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Dear Mom, Akong Tanan

A portrait of Gil Locaylocay Caley’s mother. Illustration: Shelby Ticsay

I have been in college for six years. It is one of the most embarrassing facts about myself, one which brings the weight of all my hiya to a head. Though I know there isn’t a real hurry, it hurts to see my mom suffer the burden of it. By now, I should be taking care of her. Her arthritis, her callouses, and the graying of her hair constantly taunt me that I am failing her and our family. But even for all my shortcomings, my mom is still my savior. My mom still fights to keep me alive.

I’m not a good student, either. I skip class and forget about assignments. My mind often goes completely blank during lectures, and I learn mostly nothing. The time here drags on, and I cut closer and closer to dropping out altogether. Sometimes, I feel like an incurable tumor, a mass slowly festering inside my family. Sometimes, I feel empty of all emotions except shame.

After my mother married my dad, she emigrated from the Philippines and entered the United States on September 11, 1996, devoted to him and this strange new world. This land of farm-fresh milk and locally harvested raw honey. She found America rich in clean, running toilets, club sandwiches, and unblemished, porcelain-skinned people, white like stars for her to wish on. In this land, all her dreams could be reborn, and my mom held fiercely onto them. She was going to be an American. And so was I.

“Don’t say that,” my mom repeated. “That you wish you weren’t here with me.”

My heart throbbed in pain. I laced my fingers together around my phone. We were alone in her car, going to the store. She had pulled to the curb across from our neighbor’s house.

She continued. “Listen, anak. You’re the only one I have. I don’t want to be alone here. Okay?”

I squeezed my hands tightly, and my lip trembled.

“I love you, anak.”

“I love you, anak.” I began to cry again.

“I love you, anak, you know that?”

I love you too,” I said, finally. Shakily. “I love you too, mommy.”

In July 1998, my mom first laid her eyes on the product of her hopes and dreams.

“That’s mine?” she incredulously asked about the big baby in the nurse’s arms — her American son, born with almost a complete head of hair.

She held me to her chest and looked at me with all the fondness of a mother. For this one triumph, she left her only home, our enormous clan scattered across Cebu and Bantayan Island, and the comfort of the culture and language which nurtured her since birth to write us into this uncertain story. She took a hyphen and a husband and built her American dream, starting with hardly anything but minimum wage, broken English, and a little help.

“You’re all I have.”

“I know.” My mom hugged me, and her shoulder became wet. My cheeks were streaked. I felt ashamed. I felt worthless. I felt like nothing.

And still, she said, “You will be successful, anak.”

My mom took almost eight years to graduate from college in the Philippines, and my Lolo, who passed away in 2019, never once pressed her about when she would graduate. She earned her degree and worked as a midwife in Cebu City. It was the eighties when she and my dad began writing to each other across the sea. She told me that as broken as her English was then and continued to be, she still prospered.

Even though my dad was losing his patience, erupting into the same screams and bloodcurdling anger which always filled me with terror, my mom saved me with those four words:

“You will be successful.”

Her words linger in my head every day, reminding me that I am everything she ever wanted. My mom always pours out her love for me and constantly gives me reasons to be grateful. She is the one who tells me not to apologize even when there’s so much to be sorry for and calls me once a week to ask about my day. To be her everything is the greatest blessing in the world.

So for her, and for Filipino moms everywhere and their children who love them, I want to say: Mom, I love you. Thank you.

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