September 26, 2020
Strangely relieved but feeling thwarted, I try to block out all emotion. I hold my breath. We knock on her door again. Ring the bell insistently. I stare at the peephole of the blank white door, willing darkness to hint that she is inside looking out. I see not a flicker of shadow. I hear no evidence of surreptitious movement. No aromas of kimchi stew simmering, not even the wet scent of rice. Maybe she is not home.
My daughter and I are standing outside my mother’s apartment in Edison, New Jersey. My mother lives in an “active adult community,” a collection of one and two bedroom housing units for seniors. Her apartment is on the third floor, the last one on the left, from a bank of elevators, down a long hallway lit by wall sconces shaped like champagne flutes. All the entrances to the apartments are tucked into beige alcoves. My mother has personalized hers with silk white roses and purple lilies-of-the-valley in porcelain vases, perched on a ledge, and a Welcome mat in front of her door. Even if I didn’t know the number, I would have recognized the stamp of her personality—no matter the circumstances, one must keep up appearances.
My sister was right. I could see the doubt on Susan’s face, as she raised her eyebrows and tilted her head ever so slightly, to my deliberately nonchalant statement that I was going to visit our mother. “Did you tell her you’re coming? You know what Mom’s like.” But my mother has banned telephones from her home, and there was no time to write. All the signs have warned me that this is a doomed pilgrimage. But I am stubborn; I have come anyway.
The last time I saw my mother was more than a year earlier. I had flown in from Pittsburgh to attend a family meeting with my three sisters and the social worker of the Carrier Clinic, an acute psychiatric care facility. My mother had been committed involuntarily. And I still remember darkness in the windows, framed by red painted wood, as the phone rang late one night, the shrill sound echoing in my tall-ceilinged kitchen. On the other end, Susan crying so hard her words had been barely intelligible.
“Mom tried to kill herself,” my sister said.
“What?” I stared at ghostly wisteria branches swaying in the night breeze. I am in a nightmare. I will wake up.
“Mom tried to kill herself,” she said.
The sound of her tears, the waxing and waning of mucous and congestion transmitted through the wire and amplified in the still air of my kitchen.
“We were arguing in the car because she wanted to go to H-Mart and I told her it was closed. She yelled me and called me a liar and a terrible daughter. I tried to calm her down. But she wouldn’t stop. I pulled over. Before I knew what was happening, she ran onto Route One, screaming she didn’t want to live anymore.” Susan’s voice cracked as she said live and then dissolved after anymore.
The psychiatrist’s diagnosis of my mother: Major Depression with Psychotic Features.
As a physician, I understood what that meant. As a daughter, I had no idea what was going on with my mother. She had hoarded newspapers, magazines, supermarket circulars, Macy’s catalogues, stacked almost to the ceiling. She would not flush the toilet for fear the government could hear her thoughts. How do I reconcile myself to the fact that my mother stored her stool in jars?
In the conference room of the Carrier Clinic, across an institutional table, I had faced my mother. I held my body rigid, my shoulders clenched. “Mom, please stay. You need help,” I said. She did not cry. She said, “Do you think I’m crazy?” And in her eyes, a sorrow I could not meet. My heart squeezed so hard it felt as if my chest had caved in. My mother voluntarily committed herself for six more weeks of treatment.
After the Carrier Clinic, my sister Sophia co-signed a lease, with my mother, on a two-bedroom apartment near Sophia’s house. Immediately upon moving in, my mother complained. The apartment was too small, the price too high, and most disturbing to her—my sisters had spare keys. Intensely private and paranoid, she could not abide by the idea that anyone, especially her daughters, could have access to her life. When my sisters, who all lived nearby, came to check up on her, she refused to answer the door. Because they had the power to open the door, they no longer waited outside, as we all used to, when she lived in her own house. A house that had fallen down around her, in spite of her studious oblivion. As soon as the one-year lease was up on the co-signed apartment, my mother found this active adult community without my sisters’ help or approval. Only she has the keys to this place.
I have really come to get the Cranes. For years, a massive painting of cranes hung in the living room of my mother’s house. Placed between two windows, setting sunlight danced on the wings of the cranes, deepening hues, adding texture. Deep verdant mountainsides and black and white cranes, with scarlet-streaked heads, created a stark yet lush picture. My mother, who normally detested cleaning, diligently dusted, spray-wiped the glass, and oiled the wood frame surrounding the Cranes. Remnants of a home, a country she had forsaken so many years ago. Large in scale and presence, the Cranes steadfastly survived the madness of my mother’s house.
Cranes, those fragile-appearing but hardy birds, with impossibly thin stalks for legs, are symbols of good fortune, longevity, and loyalty to Koreans. Walk into any Korean home and you will find a crane somewhere. Standing, flying, still. In a deeply superstitious culture, any image can be construed as lucky. But I have always loved cranes—unconsciously, instinctively. Graceful yet strong. Delicate but enduring. Perhaps, my mother is right. This love of cranes is embedded in my DNA, the result of thousands of years of pure Korean ancestry. Sometimes, one cannot fight one’s genes.
When my sisters and I sold our mother’s house, we divided the furniture: Susan took the Korean black lacquered tables and a Louis XIV replica wing chair; Sophia garnered the Queen Anne china cabinet and the Steinway piano; Clara claimed my mother’s British Colonial mahogany bed, highboy, and armoire. But I wanted only the Cranes. Susan has been storing the Cranes in her garage for almost a year now. “Come for them any time. There’s no rush,” she said. But she is moving to Hawaii in a week, and I pretended that it was on a whim I came to visit her and to get the Cranes. She has offered to keep them until her house sells, which could be months from now. But I think it is finally time.
Because I could not face doing this by myself, I took my daughter out of summer camp to accompany me. I am not above using a nine-year-old as a shield. An impromptu visit with her cousins excited her, and she thanked me instead. I warned her that we were also visiting Helmoni, her Korean grandmother. She shrugged, made no comment. We headed out of Pittsburgh on a sweltering summer day, the air conditioning broken in my car. I did not know how much I would regret my words: “It’s okay. We’ll manage.” I had heard the weatherman say that this was the start of a heat wave. But I did not listen. For six and a half hours, we sweated across Pennsylvania into New Jersey.
Of course, I could not know our trip out would only be rivaled by the equally difficult trip back. While driving home through a deluge in the Appalachian Mountains, I will join a line of cars, with hazard lights blinking, crawling at twenty miles per hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. For an interminable time, my windshield wipers will sway furiously, from side to side, unable to erase the sheets of rain. Although it will be steaming inside, because of the broken air conditioning, I will keep the windows open only a crack, afraid it will rain on the Cranes wedged in the backseat. The water will come sideways into my car, missing my sticky face, but landing squarely on the Cranes. Then the oil light will burn orange, in warning. That is when I will give up. I will crank the windows all the way down—if the Cranes were going to get wet, then we might as well all get soaked. Ironically, my actions will direct the rain away from the Cranes. My daughter will laugh out loud when water hits her arm. “Mommy, this is way cool!” she will say, her hair plastered to her forehead, her face dewy with droplets, not of perspiration, but of rain.
She will be right. The water will be cool, calming in the middle of that maelstrom. I will stop clenching the steering wheel, no longer imagining the Cranes flooded and ruined, no longer hearing the whisper of my mother’s voice berating me. And just as unexpectedly, the inundation that would begin with big, fat water stains on my windshield, will cease. The temperature will drop twenty degrees. A breeze will finally come into my car. And I will find myself meditating on a poem my friend Meilin sent me.
“Aguacero” was the title, the Spanish word for downpour. Meilin called them showers that “came every afternoon/ oftentimes while the sun was out” in the Dominican Republic, her birthplace. She recalled watching other children run out into the street, “laughing and splashing,” while she was forbidden to do so. She wrote, “the drenching rain was a relief from the constant heat/ clearing the air/ cleansing the sidewalks, the cars, the kids.” She wrote that while standing on her porch in Arlington, Virginia, during a summer rainstorm, she thought of those children and wanted to join them again. She had not been allowed when she was a girl because she had been “raised better than that,” according to her mother. What does that mean? What comfort can one derive from being “raised better than that”? What could be so wrong about rain and laughter and joy?
While I was driving from Susan’s house to my mother’s new apartment, I avoided thinking about her reaction to my visit, by obsessing over what I should bring as a house- warming gift. I did not have the foresight to buy something before beginning this journey. What should I offer her? As the miles passed on Route One in New Jersey, I began to panic and looked closely at every strip mall, by the side of the highway. Nothing seemed appropriate—hair salons, car dealerships, movie theaters, McDonald’s. When I saw the entrance to Woodbridge Mall, I became desperate.
“Hey, Erin, what do you think we should bring Helmoni?”
“Erin, are you listening?”
“What should we give Helmoni? It’s nice to bring a gift when you visit, especially when it’s a new place.”
She giggled uncomfortably. “I don’t know.”
“Think of something, okay?”
“She’s your mother!” Inherent in my daughter’s tone was the implication that I should know what my mother might want or need.
“Erin, please, just help me out here,” I pleaded.
“Okay, but I really don’t know Helmoni. I remember only seeing her two or three times when I was little. And I only remember those times because there’re pictures. Do you remember the one when I was only a year old? The one, where I’m sitting next to a doll carriage playing with Emily’s doll, and Helmoni is sitting next to me wearing this enormous white hat? She’s my grandmother, so I love her. And I’m sure she loves me. But I don’t really know what she likes or doesn’t like. You’re her daughter. Shouldn’t you know?”
I remain conflicted about how articulate my daughter is. At age nine, she has eloquently explained why she cannot recommend a gift for her grandmother. This girl, who started talking at nine months, with “Elmo,” who blew past two-word sentences at twelve months, and could enunciate “armadillo” so clearly at fifteen months that my pediatrician colleagues would not believe me until she said it for them in person, has exposed my failure to understand my mother with just a few words. The same then eighteen-month-old who once said to me, “Mommy, I don’t like you.” I had been torn between pride that my daughter could speak in five-word sentences, when most children her age could only say “want juice” or “me up,” and terrible hurt that she could be so unmistakable in her displeasure with me.
Years of having practiced pediatrics cannot take the sting out my daughter’s words. And I remembered the photograph. It had been taken at my niece’s second birthday party. One of those rare occasions my mother attended a family function. Unable to sustain social pretensions, my mother sought refuge in playing with my infant daughter. I found them in the den of my sister’s house, away from the rest of our family. My mother, in a silk blue dress and one of her large ubiquitous hats, was seated with her legs tucked under her. She was leaning over the rotund form of my daughter in a flowered green dress and white tights. No words exchanged between them, just an occasional touch. A moment captured forever on film.
Instead of answering my daughter’s question, I grunted something noncommittal. I followed the signs to Woodbridge Mall, then veered away and took the exit ramp out. What could I possibly buy at the mall that my mother would need—a neck massager from Brookstone? A hat from Bloomingdale’s? What do I buy for a woman who has lost her mind?
I stand at my mother’s door, not knowing what to do. I have picked the last day of my trip to see her. Before I made this drive to my mother’s apartment, Susan had said, “Don’t expect much. Mom’s been there only three weeks. But she’s back to not answering her door.”
I knock again, my knuckles rapping on solid white blankness. The hollow sound echoes in the long, empty corridor. “Mom, it’s me. And Erin is here, too,” I say. My voice trembles, and I have to stop it from breaking. I swallow hard, the back of my throat arid and airless.
“Are you sure she’s home?” My daughter looks up at me, her brown eyes wide and clear.
“Erin, I don’t know.” Impatience floods my voice. I lower my hands to my sides, but they remain frozen in tight curls, my fingernails digging into the flesh of my palms.
“If she was home, she would answer the door, right?” My daughter says this almost like a statement.
The only words that ring in my head: I shouldn’t have come.
The last conversation I had with my mother was over the phone, just after she left the Carrier Clinic. I had called because of what Susan had said to me, “She heard the day we met with the social worker that you aren’t working as a doctor. She keeps asking me about it.” Initially, I tried to dismiss this as nonsense, but my sister’s words plagued me. Finally I picked up the phone.
After multiple rings, a hesitant voice said, “Hello?”
“Oh, it’s you,” my mother’s voice changed in tone.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “How are you doing, Mom?”
“Okay,” my mother said tersely.
My shoulders pulled forward. “Susan said you’re worried about me.”
Silence on her end.
I tried again. “I’m fine. I’m not working as a pediatrician because I want to stay home with my kids.”
I could not stop lying to my mother. It had become a habit. It was easier for me to lie than to face her scorn. I could not tell her that I stopped practicing pediatrics because of such entangled reasons, like I was turning forty and knew I wasn’t happy being a doctor; I was injured in a car accident and lived with chronic pain; I was burned out from taking care of poor kids in the inner-city for little money and no support from an institution that called me an assistant professor of pediatrics. I was afraid to tell my mother that I was going back to graduate school to get a degree in creative writing. I knew she wanted me to continue being a doctor. I wondered if she remembered the time when I was nineteen years old and timidly proposed that I major in English, instead of Chemistry. “Do you think you’re Hemingway?” she had said.
Still only silence on her end.
“Okay, okay,” she said, her voice dismissive.
Again I tried. “Please, don’t worry about me.”
“Fine.” She hung up the phone.
I stood in my kitchen, dial tone to my ear, wetness drenching my face. Instant puddles in the hollows of my collarbones.
As I steer the Cranes through the entrance of my house in Pittsburgh, I think of all the possibilities. Why the door did not open. Maybe my mother was out grocery shopping. Maybe she went to the mall with the other active seniors. Or maybe, she was hiding in her bedroom, willing us to go away. Perhaps she looked out her window and saw my silver sedan in the parking lot, the Cranes in the back. Gone from her forever.
I picture two different scenes and still can’t decide which one is true. In one possibility, my mother returns to her apartment, sees the box, picks it up, and reads the messages. In the other scenario, she waits quietly for an hour, after the doorbell has stopped ringing, and cautiously opens the door, almost stepping on the large flat box. She reads the messages written on top, separated by the words “Dunkin’ Donuts,” and surrounded by green dots masquerading as confetti.
We came to visit. We hope you like your new apartment. Enjoy the Boston crèmes—your favorite.
I came to see you and your new apartment. I’m sorry I missed you. I hope to see you again soon. I love you!
from Issue 31.2
Helena Rho, a former assistant professor of pediatrics, earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Slate, Crab Orchard Review, Entropy, Solstice, and Fourth Genre. “The Cranes” is part of her memoir-in-essays, Leaving Medicine.