Mi Gran Anhelo
By My Mother's Brain: Love in the Times of Dementia
I’m having an identity crisis, I told my friend over lunch. I need to work, but I can’t work, not full-time anyway, when I’m having to travel back and forth to the border to help care for Mom. My problem, I explained, is not solely about earning money; it goes beyond the financial issues. It’s that when the bylines and credits and paychecks get few and far between — usually during my caregiving stints and immediately after them — I panic. I feel as if I’ve accomplished nothing, and I lose all sense of who I am.
“I’ve gone from being a journalist, a writer and photographer, to being simply daughter,” I said to my friend. And the latter role feels so small — like a narrowing of my life. I’m ashamed to feel this way, but she understood. Because she’s in the same boat.
Both of us are trying to earn a buck between family duties to our elderly parents. Neither of us has children; until recently, we’d both been busy with careers. And until recently, we both derived a sense of satisfaction, a sense of who we are, from our jobs.
Oh, the irony.
I’m a first-generation American, a Latina whose grandparents, to my knowledge, didn’t derive a sense of who they were from what they did. Neither did my mom, whose greatest sense of fulfillment came from having her children, of which I was the first. “Mi gran anhelo,” she called the dream of having kids, “my greatest desire, my greatest yearning.”
So when did this philosophical shift in identity occur? Why is it so difficult to cherish the idea of being daughter, sister, wife, prima, like my antepasados did? Why does what I do (or did, in my case) seem to outweigh who I am to my family? Did the cultural planes shift the moment I was born on American soil? Or when my parents renounced their Mexican citizenship for the American one?
I inherited my family’s old world sense of duty and obligation. I inherited their language and their sense of humor. Sadly, the gene that ensured I’d know how to cúmbia got lost in transition, but that one I don’t miss so much.
What I miss is the ability to let go of material things and self-indulgent titles that in the long run, mean so little to those around me. My grandparents had that ability. So did my parents, to some extent. Was it because being poor, they had no choice? I don’t think so. I think it’s the beautiful and, at once terrible nature of American society — this competitive and independent nature that our country has as a whole. It’s our blessing: It drives our kids to excel in school, to become problem-solving scientists and Nobel Prize winners. It helps ensure our position as world leader and most powerful country on the globe.
It’s also our curse: It ensures that we place our biggest value on our accomplishments, on always getting there first whether it’s arriving at a cure for cancer or at the next red light. It ensures a work ethic that can drive us to drink and cardiac arrest — it sacrifices who we are for what we do.
For me the issue is one of balance. I want to keep the good parts of being an American. But I need to reclaim the good parts of my old world heritage.
“I’m your daughter,” I need to tell Mom when I see her in a couple of weeks, ” mi anhelo, my longing is to take care of you.”