by Matthias Enrui Thummachai
I wish I could travel back in time. To right all my wrongs, to save people. I want to tell you the story of my mother’s “death.”
The heat in summer scorched everything it touched and everything touched burned like the heat.
Home now, after a long drive – I can see my house, my mother.
Heat is in the kitchen and heat is in my mother’s shattered eyes. Old willow trees at the head of the driveway bend under the weight of wind. Bark peeling off, soft to the touch; Mother’s skin feels just so. As I hug her, I finger her vertebrae, tickling her spine to make sure she will not die in my arms.
Science cannot tell the story of my younger teenage sister’s almost-death which is the cause of my mother’s death. My sister, she wouldn’t eat. And now she has run away like a fugitive.
The search for my sister begins with a hearty midday spread. Green beans, carrots, tomatoes, and juicy rib-eye steak with baked potato and fried potato strips. There was rose water, a sweet concocted mixture.
My mother has laid out the table in such splendor, but she looks at the empty seat before we begin. And we must begin before we can find my sister.
My sister ran away a few days ago from her high school. Mother thinks Lynn ran away because Father left. I wonder if Lynn is actually upset or if she is angry because there was no battle over her. Maybe my sister wishes she were younger so people couldn’t make insensitive remarks like, “At least the girls were grown up when it happened.”
When my mother called last week, I promised my mother I would find Lynn.
“Eat more,” my mother says with her forlorn look.
“We should talk,” I say.
“No, eat more.”
My mother eats with her face close to her plate. My mother is almost blind. But she manages a warm smile.
After lunch, I try to call Lynn and leave a message telling her that Mother is wasting her eyes on crying. I search her room. Under the bed, I find a pack of what look like crystals. Meth? Methamphetamine? My sister a junkie? In her bedside drawer, I find our father’s poem about love – a mechanical and loveless poem about love and our father’s wedding ring. On the bookshelf are my father’s books.
My American father just left my mother for a more knowledgeable companion, one who is of the same standing as him. A woman whose hair wasn’t as dark as my mother’s, whose face was not as beautiful and kind as my mother’s whose sacrifices abound.
During the Christmas holiday weekend, he told my mother he was leaving. I hid in the kitchen, cold and icy filled with only my hot tears.
There was nothing intellectual or logical about my father when he broke the news, in fact, he spoke to my mother the way he’d been speaking to her for the past twenty-five years, as if she was a child who didn’t understand.
“This isn’t working,” he said, gesturing at her and the well-kept house. “This isn’t working. Not working.”
But my mother was an adult who didn’t quite understand English, a difference that should have been honoured.
After he left, I went into the living room with a piece of pumpkin pie – my mother’s favorite.
She didn’t cry. She looked at me and said, “I can’t tell my mother. She’s too old to handle this.”
Later that week, my father called to say that we could throw away his things. He surprised us by leaving all his “intellectual” books.
I ran my fingers through the books, (deliberately) poking holes through the parched pages with my fingernails. A soft clicking sound. A gnawing sound. So easy to destroy old things, discarded things.
Lynn screamed when she saw what I’d done. She took them, all of them.
My mother was brave. She didn’t shed a tear about the divorce for almost one year. Only when Lynn was in trouble, she started. That’s when her eyes went bad.
I found Lynn at the Motel. I find her there, eating cheese and crackers.
“I can’t take care of her,” my sister says.
“I can’t,” she says. “He made that impossible. She is all alone.”
The room smells like stench. She is a dark-haired girl who looks like my mother.
“I need you to help me,” Lynn says, “but you’re not going to like it. You won’t want to hear.”
I can’t bear to see her – with her limbs that are barely there, like an 8-year-old.
If I listen to her, will I go blind?
At home, my mother wants to know where I’ve been, and I tell her that I have to go home. My students await me at University.
We’re making more food for tonight—in case Lynn comes home. We should all eat together.We are working with the pomegranates. She is cooking one of my favourite stews.
I hold a bowl for the fleshy seeds. We have a plastic bag for the skin and hollowed pith. My mother is showing me how to remove the seeds completely from the pith because the pith is bitter. No art is involved in removing the seeds. I don’t really need a lesson or so I thought.
The pomegranate juice sprays into my eyes and onto my old clothes which I have changed into because of my mother’s warning. She laughs at me because she knew that this would happen. I have never received the usual motherly advice. In primary school, my classmates struggled with their academics. I was always top. At a price!
My mother moves closer to read my old t-shirt. “Is that a beer bottle on your shirt?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. I almost tell her that the T-shirt was free and that beer helps me sleep.
We gazed upward blinded by the midday sun. No stars. Before we were born, my father owned a telescope. On boring nights, he stargazed. He also imagined stories to go along with the lights he saw in the sky. When we were kids, he told us these stories at night.
We blend the pomegranate seeds then strain the juice.
“You should tell me your recipes,” I say, “so I’ll know what to do when I have a craving.”
“Whenever you come home, I’ll cook for you.” She refills the pot.
“Besides, you don’t have the patience.”
Lynn is sick with anorexia and the ice she can lay her hands on. The next time I visit her at the motel, she begs me to help her. I insist on her coming home.
“No,” she says. “There’s too much food.”
“I don’t want you to go,” I say.
“I have to,” she says, looking at her punctured arms. “It’s the best facility, and my college
money will cover it.”
“You’ll have to tell her.”
“No, don’t tell her anything.”
I cannot understand silence, but I know that I’ll go home and stuff my mouth with food.
I cried as a grown woman. The one time my mother actually held me as a grown up. That one time, she held me, her body already hunched and wasted away from her own grief.
My father fell in love quickly, I think. He left so quickly.
About a month later, he met me with his new intellectual lover, but made me promise not to tell Lynn or Mother.
My father said to me, “I always think of things to tell you, but then I can’t remember.” It is the truth, but I wished he would lie to me too.
My sister has been institutionalized and my mother is going blind. My mother needs several eye surgeries, so I move home to be with her.
I took a sabbatical from the University. I informed them that I would be back to lecture soon. But I know I might never leave here.
Lynn was my secret first, then our secret. I had to tell her, you see.
“She doesn’t like my food anymore?” my mother asked.
“She’s just angry,” I said. “She needs to be alone.”
“Will you write a letter to her for me?”
And I did. I wrote Lynn two letters, one from me and one from my mother.
My father and I still talk over the phone. But I will not tell him where Lynn really is.
So, have I kept her secret?
A letter from my father arrives. The letter is formal and clinical. He announces his marriage to the woman who holds similar status and declares a clean cut from my mother “in every respect.”
She asks me what the letter means. “How is this different? I thought we were divorced.”
“No,” I say,” you’re just separated. You have to sign papers to be legally divorced.”
The next morning before she goes for surgery, she says, “I hope I die. It would serve him right.” She wipes her tears away. “And your sister…”
But I’m not really sure that my sister won’t die first.
My sister stopped eating because that is the common way of understanding anorexia. What it really means is that you don’t feel love from people around you anymore, and you punish yourself for it. And what more she smokes meth.
I knew it was happening. She came to visit me before it got bad, before she ran. I should have known. She wanted frozen yogurt for lunch. She rattled on about her life –beating Ted in chess, loving snow and watching TV.
She says, “I think you know me. I think I’m still the same.” “I miss you.”
My father wrote academic articles. Why can’t my father use his imagination?
I have been a bad daughter. It’s so easy to be a bad daughter. You lose your grandmother’s ruby ring. Or you don’t go to your cousin’s wedding. Or you drink beer. Or you ignore your little sister’s sickness.
To be a good daughter, you must listen to your father rebuke your mother without doing anything. You must eat your mother’s cooking. You must resist the instinct to gag. Tell her you love her food. Can I have more? Ignore your father’s brutality.
It is so easy to be a bad daughter. Fill up until your belly is ready to explode. And keep quiet.
My father’s new love is also American. Mother is Asian.
My father fell in love with this woman’s openness, something very different from our longsuffering Mother.
When you go to Japan, you must climb a sacred mountain. They say gods used to live here. You must observe rituals to respect the ancestors and you will be blessed!
Lynn’s mouth and eyes appear dry. She has gained a lot of weight. She has started eating again.
“I feel like him,” my sister says, “like I’ve got nothing, though I’ve spent my whole life building an altar… something higher.”
I put my arms around her, and she looks at me, crying. We aren’t used to touching each other. But we hugged.
“I’m hungry,” I say, and lead her to a hot dog stand nearby.
We eat as if the sacrifice has already been made. The steam from the hot dog stand warms our faces.
I cracked a joke. My sister cannot smile anymore. Her muscles have atrophied. She smiles with her eyes as she tugs me close like a child in need of warmth.
My father’s new love is a dentist – looking into peoples’ mouths. Nothing. No words. Patients are silent with mouths agape. Does speaking English matter? My father says one language is better than another.
My mother’s surgeries have gone well, and her eyesight is much improved.
When I bring Lynn home, my mother can see her.
“I missed you,” my mother says, crying, and Lynn cries too. My mother will waste her new eyes with this crying.
Still, we will eat.
Lynn leaves for college. She is clean now. She wants to major in English Literature. All I can wonder is when she’s coming home again. I’m afraid we’ve lost her again. I understand what it means to leave home now.
I have decided to stay because my mother’s eyesight is failing again.
My mother and I make it through the winter. In spring, while sitting outside the house, my mother looks closely at me. “I can see your freckles,” she says. I think she’s lying.
The University calls and asks me if I’ll be back in the fall. I tell them the story. The University fires me.
My father is going to get married again. He has stopped talking to me.
My father is happy. My sister is happy. My mother is getting closer. And I? I am at home with my mother… no more running.
Author Biography: Matthias Enrui Thummachai is a 14-year old teenager studying at Raffles Institution, Singapore. Reading, writing and cycling are some of his hobbies. Besides speaking English, Mandarin and Thai because he has a Singaporean mother and Thai father, Matthias takes a third language – German and plans to study Medicine in college.