The COVID-19 pandemic has separated us, but sharing stories about how members of the campus community have been surviving — and even thriving — since last spring can help draw us together. Berkeley News is gathering inspiring personal tales of heartache and triumph related to the coronavirus and will run them periodically in the coming weeks. If you’d like to pitch us your story, send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the fifth story in the series. It highlights Tomie Lenear, program coordinator for UC Berkeley’s Student Parent Center.
In my work at Berkeley, I sometimes draw from my personal experiences to counsel student-parents when they are going through similar situations I have gone through.
This past year, we all have this shared bond of going through the pandemic. We all know people who have gotten sick, or died. Something I have pulled strength from during this time is the experience I had when my mom caught COVID this past summer.
All of my life, I have always butted heads with her. I tend to be a more laid-back type, while she is a real firebrand with a hot-blooded temper.
We have different or opposing views on everything.
I remember as a kid, we’d go at it over little things, like me staying out late with my friends or her not being there for me during certain milestones in my life. To this day, our relationship is damaged from those arguments over the years. They remind me of the broken home my older sister and I were born into.
So, when I heard the news that she caught COVID, a feeling of numbness came over me: How do you care for someone you’re not on the best terms with?
I remember the day she called to tell me. It was July 3, the day before my daughter’s 15th birthday. A few days before that, she asked to come over and celebrate, but my wife and I had been very careful with social distancing and keeping to ourselves.
And my mom, who is a 64-year-old medical worker in Richmond, has her own social sphere outside my immediate household.
Just like many other people around the country have had to tell their parents this past year, I told her no, we weren’t comfortable with her coming over. She understood, but was not happy.
I grew up in a Filipino and African American household. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was blessed to be surrounded by these cultures that were both loving and giving. But there was also a history of substance abuse in my family.
My father, who is Black, served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, and my mother immigrated from the Philippines to America in the 1970s. They met at a house party held in Oakland’s ACORN Housing projects.
Their relationship was at times dysfunctional, and they argued a lot. They divorced when I was 11. I remember the night my dad left. He kissed me on the head and said, “OK, man. I gotta go.” He would eventually move across the country to Rochester, New York, and I rarely saw him.
My sister ended up staying with some of our relatives for a while, but eventually came back to live with me and my mom. At first, we spent a good six months homeless, bouncing around from place to place throughout the Bay Area and Northern California.
We eventually found a spot to stay in Oakland, on East 18th Street. But when my sister turned 18, she moved out. She wanted that freedom, and it was just me, a 13-year-old boy, and my mom, from that point on.
Living with her, I witnessed her vulnerabilities, her anger, her volatility and just the way that she responded to everything. It was tough, because I was coming of age at that time, and I didn’t know what was going on. But she was basically a functioning drug addict.
I still trusted and followed her plans for me, but as I got older I realized there was no plan. Other family members would eventually tell me about stories of how her addiction sometimes made her irresponsible and negligent. But I look back now, and I just think it was my mom doing the best she could do by herself.
That boy, that child, that still adores and loves at least the caricature of what my mom represents, is still a part of who I am.”
– Tomie Lenear
She didn’t necessarily enjoy growing up in the Philippines, but it still was home for her. And then to come here, without any real guidance or sense of direction, her life was just a bunch of turbulence. It removed her from everything in her life that was familiar and safe.
As I got older, I learned to live with the little disagreements and rough patches that my mom and I had. I learned to forget about the times she wasn’t there for me, because I came to understand that she couldn’t support me emotionally or give me the guidance I needed.
She couldn’t tell me about what it’s like to be seen and treated as a Black man in America and about growing up with police brutality in Oakland: I needed my father for all of that.
And as a teenager, not having a father to be there for me — that was not fun, for real.
But to her credit, my mom always made time and space for her family. Even when she was probably not on the best terms with them, she would always take me on these weekend road trips to Sacramento, San Jose or Daly City to visit them.
I found the father figures I needed in my uncles. They gave me certain things my mom couldn’t give me, and in hindsight now, as a grown man, I can have some empathy and understanding for my mom’s experience.
A few years ago, my grandmother died. She was almost 90 years old, so it wasn’t a surprise to us. Six months later, my sister died from a drug overdose. She was 43.
We weren’t super close, but I always loved her. She had her share of problems, being on and off drugs for most of her life. At the end of the day, she was still a great person at heart, and she was a great mom to her kids.
But when she passed away, it really stung. It was just like that inner child in me felt like I was just by myself now. It was painful, but I came to realize how precious and valuable life is, no matter what.
I remember thinking to myself, “At least I still have my mom, right?”
That boy, that child, that still adores and loves at least the caricature of what my mom represents, is still a part of who I am. For better or for worse, my mom is still the person who fed me, clothed me and gave me my basic needs. And my basic needs can never be overlooked.
So, when COVID came for my mom, I had to show up for her. All the negative things she put me through, I put to the side. I let all those little things go.
Making grocery store runs to Lucky’s to get her favorite coconut water or going to pick up the veggie pho noodles she ordered at a restaurant were things I knew I had to do. I wanted to do. Driving to her house in Pinole and dropping off whatever she needed on that doorstep and checking in with her over the phone every day really brought our relationship to a different level.
Thankfully, she’s better now. She’s gotten the vaccine and is feeling good and strong.
Through my work with student-parents, I notice a lot of them have had family members and friends with COVID. Some student-parents are having to care for their parents, or elders, who have COVID, in addition to their own children.
It’s a term called “sandwich parenting.”
You feel torn between the children that you have to raise and the adults that you have to take care of. And because of that, there’s even more survivor’s guilt that you feel.
They are at Berkeley, and they have access to all these amenities, but their mom or uncle are back in the hood with COVID and aren’t being taken care of. Nobody is bringing them groceries, nobody is doing anything for them.
So, these students have finals and end up having to cancel appointments and reschedule study sessions or other academic priorities because so much is on their plate. It could get really taxing.
My advice to faculty and staff who work with student-parents in these types of situations is to help them to make space for what’s necessary, and also to make sure that you keep in mind that things in their lives can suddenly change.
The whole experience with my mom taught me a lot about mortality and true forgiveness, which is not always comfortable.”
– Tomie Lenear
In a sense, that is where equity policies come in, for these moments when students with less privilege need some support.
Student-parents are very, very good at handling situations that arise suddenly. These students are not in the general student population age range. These are grown-ups, and they’re more than capable. So, there probably isn’t the need for a pseudo-lecture about being responsible or accountable.
Every day we check our emails, we see our students, and we talk to faculty. But we can get so ingrained in what it is that we’re doing that we forget about common decency for who it is that we are working with.
The whole experience with my mom taught me a lot about mortality and true forgiveness, which is not always comfortable.
I realized that we are all going through so much turbulence right now that it would be great to let the little things go more often. And maybe if we’re able to do that, we can find time and space to help each other through these rough times.