During my most recent visit to help my mom during her recovery, I finally saw the movie Arrival. I’d heard good things about it when it was in theaters but had never gotten around to getting myself to a theater (which is pretty typical for me; it takes rather a lot for me to willingly fork over a large sum of money to be surrounded by strangers and forced to endure endless commercials without a mute button handy). My sister had a copy of the DVD, so one evening I put it on to watch.
That is, I tried to watch, though my mother had other ideas. “Do you want some of these peanuts? These are special peanuts from Taiwan. They are very good!” “Do you like this necklace? I never wear this anymore. I know you don’t wear jewelry but you could have it if you want.” “I am thinking I should get some more plants for this room. I really like those orchids. I should get a couple more.” Yes, uh huh, yep, right, sure, thank you, no thanks, yeah, yeah, yeah … wait, what just happened? What did she think the squiddy thing from outerspace said? I missed so much of the dialogue I was thrilled when they started using subtitles for squiddy-thing language; at least that much I could get despite the constant interruptions.
It’s hard to imagine what your parents were like as children; just as your parents never seem to see you as completely grown up, it’s difficult for offspring to see parents as anything other than that. I once gave a creative writing assignment in which students had to write a description of one of their parents that made absolutely no reference to themselves. One young woman could not for the life of her fathom how to do that. “How can I write about my mother without talking about me?” she asked very earnestly. Uh, well, she is more than just your mother, you know—she had a whole life before you were born. It was as though I’d told her to write about her mother as if her mother were a block of cheese; it made no sense to her. Come to think of it, maybe I should have given them that assignment instead; it might have been more fun for all of us. In any case, if I were teaching that class now, I’d have consoled the young lady by saying, “Don’t worry; you’ll find out soon enough what your mother was like back then,” because it felt like that was what I was finding out on this visit.
My mother is bored sitting at home. She insists she’s healthy enough to go play with her friends, by which I mean she likes to take the bus up to the casino and play the slot machines for a few hours. The casino is a surprisingly beautiful, resort-like building in the mountains with spectacular views as only offered in the Pacific Northwest, and the bus she takes up there during weekdays is filled with people like her—retired Asian people who can talk to each other in their native language if they feel like it, or not talk at all, if they prefer it. My mother knows she isn’t going to make any money gambling, and she sets aside only a small amount of money each month to play with, so there’s no danger of her crap-shooting my sister and me out of our inheritance (whew!). It’s a social thing, the only social thing she does, akin to my father hanging out at the local library. It’s a way to be with people without necessarily having to fully interact with them; you can still do your own thing, your own way, which is exactly what my mother likes. It is also exactly what my sister felt she should not be doing given her recent health problems. So we’ve been taking turns babysitting her, and as patronizing as it sounds to call it that, it has seemed very much like watching a small child.
But it’s not just my mother. My father, the precocious only child of doting parents, has often struck me as in some way never having aged in eight decades. “Conversation” to my father means that he will say something intelligent that most certainly no one else in the room knows, and everyone else in the room will most certainly respond, “Gosh, really? Wow! That’s fascinating!” In other words, he mostly needs an audience. My mother is usually that audience, and she’s very bad at it. She’s carried a massive chip on her shoulders all her life for her lack of formal education—she had to quit school when she was young so that she could help support her family—and as a result she reacts to his erudition with aggressive disdain. My father, in turn, is nearly incapable of speaking any other way. After more than five decades together, my parents still cannot communicate with each other.
And right now I am not entirely sure how to communicate with them myself. It seems hugely disrespectful to treat them like children—they aren’t children, and despite my mother’s recent health issues, they are still highly intelligent, capable people. But I still see something child-like about each of them, sometimes heartbreakingly so.
Once, coming back from a run, I found my father talking to one of his neighbors, with whom my father was giving lectures on current events at one of the community seniors’ classes. We were introduced, and after I excused myself to get something to drink, I heard my father talking excitedly about the latest developments. And talking, and talking, and talking. Every so often I heard the neighbor manage a “mmm hmm” or “uh huh,” but those utterings were few and far between. Shut up, I muttered under my breath. Shut up for a second, Dad. Please shut up.
Suddenly I heard: “I’m sorry, I have to go now.”
It was the neighbor, who had probably just stopped by to drop off a book or something and out of politeness came in to talk. Who knows, maybe he had to pee badly, too; in any case, he apologized again and they said their goodbyes.
The room was quiet again, a forlorn quiet, punctuated by the slow shuffling of my father’s slippered feet heading back to his room.
The day I left to go back home, my mother followed me out to the elevator in her bathrobe. “We really enjoyed seeing you again!”
Yep, I enjoyed seeing you.
“I will get started on that sweater—one of these days! Ha ha!” In an effort to give her something to do on her non-casino days, I suggested she take up knitting again. She used to be very good at it many years ago, but she only grudgingly agreed now, and once again it felt like I was giving busy work to a bored child.
Yeah, you’d better get that sweater done!
“Too bad you can’t stay another day. We could go get dim sum! I like the ones they make at Twelve Moons.”
Yeah, too bad. OK, bye now.
She was still there, peering into the elevator, looking rather like a puppy who doesn’t understand this whole “work” thing and thinks you should have all day to stay home and play.
At a key moment in the movie Arrival, the main character asks, If you know how it ends, do you still do it? But we all know how it ends. It ends with parting ways. It also ends, paradoxically, in a circular way, the way it began. Our world begins small, with simple needs for food, shelter, and companionship, and it ends the same way, with a need for someone to be there, even knowing that can’t always happen.