pushing through

portrait of my mom


when you’re struggling, dealing with a rough patch, it’s natural to feel lost, despondent, cynical of the so-called “grand plan.” you wonder how you’ll push through…but then you do. and one day, things take a turn. or maybe it’s not a single day, but a series of moments, strung together over a period of time, that help you realize you’ve healed, slowly. you’re wiser, and perhaps are stronger than you ever knew you were.

where does “it” come from—that drive to push forward when you just want to fold? in varying degrees, we all have inner strength. we get up every morning, put on our clothes, step out into the big, messy world, and get on with it. but going through the motions is not necessarily moving forward. bootstrapping it, carrying that burden on your own back, only takes you so far.

though you may not realize it, maybe “it” comes from somewhere else, somewhere deeper within.  from people who have touched your life: parents, grandparents, close friends, mentors. people who taught you how to be strong, by instruction or better yet, by example. 

when they’re gone, the lessons they taught stay with you. become a part of you. 

growing up, i always longed for the mother-daughter relationships i’d seen on TV. much to my chagrin, my mom was no florence henderson. we didn’t go shopping together, talk about boyfriends or crushes, share hopes and fears, discuss feelings.

but i knew what she was feeling. every day when i’d watch her roll up the sleeves of her white lab coat. when i thought of her, the youngest of 12 from a poor family in the philippines pursuing medicine when other women were busy perfecting their casseroles. when she’d spend as much time diagnosing patients as holding their hands for an extra minute or two. feeding them a bite of mashed potatoes and greyish green beans when they were too weak to do it themselves. bringing homemade noodles to the nurse’s station when the other doctors treated them like hired help. rolling in at midnight on a school night, waking us from a dead slumber and telling us to get dressed so we could grab pancakes at country kitchen, just so we could be together. taking phone calls and pages at all hours of the night—because that was what she did. who she was.

she was there to help. to heal. to lift people up. to prove, sometimes by sheer stubbornness and force of will, that somehow you can push through anything.

she did. and i do, because of her.

my mother.

sometimes the strength we have within is not just our own. but from those who came before us. those whose impact has become a part of us.

it always crushes me to think my kids will never know her…but maybe they will. through me.

looking through old photos today, my little one confirmed the suspicion.


“hey mommy, there’s you.”

i can only hope he’s right.

keeping it real

a portrait of christine


i used to have a friend who was all about the rose-tinted glasses. if you asked about her family, they were "perfect." well-to-do, doting father, family dog, picket fence. at each stage of life, everything was wonderful. school? perfect. job? fabulous.  when you had conversations with her, sometimes you felt a tinge of wistfulness, even jealously, hearing about a trip to a tropical island or the family get together in aspen. i could picture them in matching reindeer sweaters nestled around the fire singing christmas carols.  it was almost touching...but mostly nauseating.

why? because in those same conversations, when she was talking to me, it felt like she was talking through me, rattling off some canned version of the perfect life she didn't have—but wished she had.  look into someone's eyes and you'll know.  i'm sure there were plenty of moments of genuine love, bliss, happiness...but no one can have that all of the time.

years later, when we found out her parents had split up, it was vindication of what we'd suspected all along, but never would've known had we accepted the "stepford" version of events.  living in denial (of fights or disappointment, fear or sadness) is not living—it's lying. to yourself and everyone else. i have no patience for that. the fact is, everyone's got their "stuff"...and that's why i prefer a healthy dose of reality.

we all have at least one person in our lives who calls bullshit. who hones right in on the truth, as brutal as it may be, and let's 'er rip. who tells you the chicken was ok, but a little dry. who warns you that your new jeans show off your muffin top. who tells you point blank not to date that guy because he's just not a good match.  ....and also someone who you love—because they'll never lie to you...ever.

i am lucky enough to have several of those people in my life, but the quintessential "truth-teller," the anti-candy-coater, is my cousin christine. she's got a heart of gold and a no-nonsense attitude. matter-of-fact, she can't be bothered with dancing around the issues. throw them out on the table, discuss, debate, and then she'll serve up a homemade raspberry tart to reassure you that it's not personal...because it's not. just true.  it's not out of meanness or insensitivity. just a desire to support. be there. provide feedback that actually means something. i admire her honesty. she'd apply it as readily to herself as she would to you and me.

case in point. we went to visit christine and her family in san luis obispo, a quaint ocean-side town that they call home. idyllic is the only word i can think of to describe their existence. stunning mountain vistas at every turn. amazing wineries churning out delectable pinots. goats, sheep and cows peacefully grazing on the lush grass. vibrant, fresh vegetables and cheeses at the farmers' market. scenic bike rides for the morning commute. laidback living with friendly neighbors. rolling waves and ocean breezes just a stones throw away at monte de oro, or mountain of gold.

but before you picture her blissfully romping through the fields in a gingham apron collecting buttercups, christine serves up a healthy dose of reality.  her take on san luis: "i love it...but i also need some grit in my life."  for her, growing up in toronto was filled diversity and debate. culture and concrete. passion and differing points of view. so every few months, she leaves her little haven and high-tails it to the nearest urban jungle—L.A—for her fix of some "grit."

on the outside looking in, some things can seem so perfect. but we all know that's just a myth. leave the rose tinted glasses to elton john. sometimes reality does suck, but i, too, prefer a little grit with the glamor. that's what grounds you, gives you perspective, helps you truly appreciate the good stuff.