The toast came flying across the table, the hard crust crumbling as it struck the nanny’s chest. I turned and saw my mother’s glare and defiance. “You have no idea what she’s up to!” she screamed in Chinese, pointing to the dumbstruck nanny. My 1-year-old daughter stared at her grandmother from the highchair.
“I know what’s really going on,” continued my mother.
My mother “knew” because a soap opera was playing in her head, voices that grew, ebbed and argued with her daily. That was the day when they stomped over any decorum that my mother, then 63, was managing to uphold. She was a schizophrenic in a family blind to the “truths” she saw so clearly.
She saw outsiders scheming to break us up, salivating over our possessions, plotting to do us harm. She divided her world between us and them. “Us” was my father, me, my siblings and our kids. “Them” changed faces — sometimes it was my husband, other times it was people she saw in photos. Most of the time it was an anonymous “them” out to get the people she loved.
My mother lived with my husband, me and our two children in St. Louis Park for most of the last 21 years of her life. We saw and heard her battle every day and night. Some days were mired in shouting matches, some were comical in the absurdities that spewed from her mind. The voices tormented her. Yet, over the years, they also gave purpose to her life: Fight “them” and protect her family.
In many ways, the cruelties of reality rocked my mother’s world her entire life.
My grandmother died of TB when my mother was 12. In 1949, my mother was 24 when she left a privileged life in China to follow a young man to Taiwan, just before Communists took charge and closed China for decades. In Taiwan, she was detained after her friend was suspected of Communist ties. Although she never spoke about her detention, my siblings and I pieced together enough to know she suffered deeply.
In 1965, America beckoned. My father emigrated five years earlier to earn a master’s degree and start a new job. So my mother, siblings and I left Taiwan to join him.
But the “Beautiful Country,” as Chinese called America, was never that for her. She became Yvonne and, at 40, arrived to find English impossible and her marriage damaged. She felt just as bewildered as her four kids. But unlike us, she never adapted.
We were living in California when she first told me about the voices. I was 17 and went for a visit at her trailer, as my parents were separated by then. She was in bed, her limbs rigid and eyes closed. She was sweating and shouting, “No! How can you do that?” I touched her arm, and her eyes opened, wild looking. She hissed, “Don’t touch me! You’ll hurt him if I move at all. I’m fighting her.”
“Her” was a Chinese friend of my father’s, someone she spotted in a photo with him at a work party. “Him” was my father.
My mother clenched her fists and lay stiffly straight for hours until, finally exhausted, she dozed but continued to mutter in her sleep.
A psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia shortly thereafter. My mother repeatedly declared she was the sanest person in the world and that we were all fools.
By the time she came to live with me and my husband, in 1988, she left a trail of upheavals in her wake. My siblings and I took turns living with her, but she was tough to take. At best, she glared at her sons- and daughter-in-law. At worst, she acted out to “protect” her kids.
At our house, she ate little and shouted through many nights. She was under 5 feet and weighed barely 90 pounds. Her doctor smiled and held her hand as he suggested medication. My mother smiled back, even though she couldn’t understand or hear much of what he said. Because she was suspicious of doctors and drugs, I told her the doctor was prescribing special vitamins to help her gain weight.
We tried a series of antipsychotic drugs to dim the voices without making her sleepy or catatonic during the day. They were never quite right, but at least she could function, eat and sleep. Still, we always could tell when she hid her pills.
One wintry night, she shouted that my husband, John, was no good. She said I was blind to what was happening in my own home. She accused John and the nanny of smuggling drugs for then presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. The night before, she said, she saw them outside by a car with the hood up, and that was their hidy-hole for drugs. Only I, the fool, believed John was helping the nanny jump a dead car battery. She threw the toast at the nanny next morning.
She saw herself as our guardian, watching over our home and neighborhood through her bedroom window. She watched our friends from the hallway, as if invisible, and monitored the amount of food and drinks everyone consumed. She hid my mail, her money and bank statements in a pouch she sewed into an undershirt and wore it day and night. She often cursed at the black-box “they” used to control her body and health.
We learned not to argue about what was real. Instead, we ignored or accepted her fantastical stories — we even used the story lines to get her to take her pills or tolerate the nannies. But we never convinced her to wear her hearing aids. I believe she got used to the voices and even welcomed their challenge to do battle.
When she was dying of colorectal cancer, at 83, she thought it was nothing more than an upset stomach. We never told her, even after moving her into a hospice, even after my siblings and all their children flew to the Twin Cities to see her. She smiled a lot then, but the morphine made her sleep more, her lips moving less with silent retorts to “them.”
As she lay dying, her breath short and ragged, I stroked her cheek and said, “Ma, you just go ahead. Don’t worry, we are fine. So you just go first.” She opened her eyes, focusing for a tiny flicker, breathed in and died.
Wendy Tai is president of her global communications consulting business, Wendy S. Tai LLC. She was a reporter at the Star Tribune for 10 years and worked in PR and corporate communications for 20 years for Cargill, Snow Communications and General Mills. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes Is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.