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By Fabiola Manriquez

________

In the last years of my mother’s life, I dedicated myself to helping keep her alive. I wanted to study engineering and aviation. Yet our Mexican–Catholic culture kept me stuck in servitude as I took care of my mother instead. By now, she existed in a miserable murkiness of despondency and corrosion from complications of diabetes. My three older brothers did not help.

She had an iron constitution and was used to being the general in command, always running the house without anyone’s consent. She controlled my apparel, whom I could speak to on the phone, where I could go, and how I spent my time if I was not at my job or at school. Every aspect of life was monitored and approved by her. She had arranged my marriage to a young man without my consent. His name was Cesar.

I had met Cesar through a mutual friend from grade school the summer before my freshman year of high school. While we secretly chatted on the phone one evening, my mother grabbed the phone, told him I was not allowed to have any boyfriends, and he could return on graduation day if he was interested. To my surprise, he showed up four years later at the graduation ceremony and we began to date soon after. It didn’t last long.

During my junior year in high school, I had discovered my mother putting birth control pills in my food, because there was a boy interested in me. Now, at eighteen, I discovered her doing it again because I was dating Cesar. I was furious. She had told me that since I was going to marry Cesar, I should get used to using preventative measures and wait on having children. I hadn’t spoken to Cesar of marriage. He had spoken to my mother only, and they took it upon themselves to make wedding arrangements without my consent. I told her I wasn’t going to marry Cesar or anyone else. And that ended it.

Cooking, laundry, maintaining the home, working part-time and attending college full-time was the rhythm of my life from 19 to 22. For an entire year, I awoke at 2 a.m. daily giving her medicine to help her make it through the rest of the night; she required fifteen pills around the clock to stay alive. I slept four hours a night with no social life, no free weekends, no holidays and no romantic connections. The exhaustion and lack of sleep affected my grades. I went on academic probation. This hurt me. I loved learning yet couldn’t tell anyone about my dilemma.

She went blind and needed dialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. A side effect that diabetics suffer is thirst, but I could only give her a few ice cubes at a time because too much liquid caused her to feel like she was drowning, forcing us to rush to the E.R. for dialysis treatment. She threw frequent tantrums filled with profanity, and her screaming would echo throughout our little home.

“You don’t love me,” she would scream. “You want to kill me.”

She had to learn how to eat without sight, and many times I found myself dodging plates, cups, spoons and forks thrown my way out of frustration. That was compounded by outbursts of yelling, vulgarity, and sobbing. I was alone with her most of the time when these would occur. My father was at work, and I didn’t know who I could ask for help. When it was my turn to accompany her for dialysis treatment, it was agonizing to watch her suffer for three hours, while her skin turned pale white or charcoal black. I tried to comfort her. The treatment ignited hot flashes or caused chills.

Three times she experienced a code blue at the hospital and was resuscitated. She worsened every time she returned from the dead. I could hear her shouting my name down the ward on my visits; my heart would race, and my hands would begin to sweat, and chills ran down my back with embarrassment and fear. Every nurse in the unit sighed with relief as I approached her room, knowing the yelling would stop once she heard my voice. My father and I were by her side, exhausted, frustrated and praying that this nightmare would stop.

I hungered for life as a woman as I was turning 22 that July. I was craving a tender touch and the warmth of another. I met Belinda in my journalism class during the spring semester of that year. She was intelligent and witty and had a good body. I like smart women. I was helping Belinda paint her living room and dining room that summer. I began coming home a little later as the weeks passed. I remember coming home late one September night from a date. A knot formed in my gut and my hands began to sweat as I saw my father looking through the living room window. I heard my father telling my mother something. I felt the tension vibrate as I walked into the house.

“Que hora es para llegar a casa?” She yelled.

“I was out with a friend and we went out to eat.”

She rose to her feet, followed my voice and felt her way to where I was standing a few feet from her seat. As she felt my face, she began to beat me repeatedly, calling me a whore and saying she would throw me out of the house. She said she didn’t want any women like me living under her roof. If my father hadn’t stopped her, she would have killed me. I lost all my respect and love for her in that moment. I felt buried alive.

I called my youngest brother and asked him to pick me up and take me to his house for the night. Once we arrived, I had a good cry as he gave me a much-needed hug and told me that all would be fine in a few days. Two hours later, my mother called and said that she was very sorry and asked me to return home. I stayed at my brother’s house for a few days and moved out of my parent’s house that weekend.

I packed the few things I owned into Belinda’s car. As we drove off, my two older brothers followed us, now realizing that I was involved with a woman. As we reached Belinda’s driveway, one of them began to yell at her, threatening her life.

Living with Belinda, I left one hell and walked into another. She was a serious alcoholic, prone to jealous tantrums. She beat me and stalked me and made harassing phone calls to me at work. I sometimes had to wait until 1 or 2 in the morning at the local donut shop, knowing that by then she would be stone drunk and I could go home to sleep a couple of hours before I had to get up again. She and my mother loathed each other. I never had peace. My mother and two older brothers called day and night. My brothers threw bottles and eggs at our front door. I called the Sheriff’s Department, who threatened my family with a restraining order and arrest.

Until this point, my three brothers and I were raised equally, but the two older boys were from my mother’s first marriage. My father had raised them as his own. As the two older brothers continued their evil ways, I lost respect for them and considered them my mother’s sons and not my brothers. They had told me that I would never amount to anything since I was gay and that I was killing my mother by coming out of the closet. I was the favorite aunt and adored all of my nieces and nephews, but these two told me that I couldn’t be near their kids since I could give them AIDS. This broke my heart.

I never went back to live with my parents. But I kept helping them with the usual upkeep of the house four times a week. I did it more to help my father. On one of my visits, my mother’s desperation reached a breaking point as she kneeled in front of me while sobbing hysterically asking for my forgiveness. She kissed my feet and begged me to move back. I froze in disbelief, holding my composure and tears. I said, “No. I can’t. I have another life now, but I’ll keep coming to help you and Dad.”

Toward the end, I hated being near my mother and felt ill any time she expressed affection. She hated homosexuals. We argued. Gays deserved the AIDS virus, she said; they were sinning as God was working it out for them to repent. After those arguments, I visited the E.R. for a sedative.

She died in November 1987, as we both struggled to communicate without ever finding peace or the love of a mother and daughter. I was 23 and she was 54.

One time while donating blood to the Red Cross, I was asked what I would do if I won the lottery. I would pay for therapy for everyone in my family, I said. But I stay away from my brothers. I see them only at funerals or weddings.

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Fabiola Manriquez is the daughter of a farmworker and grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in storytelling. Contact her at Quantumspeed89@yahoo.com.
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By Jian Huang

A white bandage covered my dad’s eyes as we sat in the ophthalmologist’s office.

“Your father is legally blind, Miss Huang. We need some more tests, but it looks like he had a seizure in his sleep that caused the loss of eyesight.”

I was 18 years old and just a few weeks out of high school graduation when I heard these words.

There were questions: “Did you notice anything different about him these past few days? How long has he been complaining about nausea? When did it start?”

“What did he say?” my dad asked me in our native Shanghainese, a dialect of Chinese.

He only ever spoke enough English to get by at his motel job, but never had the opportunity to learn more. My mother on the other hand didn’t speak any, so by default I was the family’s representative. I struggled with how to translate the word “seizure.” I translated the diagnosis as a malfunction of the brain. The word “lost” I translated into “disappeared” so to clear up any ambiguities about recovery. My dad, who was 65 then, seemed to understand. He turned his head away from me after hearing these words. My mom, who was mostly deaf, didn’t bother to ask me to repeat into her ear what I had just said; she guessed from the looks on our faces.

“Can you bring him back in September?” the doctor asked. “I’d like to see if we can schedule to remove the cataract from his eyes. Maybe it’ll help.”

“I’m supposed to go to college in Northern California,” I said to no one in particular.

Zeus punished the Titans when they rebelled against the Olympians by striking out their eyes. Oedipus, having recognized his own failure as king, blinded himself. At 18, I had understood the world through stories like these. I would talk about them with my dad after getting home from school and he would explain what he could to me. When I had questions, it was my dad who most likely had the answers. He liked to remind me that he went to college in China before the Cultural Revolution and read western literature. But this time he had no answers – my dad was at a loss. Was this punishment? Who for? Why now?

Like the families I grew up with in South Los Angeles, we didn’t have medical coverage, nor did we understand anything about the medical system in the United States. Health care, it seemed to us new immigrants, was only accessible to people who were in better financial situations. For us, health care often came from the medicine section at the local farmacia, or at Thrifty’s drugstores, or from packages sent by relatives from home countries like Mexico and Guatemala or, in our case, China. My neighbor Omar suggested that I go across the street to the abandoned warehouse where a group of Pentecostals set up shop on weekend evenings.

“My mom said you can ask for a blessing and sometimes they’ll even give you money for medicines.”

No one in my neighborhood had computers or an Internet connection. Illness was an invisible thing that no one talked about. What is preventative care when it took so much energy just to survive? All I knew from my parents and from what I saw on television was that health care was expensive. It was finally my mom who jotted down a phone number to a free family clinic in Chinatown from a co-worker’s neighbor.

In the weeks before my dad lost his sight, I had graduated from Venice High School. He beamed when he saw me in my blue cap and gown. “It doesn’t matter that I work 24-hour shifts in a motel,” he said, “my reward is seeing you go to college. You’ll have money, and money will give you freedom. Money will elevate you to a different class.”

That summer in 2003 I did a lot of driving in my dad’s gray ‘95 Ford Escort. He was so proud of that car. It had taken him seven years to save up for a down payment. It didn’t overheat and leave us stranded on the freeway like his last car, an ‘83 hatchback Chevrolet, had. We drove to the doctor’s office, to referrals, to get medication, to the Chinatown Service Center for help with Medicare enrollment, and to the Social Security office on Adams and Hoover. We drove to the Hawaii Motel on La Brea and Venice where we collected his final paycheck, his hot water thermos and his box of tea.

“Fifteen years of work and I only had two things,” my dad said, as we drove back home from the motel. “I should be the one taking care of you.”

My mom started taking on more work at the garment factory where she worked in Lincoln Heights. When she needed help trucking large bags of clothes home, I picked up where my dad left off. I suddenly became the only one who drove in the family, the one who spoke the most English, the one who had all five senses working properly. She worked on anything her employers were willing to allocate to her. This included things that were difficult to make, like shirt collars or really slippery fabric.

“Five cents a piece. If I sew this order of 2,000, I can make $100,” she said.

That kind of work usually took about a week to complete. Some nights she worked very late. Her Juki sewing machine vibrated throughout the house and kept everyone up. Our living room lights dimmed a little each time she started work.

“What are we going to do without you?” my mom would ask at dinner. She can’t hear, so she mostly spoke out loud to herself.

There are three kinds of tears that the human eye produces: basal tears, which lubricate our eyes; reflex tears, which are reactions to external irritations like dust particles; and psychic tears, which result from strong emotions. Psychic tears have a different chemical make-up from the first two. They have higher levels of a protein-based hormone called Leu-enkephalin, a natural painkiller that we produce when parts of our bodies hurt. I learned that tears could still form in the human eye even when there is no sight. I also learned that psychic tears were best done in private, like in a dark room, or hunched over a sewing machine, or in the car while it is parked in the garage where no one can see.

In the months that followed his diagnosis, my dad spent a lot of time sitting alone in his bedroom. Light made him nauseous. Talking made him nauseous. Car rides made him nauseous. Sometimes I would find him just sitting there listening to his CDs; sometimes he would try to play his guitar in the one-foot wide makeshift studio between his bed and the wall. “I’m sorry I threw up again,” he would say.

“Your father was a great classical guitar player,” my mom told me. “Your grandma loved to hear him play.” His collection was filled with all sorts of jazz, concertos, and big band orchestras from the 1950s.

“Did we get anything in the mail today?” my dad asked me after I got home each day from my shift at Starbucks. We’d sit together by his bedside as I went through the various letters from Social Security and Medicare about his retirement, his upcoming appointments, and requests for our bills to determine low-income status. Feeling his way to the bathroom became increasingly hard for him, so he kept an empty plastic milk jug nearby with the tops cut off. I would empty it and rinse it for him.

“Dear Miss Huang, we’re writing to remind you to respond to your college admissions package,” the letter read “This is urgent.”

Working at the local Starbucks near USC on Hoover and Jefferson, I would bring back leftover coffee and pastries for my parents when the store closed at one a.m. I knew my dad would be up waiting for me. Sometimes we would sit at the pullout butcher block in the kitchen and eat the reheated bounty together.

“I first tasted a butter croissant with your grandma when I was a kid,” he reminisced. “American cafés were in vogue then in Shanghai. Your grandma taught me to always put on my double-breasted jacket when we ate at western cafés. She was very worldly and genteel that way.”

I asked our store manager, Sal, for more shifts. Some days I worked the closing shift to one a.m.; on others I worked the opening shifts that started at four a.m. Working gave me a reason to leave home. What can I get for you today? Would you like whipped cream on your macchiato? Can I wipe your table for you? No, I am fine, thank you for asking.

When I had free time, I would go to the Glendale Galleria and try to apply for more jobs. “We’re not looking for anyone who needs this job to make rent,” Amber, the store manager at Abercrombie & Fitch, told me as she eyed my old blue jeans and milk-stained black tennis shoes from Payless. “This is a job for you to have fun and like make a little extra cash for new clothes before school starts.”

“What do your parents do?” my co-worker Michael asked me one day while we made lattes at the espresso machines.

“Oh, my dad’s retired and my mom works in fashion.”

I learned that from kids like Lorena or Isela who, like me, took the bus for two hours every day in high school to go to a school in a better neighborhood. Unemployed was “stay-at-home,” liquor store owner was “entrepreneur,” restaurant bus boy was “work in culinary arts,” and so on.

“That’s cool. My dad’s thinking about retiring, too. He’s a colonel and we live in Palos Verdes. But both me and my sister are living near campus now because of school. I’m in the Architecture School. She’s a Pi Beta Phi. What are you studying?”

“Double tall nonfat sugar-free vanilla latte for Katie!”

On the U.S. Citizenship Naturalization Test, a frequently asked interview question is, “Why do you want to become a naturalized citizen?” An acceptable answer is “freedom” or “mobility.”

Between ten p.m. and four a.m. were the universal Hours of Self-Pity. There was a strong correspondence between a physical and personal darkness that happened each night. Working the closing shift or the dawn shift took up an otherwise empty space that was all too easy to fill with regrets, what-if’s, and why-not-me’s. Questions that did nobody any good.

Letters that summer came and went. Dear Mr. Huang, we are writing to explain your diagnosis…Your Social Security benefits will begin on… Your medication summary for the month of July…

Dear Miss Huang, this is your final notice to respond to admissions at the University of….

Sometimes the landlord’s son Omar would come sit with me late at night on our stoop. Mostly I sat out there to feed the one or two feral cats that visited.

“Your dad okay? I’m sorry. Eh, my dad wants to know if you’re gonna need to move your rent date to later in the month. And my mom wants to know if you’re gonna sell your dad’s car cuz my brother Alvaro might wanna drive it. He’s 15 now and he’s gonna drive it to my dad’s store to work.”

That summer I listened to a lot of old songs because it was what we had at home. My Dad said old songs reminded him of Shanghai. On those nights, it was just Sinatra and me. “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart … .”

The letters from school came less and less frequently. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. Instead, they were replaced by more letters from the Social Security office. We got at least two letters a week addressed to my dad about his disability and retirement, all of which were in English.

“It’s still very cloudy and dark,” my dad told his doctor in September after his operation.

“There’s not much more we can do for him,” the eye doctor told me privately as my mom escorted my dad out of the office. “We’ll need him back over the next few months for more checkups. We have your number. Will you be around for a while?”

“Yes. I’m not going anywhere.”

I opened the passenger side door for my dad and sat him down slowly. I asked him if he was comfortable, then I asked him to raise his arms so I could help buckle his seat belt. On the way home he said, “I know what you’re doing. I can still see.”

____


Jian Huang
was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in South Los Angeles. She has worked in the arts and for local nonprofits. Her interests include watching old Hollywood movies and writing about social justice issues that deal with class barriers, the American Dream, and finding a place of belonging. She is a 2016 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow.

 

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