Money is the most important thing in this world. This is truly my mother’s motto. Yup, money to her is the most important thing, not people. The next important thing to her is her health. It makes sense because with money she can take care of her health. Without health she can’t enjoy her money.
After my father passed away, my mother lived alone. She was healthy, energetic and always on the move. She was never the stay-at-home kind of mother. Somehow, she always had things to do outside the house. She had been this way as far back as I can remember. One night, she decided to walk to get her dinner. On her way, she fell into a monsoon drain when she had to avoid an oncoming car.
She was taken to a hospital for treatment and had to stay for observation and a series of tests. Nothing serious but the bill was quite exorbitant for a two-night stay. Another thing about my mother is that she has a fondness for private hospitals. The least you can do for her is to give her a second-class room.
After the incident, my siblings and I didn’t like the idea that she was living alone but she was adamant in her decision. She is hard of hearing. She has been like this ever since she was in her 40s. She said she consumed too much medicine in her salad days. It caused her partial hearing loss.
Several months later, she decided to give it a try, to stay with her children. She rotated her stay from one household to another. Four places, all in different areas for her to choose. She wasn’t happy for she felt she had lost her freedom to move around. Not that there was any restriction but she was staying in new places and some of these new residential areas had no bus services and taxi fares were too expensive for her to go out every day. She felt trapped and a loss of power in the sense that she was no longer the mistress of the house. Instead of being part of the family, she considered herself a guest to the extent that she felt uncomfortable and unhappy when she wasn’t treated like a special guest.
So she went back to her house and lived alone. My sister decided to let her Indonesian workers to live with our mother so that they could keep an eye on her when they returned to our mother’s house after work. It wasn’t long enough she started to find faults with them. Her issues with them were the wastage of electricity and water and these women kept her awake by staying up late, even though my sister assured her that she would take care of the extra. My elder brother paid for our mother’s utility bills.
One day, she just ordered my sister to remove these people from her house. She said she couldn’t take away the fear that anyone of them might burn down her house when they forgot to turn off the gas after using the stove to cook their supper. So back to square one, my mother was all alone again.
Two things happened that made her realize that living alone could be dangerous for an old, defenseless and almost deaf woman. One day, a long-lost nephew came for a visit and some time after he had left, she realized that her late husband’s photo on the cupboard top was missing. It was just a souvenir kind of photo taken by a photographer who did his trade for the tourists. My father’s photo was stuck on a round piece of marble frame. The gate padlock was missing too. It made her worry about her safety and then there was the matter about termites.
She had no plan to move out of the house when the mystery of the missing photo was solved. We found out that my cousin took it. So it was no break-in. As for the termites, the exterminator came and fixed the problem.
When she was admitted to the hospital for appendectomy, she gave my elder brother RM1400 to pay for the medical bill. During her stay in the hospital she was constantly telling us about her contribution. My sister-in-law took her to the hospital and the credit card took care of the deposit. It really got on our nerves. At one point, my sister-in-law retorted that her money couldn’t even cover the deposit. I told them she was feeling the heartburn of her financial loss. Money is something very important to her, it is her security blanket. When she was recuperating, her money was given back to her.
I left my family for two weeks to take care of her in my sister’s house. My mother’s house was closed up. Truth be known, I didn’t want to be stuck alone with her. At least by evening I would have the company of my sister when she returned home from work. When I returned home, my mother returned to her house. The minute my back was turned, she complained that I was heavy with the salt. In actual fact she was adding light soy sauce to every meal I cooked for her furtively. I purposely cut down on salt and sugar. Anybody over 40 should watch their fat intake, salt and sugar consumption.
We figured out as long as her house was there, she would never want to leave it. So we convinced her to sell her house and the money from the sale went to her. Second time around but same set of problems she brought with her when she came to stay with her children.
“I don’t know what to do, this cannot and that cannot. I can’t live alone and I can’t live with people. What am I supposed to do? Short of standing in front of a moving vehicle to end my life,” she said, looking at me searchingly.
“You have to think happy, feel happy, if not every where you go you’ll feel unhappy. You have to adopt a positive mental attitude. Make yourself at home in your own children’s place. Help yourself to the food, if you don’t like the cooking, go and cook whatever you want to eat. You don’t have to act like a guest because you are not,” I advised her but my advice fell on ears that were selectively deaf.
Then, my mother started having health problems. She complained of regurgitation with gasping during the night or while lying down. We took her to a private hospital for a thorough check-up. Right after my father passed away, she underwent a medical check up. She was given a clean bill of health. At that time she was mildly diabetic. She has been on pills since then. This time, she was told that she had heartburn. For years she has been telling her children that she’s had heart problem though it wasn’t proven medically. Every time she wanted us to toe the line she would mention about her heart.
When she was discharged after a few days of hospitalization, she told me that my brother, the second son didn’t sign for her the letter of consent to have a coronary heart bypass. I told her it was heartburn. She continued without hearing a word. She said she didn’t mind the operation, either it would cure or kill her. If she died on the operation table, so be it as she wouldn’t have felt any pain. It didn’t bother her whenever she incurred any medical bills. She has no medical insurance. It would be mental anguish for her if her money is used. “You, your brothers and sisters sit down and see how much each of you can contribute to settle my medical bill,” she instructed weakly while lying in the hospital bed.
My sister and I coughed up more than RM500 when we took her for her follow-up. The heartburn specialist charged RM160 for consultation and the cardiologist charged RM160 for consultation. The balance was for the cost of the medication. Two days later, in a fit of anger she threw the new medication into the dustbin. She hadn’t even started taking them because she still had the old ones to finish. She said my sister’s maids were making fun of her. Maybe she was oversensitive because of her hearing loss or she just needed a reason to show her anger. The moment she set eyes on my sister, she grabbed her pre-packed bag and told my surprised sister that she was leaving. Before she walked out of the house she was very vocal about her displeasure with the maids. She didn’t call for taxi and there was no bus service. The maid went after her and brought her back to the house.
My mother attempted suicide when she was staying with my elder brother and family. My sister-in-law told her college-going daughter to buy take-away after class for her grandmother. When she returned home with the food, my mother refused to eat and told her that she’d taken almost a cup of floor cleaner. She even showed the bottle of floor cleaner to her. My poor niece panicked and called her parents and aunt. Several hours later my niece took my mother to the hospital to meet up with her father. Why the long wait? Why nobody rushed her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped? Well, she didn’t seem to suffer from any severe stomach pain or cramp.
Actually, nobody really takes my mother seriously simply because she has been manipulative in her dealing with her children. We believe she could resort to using suicide to get our attention. She can’t stand pain. She’d make a mountain out of a mole hill over the slightest pain.
My mother unashamedly told the attending nurse that she’d tried to kill herself. She was given no treatment and was asked a lot of questions by the attending doctor. My mother’s deafness was very pronounced as she could hardly hear anything. My brother took her to a University Hospital with a recommendation letter from the doctor. When she caught sight of the hospital, she asked why she didn’t get treatment from the private hospital. At first she refused to enter the hospital.
My brother and mother were questioned by the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist got very frustrated talking to a stone-deaf woman. She had the same effect on the heartburn specialist who shouted his question into her ear several times before she could respond. She told him she would wear her hearing aid when she recovered from her sickness. My brother wasn’t much of help either as he was totally unaware what made my mother tick.
During her stay in the UH, none of her children turned up to visit her. Her sister-in-law, our aunt told us that we had been very accommodating to her every whim and fancy. After the passing of our father, her hold over us was losing the grip. She could sense it and was afraid. Hence, she used suicide to frighten us. When her children turned up to fetch her home, she appeared meek. The first stop was her sister-in-law’s house so that she could talk some sense into her.
The first time I met up with her after the so-called suicide attempt she told me what she did (as if I didn’t know already). I told her if she really did commit suicide, did she know the repercussion on us especially on my elder brother, whose house where she committed suicide? The police investigation, the gossip of the neighbors that her son and daughter-in-law must have ill-treated her that she had to take her life.
Before the incident she never stayed in one house more than a week. After what happened, she was to stay with my younger brother and family during the weekdays. Her weekend stay was on rotation for other siblings. When my sister-in-law, a housewife whom she stayed with during the weekdays, had health problem, my mother was thinking of the worst scenario. It was her suggestion to find her a place in an old folk home. We found her a place in a retirement community. She lives in her own unit and her fellow residents are people whose ages range from 50 – 90. Her grandson said his grandmother who had never worked in her life can afford to retire in a retirement home.
My middle sister used to treat my mother with a kid’s gloves. No longer does she do that, whenever my mother says something hurtful she will ignore my mother until she cools down. Just to prove to my mother she isn’t the malleable child that she used to be, during those occasions when she was mad at my mother she didn’t even fetch her from the retirement home when it was her turn.
There are some changes in my mother too. She seems to be so frail, and her eyes sometimes take on a vacant look. She hardly speaks and when she does, her voice sounds so feeble. At first glance it is not the almost unlined face that ages her; it’s her demeanor that has brought about the change. She is acting like an old woman with Alzheimer but she doesn’t have Alzheimer and this is for the benefit of her children. When she is with people she doesn’t want to impress as a feeble old woman, she behaves almost like her old self of the past. According to some of the residents in the retirement home she is the most active among them. She pops in and out of her unit several times a day. She has most of her meals in the nearby hawker center or restaurant. Her one bad habit that is complained by those people who live close to her is that she likes to slam her door hard. Hearing loss is no excuse for being inconsiderate. Some of the complainers are several years older than my mother. Imagine, day in and day out these old people are being shocked out of their quiet existence by the rude slamming of the door. It doesn’t happen once or twice but several times a day. These are the people who hardly move around or leave the retirement home unlike my mother who is away during the weekends or the festive season.
My youngest sister came home for a 2-week holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year this year after almost 19 years not celebrating this festive occasion. Three years ago, she came home with her husband and two kids for a 2-week stay too. At that time my mother had already showed the early signs of her present self. So she wasn’t surprised that my mother seemed to have deteriorated further. However, on one occasion while my middle sister was out, my youngest sister and I stayed back with our mother. She was behaving like her normal self, keeping to herself and taking catnap.
Then she did something so uncharacteristic of her. She was walking back and forth, back and forth and even helped herself to the festive tidbits and cookies that my middle sister kept for her guests. My mother even started talking, asking in her feeble voice where my sister had gone to. I left it to my youngest sister to have a chit-chat with her while my attention was on the TV. I did notice something with my mouth closed and my ears open.
“Not looking at her but listening to her voice now I can easily picture our mother back in those days when our father was alive. She doesn’t sound feeble,” I said, thinking it’s hard to believe but seeing is believing.
My youngest sister said I was ignoring my mother. I was thinking it was pointless to have a conservation with her because most of the time she would say she couldn’t hear me.
“You know it’s customary for her old self to complain. Now she sounds so much like her old self, you’ll start her complaining next,” I predicted. Sure enough, my mother started talking about my middle sister, not complimentary remarks. When she didn’t get our full attention she went back to her favorite seat and stopped talking. By then my middle sister had just arrived home. And my mother reverted to her frail and feeble self. It was as if the glimpse of her old self had never happened. Maybe she didn’t have to pretend in front of us. I live outstation and my youngest sister live in overseas.
I must admit I did have moments when I suspected that my mother could be suffering from depression. Being depressed can bring out physical disorder. Depression and physical effects are inextricably linked. Now I am not so sure. My mother is like a chameleon. She seems to change her characters to suit the occasions.
Nowadays, she doesn’t simply go to seek medical treatment because of her tendency to be a hypochondriac. She knows her children can be unreasonable if she is unreasonable. One time, she paid RM450 for the treatment of constipation. It was RM150 per treatment. She said the treatments weren't even working. She went on and on about the payment but nobody reimbursed her the money.
My mother chooses to live alone. She feels she has the freedom to be herself; she can go out, eat out, sleep one whole day if she wants to, doesn’t have to clean the house as there are no watchful eyes to criticize her and most importantly, not to be treated the way she had treated her late mother-in-law. She left the care of her children to her mother-in-law who lived with us. She knew her mother-in-law disapprove of her going out almost every day but it didn’t stop her.