Chamomile Tea: Reflections on a Conversation with My Immigrant Mom

Mom tells me she’s stopped taking some of her medications. She wants to live, to taste the drinks everyone else around her has been enjoying for years. To feel an ounce of that joy, too. She tells me chamomile tea makes her feel better. Much better than any medicine ever did at calming her nerves. She says I should give up my antidepressants and mood stabilizers, that I should just try chamomile, too.

“You know, a cup at night. It can’t hurt to just try. You’ll feel better, like I do,” she earnestly chatters into the phone. “Papaya enzymes help my stomach. Echinacea…”

My heart sinks. Alarm bells go off. I want to scream, to cry, to tell her to stop believing in homeopathic hocus pocus, in sugar pills that make you think they’re working! I feel myself becoming a little girl again, petulant and frustrated that no one takes me seriously. The phantom pains of a smack to the face. The knot in my throat signaling not to talk back. Not to talk at all.

I tell myself to take a breath and remember all the pain she’s been through. The scars on her neck, her elbows, her knees. My fear of seeing Mom in hospital beds again. The panicked night of our escape.

I acknowledge I need to tread lightly, that patience and gentleness is needed. Both of us too easily go on the defensive. Our hackles raised, teeth bared, waiting for the other to bend first or take the first bite. A stubbornness inherent, another learned.

I remind myself of all the living Mom has missed out on through the years of trying to be both the strong mother and father. She was barely out of her teens when I was born into the role of constant companion – a companion that provided relief from a new and ever-present loneliness. A cute companion that morphed over the years into an overweight child without monolids, a foreign being with confusing curly hair and insolent Americanized values.

I know that it’s been over twenty years since Mom’s seen her family. She’s been struggling this whole time in a country not her own, in a desert completely isolated and different from her lush island hometown of Villareal, Samar Province, Philippines. I know that she’s been trying her darndest in this second marriage. It’s not easy marrying into a heartbroken family and adding your own shards to the mix. A marriage her own country barely acknowledges because of their strict beliefs against divorce. She deserves to live a little at over half a century old. She deserves so much more than the disrespect of this small town, southwestern American life with its constant culture shocks that are barely worth acknowledgement any more. It’s par for the course of being labeled an “alien,” yeah? Just another stone to add to the pile.

“You need to be a better daughter. Always ask what I need you to do,” an accusatory order from what feels like eons ago echoes in my head.

My therapist tells me I shouldn’t feel so responsible or disappointed or hurt when my advice is waved off. Work on being grateful. I mutter a “Mmhmm,” but I don’t think this older white woman gets it. How can she comprehend the overwhelming amount of pressure, the expectations and ingrained responsibility of being an Asian woman’s first born? I tell her I am grateful. After all, I was able to convince Mom and Daddy Tony to take the Covid shots, right? This despite the internet’s siren call not to. This victory over successful and intimidating Older Stepbrother’s assertion to just take kelp. I know it’s not my place to tell anyone what they should or should not do. Like a mantra in my head, I repeat: “I am grateful. I’m not the parent. I am grateful.” But it’s just so hard.

“I went to El Paso last weekend because we were out of fish….” My mind jars back to the current conversation. Mom’s still talking. “Oh! Nice! Um, I don’t know about chamomile. I’m glad you’re feeling better, though!” I reply back in one of her rare pauses.

I gently state, “Sorry, ‘Nay, I’m not really a big fan of herbal teas, but please remember to tell your doctor and ask what he thinks.”  

“Oh yeah. You know they have your favorite? Bangus? I’ll get some of that milk fish to fry. I want to bbq later. I have the steak marinating. You know your brother’s dogs are here? I fed the turtles out back already…”

I am grateful. With or without chamomile tea, we’re in a good place. The meds will take some work and gentle prodding.

I’m not the parent, after all.  

Steph ❤

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