It has been a month, a month since I last saw mum, touched mum, hugged mum. I slowly opened the door to Room 20. Already during the long elevator ride to the twenty-first floor, my heart was pounding, my mind was wondering what I would see, how I would react to what I see. Nothing prepared me for the reality.
Things seemed to just happen, with nothing planned, nothing calculated. I opened the door slowly, and walked in. The first person I saw was the new carer, who sat resting on the sofa. Then I saw mum, who lay on her bed and had her eyes open. She must have been counting the minutes to my arrival. Brother told me later that she was counting down the days till I arrived. And before I left home, I called to say I’d be there within fifteen minutes. Mum must have been watching the hands of the clock hanging on the wall opposite her bed.
Brother sat next to mum’s bed. I approached him and wanted to hug him, but he was sitting down, and it was an awkward position, so instead I patted his back a couple of times instead. “I’m back… It must have been hard on you…”
Mum’s eyes opened even wider seeing me. Everything happened so quickly. She lay in bed and barely moved, but she took her arms out from under her blanket. I leaned in close and wanted to hug her, but I was afraid also of crushing her under my weight. I put my arms gently around her, and it was then that I felt just how much she has thinned since I saw her last. I was afraid to hurt her, so I only lightly wrapped my arms around her and leaned in closer to her cheeks. I pressed my cheeks against hers, and in her ear I whispered: “Mama, I’m back. I’m back. Sorry to keep you waiting for so long…”
We bonded starting with my long trek across half the globe to be back here. Fate was with me. In all my times of flying home, I have never landed at the downtown airport. Partly due to the prohibitive price of connecting in Tokyo to Taipei the same day I arrived (which was yesterday…), I decided to stay overnight and book a more affordable flight the next morning. As I was staying overnight, I decided to fly from Haneda (HND) to Songsan (TSA), which is downtown to downtown, instead of using the international airports which are both some distance away from Tokyo and Taipei. Fate was with me, for the very day I chose to fly into the downtown airport, Taiwan was ravaged by a terrible storm. The international airport I normally fly into (Taoyuan International, TPE) was shut down for several hours. Flights were redirected, baggage handlers could not go out to work because of lightning strikes. Passengers were stranded for several hours, some till midnight until the storm eventually died down. I was at the hospital within an hour of landing…
I carried very little to the hospital, and just had a plastic bag with me, albeit a big bag. I took out my graduation cap and placed it on my head, the very one I wore walking down the podium only days earlier to receive my degree with. Mum smiled. She had seen pictures of me on facebook, but this is different. She could see me up close, feel the red and white tassel. I held her hand, stroked her head and her hair. “Thank you… thank you for everything you did to support me. This is for you, like it says in my thesis…” I hope she still remembers what I wrote on the acknowledgement page of my thesis, because this one is really for her:
“Most of all, I would like to express my most heartfelt gratitude to my dear, brave mother, to whom this thesis is dedicated. Despite the difficult and testing hardships she endures, she never stopped offering me her motherly love and encouragements from afar. Her wisdom, forbearance, smiles and kindness inspire me to keep going, push me to be strong no matter what. The completion of this thesis, and this degree, is a life wish of hers, and I am grateful that I am able to fulfill that wish.”
“The first degree was dedicated to dad. And this one to you,” I said, “And if I choose to do a PhD, I wonder who I can dedicate it to. To my cat perhaps?” That made mum smile even more. When she smiled, she did not look like a patient. When she smiled, she was not afflicted by cancer. When she smiled, I do not notice the thinness of her arms, the dark tone of her skin, or the yellow hue of her eyes from jaundice… When she smiles, she is my beautiful mother as I will always remember her.
The nurses came in, a bunch of them. “You must be the second son!” Brother has been doing some broadcasting and prepared them for my arrival. “Your mum has been anticipating your return!” I was still wearing my graduation cap and leaning close to mum on her bed. “Why, you two seem very close!” I was a little embarrassed.
That mum looks more ill than before did not escape me. I saw immediately she had trouble breathing, saw that her collar bones have now become clearly visible. I noticed how wrinkled her skin looks, how dry and also bloated her arms and legs were. From occasional grimaces and suppressed moans, I could tell mum was in some degree of discomfort. The details of her condition would be revealed later when I spoke to the doctor. “It’s very unlikely she’ll live more than three months. Two months, one months maybe. But every patient is different, and we will do what we can to make her comfortable…”
Nothing, not the feel of her bony arms, not what the doctor just told me, not the reality of mum lying in the hospice ward scared me or made me cry. At least, not yet. It was not as I expected at all. Strangely, ever since I stepped into the hospice, I could only smile at mum. Smile as I rubbed her arms, smile as I stroked her hair and head, smile as I recounted my one month back in Canada.
I can only smile as I reassured her that I would be with her no matter what…
I’m so glad you’re back with your mom, but I’m also very sad to hear that she’s not doing well. I can only hope that the two of you together get to find a few bright moments in this, the hardest part of the cancer journey. Your mom is lucky to have you there to walk the path with her. Sending hugs and strength your way-Ann