Leaving Mr. Wong
My mother’s thick gray braid hangs down her back, cupping her like a steady palm. Her hair is the only thing about her that’s not shrunken and shriveled, though it was once black, obsidian in bright light, a darkness that made you blink.
The nurses have done as I’ve requested, combing and braiding her hair every morning, a task my mother used to do for me, back when mine was long but never as thick and dark as hers.
This afternoon, as per her custom, she’s sitting in the game room, bent over her hand of cards, staring at her suit secrets. Across from her, Mr. Wang is in the same pose, his glasses far down on his slim nose. He’s dressed as usual—button-down shirt, black tie, black khaki pants. His hand shakes as it grips his cards, though his eyes glance sharply at the pile of cards in front of him, my mother’s face, and back to his hand. He and my mother come here after movement class, playing cards as they sip at glasses of water, no ice. Bad for dentures and sore gums.
All around us, a canned music, somewhere between classical and cheese. In the hall, the shuffle of patient and nurse, the clatter of walker and tray table.
Mr. Wang sees me, raising his eyebrows in greeting, but he doesn’t shift in his seat or disturb the game. The cards slap. Mr. Wang sucks his teeth. “Oh, Marnie,” he says. “You dumped those clubs long ago.”
“Just you wait,” my mother says.
I still, hover, slowly take one step. My mother has been known to throw down her cards, turn to me, a prying stranger, and bare her teeth. Or burst into tears. Or press her forehead to the card table. She’s called me names and tossed chairs. And she’s stood up, suddenly in the body of her younger self, and rushed to me, grabbing me by the shoulders, looking me in the eyes, sweeping my hair off my forehead.
“My little sweetie,” she’d said when this happened the last time, kissing my forehead, my nose, as if I were her little five-year-old sweetie, the age I was when last she called me that. She’d led me to the couch in the one corner and patted her lap, as if I were to sit there and listen to a story. I sat next to her, pressed against her bony hip and sharp rib cage and listened as she asked me how school was and then told me what was for dinner: pot roast, mashed potatoes, pan gravy, green beans. For dessert, banana cake with white frosting.
“Your father will be home soon.” She patted my cheek. “Best to change out of your school clothes and set the table.”
For an instant, I forgot that I was fifty-two, mother of three sons, and, just recently, a grandmother of twins. But in that moment, I was her little girl, wearing a red plaid jumper and black Maryjanes with white ankle socks, sitting near her mother who smelled like Palmolive dishwashing liquid and Dial shampoo. I was the little girl whose best moments were these, glowing in her mother’s full shining attention.
But then like the old switch of a TV channel--the turn of the yellowing plastic dial, the gray fuzz, the next program—my mother moved on in time, back to the part where all things—or no things—happened at once. She turned and walked back to the table and her game.
“Oh, Mr. Wong,” my mother says now, putting down her cards. “You’ve beaten me again.”
I move closer. When I was a teenager, she would lament over her plump arms, her round white thighs. Even her feet had been rounded white pillows. “Everyone’s so impossibly slim!” she’d say as my friends paraded by in their jeans and t-shirts, showing off their flat belly-buttons.
Mr. Wang smiles and looks up at me, eyebrows up again. Since she moved into the facility and met him right here at the window table, my mother has called Mr. Jeffrey Wang, Mr. Wong. Never his first name or his correct last name. Mr. Wong stuck.
At this point, she calls me “you,” as in “Oh, it’s you.”
“One hundred and two to eighty-nine,” he says.
“Mark it down,” my mother says in the same voice she used to call out “Clean your room.”
Mr. Wang tallies the hands, pulls the cards toward him to do a shuffle of sorts. As he paws the cards together, my mother suddenly turns around, her eyes on me. I freeze, try to swallow, and then soften.
“Hi,” I say. I take a step closer, put my purse on a chair. Maybe today, I’ll be able to sit down and watch them play for a while. But my mother is rigid, cutting me a raw, angry glance.
She bites her lower lip and then lets out a big sigh. “Where are the hamburgers?”
She turns back to Mr. Wang who is now dealing the next hand. “They never bring us the hamburgers.”
“They sure don’t,” Mr. Wang says, the cards a one, two, one, two on the table. “And I like mine medium-rare. Won’t give me anything but extra well-done.”
He winks at me. “And that organic ketchup!”
My mother snatches up her hand, guarding it against her chest.
“Bastards,” she hisses, glancing over her shoulder at me. “Woman, no-hamburger bastard.”
“Be nice, Marnie,” Mr. Wang says. “Your pick.”
“Glad you remembered, Mr. Wong,” my mother says, whisking the top card off the pile. “But you won’t be glad for more than half a minute.”
“Your mother hasn’t responded to recent therapies,” Mrs. Ryan says.
I nod. When Mom first moved in, the crackerjack team started with the easy things, exercise, good nutrition, occupational therapy (macramé, puzzles, collages) and social interaction (card games with Mr. Wang, visits with my children and then, later, the babies, supervised trips to the park). Apple Valley seemed perfect, with its quiet rooms, the calm, structured environment, the tasty, healthful meals, served up three times a day. In terms of meds, first my mother was on Aricept, which was supposed to slow the progression of the disease, and then Namenda, which was purported to improve mental activity. But still the anger. Still the “you.” Still the flipped over card table chair, the empty eyes.
“What next?” I ask.
Mrs. Ryan lifts her shoulders in an almost-shrug and then seems to remember she shouldn’t make such a non-clinical move.
“It’s probably time to move her to the Harmony building. The program there is much more intensive. Constant supervision.”
I bite my lip and then stop, remembering my mother’s lip, the red gnaw marks. My father left my mother well-provided for, an annuity giving us enough to pay for years of assisted living. But the Harmony building with its focused care? We’d be dipping into her reserves. And just last month, her internist told us she had the heart of a forty-four-year-old woman.
“Sound as a bell,” he said. “Marnie, your ticker is ticking.”
Maybe my mother would live another fifteen, twenty years, living until 100. By then, I could join her here. “What about Mr. Wang?”
“He’ll understand,” Mrs. Ryan says. “He’s been with us for a long time.”
“He has?” I say, feeling a swift shame for his family. “He seems so healthy. I mean, he could be living with relatives.”
Mrs. Ryan nods. “He’s 96 years old. There’s no one left now but him.”
Later, I start my car, roll down the window, and idle before putting it into reverse, watching a group of elderly people walk along the path that wends around the facility. In the distance, white ducks float on a pond. On the banks, willows dip thin branches into the water. Somewhere in the distance, a child laughs, a visiting relative burning off steam. Inside, the card game over, my mother sits at a table eating dinner.
When my mother first moved in, she and I took that walk, she in her white Keds, me holding her elbow, her sweater buttoned at her neck, her blouse unbuttoned, exposing her large, industrial strength bra. We stood there as I unbuttoned and re-buttoned, but we talked to each other as we had for years. Which child was doing what and where. Who would marry whom and how. The vagaries of buttonholes. The loss of the sewing machine in households. The oddities of the spring weather. The horror of undergarments. I took her elbow, and we started off again, laughing a little.
That day, I tried to convince myself that this was the last letting go. Her house, her friends, the neighborhood she’d lived in for fifty years. And when she moved, the last tangible evidence of my father’s life was parsed, tossed out, packed up and put into storage: cufflinks, college diplomas, high school yearbooks. Yes, the marriage was gone, packed or sold, her own furniture and keepsakes stuffed into a and delivered to a storage facility. At first she had visitors, but eventually, her friends became unwilling to drive the twenty miles to Apple Valley, what with the cataracts, surprise highway closures, and bad drivers these days. After a few months, there was no trace of my mother’s prior years, her earlier life, nothing visible on the outside and nothing she actually remembered, not even the faces of her parents or child or husband, enough so that the photos on her dresser upset her. One day, I stuffed them in my bag and took them home.
So we’d start new, but this would be the resting place for her current life, the place she’d dig in and stay. And now she was moving again. She was letting go of what little remained.
When I arrive for my next visit, my mother is not playing cards with Mr. Wang. Instead, she’s in her bedroom, restrained and drugged. She attacked an orderly for disrupting the card game. Even now as she sleeps, she mumbles, “Get out of my light, you black bastard.”
I rear back, search for breath. My mother may have spent all her adult years in the suburbs, but she marched for peace and equality. A vegetarian, she organized a fruit and vegetable co-op. She confided to me that she and her library friends burned bras in garbage can fires near the Bay Bridge and stopped traffic with their jiggle-y protest.
Mrs. Ryan tells me my mother will be moved first thing in the morning, and I can come back tomorrow to see her.
“You can stay,” she says, looking down at my sleeping mother as a parent might look at a misbehaving child. “But she’ll be out of it for a while. It took quite a lot to calm her down.”
“A lot?” I imagine several men trying to hold my mother down, her braid whipping from side-to-side, her eyes wide and hard and dark. She yells, “Black women bastards! Get the hell away from my card game. And bring me that damn hamburger!”
“Drugs,” Mrs. Ryan says. “Marnie’s very strong.”
I gently encircle my mother’s wrist, feel the bones under her thin skin, press my fingers against her tendons and nerves, all struggling to break free. Inside her body, her mind is there, upset. If I believed in a soul, I’d imagine that’s upset, too. Chained. Trapped.
“She’ll be okay,” Mrs. Ryan says.
So I say goodbye and wander done the hall, vacant as a lost balloon, feeling as though an orderly gave me a shot, jabbing it into the fat of my upper arm, a scene out of a madhouse film. I can’t swallow, and my eyes are dry. I feel like a Doctor Frankenstein first attempt, two left feet, two left hands. I bumble into the game room, and there is Mr. Wang, his shirt buttoned, his glasses on the bridge of his nose, his hands pawing a deck of cards.
“Care for a game?” he asks.
As we play—gin rummy never my forte, and I lose one hand, two, three—I learn that Mr. Wang had three children, all of whom died in the past five years, at 70, 72, and 75. None had surviving children. His wife Lydia died in 1987 of breast cancer. He worked at his own accounting business until he was 78. He didn’t move into Apple Valley until he was 87, staying in the big ranch house in Moraga until he couldn’t bend down to prune his beloved geraniums.
Now that I can really look at him without fear of my mother’s reprisals, I can see there’s more than his shaking hands to give away his age. His face is so lined, it almost looks perfectly folded, like the linen napkins my mother rolled tight, froze in the freezer, and then ironed flat. His breath redolent of mint toothpaste over denture decay; his fingernails thick and slightly yellow.
But he smiles, asks me about my sons, my grandchildren. He steers around my fled ex-husband, a story my mother might have told him when she still remembered. His voice has the slight halt and terseness of what? Cantonese? Mandarin? But his grammar is perfect, his sentences flowing. “Would you like to play another?” he asks the first time he wins.
I nod. He deals. The light slants into the room until it is just a triangle of opaque gold, dust motes floating like tiny brilliant fish in its glow. The afternoon ticks by, the triangle folding up into dusk and eventually, the lights flick on.
“I’m afraid to admit I lead five to zero,” Mr. Wang says.
I look up, wanting to tell him the story of my life since my mother forgot it. How that fled ex-husband came back once and left again. The next time he showed up, I let him stay on the couch. The third time, I called the police. How I’ve been set up on blind dates and forced onto dating web sites by my friends. How my children are happier than I am, their lives unfolding with an ease I never knew. How my mother is exhausting me. I want to tell him that I’ve lost her so many times, I don’t know if any of her remains. How seeing her makes me want to simultaneously howl in sorrow and run away and never come back. I want to tell him that I’m afraid that I will turn into her. That maybe, I already have.
But how can I say any of this? Mr. Wang has been left by everyone and everything. His whole family, one by one. Now my mother is leaving him, too.
“Tomorrow?” I ask.
Mr. Wang nods. “Rematch.”
At home, a half-opened curtain, three email messages from prospective dates, a full kitty-litter box. Mycroft sleeps on the top of the couch, the one slice of sun on his tabby belly. On the coffee table, the photos I brought out the night before, the ones I lifted from my mother’s boxes before the POD carted everything away. Now, though, I can’t bear to look at any memories, and I put the albums away in the coat closet and sit down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, ignoring the blink of the phone machine and the dishes in the sink.
Like Mr. Wang, I’m an accountant, though not as successful, unable to buy a ranch house in tony Moraga with its half-acre lots and quiet cul-de-sacs. But I know how to count. My days being able to remember who I am are numbered.
The bag is warm, heat radiating from the bag to my hand. I smell the oil and sauce and meat as I walk down the hall, ignoring the glances from staff. I’m sure they wonder what I’m doing here now, in this building, when my mother has already been moved.
I find him in the game room, a bridge foursome going strong in the far corner. Mr. Wang looks up, pushes his glasses up his nose, smiles.
“I have the damn hamburgers,” I say. “Medium-rare.”
|© Jessica Barksdale Inclán, 2014