• The Last Holiday

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© Dmae Roberts 2012

I didn’t realize the last Thanksgiving I spent with my mom would actually be the very last. We never know about “the last time” until it’s no more.

Ma’s been gone 10 years now. When she had a recurrence of breast cancer, I spent three years commuting back and forth from Portland to Eugene every three or four days to help take care of her. I oversaw the household, shopped, cooked and cleaned while trying to get my work done on my laptop on her kitchen table.

At night we would watch romantic comedy movies. Once in a while Ma pointed out someone being too silly, and I’d agree. She had quite the discerning eye for a woman with no formal education who didn’t read English. She remarked on stupid plot lines or rolled her eyes at sappy lines and then got teary during poignant moments. Before she got sick, we never had the patience with one another to sit quietly together. The arguments always got in the way, especially during the holidays.

Our movie marathons were a fun quiet time together. We never had that after I became a teen, and I started to rebel, lasting all through adulthood. It took her illness for us to finally meet in some midpoint to enjoy each other’s company. Before then, she’d try to hook me into her Taiwanese musical soap operas. These were badly recorded video copies of costumed dramas in which the Monkey King and beautiful princesses in gowns with long, flowing sleeves fought battles against evil emperors. I loved watching them for about 10 minutes before the dreadful singing and clanging of instruments started. My Oklahoman father used to call it “kwangkwang”—a Taiwanese slang word for any loud noise.

But when I became my mom’s caregiver, I’d rent movies and watch them on a little TV in the spare bedroom where I slept. One day I was in the middle of The Green Mile when Ma peeked in.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m watching this movie about a convict who heals people…” She sat down on the bed next to me fascinated as I explained the plot. At one point, the Michael Duncan Clark character put his hands on a dying Patricia Clarkson and took her cancer away. We cried together when we saw that. That’s when our movie marathons began.

Caregiving is full of ups and downs. You have bad weeks and you live for the times that you find the joy of getting closer to the loved one who’s ill.  But that last Thanksgiving, we had hope.

After two bouts of pneumonia while fighting her breast cancer, she ended up on the hospice program. At one point, during the summer that was to be her last summer, she was frustrated with her slow recovery.  We figured out during her hospitalization that she had a minor stroke, and that’s why one side of her mouth didn’t quite work. She started crying in frustration because she couldn’t drink a glass of water without some of it spilling out.

I said to her, “Ma, people can live a longer time with cancer but you need to decide if you want to live.”

She looked at me quietly studying me and said, “I want to live.”

“Then you will,” I said.

And she “graduated” from the hospice program. She was happy to move about the house, go shopping once a week and cook simple meals with some help from my brother or me.

That Thanksgiving, my husband spent the holiday with his elderly parents, and I was with my mom and brother. After years of fights over my not eating meat, Ma had become closer to her Buddhist religion and had become a vegetarian. That thrilled me to no end. So I attempted to cook a Tofurky without reading the directions. Ma wanted me to baste it like she did when she roasted a turkey every night before Thanksgiving. But I cooked it way too long. It ended up being a bit tough and chewy.

Now for the holidays, my hubby cooks it by following directions on the package, and the Tofurky turns out moist and delicious. But that Thanksgiving my mom and I laughed at how hard it was to chew so we dined instead on mashed potatoes, vegies and store-bought pumpkin pie. Afterwards, we watched another of our silly romantic movie marathons.

That was to be our last Thanksgiving meal together.

We didn’t know it was the last. We only thought about hope and living as long as possible before the inevitable end. That came after the oncologist told us on one of our weekly visits that there was no need to keep coming. She died five months later in May. But on our final Thanksgiving we had one good holiday that made up for the difficult ones in the past.

*Read more essays in the Dmae Writes section. Or in The Asian Reporter.