(NOTE TO READERS: This is an unpublished memory piece that I wrote on July 7, 2009.)
There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi dies, but is revived by CPR, and he tells his wife that—while he was dead—he saw heaven and hell.
His wife says, “Tell me about hell.”
The rabbi says, “It was terrible. Everybody was hungry, and the only way they could get food was with these long spoons that were bolted to their hands, and the spoons were so long they couldn’t get the food in their mouths. So they were always hungry.”
The wife says, “That is terrible. Tell me about heaven.”
“Well,” says the rabbi, “it was almost the same. Everybody had long spoons bolted to their hands, and they only way they could get food was with the spoons.”
“So,” says the wife, “what was different?”
“In heaven, they fed each other.”
My wife is Chinese, and I think it’s fair to say that her mother destroyed our marriage—at least the conjugal comfort part. Before my mother-in-law set foot in our apartment, my wife and I had a happy, steamy love life. We were in heaven, on a long honeymoon. But the first time my wife’s mother came to have dinner with us, all of that ended.
My wife was cooking and her mother was sitting in the living room just off the kitchen. I went to snuggle with my wife while she was cooking, as I often did, kissing her neck and groping her, and my wife giggled affectionately. From the living room I could hear her mother muttering, “Sun-jing ping, sun-jing ping.” Those words had the magical effect of immediately turning my wife tense, like a nun who was being molested at the altar by a priest. She nudged me away.
I later learned that “sun-jing ping” means “crazy,” but in a bad, sick way. I also learned, much later, that in Chinese culture a son or daughter may never touch his or her loved one affectionately in the presence of a parent.
This was all very understandable in a cultural context, but from that point on two things happened: my wife and I had sex less and less frequently, and I began to hate my mother-in-law with greater and greater intensity.
In spite of this, my mother-in-law moved in with us (my wife saying she would never throw her mother onto the street), and we moved on to a larger apartment and later a house. And in spite of my mother-in-law’s chaperoning, we managed to conceive a child after seven years of childless marriage.
My mother-in-law became the main babysitter, and essentially raised our daughter Angela until she was ready for pre-school, because my wife was driving from our house in the San Fernando Valley into West Los Angeles to pursue a career in broadcasting finance.
I later learned that taking care of Angela was in fact the first time “Mama” had actually changed diapers. When my wife was born, before China’s Cultural Revolution, the family had full-time nannies who did the dirty work. This helped explain why Mama’s nose would wrinkle while she changed diapers, repeating, “Cho-cho,” and then translating into English: “Smells no good.”
Fast forward twenty years. Our daughter is now at a university in Chicago, and Mama—now in her late eighties—is getting senile. My hatred for her has softened, and now I feel kind of sorry for the old lady. She looks frail, and according to my wife Mamie, her mother is getting extremely difficult. After living on her own in an apartment near some Chinese friends and family members for about ten years, Mama has moved in with Mamie’s sister Jasmine down the street. The reason given for this is that Mama’s older sister just passed away, and Mama wants to spend her remaining years as close as possible to her daughters and granddaughter.
Jasmine and her husband have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to remodel their house so that Mama can have her own room just off the kitchen, but now Mama isn’t happy. She feels lonely. She misses her friends. She can’t play mah-jongg. She’s threatening to walk back to her old apartment, forty miles away. Mamie says, “Go ahead. Nobody’s stopping you.”
Mamie and Jasmine hire a fulltime caretaker for Mama, and for a while Mama seems better, but trouble starts again. Every day or two, there is a new episode. Mama wants cable TV in Chinese, so Jasmine and her husband have to figure out how to hook that up. Mama has lost her remote, so Jasmine has to find it. Mama has forgotten where she put her wallet, so Mamie agrees to take care of Mama’s money.
Mama is always giving Jasmine’s husband a hard time; he takes a long vacation in Thailand, with no indication as to when he might return.
Now Mama is refusing to eat. She says she wants to die. She is also accusing Mamie of taking all her money.
Mamie is under enormous stress already. Her company is going through a rough time and might get taken over by the bank. Now, she says, her mother is being selfish and manipulative, acting like a spoiled child. I observe that Mama did grow up in a wealthy family of Chinese industrialists and never had to work a day in her own life, so how can she understand the stress Mamie is going through? This explanation does no good. Mamie is getting ready to throw in the towel and send Mama to a convalescent care facility.
One night I arrive late for dinner at Jasmine’s house, and big trouble is brewing. Mamie is cooking. Mama is sulking in her bedroom. Dinner is ready, and Jasmine goes to tell her, but Mama refuses to come out. Mamie has had it. She eats quickly and drives home. I stay.
I sit there with Jasmine, my own dinner half-eaten. This is awkward. I make an effort to finish the Peking dumplings.
Jasmine goes and pulls Mama to the table. Mama sits there silently, her thin hair matted on one side.
Jasmine says in Mandarin, “Mama, you have to eat.”
Mama does have to eat. She has lost more weight and looks like a feather could knock her down. Without looking at Jasmine, staring at the table, Mama says, in Chinese, “I don’t want to eat. I’m not hungry.”
I clear my throat and say, in my best voice of authority and wisdom, “Mama.”
She looks at me, a little surprise showing in her dark eyes.
I say, “Mama, if you don’t eat, you’re going to die.”
She looks down.
I say, “If you die, you won’t see Angela graduate from college. Don’t you want to see Angela graduate from college?” (Mama had said she wants to live long enough at least to see Angela graduate from college.)
Mama keeps looking down and says nothing. It looks like she’s almost crying, but too proud to cry.
I pull out my cell phone. “I’m calling Angela,” I announce.
It rings. Angela answers, in her Chicago apartment. “Hi, Daddy.”
I say, “Angela, Abu won’t eat. Can you talk to her?”
“Sure,” she says.
I put the phone on speaker and give it to Mama. She holds it in her hand and looks at it. Angela says, “Ab-ah.” That’s the greeting form for “Abu.”
Mama trembles almost imperceptibly.
Angela says, “Ab-ah,” and then says in Mandarin, “I love you. I miss you.”
A big tear streams down Abu’s face, and she starts talking to her granddaughter, whom she held and cared for as a baby, the first child she had ever really raised as if it were her own.
I stood up and went behind Abu to touch her shoulder, and hugged my sister-in-law, who was sitting next to her mother, and we all cried and cried.
That night, after I came home, I tried to tell Mamie about what had happened, which for me was a miracle, but Mamie was too tired and frustrated to listen.
A few weeks later, Angela came home from Chicago to spend the summer here with us. She made a point of going to see Abu almost every day.
Now my mother-in-law is eating, and going to the hairdresser, and walking, and going out to eat and shop. My daughter is taking care of her, just as Mama took care of our daughter.
My wife has softened her attitude towards her mother, and goes to see her for an hour or two after work until her sister comes home from her own job. My wife is happy again, like a little girl, like the woman I married almost twenty-eight years ago.
It’s almost like heaven.