In the 1930’s, she would have been considered a siren from Shanghai. Her cheongsam revealed her enviable 32-24-34 figure, perhaps unknowingly to her, since she never considered herself attractive. To me, she is as regal as any monarch, as considerate as any good care-giver, as glamorous as any movie star, and she will always be my loving mother. When I was a young boy, I knew her to be extremely thrifty. She was most certainly a frightening sight to the wet market vendors in Chowrasta market. Five cents was worth five minutes of haggling, and if she caught the fishmonger in a good mood, maybe even a bonus prawn or two would have been thrown in. In truth she was from Ningbo, but in those days, not many knew where that was. So, people knew her as the woman from Shanghai. Shanghai sounded more metropolitan, modern, sophisticated. Although deprived of a proper school education, the two years she got was sufficient to make her literate, elegant and intelligent. She was irresistible to my father, their courtship was short. Maybe she knew she had to be fast, for he was one of the more eligible bachelors, entrepreneurial, ambitious and dapper like Gregory Peck.
She’s now nearing 96, although she would quickly and firmly correct me. 97, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. They add a year, after all, aren’t we born into this world upon conception?
I returned from my two week holiday five days ago. Before I left, I told her I would be away for only twelve days. Did I deliberately miscount it by two days so that my absence would sound shorter to her? Or maybe subconsciously I don’t count travelling time since days spent travelling isn’t really a holiday? Maybe she is upset it has been 20 days since I last visited her. Twenty days to any nonagenarian would feel like a very long time, I realise. Which would explain why she is in a prickly mood. She repeatedly says she’s well past her use-by-date. Every day is a bonus, there won’t be many to come, she predicts. She struggles to get up, mutters to herself that her head is spinning, time isn’t on her side anymore.
When your twins were born, you let me sleep on a urine soaked bed.
She informs me of this abomination today?! Could I have been so deliberately cruel? And if so, why? I love her! She’s my cherished mother, for crying out loud! After all, she has been exhibiting early signs of dementia. It is not a disease but it can be quite debilitating on the elderly, characterised by impairment of brain functions such as memory loss and judgment, confusion may impact on daily activities and communication abilities even. I bought a new queen sized bed for my parents of course, before they arrived to celebrate the birth of my twin sons. Maybe she dozed off one afternoon when she helped put my eldest son to sleep on his mattress. I couldn’t afford another bed then. Maybe she unknowingly smelt his wet blanket when he moved himself closer to her face. He was two years old when his brothers were born, he wasn’t quite ready to relinquish his smelly wet blanket. Their mother recuperated in hospital for three weeks, all the more reason to lug his blanket everywhere.
A situation like this can easily get out of hand. Emotions can run wild, will I feel aggrieved, should I strongly protest, and protect my reputation? Will my other siblings believe this ridiculous accusation? They may want to readily believe the old lady, venerable but also vulnerable, usually clear headed yet exhibiting the onset of dementia. Do I defend myself and risk further angst and emotional stress to everyone present? She may even protest that I, without any medical advice, write that she has dementia. She may even ask me to withdraw this uninformed opinion.
No, I have to be calm. Everyone has to be calm or calmed. How do we care for a loved one who is dementing? Arguments will only agitate her, added stressors will aggravate her mood swings and even change her behaviour. I have seen her turn aggressive and angry, never her normal traits, not even when she became an octogenarian. I used to joke I would rather see her angry, at least I’d know she is still well. If she is strong enough to slam her hands against the dining table, she is well enough for me not to worry about her health.
Please appease her, I remind myself. Calm her down, show her affection, and reassure her she is very well loved, forever our precious mother. Please ease her tension. Talk about her good old days, add humour to the conversation, take her out for a meal. She will like that. Please her, make her feel life is good. Make today a real bonus.