by Yong Takahashi
When does life begin? Does it start in the air as the breeze carries a lover’s call? Does it start in earth as warm bodies roll around in the soft grass? Does it start with fire as a look ignites new possibilities? Does it start in water as the amniotic sac explodes and pushes us out into the world?
Air, earth, fire, and water ebb and flow through our lives. Aristotle related life’s four elements to each other. Our origin begins with one element and transitions into another as we find our way to our higher purpose or inevitable demise. Even though humans seem vastly different from each other, we are interconnected to one another and to the universe.
As I examined my life, I pondered in which of the four elements my life began to unravel. What choices could I have made so I could have been wiser, happier, and stronger? The Venn diagrams I built and destroyed over and over always pointed to the same place. I’ve determined that sometimes our lives are thrust into motion well before we are born.
My story started in earth – the dirt where my mother was raped.
Nine months ago, my mother had to move in with me. For years, my brother and I had been trying to convince her to move into an assisted living facility. But convincing my mother to do something she didn’t want to do has always been a fruitless endeavor. She’d turn every incident into some crime we’d committed against her in the four decades or so since we’d been alive.
I’d been up seething about our argument from earlier in the day. That particular fight was about my brother not returning her phone calls on a timely basis, and it turned out to be my fault because if she didn’t have me, she wouldn’t have had him.
My mother had five rehearsed speeches which she replayed throughout the decades: 1) We were lucky she didn’t abort or abandon us when everyone else said she should have; 2) We were disappointments because we didn’t get into an Ivy League school after all she sacrificed for us; 3) We looked like our respective fathers and how unfortunate it was that we didn’t take after her side of the family; 4) I should have children so someone will take care of me when I’m old; and 5) We weren’t as good as other people’s children because we didn’t visit or call more often. It seemed my mother was in a perpetual state of being offended.
My new therapist and I had agreed on setting boundaries with those who triggered me. He had given me homework – breathing exercises and writing speeches to break ties. But just when I was ready to slam the door and run for my life, my mother would drop a soft bombshell to entangle our lives once more. The guilt would rush back into my veins, and I’d let her back in my life.
Her neighbor called me at one in the morning. My mother asked her not to contact me because the firemen and I knew she had left the stove on. I’d warned her several times.
“I’m not stupid, Hanna,” she screamed at me a few months ago when I placed a sticky note above the stove reminding her to turn it off. I noticed the burner on a few times when I visited her. She didn’t appear to be cooking. I assumed she had made her meal, cleaned up, and forgot about it. She swore she didn’t forget. She’d never been able to admit any wrong-doing on her part, and she wasn’t going to start this late in her life.
When I arrived at her house, she was thrashing on her soaked lawn. The fire department had drowned the contents of her house. The overflow drained out of the doors and onto the grass. The smoke hung low, causing everyone in the street to cough.
Her blue nightshirt was pulled up around her abdomen, her legs covered with mud. She was crying about her lost photos that proved she was the most beautiful girl in Cobb County. There was evidence she was pretty, whole, and unsoiled, and now it was gone.
She was never the same after that night. It’s as if the inferno that scorched our lives was extinguished. As the heat from the fire dissipated, so did her hatefulness, which turned into sadness and regret.
The neighbors shook their heads and blamed her behavior on the fire, but I knew better. She’d lie in the grass until she received sufficient consoling. She’d been like this all my life, perhaps all her life.
The neighbors didn’t disappoint. What human being wouldn’t cry along with a senior citizen who’d lost everything? I just stood there, watching and waiting, as always.
My brother’s wife refused to take her in. Their children were afraid of the daggers that flew out of my mother’s mouth. My brother was always unable to stand up to her. Even in a diminished state, she frightened him.
“You’re single, you take her.” He made an exaggerated smile. His eyes pleaded what his words couldn’t. I can’t deal with it.
“I’ll take her,” I told him.
My brother nodded. “Let me know if you need me to chip in, financially. Call me when I’m at work.”
“All r…” He ran off before I could finish. I let him off the hook again.
I heard that we’d never be able to fully control the earth. It is at once stationary and at the same time, an ever-shifting entity. When we think our feet are planted on solid ground, the rug is not only pulled out from under us but the dust from the scuffle releases the truths we worked so hard to hide.
After the fire, she was fully dependent on me. It took weeks for my mother to acclimate to her new surroundings. She’d never been to my home. I can’t remember if I didn’t invite her or if she decided coming over wasn’t worth her time. And now she didn’t have a choice.
Any scent or sound could trigger her memories, and she began to reveal her stories. I had never heard any event from our lives in one continuous sitting. Between fits of rage or drunkenness, she threw out stinging slivers of my history. I’d never been able to piece together an entire story and in truth, never really believed much of what she said. She had a talent for spinning tales to make herself feel better about herself or to make someone else feel small.
Now, like lava scorching everything it touches along its path, she began to spew her stories, which flowed out of her mouth and into my unwelcoming ears. It was as if she had to relieve herself of everything she tried to conceal from me. The burden would finally shift from her tormented soul to mine.
One morning, my mother’s screams awakened me. All the windows were opened to drown out the imaginary odors. “I smell his cigarettes!”
“No one is smoking,” I reassured her.
“Can’t you smell it? I can’t get the smell of him off me.” She wiped her face with her sweaty hand.
“We’re the only ones here.”
“Alcohol. Sweat. Hate. Alcohol. Sweat. Hate. Alcohol. Sweat. Hate. ” It was as if she was conjuring up a spirit she had been hiding from her entire life.
“It’s okay. We’re alone.”
“Of course, you’d defend him. He’s your father. You never even knew him. I’m the one who raised you.”
I held my breath. She’d never told me who my father was. Would she finally let that secret go?
“I’ll get the lavender spray for you. You like that one, don’t you?”
“I can’t get the blood to stop! I need to wash it off.”
“What blood? I don’t see blood.”
“Look at what he did!”
“Sit down. I’ll get some tea for you.”
“Burn my clothes. Mother can’t know what happened. He said he’d send me home if I told anyone. If I don’t finish this job, I won’t graduate. Mother’s counting on me.”
I knew then she was telling the truth. She didn’t say I was a product of rape to punish me or to cover up that she had premarital sex. She was reliving a memory.
Every day, another secret seeped out from her memories. From what I’d been able to piece together over the next few months, she’d had an internship at a law firm during her senior year at college. Her mentor was a partner.
“He said he’d never seen such a pretty girl with such a great mind. He offered to show me around the city. I shouldn’t have gone.”
She attended Georgia State University, but her internship was in Chicago. She wasn’t familiar with the coffee shops, restaurants, and hot spots. He offered to take her to dinner then a walk around the park.
“He turned into an animal. He said I was a slut. I was only hired because he said I was hot. He said no one would believe me and if I kept my mouth shut, he’d give me a good recommendation.”
She cowered next to her bed. “He raped me behind the bush in the park.”
I had heard this before but without any of the details. It seemed real this time. Perhaps I should have shown more sympathy all the times she tried to unburden herself. I leaned down to hold her hand. She shoved me away.
“I need to wash the dirt off me,” she said.
Her doctor asked me to bring her in for a monthly checkup. He was worried she was not sleeping. My mother fought me about it until the doctor entered the exam room. She became silent and squeezed her gown closed.
“How are we today?” he asked.
“I didn’t try to poison myself, doctor.” She coughed, holding her throat.
“No one thinks that, dear.” He looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders.
“Relax, dear. This won’t hurt.” He approached her with the stethoscope.
She jumped off the examination table and hugged the doctor around the ankles. He bent down to calm her.
“My friend said a lot of girls drink it to get rid of mistakes. It didn’t work. It just felt like fire in my throat. I threw up and I had to have her.”
“It’s okay, my dear. Let me speak to your daughter.”
Still on the floor, she pivoted toward me. “You wouldn’t die. Then you came, and continually tested me.”
“It’s okay Mother. Let me speak to the doctor.”
“I tried to be a good mother, even when you were defiant. I wouldn’t let you have cake, and you held your breath until you passed out. But I knew you wouldn’t die. You refused to die even after I drank the poison Betty gave me. You always had the will to live.”
“We understand,” said the doctor. “Let’s get ready to go home.”
The doctor turned to me. “Dementia patients often don’t remember things clearly. Let’s increase her meds.”
My mother stood up and grabbed my shoulders. “When you got hurt, I swear I took you to the hospital. I can prove I tried to save you. You fell out of the car when we arrived at the hospital, and you scraped your knees.” She pulled up my pant leg. “See the scar? There was too much going on so I never told the doctors about it.”
She vomited and fell back to the floor. She rocked back and forth, crying. “I did my best. I was too young to know what to do. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. I stroked her hair but she pushed me away. I grabbed some paper towels and began to wipe her off.
The doctor cleared his throat. “I’ll get a glass of water and a prescription for her. Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes, doctor,” I said.
The nurse came in to clean the vomit. I apologized but she assured me this wasn’t the first time she had seen this. I apologized again trying to hold in my tears.
“I know this isn’t what you planned to do with your life but you’re doing a good thing,” she told me.
My mother gasped for breath. She had always complained about how people smelled and the air quality was never good enough for her. Now, she seemed desperate to take in whatever she could get. I helped her up and took her home.
The doctor suggested I put her in long-term care. It was obvious I didn’t have the training to take care of her anymore. The doctor explained it wasn’t my fault. I shouldn’t blame myself.
“She won’t go,” I told him.
“You could have her committed,” he said. “You’d have to go to court and have her declared incompetent.”
“I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Well then, let’s start her on some therapies. With her advanced arthritis, I suggest water aerobics. Exercise also helps with stress and anxiety.”
It took over a month to find a center that would take a dementia patient. They warned me it was on a trial basis, and any infraction would end our sessions.
As the instructor guided my mother into the pool, she held her throat. “I can’t breathe. Don’t let me die. There are monsters in the sea.”
When my mother was sad, she’d take me to the lake near our apartment. In some sort of cleansing or baptism, she’d hold my head under water. It’s as though she tried to wash the dirty secrets out of her life.
I’d hold my breath as she held me under the water. From experience, I found it best to close my eyes. I didn’t want to see her legs struggle as she tried to steady herself in the sand. Even underwater, I could hear her explain why I deserved this. Perhaps the lack of oxygen let me tune her out. Her chatter became softer and softer as each second passed. My arms ceased to fight. I went to an imaginary place filled with dancing, ice cream, and laughter. I was pulled back into reality as she yanked me out of the water. My throat was raw as I gasped for air. I coughed and the lake water gushed out of me. I rolled over and choked on sand.
As I caught my breath, she’d recall how she watched her father drown when she was a small girl. He told her he’d never leave her with her alcoholic mother. He’d protect her from the craziness. But one day as she was building sandcastles, he walked into the lake and never returned.
She always held me afterward, patting my back. She promised we’d never go back to the lake. She promised she would change. She promised we would be happy. The sea monsters would drown her promises over and over again.
Ancient cultures believed the four elements – air, earth, fire, and water – helped humans understand suffering and taught them to liberate themselves from it. They also referenced a fifth element as space, zero, void, or heaven. I suppose it gave hope to those who couldn’t resolve their issues during this lifetime.
Ever since I could remember, my mother has threatened to end her life in an explosive and hurtful way. She wanted to show us how much she’d suffered and sacrificed. She wanted us to know how we hurt her. She wanted us to feel every creak, every inflammation, and all her emptiness. But in the end, she died in her sleep.
She had left explicit instructions for her funeral. She didn’t want to be cremated. The fire at her house haunted her. She would wake up screaming most nights, convinced I was trying to torch her hair off. She also wanted a monument that my brother and I could visit every week and give her our proper respects.
“It’s over,” my brother told me. He attempted to touch my arm but put his hand back to his side. “Are you coming?”
“I need a minute.”
He handed me a check. “This is my half of the bill.” His eyes scanned the cemetery as if he was looking for the easiest escape. Since he was a child, he couldn’t handle stress. When our mother started her tirades, he hid in the shed. I’d find him later shivering under the musty tarps.
He married a version of my mother. He left our house and entered another prison. Perhaps he never learned to think for himself. He reminded me of elephants in captivity. They are only chained for a few years but they get used to being confined. After a while, they no longer tried to flee.
He looked to me for approval. Still, he needed permission to leave. “Go, be with your family. I’ll handle this.” I knew with his payment of the funeral expenses, I’d never see him again. The thorn-covered bond between us was buried six feet under our feet.
“Thank you,” he said and disappeared down the hill.
The winter rain poured down in sheets. The brisk wind wrapped around me and pushed me to the ground. I couldn’t believe she was gone. I dug into the fresh mound of dirt on my mother’s grave. Face down, inhaling desperation and red clay, my arms dug deeper to get closer to her hoping to hear all the things left unsaid.
I wanted to pat her on the back and tell her everything was going to be okay. I wanted to tell her she couldn’t leave until we resolved everything between us. I wanted to tell her I didn’t hate her. The space between us shrank but wasn’t yet closed.
I wanted her to tell me she loved me before the elements took her away forever.