Home Base by Xu Xi

guest-edited by Danielle Evans




(from the essay collection in-progress titled Typhoon Mum)


My mother did not want to leave home.  She never quite said that before her memory collapsed into its present state, but we knew.  My brother and I tried, after Dad’s sudden death in ’98, to move her to the States.  We were the two American citizens among the siblings, and he worked for the Catholic Church in a small town in Ohio.  My brother was tapped into the medical community, his wife is a psychologist, and we felt he could organize good care for Mum in a home for the aged near his church.  Our Hong Kong family flat would sell for a sufficient sum which, coupled with my mother’s liquid assets, would be enough to cover her care.  I could easily visit from New York where I lived with my partner in Manhattan and the other two sisters could travel.  Back home where Mum was, only our surfer sister still lived in Hong Kong, and she could not exactly abandon her dog, or husband, or her beachfront home to live with Mum.  The other sister was in Australia with her husband and their dog.  Yes, decided the sibs, what did we have to lose?  It was worth a try.

        So we collected all the documents from U.S. Immigration, contacted lawyers and inquired at rest homes.  Mum even seemed willing.  When we presented her the papers and plans, she received them, saying she would look through these before signing.  

       Months passed.  Nothing happened.  

       Each subsequent conversation ended with delays and inaction.  

       Meanwhile, as her Alzheimer’s manifested, the prions did their worst and she recalled less and less of what had been said.  I was staying longer and longer in Hong Kong with her each trip, wishing I could be back in New York or at my writing retreat home in New Zealand.  We had to do something before Mum, or I, turned into pumpkins.  Eventually, we resigned ourselves to the fact that Mum was not going to sign and never would immigrate.

 

       I’m finally going home, going back to Hong Kong, says my unnamed female protagonist in “Blackjack,” a story I dashed off the night before the South China Morning Post short story contest deadline.  The story that won first prize in 1992. 

       In 1992, New York City was home for my husband and me, but Hong Kong beckoned economically.  As one city sank beneath the weight of irrational exuberance, another rose on a cloud of hope in its last years of British Empire before submission to eternal Chinese sovereignty.  In 1992, the theme of the story contest was “Five Years On,” a nod to the handover back to China in 1997.  In 1992, my father was still alive, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s not yet apparent, although the prions may have already begun their misshapen prowl.  Prions, a still evolving science, of proteins in the brain that fold incorrectly and gum up memory.  Origami gone wild.

       So in 1992 my father, who understood that his daughter “writes,” handed me the newspaper with the contest notice, and said I still had a whole day to enter and win two tickets to London.  What did I have to lose, I decided.

       We move from home to home in our globally nomadic world, and consider this our good fortune to be able to do so.  At least I did, back in ’92, when Hong Kong welcomed returnees like me to their birth city.  What did we have to lose, I persuaded my jazz-guitarist-turned-commercial-real-estate-broker-now-ex-husband.  I’ll work, you go back to playing, we’ll live there for a few years and come home, by which I meant the Brooklyn house we owned in Greenpoint-Williamsburg.  Federal Express had offered me a huge pay increase to “go home,” plus relocation expenses.  We had some savings, and our two-family house rented out easily to cover the mortgage.  It would be an improvement over our joint malaise – me worrying over the likely layoff at my Wall Street law firm marketing job, he over his abandoned musical career in favor of making a lot of money.  What did we have to lose?  I was not like my “Blackjack” protagonist who no longer felt at home in New York after her divorce, who had no real choice but to “go home.”  Besides, we ended up with a trip to London and had our first taste of cream teas in Devon.  And I even got a fancy new pen as part of the prize.

 

       Today, in 2014, my HKID “permanent right of abode” card is the envied identity of young economic migrants from the U.S., because it carries the right to live and work in Hong Kong without first having to find an employer-sponsor for a visa.  In 2014, my living space is a bedsit on the rooftop of my mother’s top floor flat, where I live and work in the city that was home, to help care for a woman who no longer knows who I am.  

       For awhile, my sibs and I had contemplated the China Coast, the only English speaking home for the aged in Hong Kong.  Mum’s Cantonese has never been fluent, and, as the prions continued their maniacal play doh twists and turns, her tongue lost more Cantonese—her fourth, mostly illiterate language—than her literate third one, English.  The China Coast held bingo Fridays at which my Hong Kong sister and I became regulars for a time, calling the bingo that is, as recompense for regularly bringing our mother.  Sometimes I even played the piano for their sing-alongs.  But each time we went, Mum would gaze at the other residents, including a colleague from her youth, a doctor at the hospital where she had been a pharmacist-in-training, and, after winning at bingo, would ask to go home.  It was a pleasant enough residence, with a garden, goldfish pond and flowers, but the rooms were small with no bathrooms attached.  We would hate to live like that, we agreed, and eventually, surrendered to keeping Mum at home, after cleanup and renovation, forever after.  For awhile, happily.

       Meanwhile, I was still living the pumpkin life, transient along the flight path connecting three “home bases,” or, as my partner Bill says, headed to where my stuff resides.

       We made sure we kept enough of Mum’s stuff.  The small green safe in her wardrobe for instance.  For one thing, it weighs a ton and isn’t easily moved.  For another, she would open it regularly, just to make sure she could, I think, to see that the jewelry was in there.  We left a few trinkets of minimal value and locked up the valuables in the safety deposit at the bank.  It kept her happy.

       For years, Mum would lose her handbag.  This always happened just before we had to go out, to church or lunch or dinner, and we would scramble around her home, searching for the missing appendage.  My sibs and I learned to commandeer the search before accusations flew, that Maryam, her Indonesian helper, had stolen it, or that “someone” had moved it.  Sometimes, it was under the bed.  At others, stashed away in the bathroom, kitchen, behind her armchair.  For a time, we were confounded by the locked wardrobe, and the missing key Mum couldn’t find, and we searched through the containers of spare keys – none were ever discarded, even keys to locks that no longer existed – until we found the one that opened her closet.  Her handbag was hidden inside, along with all the other things she had to hide from the servants, workmen, thieves!  Somehow, Mum had locked her wardrobe with her own key, but where that had disappeared to only God, or the Devil of her memory, knows.

       So when we moved Mum back into her flat after the massive clean up and face lift, she looked around the more-or-less familiar space, and settled into her home of some forty years.  What she didn’t know, and would never remember, was that there were no longer any locks on any inside doors or wardrobes.  

 

       The thing about fairy godmothers is that they’re only interested in the forever happily ever after.  

       This is not my home, shouted Mum, a few years after she had been living in her renovated home.  Our two Filipino helpers were in a panic.  This was when my mother was still reasonably mobile with a cane, and would go out with us or one of the helpers for lunch, walks, and church.  By the time I got the call and rushed back home from my university office, both our helpers were following Mum down the hill away from our building, one with the wheelchair, trying to coax her into it, the other nervously trying to hang onto her so that she wouldn’t fall, while Mum kept shoving her hand away.

       I caught up with the convoy.  Hi Mum, I said, let’s go home.  She glared fiercely at me.  Who are you?  It was still early in her not recognizing me, and I had not yet accepted this eventuality.  Your oldest daughter, of course!  No you’re not, you’re cheating me.  I let her walk away, trusting time and prions to do their work.  They did.  A few minutes later, I approached her again and this time, she asked me to help her, and shooed the helpers away.  They’re trying to take me away, she confided, pointing at them.  Don’t worry, I said, I’ll make sure they don’t and take care of you.  Where do you want to go?  Home, she replied.  We were now a few hundred feet away from our building, past the park, down near the mini bus stop.  Where do you live, I asked.  Now, she hesitated, unable to answer, and finally retorted, don’t you know?  I waited for her to forget again, and after a few minutes said, you live at number 67, don’t you?  Yes! Yes!  She exclaimed happily, reassured by the familiar number.  In order to confuse her, we walked a circle downhill and around the block to bring her home, because she refused to go back up the hill.  Soon, she succumbed, exhausted, to her wheelchair, and said to the helper, can you push me please?  By the time we brought her back home, the security guard did his best to make her recognize him, greeting her in Cantonese by name, pointing to the name of our building which we repeated in English and Cantonese, hoping some memory would trigger.  It did.  She returned home without further incident.

       This home-that-is-not-home continued for awhile.  There were other incidents, including one where she tried to hail a taxi to take her home.  That time she managed to run away from us, albeit never far from our reach, almost all the way down the hill which is at least a seven-minute walk.  We got into the taxi together and brought her home.  Her doctor modified her prescription of psychotropics and things calmed down.

       These days, Mum no longer carries a handbag, money or keys. 

       She used to confound us, weighing down her handbag with things.  Cutlery.  An extra pair of glasses.  Used up tissues.  Keys she unearthed from her minefield of a wardrobe.  A weighty amount of coins.  When we cleaned out her home prior to renovation, my sister and I counted over HK$25,000 (or approximately US$3,000) in various currencies of bills and coins and Chinese New Year laisee packets of new money squirrelled away in her wardrobe.  Before my sister took over her accounts, my mother would storm into the local Hang Seng bank branch, demand to see the manager, and insist that someone was stealing money out of her account.  Fortunately, the manager was patient and honest.  He showed her the balance, gave her the desired withdrawal, and, in time, learned to call one of us.  But what worried us most were the locked doors.  We did not want her to accidentally, or deliberately, lock herself into her home or bedroom where we could not get to her.  So off went the deadbolt to the front door, away went all the locks on the doors, except the one to the main bathroom our helpers used.  For awhile, Mum still carried a handbag, with a minimal amount of money, tissues, prayer book and rosary.  Now, even that phase is over.  William Carlos Williams was only partially right: there is not meaning but in things, but meaning evaporates when things reside only in memory’s fold.

 

       The thing about pumpkin life is how easily you fall into that waiting game.  The prince will come, you’ll fit that shoe (were there really so few others sized 7.5?) and then life’s just a bowl of bananas as you go off happily to the promised new home.  I began to wear a lot of orange.  At some point, I counted five distinct orange outfits in my wardrobe.  My mother and I, we’ve both been waiting to “go home” for a long time now, so long I’ve lost count of the days, months and years.  Now, I no longer count.

       Where are you based, the Asia corporates ask, accustomed as they are to the constant movement here, there, and these days mostly north to China.  I was like that once.  My first corporate move, back in ’86, was when Pinkerton’s relocated me from Cincinnati to New York, and we stayed in a downtown Manhattan hotel room for a week, where heaven was resident in the mini bar.  We found a spacious, two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, at the southwest border of Park Slope, that could still be had for $900 a month, and did not panic until a year and a half later when Pinkerton’s then-parent, American Brands, sold it to a California company, and one by one, the directors were laid off, me in that first batch of “last in first out.”  A few years later, gainfully re-employed, we purchased a home in Greenpoint-Williamsburg where a two-family house, on a quiet street with its own driveway and garage, could be had for $250,000.  

       The trouble with divorce is that the home base, your most valuable asset, vanishes into a breakeven sale just so you can be done with all that.  You can’t look back on home, because it’s never there when the neighborhood shoots up in value, and besides, Thomas Wolfe, and you, know perfectly well, you can’t, you really can’t go home again.

       Federal Express relocated me to Hong Kong, into a much nicer hotel room, until we found a place.  A studio flat opposite the Royal (today, a commoner) Hong Kong Yacht Club, with its magnificent view of the hills of Kowloon, this shoebox cost over $2,000 a month; the car park space nearby was another $500.  Then my aunt Caroline died, her companion Christine moved back to Indonesia and their large flat in the building where my parents lived was empty.  I reluctantly moved across the harbor to Kowloon for the same rent (family rate) to accommodate my ex-husband’s car in the parking lot below.  Three months later, I was promoted to a regional job in Singapore.  Uprooted once again into even more luxurious hotel life for a couple of months, and then, there was this house on the east side of the island state, tastefully furnished, open, modern and spacious, with its beautifully manicured garden and a back yard to hang washing on a sunny day, of which Singapore has many, for only a little more than the shoebox in Hong Kong.

       Where are you putting up, Singaporeans asked, a Singlish turn of phrase I particularly like.  Changi, I replied, which was always met with exclamations of oh my goodness so far!  Distance to home is relative if your driving commute in Cincinnati is forty minutes from work to home, or if you’ve suffered New York City’s subway at its worst for cleanliness and service, to commute forty-five minutes (and usually more) one way.  A taxi to work took me less than twenty-five minutes which, on an island you can traverse in less than a day from each compass point to point, is long.  Paradise, however, has its drawbacks, not unlike pumpkin life.  It’s the brief respite before the fall, because fall you must, culminating in your politely agreeing to disagree with the boss with whom you cannot see eye to eye (corporate speak is nothing if not excruciatingly polite when you willingly accept the proffered financial handshake) and before you know it, you’re off again, looking for home in all the wrong places.  Paradise is also where Adam says to Eve, but how could you do that, even though he too succumbed to the bitter fruit, and before you know it, marriage, like home, vanishes.

       More easy living followed that summer – Leo Burnett was generous with my month at the Park Lane Hotel – and before you know it, you’re back in Hong Kong where the parents are still alive across the harbor, as you move from that corporate home to your final one at The Asian Wall Street Journal, and find solitude in homes along the escalator, uphill on the island.

       And then, when you least expect it, you fall in love again and move back to New York, surrender completely to the writing life, and the rest becomes history still in the making.

 

       All that confusion is past us now as Mum settles in “at home.”  Even I’ve settled down into pumpkin life on my mother’s rooftop, squatting in the former guest room of our top floor flat, with its magnificent view of the island to the south, and the university where I currently am “in residence” to the west.  A bedsit smaller than the shoebox in Causeway Bay, with a makeshift kitchenette and an outdoor “kitchen sink,” to be avoided when lightning strikes which occurs with disturbing frequency these days.  But it’s free.  On good days, Disney’s granny fairy godmother sings bibbidi, bobbidi, boo, and my mother’s smile is benign, not hostile, and she tells me she’s feeling fine.  On good days, Mum still talks a little, although the prions have robbed her of most of her speech.  On good days, I forget that Mum is 94, still recuperating – from a broken hip and hip replacement operation in March this year – better than even most 70 year olds can, and maybe, just maybe, since we’ve both stopped counting, could live forever.

       There were bad nights after her fall.  Her sleep was wracked by complicated dreams and shouting at invisible ghosts.  We, the sibs, watched her, for a couple of months in her hospital bed, taking turns to keep vigil.  By standards, a fractured hip is nothing.  Old people fall.  Old people with Alzheimer’s fall and then forget they have, until the pain prods their body into submission.  Physical therapy was slow and difficult.  Also, this was more than our two Filipino helpers had signed up for in their live-in, rotational, 24-7 elder care, despite their six years with us and genuine affection for Mum.  Her fall meant a new phase of life “at home” with Mother.

       Months passed.

       In our home, the visiting nurses came and went, talking of bed sores and the care and feeding of the elderly.  I hired a live-in Filipino nurse and reconstructed the living quarters for our grateful helpers.  There were evenings and mornings I watched Mum dream, or was told of her incoherent conversations with the dead who call her home.  There were nights when the only thing I knew how to do was gaze at that pumpkin patch, and, like Charlie Brown, wonder, but why? 

       And from time to time, when Mum’s awake, she still asks to go home.  You are home, we tell her, and wait.  Eventually she will forget, and Mum can live, more or less happily ever after again, until the prions prowl a longer trek and further confuse her.  I’m waiting and wondering about the next phase of Alzheimer’s.  Mum went from mild-to-moderate to moderate-to-severe a few years back.  At that tipping point of “severe,” the patient literally forgets how to chew, or swallow or breathe.  She forgets how to live.  It will be excruciating.  Right now, though, her doctor and we know she’s doing extremely well.  

       A few weeks ago, the last of her ten siblings died.  She’s waiting, I think, for the right moment to “go home,” back to where dinner must always be prepared for Dad, to where Aunties Caroline and Christine will stop in from their flat downstairs, to where all her children, and even that first great-grandchild – currently in-waiting in her/his mother’s womb – will eventually fly home to visit her, to where all the relatives from Indonesia, Holland, Canada, Australia and the U.S., as well as friends from other far-flung homes can come visit to stay awhile, in the guest room on the roof, as they used to.

       As for me, I’m just waiting forever to go home to Bill.  Patience, they say, is a virtue, and orange, I hear, might just be the new great white hope.
 


Contributor Notes

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. Work-in-progress includes a novella, The Milton Man, and a collaborative arts & 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 & forthcoming fiction, essays & critical work appear in the journals The Iowa Review, Water-Stone Review, Lake Effect, Drunken Boat, 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.  www.xuxiwriter.com www.facebook.com/XuXiWriter • @xuxiwriter