I generally consider myself to be a little lonely in the family department. My father, stepmother, and baby brother moved back to the Philippines two years ago—almost 9,000 miles of flight away from me. My older brother (and best friend) is moving to Bumblefuck, Ohio, for grad school. And I live alone in a sleepy city in New England.
I generally consider my family to be a little bit unlucky in the life department. My father is a good, sweet man, but I often wish life had been kinder to him. Besides never fully recovering from loving and losing my mother, he’s had a number of business ventures go terribly wrong in succession. By the late nineties, he was a 30-something with two kids, a then pregnant wife (my stepmother), and a father recently paralyzed by a stroke. Everyone was looking to him for support. So my very intelligent, ambitious father settled for what he could get–retail jobs, working 60 minimum wage hours a week to feed us.
We’ve always been a funky bunch: stubborn, poor and goofy. But I’ve always been particularly proud of our kind of scrappy love, cultivated with years of struggle, silver-lining attitudes, and a lot of San Miguel.
My stepmother has a degenerative bone disease. She is not yet 40, but she has the bones of a 70-year-old woman, and it is tragic. She wants to have another child, to have a job, to live without an aid, to climb stairs, to function without a wheelchair. Long before this was diagnosed, I was her primary source of pain. I gave her so much shit. I was a wary, bratty child (very against the idea of my father remarrying) who eventually grew into an angsty teenager who took up smoking in the school parking lot. It wasn’t until college that I was really able to assert and articulate my feelings to her, have the patience to learn her side of our stories.
We have a lot of love now. A few months ago, I was able to go back to the Philippines for a visit. In line at the airport she held me and made me promise that I would come back. She said through tears, “You have to, ok? You have to, because I can’t go to you.” She looked me in the eyes, and I saw what she was saying—she will die in that country.
My father is having a house built that is structurally sound to have another floor built on top of it. “Just give me the word,” he said, “and I can have you a room by the time you graduate, if you want to move back home.” There is a home for me where they are, but no home for me in the Philippines—I haven’t lived there in years, and it’s become a place I used to know with a language I no longer understand.
And I am from Brooklyn, but once my brother moves, I don’t really have a home there either, do I?
As I boarded my planes, the different legs became more diluted as I continued. By Seoul, it felt less Filipino, by Chicago, even less, and by New England, I was one of three brown people on my flight. I found it painful to re-learn the loneliness of diaspora as an adult.
While in the Philippines this break, my father and I were drinking together and he asked about my writing, about my last piece. I told him I wrote about feeling lost and lonely in life, about questioning dating, marriage, and love. He admitted, “You know, this place (where we were drinking) is also the place I married your mom.” It broke my heart, thinking about my father as a man left abandoned by his wife, alone and confused, wishing for so much more than… this.
I interviewed him for a class about fatherhood a long time ago and he told me that when his children were born, he realized that his only purpose in life was to be a father. That if he could, he would have a hundred children, to fill their lives, and his life too, with love.
I’ve written so much about how romantic love has felt to me—foreign, scary, and ambiguous—without really looking at the kind of love there is for me elsewhere. When I think about love, I always shake my head and think, “Next time, it will be with someone who kisses me in public. In the open air, unafraid that someone might see him with a girl like me.”
But there is also the kind of love that radiates outwardly and continuously. It’s funny how much they do and do not understand me. My stepmother bought me a shirt that reads, “FBI: fabulous, beautiful, and intelligent.” Anyone I spend a lot of time with would know that I would NEVER wear a shirt like that, but it was still so endearing—she honestly believes that I am all of those things. My father buys me everything in pink (my favorite color from ages 8-12) including a bracelet that looks like a candy store puked all over my wrist. It is easy to hold them so close to my heart, regardless of the distance between us, regardless of fights had and glaring character differences.
During my visit, my father, stepmother, brother and I got rip-roaring drunk and took hilarious pictures in a photo booth. I know it’s corny, but I want to have children just so I can give them this kind of love. The kind that permeates through loneliness—reaches across the oceans and holds you so close and warm it’s impossible to keep from smiling. I want my children, and their children too, to live forever in moments like that. But is that even possible?
About a week ago, my stepmother tried to kill herself.
My baby brother found her in the bathtub, surrounded by empty pill bottles. Because they are so far away, it is hard for me to feel as if I can do anything to help. They are more frazzled and overwhelmed by my phone calls than comforted. I can’t afford to go back for at least another year.
I have a really hard time at school, just being on my own. I have a really hard time learning what my expectations and realities of love and adulthood are.
When my father called to tell me the news, he said, “Sara, darling, I’m going to hold the phone up to her ear. She won’t answer, but I think it will help her—she always loves to hear your beautiful voice.”
I tried to sound like myself through tears, but I didn’t know what to say. I told her my truths, and hoped that she would feel it across the oceans. I miss you, I love you, you are a big, beautiful, formative part of my life, and you are doing a lot better than you think.
Sometimes my family feels like a band of runaway orphans. “What will we live off of?” “Love.” And even when exhaustion has us clawing at each other’s necks, even when distance has me feeling like the only girl on the face of the earth, I think that we hold each other more than we hurt each other. When it comes down to it, I can only hope that us and our breed of love will be enough.