When the end came calling for my mother, she faced it just the same way she had everything else in her life: with her head held high, fearless in the face of adversity, and proud to the very end.
Last Friday, my beloved mother’s life came to an end. I had the honor of being with her in her final moments.
My daughter Sophie and I had gone over to her house to pick her up to come with us to one of Sophie’s indoor track and field meets. There were few things in her life my mother enjoyed more than watching her children and grandchildren compete in sporting events. After she put her coat on, she quietly sat down in her recliner and stared off into the distance. When I asked her if she was ready to go, she simply looked up at me and said, “I’m so tired of this stuff,” then closed her eyes and never woke up again.
Except, of course, she didn’t say “stuff.” My mother used a different word, one I’ll not repeat here. Those were her final words on this planet. That may be offensive to some, but to those who actually knew my mother, there couldn’t possibly have been a more perfect ending.
She was in death as she was in life — unapologetically Jean Fong.
My mother taught me thousands of lessons in her long and colorful life, but perhaps the most valuable ones I learned from her were to maintain self-confidence and to always be proud of who I am. Which is kind of funny because for the first portion of her life, that wasn’t at all who my mother was.
Regina Dolores Posinski — the fact she would later marry my father and simply become Jean Fong must have saved her a lot of time signing legal documents — was born in the inner city of Baltimore on Aug. 28, 1937, the sweet spot in history right between the Great Depression and World War II. As she would often tell us later, likely in an attempt for us to appreciate all we had in life, she was born into abject poverty.
She was never afraid of working to improve her situation, however, and would scrub the marble steps along Baltimore’s row houses to earn a dime, which she would use to see a Saturday matinee and buy a box of Good ‘N Plenty candies (which, it bears mentioning, might be the most vile candy I’ve ever tasted).
Still, though, my mother knew she was different from her peers. Despite being born poor, my mother’s devout Catholic parents always managed to find a way to send all five of their children to parochial schools. She didn’t fit in well with many of her more well-heeled (literally … my mother often would stuff newspapers in the bottoms of her shoes when she wore a hole in the bottom of them) and grew up shy and introverted.
It would take leaving the country for my mother to find her (sometimes profane) voice and her backbone. After graduating from college with her teaching degree, she wanted to see the world, but couldn’t afford to do so. So she took a job on a U.S. Army base in Europe, where she would get a job teaching the children of servicemen and women.
It was around this time my mother realized all she had to give to the world and that what she said, and who she was, mattered. She came back confident and fearless. She also came back with the man who would become her husband — a Chinese-American man who was serving on the same Army base at which she was teaching.
In a time and place when people weren’t always accepting of mixed-race marriages, my mother married the man she loved and they had five children. She heard the whispers and endured the ignorant questions about her “adopting” five children; I guess because people at the time couldn’t fathom her marrying an Asian man.
All that did, however, was strengthen her resolve. She and my father taught their children to be proud of who they are, to always hold their heads high and do the right thing. That wasn’t always easy, particularly for this child. I wasn’t always proud of how I looked or who I was. I was often scared. For different reasons, I was probably a lot like my mother was when she was growing up.
But when my faith in myself wavered, my mother’s never did. She was brave when I was scared and strong when I was weak. It took many years, but eventually I grew up into what my mother wanted me to be. I found my voice and haven’t stopped using it since.
She would teach those same lessons to hundreds of children who came through her fifth-grade class at St. Patrick Elementary School. She was quick to protect the underdogs; I’m guessing because she saw so much of herself in them. No one, and I mean no one, got bullied in her classroom. She was demanding, but at the same time caring. She knew when a figurative kick in the rear end or a literal pat on the back were warranted, and both were dispensed with great frequency in her classroom.
She loved her students like she loved her children, which also just happened to be how she loved herself — with great pride and bravery.
My mother may no longer be with us physically, but I have no doubts her fighting spirit will live on for many years to come by all of those who loved her … myself included, of course. It was a life lived in full. She laughed often and loved constantly. She never wasted a second of any day.
In the bitter end, I guess I can see why she was so tired. Get some rest, Mom, you’ve earned it.
David Fong writes for the Troy Daily News, a division of AIM Media Midwest.