Family Secrets, Plural
Carmen Rita Wong thought her Chinese father was her father. But her Dominican mother had...let's just call them secrets. Plural. WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME? kept me up all night, feeling them unfold.
I first “met” Carmen Rita Wong—we’ve yet to meet in person, but I feel as if I now know her better than people I’ve known for decades—in those turbulent late months of 2020, when so many of us who caught Covid early were trying to get doctors to understand what was happening to our bodies. This was before the term “long Covid” had entered the lexicon, so our voices had grown hoarse shouting, “Something is not right!” and not being heard.
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For me that something turned out to be POTS, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. In a nutshell, whenever I walked up stairs or a hill, my heart would suddenly soar from 68 beats per minute to 145 bpm or higher, and I’d either faint or have to lie down on the landing. By the time Wong entered my life, I’d published a story about this in The Atlantic and had learned how to manage my symptoms. That is to say, I was drinking pickle juice and wearing compression socks and taking increasingly longer slow walks to build back my body and give it the salt it needed and my blood a more difficult path to my feet.
Enter Wong, whose daughter was dealing with the same. You know how sometimes you talk to a stranger on the phone, and you feel an instant connection? Like you know them know them? That. She asked me question after question, and I answered as best I could. And then I received her book in the mail and, much like Wong herself, I realized I’d had no idea who she really was.
Not to be hyperbolic or cliché, but from the moment I picked up her new memoir, Why Didn’t You Tell Me, I could not put it down. Then, of course, I reached back out to Wong. Now it was my turn to ask question after question after question. My friend I’ve never met delivered, masterfully as usual. Herewith is our conversation.
DEB: Without giving away too much, your book is the one-two punch of surprise endings. You deal with it so well on the page—pacing it so that we, the reader, discover these two disparate but related truths much like you did. But now that you are more than a year beyond the second surprise revelation, how have you been processing this new reality emotionally? Has it become easier now that it’s on the page and some time has past, or are you still kind of living in the trauma of it all?
Carmen Rita Wong: I’m still processing everything (and everyone). Papi Wong also passed away recently so it’s been quite a time. We’re all running around trying to hold down the fort I think. You can tell from my book I’m not exactly a wallower but, the past couple of years have been I’d say the hardest ever in many ways. A great part of aging for me though is that I truly have learned to ask for help when I need it and take one day at a time. Stop and breathe. Focus on my daughter and people who show up in my life in times of need, who offer support and friendship and love. And I’m all about finding the joy wherever I can. Find the joy in a moment or in the day. Look out a window. Listen to your favorite song. Put on lipstick. Watch your cheesy show. Snuggle your pooch. Those little things help so much. And sometimes it’s about giving myself permission to feel my feelings. We gotta. As the saying goes, the best way to get over is through.
DEB: I was awed by the way you were able to tell the story of a narcissist mother truthfully but also with love and respect and stories of support that counterbalanced the more painful revelations (her excellent reaction to the restaurant owner’s son’s actions comes to mind.) How hard was it to get that portrait right? To forgive? To understand her as a product of her own upbringing? More saliently, had you found out the various truths she’d hidden from you before she died, do you think you would have been able to write this book when she was still alive, or did her death in some way give you permission to do so?
CRW: Forgiveness I find serves the person who did the wrong. Makes them feel better. What I set out to do is to have empathy and understanding for her, to heal myself and settle my soul. And even forgive myself for the bad decisions I’ve made (I mean, I’ve been divorced twice as an example). Being angry when someone hurts you is first level stuff. I wanted to go deeper. To understand why she did what she did. In that way, seeing her as a full human being, faults and all, enabled me to find much more peace. I’m not there yet with the others who knew the secret and kept it too. Maybe one day.
And yes, her passing enabled me to write this book but not because it gave me permission but because it allowed me the space and calm to clearly see the past and her as a person. To create a new relationship with her in my mind. I can tell you this: I know she loves—I mean loves—that she’s on the cover of the book.
DEB: I cried when I found out what happened to Alex, your brother. How are Belinda and the kids doing these days?
CRW: Thank you so much. Outside of my child, he was the most important person in my life, always. Belinda and their girls are well–they keep plugging along. She’s about to become an empty nester as the oldest is in a doctorate program in Atlanta and the twins are entering college, both also in Atlanta. Though the heroic Grandma Stella lives with her still and is about to turn 90. She’s a rock and a joy. The great thing about my sister-in-law, who I consider a real big sister to me, is that she’s surrounded by a wonderful group of friends and cousins who have her back in every way. And, she has mine and I have hers too. That’s how we survive his loss. I know it’s changed me and all of us deeply.
DEB: You briefly touched upon your daughter B’s long-haul Covid in the book, which is what originally brought you and me together back in 2020. How’s she doing these days? Do you have any plans to take her to—again, I don’t want to give away too much, but—to the other place of your and her origin?
CRW: I can’t wait to travel with her again. B and I had been traveling internationally several times a year since she was five years old. We were such a travel team. I’m so glad to have been able to give her that experience, to see more of the world. She loved planes so much, she’d fall asleep to the sound of the engine on her phone. But yes, she’s had long-COVID for what’s going to be two years–her whole teenage existence so far. It grounded us. She’s immunocompromised and definitely unable to have a ‘normal’ teen life. The specter of reinfection always around. She has managed to stay on track with school, with accommodations, and her dreams live on. All we can do is get the best care and hope for the best. I’m saving up all my miles for that particular trip especially!
DEB: What advice would you give to someone with a wild family story to tell? Or, better put, how did you find the strength to write down this twisty-turny wrenching tale?
CRW: It was a compulsion really. Something that lived in me that had to get out. It wasn’t easy at all though. There were many days I had to walk away from the screen for a bit. Days where my mind roiled with feelings and memories, not pleasant. But the writing was the healing. The writing validated me in a way that I should have had decades earlier by my parents, teachers, anyone, but never had. And, when you’ve lived being told you can’t do things and are less-than because of your race and/or gender, I have had a fire in me to prove that’s wrong from day one. That our stories matter. Our stories are American stories too and are deserving of the respect and elevation of being heard, read and seen.
Advice for anyone wanting to tell their family story? Remember: It’s not just about them. It’s about how you were shaped by it all. Work on yourself—how you see the world and your history and how it ties to the generations before you. We are human, not villains or saviors. Memoir to me is a tree-of-life at an emotional, epigenetic, even psychic level. No matter how original your family story is, we all share a ‘tree’ and that’s what can connect with readers, universally.
Some quick housekeeping: an editor of the Daily Beast reached out to me to write an Op-Ed about my recent attempt to get surgery to reverse my Covid deafness. (Spoiler alert, United Healthcare denied my right to this surgery literally two minutes before I was about to be wheeled in for it.) It’s a doozy of a story about the grift and graft of American healthcare—an oxymoron, if ever there was one—and I thought it deserved a wider audience than this Substack, which gets between 6000 and 32,000 eyeballs per post, depending on your interest and sharing. The Daily Beast gets 1.1 million readers a day. Hopefully one day this publication will do those kind of numbers as well, but until then, I figured my story would have a better chance of reaching more eyeballs, including those of lawmakers who have been dragging their feet on universal healthcare in this country for decades, with a larger subscription base. As soon as it’s published, I will send you notice of its publication along with the link.