To our mothers,

Thank you for being our inspiration. Thank you for the effort that you put in to raise us children, to see us grow and develop. You’ll have to take my word when I say that I don’t mean for those words to be clichés; they really are the sincerest words that I can come up with as I write this. I’ve only begun to see just how challenging your efforts are, because it has become especially apparent to me that we children can take all that you do for granted.

For years, Mother’s Day was just another holiday on my calendar, but this year, it has taken a new meaning. Why do we celebrate our mothers? Of course, we celebrate because of all the work they put in to raise us! The answer seemed so simple. I’ve always celebrated Mother’s Day by thanking my mother for everything she did. However, in recent months, I’ve come to realize that it is so much more than just acknowledging it. The work that our mothers do is simply profound, and the magnitude of the consequences it has on us is immeasurable.

Today, I am sharing a story of the impact my mother has had on me. I am writing about the lessons I’ve learned and my experiences after hearing that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I am writing about the things I’ve failed to see before, and the renewed appreciation that I have found for her in these past few months.

My mother was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The announcement came suddenly and unexpectedly through a phone call as I was walking down to a lecture at Penn on a February day. Details emerged in fragments, and I never felt more confused and anxious for answers. The days that followed were painful and difficult, and I remember trying to research extensively on what my mom was facing based on the pieces of information that I received. I searched dozens of pages on Google, and everywhere I looked seemed to suggest that she had a low chance of living beyond five years. Each day grew darker as I desperately waited to go back home. I was frightened. The time that I had with my mother, which I anticipated to be much longer, could suddenly be short.

She looked so frail coming home for the first time after her surgery. I remember my sister warned me not to cry in front of her. I didn’t cry then; I cried when my family and relatives reassured me that she would make it, because I begged God for that to be true. My fears grew when I saw for the first time the notes that she brought back from the hospital. I’ve seen a booklet from the American Cancer Society before, but I never imagined that the contents of the booklet would pertain to my mother. I cried on the train ride back to Penn because there seemed to be no good news that rose out of my visit home. It only seemed to reinforce my fears. Pessimistic thoughts filled my mind. This was going to be a new period for us, one that would never feel the same.

But it wasn’t. As if by a miracle, my experience since my first visit home was immensely reassuring. I made a long trip to go back home for a mere four hours, I tried much harder to make regular video calls with my mom, and I prayed that she would overcome this trial. These small and intimate moments grew more precious, and I savored them. When I first saw mom after hearing of her cancer, I thought that this sense of security that she gave me was going to end. I thought that I was going to see her growing weaker each day. But I was wrong. The feeling of security never went away, and she stayed strong.

What is crushing and yet simultaneously special to me is the fact that despite me crying and fearing that she may not live for long, my mom never stopped nor hesitated to show me her strength and willpower. I don’t know how she feels when I can’t see her. People have warned me that she would put on a strong suit to keep me safe. She undoubtedly must have her breakdowns and moments when it feels difficult to fight. Yet, in our phone calls, she always gave a reassuring smile. In my visit home, she assured me that she would be fine. There was probably nothing more precious to my mother than her hair, but after losing it from chemotherapy, she confidently showed me her balding head with a smile.

I began to realize that this was no different from the mom that I knew before cancer. Of course, she’s physically more frail, but her mental drive to support me and raise me never diminished. Growing up, I lived only with my mother, and she took on more roles than anyone should ever need to have. Even if she faced language barriers or financial troubles, she never took shortcuts to raise me into the person I am. Even if we lived in a room in another person’s home, or if she had to work tirelessly for hours at nail spas just to raise some money for the both of us, she persisted. She fought tirelessly with herself and her challenging environment to raise me as best as she could. And, before I forget: she endured a spoiled brat who loved to have things his way. When I think about “family,” the first thing that pops into my mind is the smiling picture of mom. Today, she still enjoys her Korean TV shows, loves to cook delicious food, and nags at me to exercise. And I love every moment of that.

I can’t imagine the multitude of emotions that mothers must go through as they raise their children. Everything from their proudest moments to those times when they are crushed by stress, I can only wonder how they do all of it. You all must do so much, and many of you probably don’t even feel like you’re being acknowledged for the work that you put in. I am incredibly thankful for my mother, and I pray that the same can be said of you. You deserve credit for raising us for so many years and having to endure all of the hardship that comes from it. So, cheers to all of you mothers (and mother figures and fathers who took on a maternal role, too)!

Happy Mother’s Day, and God bless.