My family was never the affectionate type. Whether physical or verbal, expressions of love were rare. Once, after a spat with my mother, she came into my room and by way of apology sat on my bed and said, "This family doesn't have a lot to be proud of. We don't have money, but we are proud of you." She told me this in stilted English — she was a Filipina immigrant who had ended up a nurse's assistant in South Dakota after marrying my American father when he was stationed in the Philippines. Her words so moved me that I put my hand on her shoulder. It felt awkward to make contact, but I refused to move my hand. I wanted so badly to enter a new stage with my mother, one in which I would not be afraid to give her a hug, or she might give me one. My parents were equally unaffectionate toward each other. They worked long hours and fought often about money or chores. They didn't go to the movies or eat out, and in 32 years of marriage, they never took a vacation as a couple. Their sweetest moments appeared to be the rushed goodbye kisses they gave each other each morning, cheek kisses deprived of passion or romance, yet as constant as my mom's home-cooked breakfasts. Their connection seemed circumstantial, tenuous. Twice I came home to Dear John letters on the dining table, but in each instance my mother returned before bedtime. I wondered what held them together. It wasn't until my mother was dying of cancer that I began to see. Rather than live out her final months in the hospital where she'd worked for over 20 years, my mother chose home hospice. I flew from San Francisco to be with her, and to help my father, brother, and sister-in-law assist her through the slow death process. I cooked for the family, did laundry, and washed dishes, finally coming to appreciate the sacrifices my mother had made in making our family her life. In the living room, with blankets draped over the windows and my mother in the hospice bed, time crawled so slowly it was like being suspended in non-time — in a single, eternal moment. So I let my father watch over her while I disappeared to check email, or drove 30 minutes to the nearest yoga studio, another dimly lit and quiet room where I attempted to achieve stillness and peace. But the progression of my mother's illness had the opposite effect on my father. In the final weeks when she could barely eat or speak, he hardly left the house. He became the most attentive person I'd ever seen, the first to decipher her wants from cryptic nods and gestures and the one to anticipate needs that were not expressed. The lawn became overgrown because my mom, afraid to be without him, would not let him go outside to mow. While I slept in my childhood room, he slept on the couch in view of my mother, rushing to my room to wake me when he needed help changing her Attends. In these moments, unexpectedly, we found intimacy. My heart burst one night when I walked into the living room and found my parents sleeping upright on the couch, hand in hand, my mother's head resting on my father's shoulder, because she could not breathe lying down. And I realized that in my family, love was not often expressed with compliments or embraces, but it occupied the small spaces. It lay tucked away in the often-overlooked acts of service and sacrifice: the hours my father spent patiently waiting in the car as my mother shopped at the mall, the home-cooked meals my mother prepared without fail, the days my father drove my mom to and from work so she wouldn't have to drive herself, and the weeks without sleep he endured to make her death less painful. In my mother's death, I finally saw the love I'd spent my childhood searching for.
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