They told my father three hours. Ideally, she would have needed to get to the hospital within three hours for the best chance of recovery from the stroke. Instead my mother locked herself in a room, refusing to come out, yelling at him, no doctors, no hospital. Six hours later, she opened the door, came into the living room where he was waiting, and sat down without a word. He knew then that she knew how serious this was.
They asked him if she would want CPR performed on her if she stopped breathing. “Of course I said yes,” he told me, “even though I know she would have said no.”
They asked him about her living will, about organ donation.
Twenty-four hours later, a lot of people stood in her room staring at her.
She was sitting up in bed, annoyed: she was thirsty but the nurse wouldn’t let her have any water. The reason had something to do with the possibility of pneumonia. My mother thought that was stupid and said so. The nurse had begun the speech she usually gave at these moments when she did a classic double take. “Hey. You’re talking.”
“Ni hao ma?” My mother was speaking to me in Chinese. I had called my sister, who immediately handed the phone to our mother. I don’t speak Chinese. Apparently she still does, even though a lot of people thought she might not speak anything, in any language, ever again.
This was not her first flirtation with death—within the last year she’s been an absolute hussy. Aneurysm, subdural hematoma, atrial fibrillation: funny how the medical terminology, far from being frightening, sounds eloquent and intriguing. Ischemic apoplexy is something you look up in medical journals, eager to find out more; a stroke is something that causes your father to leave you a voice mail message urging you to call him, something he never does.
Once again she’ll be returning home from the hospital triumphant. We will share her triumph, even if it’s impossible to silence that insidious whisper: What about next time? Of course we don’t want to talk about that. I suppose this is the moment where I’m supposed to write about how she and I finally broke down our walls of miscommunication and had a tearful, joyful mother-daughter understanding. We didn’t. We’re not going to.
* * *
Earlier this year my mother was hospitalized because of a brain aneurysm. The aneurysm hadn’t burst, but the related symptoms were sufficiently serious to require an extended stay and a great many tests, X-rays, and consultations.
“The aneurysm, too small right now to operate. The doctor, she…he…she say to wait a year.” My mother has been speaking English for over 50 years, but she still makes the same grammatical mistakes over and over. There are no gender-specific pronouns in Chinese, for example, so he and she still get mixed up in her speech. The story, as my father tells it, is that my mother had very poor English instruction. Her own mother had decided my mother didn’t need to be educated; she was needed to run the household and take care of her six siblings. They all went to good schools. So did my sister and I. So, I would guess, did this gender-neutral doctor who might one day open up my mother’s head.
“The neurosurgeon looks at the X-rays and says I have a beautiful brain,” my mother added.
I laughed. “Yeah, that definitely sounds like what a neurosurgeon would say.”
This pleasant exchange between us took place a good week after she’d been discharged from the hospital. It was the first time I was hearing anything about it; nobody thought to tell me sooner.
Three months later, my mother was hospitalized again. This time I found out only a day afterward, from my sister. “Apparently she fell and hit her head. She was in so much pain she actually asked Dad to take her to the hospital. You know it’s bad when that happens.”
I knew what she meant. Our mother could have her arm sawed off and still insist she was OK. She was an adept enough cook, she only needed one arm to make dinner, so what was the problem?
“By the way,” my sister continued, “she hit her head two weeks ago but didn’t say anything to anyone about it until now.”
Of course not.
“You know how she is,” my sister said.
We laughed about that, the way siblings will laugh about some parental foible. We laughed. We were very worried.
It turned out the aneurysm had not burst, but she still had blood on her brain and was extremely feeble for several days. And then one day, she wasn’t feeble at all. “That stupid hospital, they keep me like a prisoner!” she fumed as soon as she was healthy enough to call me. “I need to go toilet, someone have to be there. I have to eat, someone have to help me eat. I try to sleep, someone wake me up to give me sleeping pills. They have this metal thing on the bed, makes a sound whenever you move, so they know if you try to get up. Patients are not supposed to get up without help. That metal thing makes a noise every time I move. I yell at the nurses, how am I supposed to sleep with that thing?”
Her own mother is over 100 years old and bitchy as ever, still giving the attendants in her assisted living facility a hard time.
“So many people always coming around to see me,” my mother went on. “This is how they fix unemployment.”
“They fix the unemployment.”
Yeah, I heard right the first time. Um…what?
“They hire so many people to work in the hospitals and do all these stupid little things.”
“Anyway, I am fine,” she concluded.
“Well, good,” I said. “You sound fine.”
She didn’t sound fine, actually, but I wasn’t quite sure why. And what else could I say?
* * *
“I keep hearing that song, Auld Lang Syne, over and over.”
She had been home for a week; the stroke would be two weeks away. For a moment it sounded to me as though her neighbors had been playing the holiday song on repeat at top volume, practicing for their party at the end of the year. “What do you mean you keep hearing it?”
“In my head.”
“I hear that, and I hear this song I used to sing when I was a child. Chinese song. I haven’t remember that for over 50 years. Both of those songs, over and over. It’s like when I have the tin…what is that called…”
“Yes. Only this time music in my ears and not just buzzing.”
“Um, I don’t think this is the same thing.”
“Both really annoying. So I borrowed some Tchaikovsky CDs from your father so I could listen to them instead of those songs. I like Tchaikovsky. He has this waltz, dum dum dum, dadum dum dum. I like that one very much.”
Her rendition of it sounded pretty much like every waltz ever written, but I only said, “That’s good. That’s a good idea. Hearing the same thing over and over like that can drive you crazy.”
As odd as this and a few other exchanges seemed, I found it difficult to know just how “off” her mind was. After all, it isn’t that strange to get a song stuck in your head for a while. What’s more, my mother’s thought patterns have never been easy to follow. Not only is her command of English still shaky, but her lack of formal education shows in every conversation. I know saying this makes me sound like a snob, like I’m looking down at her from the lofty platform of my PhD in English, but it’s frustrating trying to discuss politics or philosophy or just about anything with someone who supports their views almost entirely with personal experience. “I don’t know what people in colleges think,” she will begin. “I don’t know anything about what those experts say. But here is what happened to me.” And she is thus assured of winning her argument, at least in her own view, because it’s impossible for me to debate her own life. I know so little about it. Neither of us has ever seemed inclined to change that.
The last time I’d visited my mother in person was last year, well before there was even a hint that any of this would occur. I had happened to get an email acceptance of one of my essays by a literary journal, and I announced this at dinner. The response was tepid at best, though that shouldn’t have been a surprise; my family does not read my writing, and most of the time I am fine with that. For whatever reason, though, this time the lack of enthusiasm to my small success rankled me. “Gee, I’m overwhelmed,” I muttered sourly.
My mother looked surprised, puzzled.
“This is important to me,” I continued, feeling like a stupid pouty child but persisting nonetheless. “Not that it matters to anyone.”
“Of course, important,” she said.
I was unconvinced, and as she began to pick up a dish of sauteed spinach to offer second helpings around the table, I snarled, “Forget it. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”
This time she surprised me. She put down the dish. “You always saying that. You always talk about what I mean. You don’t know what I mean. You don’t know what I am feeling. You don’t know what’s going on in my head!” Her voice rose until she was very nearly shouting at me.
“Well, then, it’s mutual,” I said coolly.
We finished the meal in silence.
* * *
It’s hardly shocking that I dislike and distrust sentimentality, the way it takes the complicated roil and unfathomable depths of our feelings and forces us to cram them all into a single syllable: aw. And nothing, not even romance, is sentimentalized more consistently and vehemently than mothers. Every time you write about your mother, people expect to go “aw.” It’s your mother, after all. Just say the words “my mother” in a random context—“My mother clipped her toenails the other day”—and someone will go “aw.” You cannot be neutral about your mother; anything you say about her must be tinged with Hallmarkian affection. And if you do write about your mother in a way that isn’t meant to make people go “aw,” you had better be giving us absolute monstrosity: Medea, Sethe of Beloved, Faye Dunaway doing Joan Crawford shaking that wire hanger. Your mother is either your mom (aw) or the Anti-Mom.
I am not going to sentimentalize her, not even now. All the things that made her “my mom” are not what come to mind when I think of her. Yes, she baked us cookies. She came to our piano recitals. She planned fun crafts for us to do when it rained. She did all that stuff like someone in those smarmy credit card commercials that aired during the Olympics, where the Olympic moms sacrifice everything for their kids, beaming radiant, tearful smiles the whole time. Yes, I remember all that stuff about her, but dimly. What I remember with far more clarity is that while she was doing all this, she seemed to me like someone playing a role. She did all that mom-aw-stuff because it was her responsibility, as she saw it, her duty. It was what you did if you were a mother.
But there was someone else behind the role, even if she didn’t reveal it to anyone, not even, I think, to herself. She was someone complex and difficult. Someone who was angry a lot. Someone uniformly unimpressed with other people’s accomplishments, including mine, because inevitably they were given a lot more throughout their lives than she ever got. Someone who once said she had never been in love with anyone and the main reason she married my father was to get her green card. Someone who did not understand depression, who would ask me if I wanted an aspirin when I wouldn’t eat anything, would only sit on my bed staring at the floor for hours, because she assumed I must be having another headache, because what else could it be? Someone I was furious with for years, because while she made sure my sister and I could afford to go to college, she told us nothing about how to make friends, how to meet boys, how to get out and live in the world, because she didn’t know how to live in the world and didn’t want to admit it. She was, still is, all this and more, most of it not suitable for a greeting card or commercial.
I can’t fight the sentimental mist that obscures everything strange or complicated or incomprehensible in our world. Yet in the end, I still prefer to think of her as someone I’ve known all my life who once in a while offers me a fleeting glimpse of the person she is beneath the act, the life she lived before mine, the things she could say with the voice she has but which she still won’t say.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.