My mother passed away in November at the age of seventy-seven. Her life in China was tragic and it took me several months to write about her life and death because I had to confront the complex feelings and meaning of her legacy.
I loved my mother for her kind and gentle soul. She was meek, although often in ways I did not understand: bulliable, submissive, and conflict-averse. Her interactions with China Communist Party (CCP) officials were characterized by obedience and tolerance to their inhumane treatment of people like herself and I was long haunted by a childhood memory illustrating the aforementioned, where she got on her knees and begged a CCP official for a raise at her factory job. She sacrificed her dignity only to be cruelly denied.
I used to assume I was entirely my father’s child, as he was a fighter whose strength was like the factory steel he worked: firm, resilient, and tough. I spent my life assuming that my defiant nature was the product of my father, but now I am not so sure.
In an unremarkable village in Penshan, China, a sickly child cursed by fate was born. Her mother believed her too weak to survive and left her to die in peace, yet the child refused. Fighting through labored breathing, she produced a cry so loud and enduring that her mother could no longer ignore it. She fed that night and would live to see the morning. The child that defied a peaceful death for a difficult life was my mother.
Growing up poor with an elementary education resigned her to a life of labor in a state-run factory in the capital of Sichuan. The oppression of her social condition was matched by her physicality: measuring under five feet tall, she was frail and strongly nearsighted. Despite this, she won the love and adoration of my father, an illiterate orphan whom she married and blessed with three children.
Raising children under Mao’s regime was an arduous burden. We lived in a primitive worker’s row house sharing one restroom and faucet with eight families. Our mud floor would sprout mushrooms after flooding; we were dirt-poor. In spite of this, my mother’s heart never hardened. She was known for approaching beggars in the street with small gifts and the words: “Buddha bless you!” Her generosity defied the cruelty of her reality. Despite this, she found happiness in music (which she only sang after a little Chinese moonshine). She was elegant, clean, and loved pretty, pink clothing, which was frowned upon under Mao’s regime. Using what little money, she saved to buying pink fabrics was a small act of defiance against Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Happiness was often short-lived, however, as she was ill most of the time and required frequent care in the decrepit state-run Chinese hospitals; a product of socialized medicine. While undergoing surgery in the eighties she received a blood transfusion infected with syphilis that was discovered a decade later when I brought my mother to the United States. Despite a course of antibiotics, her brain had already suffered the consequences of neurosyphilis. She displayed signs of dementia at the age of sixty.
Though ill, America offered my mother a degree of peace, even if it was momentary. She and my father converted to Christianity and lived peacefully, attending a Chinese church every Sunday. In the end, her advanced dementia collided with COVID-19 and after being hospitalized, she died last November.
My mother’s legacy is one of defiance. It began with a cry that defied death, lived through compassion that defied pain, and endures in me. This revelation testifies to the miracle of God’s design; subtle, yet purposeful. For God imbues in each of us a part of his divine essence. For my mother, she bore the suffering and submission to pain that Christ knew; not out of weakness, but out of love for her family, so that they may have survived. She embraced God’s Word that we defy evil not through the hardening of our hearts, but through turning the other cheek and committing to compassion.