“Your mother may not recognise you.”
The nurse’s words pierce through my heart.
We stand outside the door, her hand clasping the door handle.
“This is an effect of Alzheimer’s,” she says carefully. “And she may perhaps act quite differently from how she used to.”
I nod numbly.
She opens the door, and I walk into the sterile room.
My mother lies on the hospital bed. Fragile. Emaciated. When did she start to have grey streaks in her black hair? I’d never noticed.
Her eyes pass over me dismissively. “Where’s my daughter?” she asks, her voice thin and cracking. “Tell Pamela to come see me.”
“Your daughter is here, mum,” I murmur soothingly. “She took a ten-hour flight straight here.”
Her frown lines are etched like abysses onto the landscape of her weathered face, the product of years of working multiple jobs a day to eke out a living. Yet the smile lines are prominent too, and my mind wanders to memories of her distinct, orotund laughter.
I sit on the chair next to the bed. “Do you remember, mum?” I murmur, gently grasping her hand. “The stories you used to read to me?”
I am six years old. I sit at our cheap, rickety dinner table, frowning as I poke absentmindedly at the rice.
“What’s wrong, darling?” my mother asks in Chinese, her voice soft with concern.
“Nothing,” I say stubbornly.
“If you don’t tell me, I can’t fix it,” she says.
The tears begin to stream down my face.
“None of the kids talk to me at school,” I wail. “They laugh and call me No-English and pull at the corners of their eyes whenever they see me.”
A shadow passes over her face.
“How long has this been going on for?”
“Since I started school in Australia this year,” I reply, wiping off snot with the corner of my sleeve.
My mother takes a tissue and dabs at my eyes and then pats my head gently.
“We’ll fix this,” she says. And I believe her.
My mother keeps her promise. On the nights she comes home early after working ten-hour shifts, she sits on my bed and reads picture books to me in her accented, broken English. At first, I resist her attempts to make me learn English. But then she tells me the story of the paper bag princess, and I am hooked.
“Wasn’t there even one dress left?”
“Isn’t the prince supposed to save the princess?”
“Why doesn’t she marry the rich prince?”
And my mother, with her infinite patience, replies, “Listen carefully, and you’ll see.”
From that moment on, my love of reading blossoms, nourished by my mother’s tireless enthusiasm and endless sacrifices.
It becomes my daily mission to explore these vast realms and to unlock these new worlds. One after another, I discover Narnia and Hogwarts and Terabithia. I devour these masterpieces.
Every afternoon, I delve back into these fantastical worlds. Perhaps they are fictional, but they shield me from the very real pain of isolation and teasing at school.
I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an author. I want to be someone who fashions from words a sanctuary of hope and dreams and discovery for others.
My third grade report comes back with all A’s for reading, writing and maths. My mother beams as she claps her hands and exclaims, “Excellent, Pamela! You’ll definitely be a lawyer when you grow up.”
Then she reads the comments. “Pamela has made excellent improvement in her English speaking. However, she speaks with a heavy accent-“
From that day on, she stops reading bedtime stories. Instead, she only watches and nods in encouragement as I read aloud to her.
“Why don’t you read to me anymore?” I ask.
My mother just shakes her head sadly. “Your English is better than mine now. You don’t need me anymore.”
My mother stands in our driveway, arms crossed, as I try to tow my suitcase past her.
“So this is it, then?” she demands. “Eighteen years of feeding and clothing you, making sure you get the best education possible, and you want to become a writer?”
“You always thought it was always important to be good at writing-“
“Only for the purpose of getting a decent job!” she snaps. “Do you want to be like me, working 13 hours a day, no holidays, can’t buy anything I want? Look at Katelyn, huh? She makes her mum so proud, she’s studying law! What am I going to tell the other parents? That my daughter is a writer?”
“I love writing!”
“You’ll die in poverty,” she says, shaking her head. She stretches out her arms. “Go then,” she says. “Go to America, and don’t think of running back here the moment you have a problem.”
I walk through Times Square, breathing in the frigid air. It is a winter wonderland, the bright electric lights reflecting off the snow. Everyone is possessed by the Christmas spirit, laughing and talking animatedly. Never have I felt the sting of loneliness so keenly. This is not home. I do not belong here.
Back in my dorm, my hands shake as I dial the numbers. I have not spoken with my mother since I left nine months ago. She picks up on the third ring.
Memories of the warm smell of dumpling soup wafting out of the kitchen fill my mind.
A long pause.
“Where have you been, you foolish child? Why didn’t you call earlier?”
I begin to recite the words of one of my beloved childhood stories. The words and emotions are imprinted onto my heart so firmly that I remember after all these years.
I choke on one of the words, and revert back to my childhood Chinese accent for a moment.
“Pamela,” my mother says, and she is staring right at me, recognition flickering in her eyes like a candle flame about to be blown out. “Get rid of that accent. You’ll be discriminated against in society. And wipe that stunned look off your face. “
“I’m so proud of you,” she says.
“What for?” I ask.
“I’ve read all your novels, you know,” she says, smiling. “I had a hard time getting through them, but I got Ms Pollina from next door to explain all the hard words to me. I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so many new words in my life.”
I try to speak, but there is a lump in my throat.
“I’m sorry I tried to stop you,” she says. “I’m glad that you were right. You chose the path that was right for you. There is beauty and magic in your stories.”
Then her eyes glaze over, and I know that she is gone again. I don’t know when or if she will return, but I know that there are words that I must say.
“Thank you,” I whisper, tears trickling down my face. “Thank you for letting me discover the joy of language.”