One night my mother dreamed that she turned into a large, white bird. She was standing naked before a narrow, tall mirror. She still had only one breast, the scar on the left side no longer a zipper of purple puckers, fading instead to a smooth shimmery lavender, the skin of an exotic tropical beast. “I’ve let myself go,” she told me, seeing the fleshy belly, the loose upper arms, the heavy thighs. And yet, she was not ashamed.
The feathers unfurled like crocuses. Mama felt each shaft rising from her goose pimpled skin, an itch she couldn’t scratch. The wind from her wings created a storm in my apartment, sending the pages of my Master’s thesis into a fluttering whirlwind. She flew around the ceiling, bumping at the windows before she could gain enough momentum to knock down the front door and slip outside, the air moist with the promise of snow.
“It was night and I flew to see your father,” she said.
“I flew in the upstairs bedroom window. Papa was in bed already but he heard my beak tapping on the glass and let me in. He was happy to see me.”
It was a good dream, she said, not a nightmare.
“The acupuncture is working,” she announced.
I was hopeful for once. And happy that I’d been included in her dream. After my mother’s mastectomy, she decided to move into my apartment so that I could take care of her during her chemotherapy, as there was no oncologist in the small town where my parents and brother lived.
She also didn’t want my father or brother to see her suffer. She wouldn’t let them visit on the weeks she had chemo.
“I don’t want them to worry,” she said.
What about me? I thought. But that was selfish. Daughters weren’t allowed luxurious emotions. We were supposed to be tough. We were supposed to know how to endure.
Eighteen months later, my mother, after being treated with Taxol for the second time, was having a negative reaction. It was three in the morning and the ER was all but deserted. I raced down the hallway, nearly crashing into the nurse who had put in my mother’s IV and disappeared. “Come quick!” I cried, startling her. “My mother’s in pain!”
She followed me into the little room, my mother hooked up to an IV of glucose, a sedative, and no painkillers.
“She needs Fentanyl,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm, professional. The nurses and doctors—especially the doctors—didn’t like emotional displays. They didn’t like tears. They liked people who talked like themselves. They liked people who acted as though a mother with cancer was just a body on a cot with textbook organs and textbook tumors. A year and a half into my mother’s cancer treatments, I’d learned the game well. “They always use Fentanyl in the cancer ward. The other kinds make her vomit—”
“Slow down,” the nurse said. “Who’s your mother?”
“That woman!” I pointed to my mother on the cot behind me, the only other woman in this tiny examining room, the woman this nurse had checked into the ER not half an hour ago, the only woman moaning.
The nurse looked at my mother on the cot, she looked back at me. “Oh,” she said, nodding. She examined the glucose drip, pursing her lips. “I’ll get the doctor.”
It was a look I understood well. My mother was white and I, although mixed, looked completely Asian. Growing up in small towns, this look was the look that refused to see me as my mother’s daughter because we were different races.
“Thank you,” I said, though I wanted to smack her. “Please hurry.”
“What’s wrong?” my mother gasped.
“Everything will be all right,” I lied.
Once a nun sidled up to me in the cathedral in Sioux City, Iowa, where my mother had stopped to pray. While my mother lighted a votive candle before the statue of Mary, I sat waiting in a back pew. The nun slid in beside me. She grasped my wrist, leaning close to my ear to whisper, “My cousin adopted a Vietnamese girl.” I felt her spittle against my cheek as her dry nails scratched my skin. Her voice was furtive, as though she were confessing a crime or an illicit passion to a priest. I shot out the other side of the pew and ran to stand by mother, who dutifully pretended not to see.
My mother never took notice. Not the stares in the grocery store or in the Ben Franklin or the shoe store or the women’s boutique, not since our family had moved to this small town from the East Coast when I was twelve. When women at church potlucks told me of sisters or cousins or old friends from high school who’d adopted Korean babies in other towns, she walked away.
I wanted her to stand up to them. To tell them off to their bigoted faces. “This is my daughter!” I hated when she turned aside, silenced.
Silence is a virtue taught to girls. It makes them easier to control.
My mother’s father had been an alcoholic, my mother’s mother a battered and enabling wife. My mother, the dutiful daughter, had learned to keep her mouth shut.
Marrying my father, a professor from China, whom my mother met at age 33, and not the white farmer’s son my grandmother liked when she was 17, was my mother’s greatest act of rebellion.
“I thought you were going to become a nun,” my grandmother said.
Instead my mother had me, then my brother.
Still, in the small towns where we later lived, in the face of white disapproval, my mother could not find her voice to claim us.
To read the rest of May-lee Chai's "Neon," purchase issue 27.2 here.