43: A Second Chance at Seventy-Eight

43: A Second Chance at Seventy-Eight

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever!

A Second Chance at Seventy-Eight

My mom is my hero. [She] inspired me to dream when I was a kid, so anytime anyone inspires you to dream, that’s gotta be your hero.

~Tim McGraw

As Purcell’s trumpet processional played, friends and family rose to their feet in honor of the radiant bride who gracefully made her way down the aisle. The bride looked dazzling in her cream-colored gown. It was adorned with tiny crystals that reflected the rays of light streaming through the windows. As she made her way past each pew, the bride warmly smiled at the guests, until her gaze finally rested upon the groom, whose eyes welled with tears.

In that moment, I was overcome with immense emotion. For the woman who walked down the aisle was not my daughter, or my sister, or a dear friend. Amazingly, this woman was my seventy-eight-year-old mother.

I never imagined that my mother would get remarried, particularly at such a late stage in life when many people struggle with health issues, financial insecurity, or a fundamental loss in purpose. Indeed, my mother had gone through her fair share of adversity. But unlike her peers, my mother was not done with living. She was once again demonstrating that you’re never too old to chase a dream.

My mother first arrived in the United States from South Korea back in 1964 when she was just twenty-six years old. She planned to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky. Although she came with only one hundred dollars in her pocket, my mother was filled with optimism and excitement for the future.

On a trip to Massachusetts, she visited my father, who had also immigrated to the States from South Korea in search of a better life and education. They had grown up together. My mother decided to stay in the city of Cambridge to be with my dad and to pursue her studies there.

With that one decision, her life took a drastic detour down a path fraught with unforeseeable challenges. As is often the case, her life became intermingled with both unbearable heartbreak and moments of boundless joy.

Shortly after their marriage, my father began to manifest symptoms of bipolar depression. At that time, not a lot was known about mental illness, and it was never discussed in Asian households.

It was confusing and distressing for my mother to routinely find my father unable to get out of bed or go to work. These long periods of depression were punctuated by manic phases, where my father incessantly labored on outlandish business ventures. Unable to sleep, my father went on spending sprees, abused alcohol in an effort to self-medicate, and even struck out in violence. This gentle man turned into a virtual stranger overnight.

To support our family, my mother was forced to work two full-time jobs during the day and night for several years. Despite the enormous pressures imposed by my father’s illness, my mother’s spirit never broke. Amidst her eighty-hour workweeks, my mother still came to my soccer games, sewed my school costumes, and surprised us with small gifts. We always knew we were loved.

It was no coincidence that my mother was born in the Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese zodiac. This is not to say my mother was a modern day tiger mom who demanded academic perfection from her children. No, my mother was a tiger who fiercely fought against the outside world while being utterly tender at home. No one could have guessed that the same woman who fended off the foreclosure of our home could sing so softly to us each night.

After almost two decades of marriage, my mother made the exceedingly difficult decision to separate from my father in order to protect our family. Ironically, while our family became a “broken” one to the outside world, this dramatic shift made each of us more whole, as my siblings and I were spared from further instability and outbursts from our father.

My mother could have completely collapsed under the burden of responsibility as a single mother to four children. However, she had greater plans for us all.

At the age of forty-six, my mother embarked on a new career in life insurance. While this was not the career she had imagined for herself as a young child, she chose this career since the earnings were entirely dependent on the agent’s efforts and sales. My mother knew she could outwork almost anyone if it meant that we could attend college. I remember her working from dawn until dinnertime, when she would take a short break to eat with us. And then she would head back to the office until ten almost every single night.

My mother’s herculean efforts paid off. Within five years of becoming an agent, she became the top salesperson in her company and broke all sales records, despite English being her second language. I watched in amazement as my mother transformed into a true professional who was repeatedly recognized with corporate awards and a queen-size income. I’ll never forget the moment when my mother read an article in The Boston Globe and realized that she had earned more than the president of Boston University that year, a highly respected man with the doctorate degree she once desired. Although she never had to say a word, my mother drove home the message that someone could embark on a new career late in life and still wildly succeed.

During this time, I graduated from high school and college. And most fortunately, my father re-entered our lives after coming to terms with his own disease. Hard won acceptance and subsequent medical treatment fundamentally changed my father into a peaceful and contented man who cherished being with us.

Although they never remarried, my parents reconciled and stayed committed to each other until his death six years ago. People could not understand their continued closeness after all the trauma my mother had endured. But she still felt emotionally committed to this man with whom she had shared marital vows and grown children. Even on his deathbed, my mother was still loyally by my father’s side.

Almost one year after my father’s passing, an unexpected phone call altered my mother’s life yet again. A mutual friend who had grown up with both of my parents in South Korea reached out to my mother. Although many decades had passed since they had gone to middle school together, he had secretly harbored a love for my mother all that time.

He never revealed his feelings to my mother until after my father’s death. And in the few years that followed, my mother fell in love with this ebullient and intellectual man with whom she shared leisurely walks, competitive ping pong matches, and lively discussions about literature.

Which brings us to their wedding day.

Seeing my mother walk down the aisle stirred several contrasting emotions inside me. With each step forward, my mother created a different path for her future. It was an alternate ending to what I had expected, yet still full of promise and joy with a new companion who unconditionally offered his heart. This was enormously comforting.

I also admittedly felt profound loss for my father who had passed, and the countless opportunities that my parents had missed along the way due to mental illness that went untreated for so long.

But mostly, I felt immeasurable gratitude to my mother. With each step that she took, my mother showed me that second chances in life are indeed possible for those who keep the faith and continue moving forward.

~Pauline Koh-Banerjee

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