And The Tree Was Happy

In ethics class, we’re debating the morality of baby hatches when I say: Before they are caretakers and homemakers, mothers are human. Their lives shouldn’t be held hostage for their babies. They shouldn’t be forced to make that commitment.

Wow, you shouldn’t ever be a mother, a classmate says to me.

He doesn’t know that I quietly panic whenever my friends tell me they want a daughter like me, because I’m not the loving and lovable child they think I am. He doesn’t know that my ideal future involves a couple flatmates, a dog and a cat, no husband, no children. He doesn’t know that my rejection of marriage is an acquired distaste, the visceral, automatic reaction to years of hearing my mother say, you mustn’t get married because it robs you of all that life has to offer. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from mom, it’s that marriage is a death sentence.

Because mom—

Mom would spend hours and hours sitting in the living room staring at nothing with a couple empty soy milk packages in front of her, her eyes red and puffy and empty, like she’s lost her will to live. But, mom would stand beside me on a stage in front of an audience’s standing ovation, her face flushed with pride and her eyes teary—and I would give them a brittle smile and gingerly hold my prize, quietly, quietly in despair. Because I—

I am the fruit of her labor, the physical embodiment of her sacrifice, but I’ll never be her masterpiece, I don’t want to be her masterpiece. And I would force myself to get up from where I’d been crouching on the tile floor wondering what mom’s life would have been like without me, force myself to unlock the bathroom door and sit at my desk, because guilt, I discovered, was a foolproof incentive to study.

And I would confess to my best friend that every time mom’s face lights up at my perfect report card, I get irrationally angry, and I would confess to my sister that I would never forgive both of my parents for making each other so unhappy, and I would confess to my roommate that I hate that mom has done so much for me, knowing it was a disgustingly privileged thing to say.

I would read The Giving Tree a hundred times and still arrive at the same conclusion, that the tree could never be happy. The boy, to me, was unforgivable, irredeemable.

Because I would look in dismay at the five different new pieces of clothing mom got me and tell her to return them all, and watching her face fall, I wanted to shout, no, mom, I don’t need more clothes, get yourself a fucking shirt, please. Because everyone calls her Eui Young Eomma, Eui Young’s Mom, and the only person who would call her by her name is her mom, my grandmother. Because on her forty-fifth birthday, she ripped the candles off the cake that dad and I got, glared at us, and spit out: it was so much better without you here.

Now, at college, I talk with my parents every weekend on FaceTime like a dutiful child, tell them that the food is good, not what I had in Korea, but I’ll get used to it, that I’m making friends, that the classes are challenging but manageable if I work hard, that I’m writing for a couple publications and doing community service, and yes mom, I’ll see how my sister’s doing, yes mom, I’ll be careful not to catch a cold, yes mom, I won’t drink the tap water if you say it’s bad, yes mom, I won’t be a penny pincher and go out with my friends for dinner, yes mom, I’ll ask other people to help me when I’m carrying heavy things to my dorm, and.

I know I’m not going to do half of these things but I tell her I will and watch her face relax, because mom has always worried so much, enough for a lifetime. The screen shows that they’re in a car, somewhere with a lot of trees, and since I’ve been off to college they’ve been traveling the country. They look younger, carefree, the burden of raising children gone—they look happy. She says she’ll hang up because she knows I”m busy, and I smile and wave and disconnect the call, and my heart aches.

It was so much better without you here.

I won’t get married. Nor will I have children. I know this with a certainty. I can’t imagine a life that includes either. Sometimes I see my friends talking pop culture and trading jokes with their moms on the phone and wonder if I could have been that child, if I could ever be that mother, but. After nearly two decades of watching a marriage fraught with tension, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make that leap of faith. If marriage and motherhood is sacrifice, loss, pain, I want no part of it.

And the tree was happy. I repeat over and over in my head, tasting the words, their shape foreign on my tongue. My phone buzzes. Mom’s forwarded an article to me and my sister on how to pack a lot of things into a tiny suitcase. In the background is a picture of the four of us, my sister and dad in sunglasses, all of us smiling at the selfie stick, the streets of San Francisco behind us. I guess I’ll never know if the tree was really happy or not.

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