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What do I want you to know about Ma?

I wrote this piece to read at my mother's memorial on Saturday, August 28. I don't want to lose it, so I'm posting it here, to my personal space.

This is terrifying to me, which is why I’ve decided to write something down. I can’t possibly hope to represent Ma well. Even finding a story to tell is incredibly hard because there are so many of them: a lifetime of happy stories from a childhood that always felt like a kind of wheatgerm-fueled adventure where we lived on our own terms in spite of what the world might have wanted from us.

I started calling her Ma as a term of endearment when I was an adult. “Mum” is too British; “Mom” doesn’t sound right coming out of my mouth. “Mom”. So I confess, I absolutely stole Ma from [our cousins] the Neales, who have similar accent difficulties, and who I admire in lots of ways.

But when we were growing up, I called her Debbie. We were a very respectful but non-hierarchical household: we called our parents by their first names, we were encouraged to take things apart and ask how things worked, and we were consulted on all kinds of things that children are not necessarily best-equipped to weigh in on - but we were trusted, and that was wonderful, and a reflection of how both my parents think and thought. It’s a mindset rooted in equality, growth, and learning.

 

So. What do I want you to know about Ma?

Everything. Or at least, quite a few things. But let’s start here:

I want you to know that she was really freaking smart.

In my line of work, which is working in product and engineering in the tech industry, people often say things like, “explain this like you were explaining it to your mother.” It’s obviously a completely sexist line of thinking, which is kind of a reflection of the tech industry to be honest, and I take great satisfaction in telling them that my mother taught me to program. Not only that, but she learned assembler, which is one of the most intricate ways to program.

She would sit patiently with me for hours on end, and together we’d plug source code into our 8-bit Atari. She taught me BASIC, and then later on, we moved on to more complicated languages together.

When we didn’t have the money to get the latest and greatest PC, she organized a computer club at a local business in Oxford so that I’d have access. Every Thursday night, a bunch of kids from across the city would play games, make art, learn to code, and become computer literate together under her gentle guidance.

She studied the telecommunications industry, and knew that both the internet and the mobile revolution were coming. She understood the implications, and spoke to many of the people who were making things happen. She wrote detailed analyses of the forces that would reshape much of society over the coming decades.

She took me with her to industry shows in Cannes, and as a family we went to technology conferences across Europe, where we’d go sightseeing (and I might sneak into an event or two) and she’d be running panels and conducting interviews.

She was unassuming about it; she wasn’t self-important, but if she’d been someone else, she could have become a billionaire.

Instead, she withdrew from the industry, retrained, became a middle school science teacher in one of the most impoverished towns in California, and never looked back. I don’t remember her as happy at work as when she was teaching those kids. Even when she started to get sick, she went into work every day with an oxygen tank on her back, looking like a Ghostbuster. Even when she couldn’t work anymore, she helped her school get grants and organized an educational program with NASA. She was dedicated and she loved it.

She would engage in debate about anything. It was common to see her and my dad watching a documentary or lecture on any number of obscure topics and discussing it late into the night and sometimes days later. She became fascinated by science and space. She could speak a bunch of languages and would read and analyze academic reports in languages she didn’t even know yet. She was well-read, and read voraciously - often with multiple books on the go at once, which even this year she’d alternate between during dialysis and while she was getting her tube feeds in bed - and was hungry for knowledge.

So, sure, I’ll explain it like I’m explaining it to my mother. I’ll include all the detail, know that she’ll understand the implications better than I will, and be ready for a series of informed, insightful questions - and to be, more than anything else, challenged on the ethics of it.

 

What do I want you to know about Ma?

I want you to know that she cared. She wasn’t just kind and forgiving, willing to see the best in absolutely everyone and go out of her way to help - although she was definitely all of those things. But more than that, she really cared deeply: about people and the intricacies of their lives, about the world, and particularly about fairness.

Before I was born, both my parents were involved in struggles to support affirmative action and tenants’ rights. She described herself as having been radicalized early on, but it’s not particularly that she was radical: she could just see past the social templates that everyone is expected to adhere to, and which perpetuate systemic injustices, and could see how everything should operate to be fairer.

That was true on every level. She wanted she and Steve and Erica to all be treated equally, and would make it known if she thought the others were getting a raw deal. She tried her best to treat Hannah and I equally. If someone made a sexist or a homophobic remark around her, she would call it out. If someone was xenophobic, or unthinkingly imperialist, she would bring it up. She was outspoken - always with good humor, but always adamant about what really mattered.

Later in life, when she had a little bit more money, she gave to causes she believed in: representation for women, reproductive rights, racial justice, voting rights, and the environment. She was glued to the Presidential debates, appalled by the previous guy, and was completely on top of what was going on in the world.

She was a feminist, as we all should be. She defined her own identity, dressed as she wanted to dress, acted as she wanted to act, spoke how she wanted to speak. It wasn’t that she was irreverent towards more traditional expectations; they were utterly irrelevant. As they should be.

 

What do I want you to know about Ma?

I want you to know that she was herself - and that self was full of life and energy and humor and movement. And I’m not just talking about her amazing trousers.

The last time I was here at the Cape, which was three years ago, we were all hanging out in the pond behind Little Lane. For some reason, there was an inflatable bull out there with us. None of us could climb on top of it: Hannah, me, Anna, I think Rachel was there, Wiley, Elise.

Ma was weak, and the lung transplant drugs were taking their toll, and she was having trouble eating food. And when she started to climb onto that bull, I’ve got to admit, I was kind of worried.

But by god, climb she did, and she was the only one of us who made it to the top of that bull. And once she’d scrambled to the top of it, she lifted her arms up in victory.

That was Ma.

We realized later that she absolutely was not supposed to be in a closed body of water as an immunosuppressed person, but whatever. There were no ill effects. She climbed the bull.

She spent the last decade scrambling to the top of the biggest metaphorical inflatable bull you’ve ever heard of. And she spent most of that decade balancing precariously on top of it with her arms held high in victory.

When Pammy gifted us the Sunfish - the same boat that they had both sailed when they were younger - it was like a key to unlocking the bay. We spent days and days tacking around the bay, finding exactly the right breeze, and making our way back to Grandmother’s Beach at high speed in a single tack. She would yell: whooooooosh! And then we’d think about tacking back to Sagelots and doing it all again.

Life was always full of those small moments of joy. Taking Tessie, our little Jack Russell Terrier, out on Port Meadow and watching her bound through the tall grass. Going out to the wildlife sanctuary outside of Turlock and seeing the birds fly through the reeds. Sneaking out and stealing a dinghy late at night from Grandmother’s Beach and oohing at the phosphorescence shimmering around our oars. Getting out the sofabed and all sitting together under the covers to watch Doctor Who or a movie on a Friday night. Sitting around the table with people she loved, picking crabs.

When she got sick, life was still full of those moments of joy. Even just a five minute walk through the park had the same energy. Just a few months ago, she got out and walked the boardwalk at Monterey. “I still have life-force in me,” she told the doctors. She loved to live.

 

What do I want you to know about Ma?

One last thing for now. I actually have a message to impart. Not so long ago, while she was lying in a bed on the tenth floor at UCSF, surrounded by all the tubes and hospital paraphernalia, she gave me a simple instruction:

“Tell everyone I love them.”

And she did. She loved you so much. She loved all of us so much, in a way that was open, and forgiving, and kind, and all in her own way.

I’m really glad you’re all here. She would be glad too. She was hoping to be with you all one more time.

Thank you.