The other day I was at the park with the kids and ran into a neighbor and her 2-year-old. We struck up a pleasant swing-set conversation. About mid-way through our talk of neighborhood events and happenings, M, who had gone down the slides a few times, came running up to us. She stopped, faced our neighbor, and randomly (loudly) declares, "My Khun Yai is in a wheelchair!"
My neighbor looked at M in a moment of awkward silence, but quickly recovered, pulling from her bag of talking-to-preschoolers tricks the Repeat What They Say card.
"Oh, your grandma? And, she's in a wheelchair?"
"Yes!" M answered proudly. And, with a little fairy-dance twirl, she was off. There I sat, wondering if I should explain further or leave the word “wheelchair” -- always accompanied by its best friends “sad” and “tragic” -- alone. And, so I did. No need to go into a lengthy explanation about my mother's 30-year struggle with a neurodegenerative disease that has methodically and heartlessly stripped her of her ability to speak, walk, and feed and bathe herself. No. No need to ruin a perfectly beautiful spring day and pleasant small talk with such…heaviness.
But, when you have a curious 4-year-old, full of questions, ideas, and innocence, it becomes increasingly difficult to push difficult THINGS in life to the back of your mind where they can hide in a safe little cocoon of pillowy cobwebs.
So, there she is. My mother. Not the mother of my childhood, but a different person altogether. A woman overtaken by spasms, shakes, nonsensical talk, and even delusional ramblings. It doesn’t help (or does it) that she lives across the globe in another country – far away from me, my children, my husband…my life. Every two years we visit her in Thailand. She wraps her fragile arms around me and squeezes a little too hard. I squeeze back and shut my eyes, willing myself to be nine years old again.
Aside from these visits, she is the sweet smiling face in pictures that adorn our shelves, dressers, and walls. Easy. And not. She lives in my daughter’s mind not as a real living, breathing person, but a curious, shadowy figure. And, as the busy days pass, she lives less and less in my mind…and more and more on those shelves.
But, she always asks. And, so I tell M stories about Khun Yai “when she could walk.” I tell her that when I used to get scared at night, she would sing Thai lullabies to help me sleep. She loves to hear stories about her mommy as a little girl with a mommy of her own. But, I can only tell her so much. And then that heavy, sinking weight in my chest cuts me off.
I have clear memories of my father. His strict, no-nonsense and often cold approach to parenting had, and still has, a profound effect on me. But memories of my mother – healthy, vibrant, active and devoted – become blurrier with each passing year. I know she was the loving presence in our home. The hugs, I love yous, and fortune cookie-worthy life lessons (“Stay away from the man who doesn’t love his mother.”) – all came from her.
She started to decline in my teens. The strange name for the diagnosis, olivopontocerebellar ataxia, had little to no meaning for our family – even though it is a family disease. We promptly put on our cute, happy denial hats, made some jokes about her “drunken” walk, and went on our merry way. Over the years, I have continued to push her and her illness into the hard-to-reach corners of my mind, to be occasionally awakened for holiday phone calls and visits. Until now.
The beauty of children – especially young children – is their boldness and honesty. M's relentless need to learn, know and feel doesn’t let me forget my mother even though it is often painful to think of her. She forces me to dig deep into the recesses of my childhood mind and draw up pictures of “Maa.” Not the woman in the wheelchair today, but the pretty, young mother with the wide smile and guffawing laugh.
And so, I think of her. The guilt of not being near her, the fear that somewhere in my own genetic makeup is the same twisted, gnarled gene, and the tedium of trying to communicate with her over the phone can be too much to bear. But M doesn’t let me off the hook. And so I go there…to that uncomfortable place. The sadness grabs me, wraps me tight and won’t let go. I miss my mother. I grieve knowing that I’ll never get her back the way I want. I hear her voice -- soft, steady, sweet – and I am angry. Even when you’re a mommy, sometimes you still want your mommy. There’s no avoiding M’s questions, though. How can I tell her life slaps you with a shit hand sometimes?
What do I tell my daughter about my mother? I close my eyes again. We are in the kitchen and I am pounding garlic with the mortar and pestle. My mother is sprinkling chilies in and directing me to angle the pestle so as the crush the garlic more effectively.
I am in the pool. There is cheering all around me. I am not going to make it, I think to myself. My limbs slap against the water and I’m imagining I must look like a windmill churning through the pool as my competitors glide effortlessly by. I breathe to the side and hear right above me, “Go Rosana!” It is my mother. I hear the cheer over and over and over again. I win the race and my mother has lost her voice.
I am 15 and angry. I want to leave home. My father doesn’t understand, will never understand. My mother comes to my room and cups my tear-drenched face. “You’re not ready to fly yet, sweetheart. When you are, don’t worry. I will help you pack.” She hugs me and I cry.
I am 10 years old and ugly. I have glasses, braces and crooked legs. I look in the mirror and hate what I see. “No,” my mother says. “You are beautiful.” And I am.
M will know all these stories because she will live them. I mother the best way I know how because I had a mother who did it the best way she knew how. It’s not always pretty and it’s far from perfect. But it is my mother and it is me.