Two Days in Bangkok

Two days before my flight to Thailand, the phone rang.

“Terry…” my father’s voice wavered. In our family, phone calls were always unidirectional, from child to parent.

“Your mother’s not talking,” he said. Despite the typical frenzy of a Monday morning, he wanted to wait. For what, I thought, for her to suddenly speak in coherent sentences when it’s been intermittent gibberish for months?

In the early evening I texted their concierge doctor, the one my mother had insisted on years ago. Minutes later a return text appeared: Your father doesn’t want your mother to go to the emergency room or hospital. He was still reeling from her broken shoulder a year ago, an emergency room visit that left both of them exhausted, confused, and powerless.

I’d forgotten that I had the medical power of attorney.

By Tuesday morning, my mother’s speechlessness had turned into unresponsiveness, her silence almost as loud as the Cantonese squawking of her caregiver. Ah Fun confirmed my mother was still breathing. I screamed at my father to call 911. Then I made plans to fly to San Francisco.

I was actually supposed to go to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It’s a trip my husband and I had been planning for some time. Angkor Wat is 900 years old and will still be there next year, I reminded myself.

I arrived early Wednesday and headed straight to the hospital. My father was sitting beside my mother’s bed, holding her hand. Her eyes were closed, she was immobile and, frankly, she looked dead. He looked small – and scared. My brother was sitting in the hallway, eyes on his iPad. The IV line connected to her arm contained fluid but no nutrients. My parents had historically been adamant about “no heroic measures,” a decision I admired until that moment when I saw it in action. Their doctor had prepped the emergency room staff not to intervene. There would be no feeding tube.

Words like “quality of life” were tossed out like doggie treats.

When their doctor arrived later in the day, my father launched into his prepared speech, “Doctor, I know my wife. She would not want to live this way or have anyone see her like this. She has had a good life.” It sounded like a eulogy. Yet it was true. In recent years my mother had covered her face anytime a camera or phone was pointed at her. She would look at old pictures and say, “Oh, I’m so ugly here.” Only once do I recall her saying, “Oh, I like this picture. I look pretty.” It was a photograph my father had taken where she looks out behind lidded eyes, my Mata Hari mother. If she saw herself now, she would want to desperately cover every pore.

My brother and I wanted to blame the doctor for sealing my mother’s fate of non intervention. But, really, the doctor was acting on orders – my father’s and, presumably, my mother’s even as she couldn’t speak for herself.

She was unresponsive the entire day. By now, with radiographic proof, the doctors had confirmed the occurrence of a stroke. Blood had escaped into her brain like the leaking water from their broken bathroom faucet. Both my children took the day off work to be with their grandmother, something I had not requested but nevertheless warmed my heart. For a brief few minutes, my mother opened her eyes. Sadly, it didn’t mean much. She still looked dead. I began to cry; were we starving her to death? Did she know she was in the hospital? What was she thinking? Was she even thinking? A second scan would be taken soon to determine if the bleeding had slowed or ceased. It was a waiting game at this point, one that could go on for days or weeks.

I had to leave for the airport soon. I was supposed to go to Asia tomorrow.

My father pulled me aside, insistent that I stick to the plan and travel to Thailand. It’s part of his “no heroic measures” philosophy. Curiously, he didn’t look sad.

“We all die,” he said. He was ninety-four. All of his brothers and most of his friends were dead.

My children also encouraged this course of action. Grandma has no idea you were even here, they said. I made a mental note to allow my children the freedom to go on with their lives when I am in a similar hospital bed. My brother said nothing, not wanting to overstep.

I decided to go to Thailand, knowing that if I were a celebrity, internet trolls would condemn me.

Bangkok was, expectedly, hot and humid, but we were staying at a hotel adjacent to the Chao Phraya River, so we were cooler than most. I told our tour guide about my mother’s stroke. I didn’t want her to think that I appeared apathetic to her country. She said that her own mother also had a stroke and lived with the family for nine years before finally dying.

“It is our way,” she said, “to care for our elders in our home.”

She said this so matter of factly, without judgement or condescension, as she touched my arm. It’s very difficult, she remembered. “I wish your mother a miraculous recovery,” she said.

Already, I love this country.

The following day we visited temple after temple – Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Traimit, Wat Pho. Bangkok was a city of golden spires, tentacles reaching for the sky. I thought about Siddharta and his transformation to Buddha, his denunciation of worldly possessions and privileged lifestyle, and his realization that human life is suffering. And I wondered: would Buddha have approved of so much pure gold, or his giant rotund form in a reclining position? I started to ask our guide, but in my jet lagged and distracted condition, I became mute like my mother in the hospital. I strained to distinguish between the blinding yellow of the noon sun and the ubiquitous gold. I was grateful as we stepped into the long boat, the noise of the engine stopping all conversation and the breeze from the river cooling my overheated and conflicted heart.

Siddharta is right, I thought. Even on vacation, we suffer.

We returned to the hotel where I had signed us up for a “couples massage.” From a list of options, like super fast Wifi or late check out, I was instructed to choose three. Somehow, a massage seemed just the answer. It would be a forced novelty for my husband, like eating chicken feet, to be tried once.

We were led into separate dressing rooms. I soaked in the hot tub for a few minutes, then emerged in a white fluffy robe. My husband was already waiting, dressed in a matching robe. I imagined us in a dark room, perhaps with scented candles flickering, soft instrumentals in the background, being kneaded on separate tables, yet tethered together like my father’s hand over my mother’s in the emergency room. But that was not what happened. Two massage therapists appeared. The prettier of the two beckoned him down one hallway; I followed the other in the opposite direction. The “couples massage” was a decidedly solitary experience. Finger tips upon scalp, I fell asleep and, a second later, the massage was over.  

There was a text waiting from my brother. Since landing in Bangkok, lengthy texts had been arriving with pulse-like regularity. I hoped it would contain good news, saying my mother was now flirting with the attending doctor. Yet so far, my mother’s condition remained unchanged. They had moved her from the ICU to a room with a view of downtown San Francisco.

This text, however, was different. Short and succinct, it only said: We need to talk.

My mother had successfully passed the swallow test. It meant that she could eat, even if she had to be spoon fed every morsel. They had started bringing meals up from the cafeteria. It’s good news, I thought. She is less dead. It was still a waiting game though. What we knew for certain was that she could not remain in the hospital indefinitely.

As latchkey children, being the oldest, I was put in charge by default. Like a firstborn son of nobility, I ordered my brother around as if it were my duty. He rebelled and shouted, “You’re not the boss of me!” and would disappear after school on his Stingray bike until our parents came home from work.

My mother blamed me for his stutter, one he mostly outgrew in adulthood, now that we were separated by coasts and continents.

Although my brother doesn’t say, he resented my absence and lack of meaningful input. There were decisions to be made. We ended the phone call with shouted obscenities. Siddharta would not have approved. Nor the tour guide.

We had one more day in Bangkok and then we would fly to Chiang Rai. Bangkok was the spoke of the wheel and any trip back home would involve returning to Bangkok first. There were decisions to be made on both continents.

I only knew this: there is suffering ahead.

Since it was not his mother, my husband deferred to me whether we would abort the journey. I offered that he should continue on alone. He declined. Like my father agreeing to the expense of the concierge doctor, the truth was he probably didn’t want to go in the first place.

In my heart, I knew there was only one path. I searched online for a return trip home. It would be even more money, but somehow, I was already feeling better! I wondered, had Siddharta felt this lightness as he shed his opulence for a life of simplicity? I called our tour guide, Bing, and she didn’t seem surprised we were leaving after two short days.

“Your mother can eat, such good news,” she said. “We go to floating market tomorrow. You will enjoy.”

Maybe the jet lag was easing but Bing was right. Like our boat on the water, I floated through the day. The Floating Market teemed with life, fat catfish playing between the boats. Lime green sayongtes and deep purple eggplants sat alongside beheaded chickens. Flies and local shoppers circled greedily. We visited one market where a railroad track bisected its center, like a human spine. Every hour the merchants had to move their wares aside, bodies pressed together, flesh upon flesh, to allow the train to pass within inches of the market. Even the flies buzzed around to make room. This is co-existence, I thought.

We stopped at a rural house on the way back to the city, the home of a retired tour guide. She and Bing rattled away in their native dialect. She only cooks now, Bing said, as she seated us next to the fan. We ate fish, chicken, long green beans the shape of thick spaghetti grown in the yard, dish after dish of farm to table food that felt like a meal in wine country.

“Next time you come you must stay the night to see the fireflies,” the hostess said. “People see shapes in their lights. Sometimes they see their pets, or long departed relatives.”

Our driver stirred from the hammock and he and Bing helped themselves to the remaining dishes. I closed my eyes and tried to conjure the lighted pixels of the fireflies. Tomorrow we would be on the plane, a mere firefly at 30,000 feet.

Bing’s final words when she dropped us at the airport were, “I hope a miraculous recovery for your mother.” Her own mother couldn’t speak or move her left leg for nine long years. What was there to justify her outlook? Did we suffer less if we just accepted it?

There were so many questions for which I had no answers.

            When I finally saw my mother, she was sleeping and her salt and pepper hair, now mostly salt, was unkempt. She never dyed her hair a harsh black like some of her friends. Or painted her nails Siren Red. If she had, the creeping whiteness of her roots and the chipping red islands of her nails would’ve reminded me of life’s unrelenting decay, even as she was being fed and repositioned on schedule. The bags under her eyes were new, and pronounced, looking like the Thai catfish. She seemed very old and the doctors very young. Nevertheless, my mother’s spirit had prevailed in spite of being starved for almost a week. She was alive, though the quality was admittedly poor. She could chew and swallow, but she could not stand, her left leg possibly paralyzed.

I spent hours at the hospital, gazing at the hills and valleys of the city view when I needed a break. My father worried that I was walking back to his place in the dark. There is at least one mugging every day in the city, he said, sometimes with fatal consequences. He could not withstand any more bad news.

One day I arrived to find my mother sitting in a chair. A nurse’s aid was feeding her breakfast. Even though my brother and I had stalled and avoided the hospital social workers, whose job was to transition patients out, she was improving and no longer considered critical. She could not remain in the hospital indefinitely. Terms like skilled nursing rehab, hospice care, nursing home, memory care facility, home health occupational and physical therapy were introduced. It was all confusing. I thought of the organic simplicity of Bing’s mother being cared for by her family and wished that this could happen, all the while knowing that it never would.

Together, my brother and I found my mother a temporary home six blocks from my dad. I put pictures of her family on the wall next to her bed and wrote our names underneath in black marker. My mother’s roommate was only a year older than me, and like a teething toddler, constantly tried to bite anyone within reach.

It’ll be nice, I told my dad. You can walk there and visit her every day.

Then I found my mother a permanent home, one where they would one day scatter her ashes into the San Francisco Bay. It was what she wanted, written into her will.

For now, though, when I placed my lips close to hers, she kissed me every time.

I plan to return to Thailand. I will go to the countryside and, in the dark, witness the fireflies and hope to see the once bright image of my mother again.

Teresa Yang is a dentist living in Los Angeles. Besides dental articles, her work has appeared in HerStry, The Writing Disorder, Mutha Magazine, and others. She has just completed a memoir about her secret life as a dentist.