Her short-term memory has been rendered almost non-existent.
“Why have you not called me for so long?” she asked me on the phone. “No one remembers me, no one cares if I die,” she breathed out. I felt the resentment in her voice.
“Mom, I called you three days ago,” I said.
“Liar. You did not call me, you did not,” she snapped back.
But I did call her. I call her frequently, in fact. She just can’t remember it.
Alzheimer’s has left my 88-year-old mother a mere shadow of her former self. It has loosened her grasp on reality, making her spiral down into paranoia.
In the last two years since I returned to Vietnam for work, I have not been able to go back to the U.S., but I remember to call my mother every day. My siblings still visit her at a nursing home in Fremont, but she still feels abandoned. As the disease progresses, she doesn’t even realize that her children haven’t forgotten her and still see her as often as they can.
The beautiful, energetic Hanoian woman I once knew has now been reduced to a frail and morose figure. The life she once lived, as if no longer her own, has been slipping away, piece by piece. Only memories of the most distant past remain.
I have opened her journal and copied the lines onto a computer. When the diagnosis came, my mother, knowing the days she had left with her treasured memories were numbered, decided to record them all before everything faded away – her life, the life of an immigrant, one half back in Vietnam and the other here in the U.S.
“The phone rang. I picked up. This is that woman in Los Angeles, who has diabetes and just had her leg sawn off. Another ring. This guy in Georgia had lung cancer, with only months left to live. We were best friends back in Vietnam. But someone my age, how can I possibly visit them when we’re miles apart? How can one even imagine calling their best friends as they lie dying in the hospital, only to say we’re sorry that we couldn’t see them one last time? And yet I do it every month.”
America’s a heaven for the young. There’s everything for them: toys, movies, amusement parks. But for the old? There’s nothing but loneliness.
Back in Vietnam, mother once said she never thought about living anywhere else but her homeland. “We live and die where our forefathers lived and die. Our families, lineages and loved ones are all here and nowhere else,” she said.
When we moved to the States, however, we shed our old ways of life as well. And as age catches up with us, so do our losses: friends, families, mobility, even our own minds.
Both my grandmothers spent years in the same nursing home before they passed in their 90s. My mother used to take buses to visit them every day, even though she had a day job. The nurses there often told her how blessed my grandmothers were to have someone visit them so often. “That’s how the Vietnamese live,” she responded.
Many of the other elderly people in that nursing home didn’t have someone visiting them regularly. I remember seeing old grannies on their wheelchairs casting their eyes towards the gates, waiting for someone, day after day, but no one ever came. An old lady told me she always looked forward to her son stepping foot inside the home, but he never did.
Even at a young age, my mother knew the fate that awaits the old in America.
“In the winter afternoons I often watch the leaves die on tree branches, and my heart goes astray. I think of the world I once knew, that is long gone, like streams of incense smoke carried away by the wind. I think of my hometown, of Tet in Saigon, the weddings, the trips, the family reunions. Everyone was there, the children running around, while adults chattered about life… I long for those days in the past.”
I read my mother’s entries as I wait for the flight back to the U.S. this May. My father died a couple months ago, and I could only attend his funeral online. But now I know I need to get back to my mother as soon as possible. Now my home is wherever my mother is.
I will not tell her that her dearest homeland Vietnam is on its way to becoming one of the fastest aging countries in the world; that there are many other elderly people left behind in their own homes as their offspring move to the cities; and that the strings that tie families together, thought to be unbreakable, are more frayed than ever.
An old woman collects trash in Hanoi, February 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
I look at Mom and her friends in their nursing home and see my own future. A future I have yet to fully envision, whether I am in Vietnam or the States, once my twilight years come for me.
For many Vietnamese, family and community are core parts of their identity. I don’t expect all the elderly to eventually choose nursing homes like in the U.S.
But I know that the demand for elderly care in Vietnam will only rise from now. The thing is, Vietnam doesn’t have many good nursing homes right now, even if a lot of people are going to need them five, maybe 10 years down the line.
Vietnam can no longer rely completely on old family traditions to sustain and assist the old in facing the inevitable passage of time. The country needs stable, strong policies in place to provide the assistance needed.
*Andrew Lam is a Vietnamese-American author. His book “Birds of Paradise Lost” in 2013 won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. The opinions expressed are his own.