—and like a mama cat, bumps her forehead playfully against mine. “Good girl,” she replies, patting my head affectionately. “I’ll call you when I get there.” Another kiss. “I promise.”

Her smile remains painfully bittersweet. I don’t know how she does it, where she gets that courage. I can’t even look at her, much less smile. As far as I’m concerned, my world is over. I’m alone. And I just know… I just know I’ll be carrying this ache, this pang of longing, through the rest of my life. I’m not looking forward to that. All I want is my mom back. A normal life. Is it really too much to ask? Am I being punished for not having the optimal living situation? For having a terrible, absent dad? Not having complete parents? For being weird? For being too weak to stand up for myself?

I guess I’ll never know.

The sight out the window is now a bright tinge of blue and yellow. Flecks of white litter the horizon, faultless, awesome, like the streaks of oil, formed into clouds, on Bob Ross’s colorful canvas. It remains the perfect day for an adventure, and yet we sit here in the backdrop, crying, our hearts breaking like egg shells within the blackness of the day where the light can’t reach.

I’ll miss you, Mama. I’ll miss you every day, every four to six months, when you come home and leave, again and again, and when you finally settle back, I’ll still miss you—grieving the years and miles we’ll have lost together because of the failings of one country, and the apparent egocentrism of one very awful man.

She doesn’t have to say anything. After today, I just know.

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