I told my mom one day that I thought she was a very headstrong woman.
“What do you mean ‘strong?’” she asked me.
“Strong as in willpower – independence,” I said.
“Ah!” she said. “Independent, yeah. I try the best to be independent because if I’m not, how can I support my kids?”
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And yet, my mom is always in pain.
Look at your hands, and think of all the things you do with them: hold an ice cream cone, drive your car, scroll through Facebook. What if all of those things caused you severe pain? That’s how it is for my mom.
My mom, Berlina Leonardo, is the only adult in my life who was always there. She was born in the Philippines and immigrated here in 1993. She raised my brother Shawn and me as a single mom, while at the same time helping our family in the Philippines.
When I was little, she worked in factories, building and assembling parts. When she was working, she felt a pain, tingling over her hands. Her doctor said she had overworked them.
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My mom had her first hand surgery in 2006. She was worried because she felt that nobody would be able to take care of her after the surgery.
“Because I don’t have family here in the United States,” she said, “just only me and my two children. If I was sick, there’s no one that can help me.”
I was surprised to hear her say that she needed help from other people, because I’ve always seen her intimidate others and be aggressive. For example, when my mom sees something on sale when we’re grocery shopping, she’ll push others out of the way with her elbows to get the best stuff for herself. Once the doctor ordered my mom not to eat white rice because it’s bad for her. My mom refused, stamping her feet and saying “No no, I want to eat rice!”
In 2008, my mom fell off a ladder while decorating our house and had to get another surgery for a broken wrist. I was eight or nine years old at the time. My brother and I stayed overnight at the hospital with my mom because we didn’t have anywhere to go.
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I remember her lying there, looking exhausted and in pain. She looked at me, with red puffy eyes and asked, “Are you all right?” I was surprised and touched that she would ask me how I was doing. After all, she was the one on the hospital bed.
In 2014 she was diagnosed with arthritis. Whenever she uses her hands the pain gets worse, but she needs her hands.
“Every time I want to eat, I want to drink, I want to take medicine, I want to brush my hair, I want to change my clothes -- If I don’t have hands how can I do that?” she said.
After my mom’s wrist surgery she tried to work but quit because she was in so much pain. The last time she held a paid job was 2012. She applied for disability twice and was rejected, but she’s afraid to work, because working injured her.
“Nobody knows my body,” she told me. “I know because that’s my body. You understand what I mean? You see, it’s hard to say in English.”
“I get what you mean, Ma,” I said to her. “Nobody knows your body better than yourself.”
Even though my mom can’t work, she’s still able to pay for the rent and utility bills, and make sure my brother and me eat every day, all from child support money.
My mom’s hands look faded and rough, yet her scars stand out: a bright pink color, worn with years of use. It’s a mark of remembrance for the pain she feels constantly.
I feel sad to see her that way. I want to be there for her as long as she needs me. Her pain scares her, but my brother Shawn and I still believe our mom is a strong person.
“I mean when you’re sick, you’re sick,” Shawn said. “She’s a strong woman who happens to be sick. That’s pretty much it.”
Talking to my mom made me realize that she’s just like everybody else: a human with flaws and fears.
I asked her, “If you can’t use your hands, does that mean you’re not strong?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m not strong, because always I feel pain.”
I don’t know why those words surprised me but they did. I never really knew the pain my mom was going through affected her so badly.
I don’t see my mom as somebody weak, even if she does. And I can’t imagine respecting her more than I already do.