Off-Season With Snake

By Xu Xi 許素細

There should not be typhoons in November, but during this Chinese year — the snake one beginning mid-February 2013 that straddles early 2014 — everything is in turmoil. Typhoon season lingers too long into an Indian summer, that quaint romantic idée no longer fixe.

Friends die too young, succumbing to the cancer they fought too long. Sanctuaries disappear, sold to the highest bidder, because they remained occupied too long by renters, instead of occupied by you as they once were or were intended to be. Yet none of this is tragic, nothing to bemoan, because the weather is merely the victim of climatic change (or cycles), death cuts short enduring life (the way curve balls shortstop ambition) and the property market is perennially profitable because you always, always, always buy low and sell high (the way Auntie Caroline taught you to do before she died) for all your locations, locations, locations.

Only Mum’s life feels like tragedy.

Consider Ophelia, or La Dame Aux Camélias. Was it so bad to die young? Is tragedy so much finer where Mum forgets every morning that there was a yesterday?

Consider your life. Would you really choose to die now, and have Mum survive you, the healthy nonagenarian sans memory? Wouldn’t you really prefer memory over longevity while your own ambitions still rankle? When your life is still at stake?

This year, the snake one as it comes to an end, Mum’s mind cycles and loops home. Arduously. For the past few weeks, she has awakened halfway through her nights to exclaim, My parents are waiting, my sisters and brothers expect me, I have to go home, until calmed by our helper who says, It’s still dark, there are no taxis, let’s wait till morning, and back to bed she goes. We all see dead people. We must. At some point in most lives the known dead precede us, and there they are, those Pied Pipers tooting siren tunes of invitation: break on through to this outré side.

Travel is pleasurable off-season, or at least it used to be. Tourism has gotten fat, as obese as our global warming tragedy, and unseasonable waistlines follow. The crowds thin out less and less because too many are always traveling, on- and off-season. I first went to Greece in the fall of ’79, just before the island bars and tavernas closed up for winter. Few tourists were around. Even Athens was civilized then, well before the Parthenon was roped off to visitors, and you could wander those pathways of the dead. The Olympics belonged to ancient memory and were not yet the fiasco of 20th Century show time, and the Euro had not precipitated the protests of the 21st. Greece was as far away from Mum, and Hong Kong, as I could flee to in my twenties. And so a year later, I fled my job and life, stayed, was gone for almost a year. The drachma was cheap, the airfares and winter rentals affordable.

No one spoke Cantonese.

I never did learn Greek. All I learned were the basics — παρακαλο, kali mara, “where’s the toilet,” numbers to bargain with, how to read and sound out the alphabet. It was a liberation from the familiar. All sounds were foreign, and language a deliberate tool for incomprehension. The louder they spoke, the less I understood. It was heavenly.

One night, Mum spoke Cantonese to her Filipino helper. Speak English, said the helper, I don’t understand you. In another moment of nocturnal confusion Mum said jalan, jalan, her mother-tongue Javanese breaking through, sure of its command: let’s go, or literally, walk-walk. My mother looks through me sometimes and I wait for which language she’ll utter, which hippocampus synapse will trigger, which mysterious random-access memory will figure in that moment. This snake year has been anyone’s guess.

My mother might have preferred a life without Cantonese. It was not an easy language for her, this cacophony of nine tones. Being tone-deaf, she could not hear the subtle differences between polytonal homonyms, such as jung: 種 lower register, to plant; 鐘 higher register, clock; 粽 middle register, steamed rice and meat dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves to be tossed from dragon boats for the hungry sharks to stop them from devouring the hero Wut Yuen’s body — dumpling overboard — or so goes the legend of the Dragon Boat Festival. Mum first encountered Cantonese in Hong Kong when she was in her early twenties, having only studied rudimentary Mandarin as a child. Being visual rather than verbal, language acquisition did not come easily to her as an adult. She does however still recognize the odd characters, the large building signage we pass that say bank, company, hotel. And she says these in Cantonese, very occasionally even in Mandarin, and it always startles me, these linguistic snippets that emerge, persistent. A melting clock is still a clock as long as it continues to tell the time.

Off-season Greece was a sort of life. I had escaped Hong Kong, abandoning a good career in marketing at an airline, in order to become a writer. You can do this when you’re young, when life is only about ambition and the individual. My first marriage at twenty was short-lived. Back from college in the U.S., stifled by life back home in Hong Kong, I lit out, shacked up with the first boyfriend who asked, and, unfortunately, married him to mollify my mother’s shame. Her first horror, when I moved out to live in a rural village with him, was that I would not have a telephone. The phone company simply didn’t extend service that far. She could ring me at work in the city instead, which she did regularly, but work offered the best excuse for Sorry, no time to talk. Today, the rural village is long gone, replaced by expensive high rises electronically hooked up to the world. Life was slower-paced then, even in Hong Kong, when escape from my mother’s control was the faster pace that felt urgent and necessary.

One morning, just at the tail end of the snake year in late January 2014, my mother slipped and fractured her femur. Our helper called, I came downstairs from the roof room where I live, at home (of which my mother is not at all cognizant) where I’ve lived these past four years to help oversee Mum’s Alzheimer’s care. Mum was in bed, complaining that her leg was sore. She rubbed her thigh as she spoke. There was no bruising. It was not the first time she had slipped and fallen, and it was difficult to tell, initially, how badly she was hurt.

Let her stay in bed for a bit, I told our helper, and see how she does. I had a meeting that morning I had to get to, as my return “home” as the less rebellious adult daughter was facilitated by, reluctantly, accepting a full-time faculty position at a local university. A university job, like the wrong husband, wastes an inordinate amount of a life.

Only two years earlier, my mother was still able to say where and how she hurt. Her training as a pharmacist made her medically quite accurate. This time she was way off.

Fortunately, my sister was able to stop in later that morning, and by then it was apparent something was seriously wrong. At the hospital, however, her operation was considered routine, as the elderly constantly fracture bones. No big deal, says the medical community, unless, of course, it’s your mother, at age ninety-four, who can’t remember that she’s broken her hip and can’t get out of bed. Your mother is always a big deal.

Still, she is of relatively sound body. She heals, more slowly perhaps than a younger person, but with a residual determination of her formerly sound mind. Such a good girl! exclaim the physiotherapists and nurses as they infantilize Mum. They watch her rise, clutch the walker, push her body forward to jalan jalan around the block of the hospital wing before returning, fatigued, to bed. In the evenings, I stand by her bedside, rub her shoulders, kiss her forehead, watch her dream. Her lids flutter over the R.E.M. of sleep, and you try to imagine her watching you as a child, when she was the mother instead of you.

Motherhood at sixty is off-season. My entry into this unanticipated state began around a dozen years earlier, but it is only at sixty, at the tail end of this snake year, that I’ve finally accepted becoming a mother. Resistance, perhaps, to this reversal of circumstance, one which has no place for that long simmering rage at Mum. The thing about off-season, though, is that it is supposed to be the time to unwind, to allow a mellowness to settle in.

I used to vacation only in the off-season. The dead of winter in Berlin, autumn in Greece or the coastline of New England, the searing summer heat of Florida or the desert in Arizona. This was when hotels were less expensive, flights not fully booked, and destinations emptied of families with children shrieking or hordes of tourists snapping photos. This was before I had turned forty, when global travel was less prevalent. My mother being in hospital forced us to forget about work and our lives, to rearrange our schedules, to focus on the logistics of turning her home into a hospital room, and to re-imagine her subsequent care when she returned home. Our two helpers were exhausted. They took turns sleeping nightly at the hospital with Mum, their working days elongated. We the sibs were exhausted. We sat, in rotation, through the mornings, afternoons, and evenings by her bedside, trying to understand her new physical needs, afraid of all the complications that emerged out of this prolonged monitoring by the medical community, and oversaw the initial physiotherapy.

Mum has virtually no medical history. Dad was the same. They self medicated (especially as Mum had access to pharmaceuticals), were generally quite healthy, and seldom complained about physical aliments. I take after my parents, but am a little better at getting the occasional checkup, once every five to seven years or so, but the result is always a clean bill of health. We all should be so lucky. Until diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Mum took hardly any medication, rarely saw a doctor, and never had checkups. Even after we began regular visits to a geriatric specialist, it was clear that she was healthy of body if not of mind.

But hospitalization meant a whole new circus. We were suddenly made precisely and frighteningly aware of Mum’s fluctuations in blood pressure, the persistence of urinary tract infections (caused, we felt, by the undesirably cramped conditions in the public hospital, where the staff are overworked and diaper changing a scheduled, but low, priority), a heart murmur that could (but might not) be her undoing, bedsores, the length of physical therapy required. Clearly, this was going to be another daunting new phase in Mum care.

I no longer travel only off-season because it makes no difference now. The world is always buzzing with travelers, hotel “deals” are make-believe, and airline “security” a myth for the desperately gullible. The more you travel, the more the world merges into yesterday, today, and tomorrow that could blow up anytime. A lot like motherhood.

Mum is back home now. After a prolonged period of extremely expensive visiting nurses, we’ve finally found a third live-in helper, an experienced and mature Filipino nurse, to oversee Mum’s care. Our two other helpers are relieved. It was their suggestion to employ a third person, even though they knew she would be better paid, would get the single room while they would have to share smaller spaces in a divided room, that she would, in effect, be their supervisor in the care and maintenance of Mum’s health. The logistics are just logistics. After having swooped in as a unit of four siblings to take over Mum’s life, this part was a cakewalk by comparison.

I imagine it’s not unlike the end of postpartum.

The exhaustion of pregnancy has ended, the pain of childbirth is over, the waistline has shrunk back to its almost pre-pregnancy cinch through disciplined exercise, and the turmoil of Holy shit, what the hell have I done! is no longer the shriek of your soul.

Some mornings, I pop into her bedroom and watch her eyes open. Oh, she says, have you come to wake me? I smile, nod, and kiss her forehead. She beams back at me as her eyes accustom themselves to the sunshine. That’s very good, she says. I ask if she would like to get up yet. The attending helper of the day smiles, because lately Mum is lazier, wanting to have a lie in. For a woman who has gotten up every morning at six a.m. or earlier for most of her adult life, it seems right that she is finally able to relax.

Some nights, I help to tuck her in. I lean in close to her ear, to compensate for her increasing deafness, and say good night, sleep well. She sighs as a contented infant must. See you tomorrow, I add, as her eyelids close.

If she could answer I imagine she’d say, And tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Or perhaps not.

Some days when she walks well, eats well, expels well, the tomorrows seem real, and my Hong Kong sister and I look at each other and say, She’ll make it to a hundred. Then we panic briefly at what that means, financially, logistically, emotionally. Once, while in the hospital and pumped up on oxygen, Mum became surprisingly lucid and spoke in full sentences. Her speech did not stutter at its usual halting pace, and she could call at least my Hong Kong sister correctly by name. It’s been a long while since she was last able to call forth the names of her children, or husband, or sister who moved to Hong Kong in 1947 to be with her. A little over a year earlier, she still occasionally could. Now I wonder who she thinks I am when I hug her, massage her, walk her, feed her, get her up or put her to bed. But she is happy, or something like happy, because she smiles and sometimes even answers when I ask, how are you feeling — Fine, or Okay, she says. One night, I kissed her forehead and she suddenly opened her eyes and said, Thank you for the kiss. She saw someone, or something, watching over her, some angel, perhaps.

Other days, she turns to jelly, unwilling to push herself up out of the wheelchair, waiting for one of us to lift her. This old lady is shockingly heavy, dead weight when her body goes on strike. As dead as her eyes that stare at me blankly, as dead as her voice that will not respond to any stimuli.

Now, Voyager. Mum’s journey is, as we would say in Cantonese, 沒來, the yet to come. Cantonese, the language without tenses, where past and present are muddled and imprecise. Cantonese, the language that muddled my mother’s tongue, and my tongue, perching precariously on its tip, ever ready for utterance in my birth city where it is the mother tongue of the majority population. Cantonese, not English or Putonghua-Mandarin, our two other official languages now that we are back in China, returned to the Motherland, just as I have returned to my mother’s side. Yet Hong Kong must know that, despite our seemingly global, cosmopolitan veneer, despite our historically English origins, we are indeed China, whether or not we like it. The torrent of Putonghua in our city’s streets, the hordes of Chinese tourists from the Mainland that prop up our economy, comprise the future-past of who we should have been and will become. It is complicated, being native of a city without true “native” origins. Despite some attempts at revisionist history in this neo-Chinese era, Hong Kong was more or less a barren rock when the British redrew China’s map, and its rise as an international city is a result of British colonization. My mother’s Javanese-English-smattering-of-Mandarin-cum-atonal-Cantonese muddled language is as much a part of Hong Kong’s history as the Cantonese of the majority population.

Mum once tried to move our family to Hawaii. This was sometime in the sixties, when pharmacists were in demand, and fast-passage green cards were being offered by U.S. Immigration. Family lore has it that she applied, and was granted visas for us, at which point my father put his foot down and declared, And what will I do there, clean their toilets? Thus ended my teenage fantasy of life among the surfer boys and Hawaii Five-O.

My mother, a little like a young Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, sailed into the Hong Kong harbor in the summer of 1947 as a beautiful young woman, radiant with hope. She had seen the harbor, she says, once before in a dream and she recognized, right then, that this city would be her home. She used to tell us that, and I believed her, wanted to believe her, because it softened the rejection by locals of this city for being different, and speaking the wrong language at home. In the end, despite her brief flirtation with an alternate American life, this city did become her home. What I’ve never questioned is my mother’s declaration that she never wanted to go back to Indonesia. That is Mum, typhoon et al.

The snake year is over and we’re now riding a horse. The off-season has ended and the horse has brought prolonged spring rains and a too-early summer heat. My schedule has begun to settle into a new normal, with our resident nurse and the minor reconstructions at home. There is a hospital bed with an air mattress for Mum, to prevent bedsores, and a companion bed in her room. Recently, I spent a day assigning the sleeping schedule and arranging the weekly days off on the new-normal calendar for the staff. Operations management was never my forte, but it is another skill to acquire in my unpredictable fate as a late-in-life mother. At least I got to skip childbirth.

But it is T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton again that echoes footfalls in my hippocampus. Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present. I am back in Greece, during those endless days and nights when the 沒來 was a dream of the writer’s life. I am back in Norway, in that spacious, empty, soundproof studio by the sea in Bergen, for three summer months of endless light, at the residency in a former sardine factory where I wrote and wrote and wrote. I am back in my New Zealand retreat-home, sold in the snake year, where Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? If I can continue to inhabit relative time during off-season motherhood in the rooftop squat, perhaps tomorrow will be more than just another day.

It’s not so bad, I tell myself, even if my mother does live forever.


Xu Xi 許素細 is the author of nine books of fiction and essays. The most recent titles are Access Thirteen Tales (2011), the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and an essay collection, Evanescent Isles (2008). A novel-in-manuscript, That Man in Our Lives, and an essay collection, Typhoon Mum, about living with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, are currently represented by the literary agency Harold Matson. Works-in-progress includes a novella, The Milton Man, and a collaborative arts and letters project, Conversation, ekphrastic personal essays responding to photographs by David Clarke. She is also editor or co-editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English, most recently, The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, co-edited with Marshall Moore (September, 2014). Recent and  forthcoming fiction, essays and critical work appear in the journals The Iowa Review, Water-Stone Review, Lake Effect, Drunken Boat, AALR, Guernica Daily, Ploughshares, Text (Australia), Four Quarters Magazine (India), The Letters Project (Univ. of Nottingham, UK), Silk Road, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, Fleur des Lettres (Chinese translation, Hong Kong), Toad Suck Review, Writing & Pedagogy (UK), as well as in several anthologies, including, All About Skin (Univ. of Wisconsin Press), Local/Express: Asian American Arts Community in 90’s NYC (Asian American Literary Review), Creativity & Discovery in the University Writing Class: A Teacher’s Guide (Equinox, UK-US), The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Bedford/St. Martin’s, New York), Still (Negative Press, UK), Understanding the Essay (Broadview Press, Canada). 

A transnational “third culture” writer, she long inhabited the flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong and the South Island of New Zealand, until her mother’s Alzheimer’s ended those peregrinations. From 2002-12 she was on the MFA in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she was elected and served as faculty chair from 2009-12. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English, where she established and directs Asia’s first low-residency MFA in creative writing that also focuses on writing of, from and out of Asia.

For more information visit her online at www.xuxiwriter.com or www.facebook.com/XuXiWriter.