Growing up I always found it odd when I heard my friends and their parents say to each other, “I love you.” From the time I was born and through my teenage years, my mom never said those words to me.
She didn’t have to. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s this: love is an action, a behavior. Anyone can say, “I love you,” but not everyone backs up those words with action.
My mom, Rebekah Lee, 68, has displayed love in such a way that she didn’t have to say anything for me to know that I was loved and treasured. Writing this article in advance of this Mother’s Day weekend is another opportunity to express gratitude to a person who overcame dire circumstances and became a pillar of strength, dignity and generosity.
Some background: My mom is an immigrant from South Korea. She came here with little more than the clothes on her back, raising Jane—my younger sister of three years—and I the best way she knew how with what little she had, and that included time. Working long hours to put food on the table. Praying endlessly for our physical and spiritual well-being.
Instilling in us a sense of values on treating people with love and respect. Despite being a single mom—she gained sole custody of Jane and I after a domestic violence incident left my mom in a hospital when I was 5—she not only persevered but radiated ambition, possibility and strength.
Ambition? My mom earned a nursing school scholarship when she was 17. Possibility? Back in the 1960s and 1970s when Germany invited South Korean coal miners and nurses as guest workers—they had to fill out an application and get approved, of course—my mom jumped on the opportunity to work in a foreign country.
Growing up, my mom always told me, “Son, if you work hard enough, anything is possible.” My mom is living proof of that, as she received an award upon her retirement in 2012 after working for over 30 years at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto—in all, she worked for 40 years as a registered nurse.
Strength? How about completely forgiving my dad, Thomas, for the years of mental abuse she endured along with the one physical episode that left her in the hospital? According to my mom, not forgiving my dad would’ve been the easy thing to do. She’s right, of course—it’s much more difficult to forgive someone after they’ve wronged you in a terrible way than it is to stay angry at them.
My mom knew that the person she married—I’m proud to say my dad was a medic in the U.S. Army for three years before getting an honorable service discharge—wasn’t the same person who inflicted emotional abuse on her years later. That’s because my dad developed a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia after they got married.
I was 5 when I witnessed my dad punch and kick my mom like a ragdoll, and I still remember that incident as if it was yesterday. Months later, my mom, Jane and I stayed in a shelter for women who had suffered physical abuse. Even at a young age, I understood what was going on. But I never felt afraid or fearful, because my mom was a picture of stoicism.
Through it all, my mom modeled grace and mercy, making it easier for me to forgive my dad as well. My mom didn’t just overcome adversity; she thrived through it. In her darkest hour, my mom drew upon her faith to rise from the ashes.
“My faith really grew (after the physical abuse incident),” she says. “I cried every night and prayed hard to God to give me the strength to go on. There were times I didn’t want to live. But I had two children I loved very much, and I knew God would use what I went through for his glory. My faith would not have grown without this hardship. It was truly a blessing.”
Although my mom provided every material and physical need, they pale in comparison to the spiritual blessing she passed down to me. I know my purpose in life, and it has nothing to do with material needs but everything to do with finding my identity in God. My parents named me Emanuel because it means “God with us.” By the grace of God, I am emboldened to live out my faith everyday.
I’m a journalist and marathon runner, and I put a lot of time and effort into those things. But that’s not why I’m here. My ultimate purpose is to spread the same love, hope and faith to others that my mom passed down to me. She was the catalyst to my faith, leading me to become a deacon at Kaleo/Emmanuel Mission Church in Newark.
All of my life decisions and relationships revolve around my faith. There is simply no way I can ever really thank my mother for all she has done for our family. Her determination to succeed and persevere when times were tough has rubbed off on me in everyday life.
Whenever I face an adverse situation, I know God is greater than my circumstances. I also reflect on how my mom overcame hardships, which produced a certain beauty and greatness. Thank you mom, for being the best possible role model a son could ever hope for.