8. The Quirky Couple

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Uncle John and Aunt Jenny knew how to have fun. On most weekends, they drove to the local grocery store to stock up on meat, vegetables, drinks, and watermelon. A short drive later the whole family arrived at a park next to the beach. There was a lively debate about which picnic table was best. A colorful plastic table cover was placed on top, the food items arranged, and the grill started. Then relaxing time.

 

This was new to my sisters Linda, Lisa and I, who were now part of their family. We could sit on the grass or bench. We could walk around. We could cross the street and dip our feet in the water. Our mom had almost drowned as a child, so as a result we were kept far away from anything deeper than a bathtub. Here we played volleyball and tossed Frisbees. Eventually the aroma from the grill would call us back to the picnic table, and we enjoyed a delicious, mouth-watering meal.

 

Other days the family went to an aquatic center. It was several hours of good plain fun. The warm pool, the slides, the different depths of water, all of it was fascinating. However, it was a confusing time. Although I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for having fun. Am I even allowed to enjoy things like this? Is it bad that I’m not thinking of my mom or my dad or my siblings while I’m at the park or at the pool? Does it make me a bad person that I forget about what’s going on in life and just enjoy the thrill of the long slide and the enormous splash? What if my other siblings weren’t having as good experiences as we were in this family? Thoughts such as this dominated my mind.

 

A family friend, Mr. Es, came to visit. It was somebody who grew up with Mom’s family in her village. Mr. Es was a jolly-looking fellow with neatly combed brown hair and kind eyes. He opened his arms and clasped my sister Linda and I in a great big bear hug. He talked quickly, as if he was in a hurry and had to be somewhere else.

 

“Girls, I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I grew up with your mom, and her sisters, and her brothers. We belonged to the same group of friends when we were young!”

 

I didn’t know how to respond appropriately.

“Ah. Interesting!” I really didn’t know this person. Was I supposed to ask some questions about him? Perhaps about the village?

“So, small world, and here you are, right?” Making conversation wasn’t a strong skill for me.

 

Mr. Es didn’t seem to mind. He got to the point quickly.

“Girls, I know nothing will bring your mom back, or make anything better. But I want to try. Can I buy you something? What’s something you always wanted but don’t have?”

 

“Oh, we have everything,” I responded politely.

 

“No, no, no, that’s not what I meant. I know you have everything. I know Uncle John and Aunt Jenny got that covered. I mean something special. A toy? A cool trinket?” He motioned his hands around as if waiting for ideas to come to him. “Is there something your friends have but you don’t?”
We had everything we needed, and being asked on the spot was slightly nerve-wracking.

 

“You have your Mom’s old civic once you get a driver’s license. What about a bike? Or new shoes? How about roller blades? Do you have those?” He was watching our face expressions closely and was able to tell where our reactions gave us away. He got some more practical information and a few days later we received our gifts. I got a brand new pair of roller blades with the rubber wheels, not the cheap plastic ones.

 

On Sundays we piled into the family van and drove to church. This was a different church than where we went with our mom. Girls and women weren’t required to wear the traditional head covers. There were a lot more people. It was exciting. There were lots of guys and girls who made up the youth group.

 

After church the members of the youth group would go eat and hang out. Uncle John was flexible to the point where he allowed me to go with them, as long as Linda was with me. We had to make sure somebody from our neighborhood was also going, because he or she would be our ride back home. Uncle John would verify with the guy or girl, usually guy, to find out where the youth was planning to go, and to make sure we would arrive home by a certain time in the evening. Uncle John was generous, too. He would flash his pearly whites and with a grand gesture he would whip out his wallet. After thumbing through it, he’d pull out a twenty-dollar bill and hand it to me saying, “Here’s money for you and Linda to buy some fancy lunch with your friends. Don’t spend it all in one place!”

 

For some reason it felt so awkward to take money from him. I felt like I owed him the money back. Linda and I would try to make that money last as many Sundays as we could so we wouldn’t have to admit we didn’t have any and then have him give us another twenty. On lucky occasions, some guy from the youth group would pay for our meal. I never could tell whether it was because a guy was trying to impress us, or because he just got a paycheck, or if he was simply being nice. Other times we would eat at the mall where we could get cheap food like McDonalds fries and ice-cream cones, or if we were very hungry, a teriyaki bowl. I didn’t look forward to restaurants, because those were on the pricey side, but when youth went there, Linda and I would split an appetizer. The popular evening place was a donut shop. We could easily spend an entire evening there, eating fresh donut holes or apple fritters.

 

Shortly after this new living arrangement, an interesting pair came to visit us. The duo was tall and thin, and very animated, as if they drank energy drinks instead of water. The blonde woman, Mrs. Tee, was dressed elegantly while Mr. Tee was a dark-haired man who wore a bright polo and shorts. They clarified that this visit was not to become friends with Uncle John or Aunt Jenny, but just to have a chat with Linda and I. In fact, a chat was not enough. How about they take us out to a fancy sit-down restaurant? It took a bit of convincing Uncle John, who finally relented because this couple explained they were just trying to do something nice to some kids who lost their parents.

 

The car ride consisted of small talk and directions to a restaurant. Linda and I kept exchanging glances. We were certainly aware that there were different types of people who had unique ways of responding to others’ problems. Lots of donations had accumulated as a result of mom’s passing. It ended up being distributed in some form or another, mostly going to the family who was building their own house. But what were these people up to? It’s not like we never had a meal outside of the home.

 

As soon as we got seated, the waiter brought the water glasses, and left us with the menus. Mr. Tee was practically bouncing in his seat. He was surely addicted to coffee or something.

“Alright, here we go! Now we can talk. Wait, first decide what you want to order. OK, done?”

Mrs. Tee was evidently less caffeinated, she told Mr. Tee to calm down, to give everybody a minute.

 

I was growing more curious and didn’t want to waste time studying the menu options. I selected the first soup and salad listed while Linda chose an appetizer.

“Wait, girls, that’s it?” Mr. Tee’s eyes widened. “No, that is not enough. Get something more, get a main dish!”

 

I glanced at the prices in that category. No way.

 

“Don’t even worry about the cost! This is our treat to you, get whatever you want!” He must have read my mind. The waiter showed up to take our orders, and as we didn’t add anything to our original choices, Mr. Tee took it upon himself to order the most popular dish for us as well.

 

“Back to our talk. When we heard about what happened to your family, we cleared out our schedule to drive all the way up here.” He looked at me. “Since you’re the oldest, we specifically wanted to talk to you. This affects your sister too, but mostly you.” He directed a glance of acknowledgment towards Linda. “Now, your uncle, does he treat you well?”

 

“Of course!” I nodded, wondering where this was headed.

 

“Yes. Naturally. They just took you in, lots of attention is still focused on them, of course they’ll be doing their best. For now. But listen to me. I need to say some things that nobody will probably ever tell you, but somebody has to.” He leaned forward. Mrs. Tee placed her hand on his arm as if to offer support.

 

What in the world was he going to say? A slight shiver ran down my spine. I leaned back.

 

“Your uncle has his own family. He has a wife and a few kids. All of a sudden, boom, he got a few more kids. They are not his own. He never asked for them. But here you are. Now right now he’s treating you as well as his own kids because everything is fresh. All eyes are on him in this community, in your church. But some time will pass and you will notice he won’t be treating you like this anymore.” He paused for air. “You will notice he’ll be treating his kids better than you. You won’t be able to talk to him like to a dad. You’ll have conflicts. But he won’t be doing this intentionally. He will just default to the natural state of how he was used to doing life, before you all came into his family.”

 

Our waiter arrived with the food. I sat frozen in my position as the plates were being passed around. What was I supposed to do with this information? The feeling of being a burden was a thought that flickered in my mind periodically, which I would push into a corner and forget about. Now it sprang up from the corner and was glaring at me. Great.

 

Mr. Tee took a whiff of his food. “Mmm, absolutely delicious!” he exclaimed. The way he ate his meal was every bit as energetic as his words were.

 

“Now, here’s what you have to do.” I let out a burst of air that I didn’t know I was holding. So there was a solution. “You’ll need to become financially independent. Does your uncle give you money?” I explained about the twenty-dollar bills on Sundays. He tapped his fingers on the table. “And do you feel guilty when you take that money?” I nodded.

“Ah-ha!” Mr. Tee slapped his hand against the table. “There you have it, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It starts like that, and then you’ll feel how much of a burden you are that you’re living in his house, and that he’s providing all the necessities for you, and the list goes on and on. So, you’ll need to get a job. Get a job, and you’ll have money! This way you won’t have to rely on your uncle to give you money for a snack, you can get it yourself. You can buy clothes, your own cell phone, whatever you want! You can start making your own decisions. Work hard, work as hard as you can, work your way up as far as you can. Become independent!”

 

I nodded. That made sense. I saw Linda finishing her appetizer. I should probably eat some of my soup. It had cooled down, and there wasn’t much taste. I tried the salad. It wasn’t any better. But Mr. and Mrs. Tee were paying for this meal, and it would be rude to leave everything untouched. I managed a few bites. There was some kind of lump in my throat that made it hard for the food to go down. Where was I going to get a job? I couldn’t even drive. Driver’s Education classes were offered at my school, I had just signed up. The only jobs I could think of were the summer jobs at the berry fields at that moment. I tuned back into the conversation. Mr. Tee was chattering about something funny his mother-in-law had done.

 

He managed to finish the story, his meal, and whatever Mrs. Tee left on her plate all at once. He jumped up. “We have one more stop to make before we take you home. In case you ever need money or help, we will always be available, alright?”

 

We stopped by the bank where he opened an account and added my name to it. There was $100 in the account.

 

“If you ever need money, take it. Here’s the little card with all the information on it: the account number, my name, my phone number.” He handed me a small white card with the information written on the back. “When this money runs out, call us, we can deposit some more, you hear?” I nodded. I suspected Uncle John would not be very happy about this bank stop. Mr. Tee again seemed to read my mind. “Don’t you dare tell your aunt or uncle about the bank!” He received a strict glance from his wife. It must have been about his tone, because he continued in a softer manner. “They don’t need to know about this, it won’t hurt them. This is merely something for you and your sister, as a way of us helping you. OK?” I nodded again.

 

They arrived at our house, came in for tea, and Mr. Tee entertained everyone with his peculiar stories until it was time for them to leave.

 

A few days later I was taking care of errands with Grandpa when the words “Accepting Applications” caught my eye. I noticed they belonged to a poster on the window of new construction next to our grocery store. The poster showed a Little Caesar’s Pizza logo and “COMING SOON” in bigger font. I asked Grandpa to stop the car and ventured inside. A worker wearing a white construction cap looked up. I asked how to apply and he pointed to a cardboard box with a stack of empty applications inside. I took it, filled it out, and turned it back in. A few weeks later I got called in for a group interview, and so began my first official job.

6. Apple Pie

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The relatives who were involved in Mom’s well-being and hospital visit were absolutely shocked at this suggestion.

 

“No way!” was their response, Mom’s response, and my translated response. There had to be another test or another doctor who would take a look and determine how to fix the problem without introducing cancer.

 

Mom’s tailbone pain was so extreme she couldn’t walk because the fall threw her hips off balance. A home-based homeopathic doctor corrected and adjusted her hips and promised it was on its way to fully heal. The bruise and pain on her chest wasn’t getting any better and breathing was becoming very difficult. Another appointment was scheduled. This doctor didn’t receive the full story either, so he contacted the first doctor and had the same “cancer” suggestion. One of the uncles flew off his handle.

“How dare you keep saying it’s cancer? Get some doctor in here who knows how to be a doctor and make my sister better!”

 

After more yelling and threatening, security was called and my uncle had to calm down and be escorted out or else he’d get arrested.

 

This experience prompted us to drive a few hours to take mom to an emergency room in a Seattle hospital. Here her case had a team of students who followed the main assigned doctor around and took notes. One set of the aunts and uncles who regularly stayed with us were outraged and had a huge complaint about “student” doctors who didn’t know anything. They demanded professional doctors, not students. As the translator, I reworded the sentences to make them sound slightly more pleasant. Last thing anybody needed was another security officer adventure.

 

To deal with the sterile, antiseptic smell of the hospital room, I wandered around the building until a different scent reached my nostrils. I’d reached the cafeteria. From the limited food options, the apple pie looked most appealing. I ordered a large slice and breathed in the aroma. The taste was absolutely perfect: a delicious combination of a warm, flaky crust, and soft, sweet apples, with just a hint of cinnamon. I enjoyed it immensely and had a few pieces during that stay. That is where I learned what emotional eating was all about.

 

During the night Mom had a terrible breathing attack and a doctor on duty came to help. Since he wasn’t familiar with the case, he decided to check what was causing this shortage of breathing. He inserted a little tube with a light at the end of it, inspected the area, and said that some veins burst. Mom would need a surgery to repair those veins to get the blood flowing normally and to restore the circulation. The surgery couldn’t be done immediately because first, the assigned doctor needed to go through all the paperwork, and next, Mom needed antibiotics for several weeks before she could be ready for the surgery.

 

Mom requested to go home for the antibiotic treatment. We continued to have people visit us who prayed for Mom in hopes of obtaining supernatural healing. Mom read Psalm 121 aloud on a regular basis. The uncle who had the shouting match received a letter from the hospital stating that Mom’s condition was in fact not cancer.

 

For the first time in my life I was allowed to have a party to celebrate my 15th birthday. The planning didn’t take long; I just wanted a cake and some friends over. The night before the party Mom had a breathing attack and was running out of breath. The closest driver was Grandpa, so he took us to the hospital. Mom was given an oxygen mask and we were placed into a room overnight.

 

Instead of feeling bad for Mom, I was feeling sorry for myself. The birthday party was supposed to be my highlight of the year. I collected some tabloid magazines and sat in the sitting area hating my life. In the morning I dialed a few numbers and briskly stated the party was cancelled due to the fact that I was in the hospital with my mother again. I made friends with the apple pies in this cafeteria too. Well, that wouldn’t be correct. If I made friends with them I wouldn’t be eating them, but I did, so technically I just enjoyed how they made me feel. At least I could count on apple pie. The apple pie paired quite nicely with a can of Root Beer. Unfortunately Root Beer was the enemy because it had the word “beer” in its title, and it caused an unnecessarily long fight with an uncle who couldn’t believe I stooped low enough to drink beer.

 

We were released home again. Mom’s immune system kept getting weaker. She was now barely walking holding on to a familiar steel walker, the kind that Dad used to have. A ten second walk from her bedroom to the bathroom began to take several minutes long with assistance from a person or two. Grandma’s cheeks were streaked with tears as she helped mom with a bath. After she was done and Mom was back in her bed, Grandma would let the tears flow freely and say how unfair it is for a mom to watch her child go through this. That it should be the other way around. I agreed with her. But a child watching a mom go through it was unfair even more! I would think, but keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t get in trouble.

 

Mom’s voice completely disappeared. Her breathing was raspy and she had horrible hacking coughs to a point where she would cough stuff up. I had to make a phone call to the bank about Mom’s account and had problems when it came to the verification problem.

 

“Am I speaking to the account holder?” asked the bank representative.

 

“No, this is her daughter, but she’s right here. She doesn’t speak English very well, plus her voice is broken so I’m calling for her.”

 

“I’m sorry Miss, but I cannot give you the information you’re requesting until I speak to the account holder.”

 

“She’s right here! Let me turn on the speaker.” I moved as close as I could to Mom.

 

Mom was propped up on her bed and tried to speak. “This is Yelena,” she whispered. The bank rep couldn’t hear anything. Mom strained her neck, applied as much effort as she could, and a croak came out. I tried to use that.

 

“You hear that? That was her voice. Can you help me now?”

 

It was useless.

 

Another time Grandma made a thin soup for Mom. It had some rice, potatoes and grated carrots. Grandma left me with the bowl and said to feed Mom.

 

Mom tried to eat a bite, but it was difficult for her throat to swallow anything. She gave up after several attempts.

 

“I can’t do it; I don’t want any,” she whispered in a barely audible tone.

 

“But you have to! Grandma will be mad at me if you don’t eat any!” I tried to persuade Mom to eat a few bites.

 

Mom’s eyes were filled with tears. “I can’t,” she said.

 

Grandma came in to check on us. She didn’t approve the current status.
“What is this? No excuses. Eat,” her disapproving tone demanded obedience. When she needed to be strict, she could manage it in such a way that anybody in her way would drop what they’re doing and follow her orders.

 

Mom looked at me desperately.
“Please eat a few bites for me, honey. Please do it. I cannot. Please,” she begged. I haven’t seen Mom act like that before and it frightened me. I forced a few spoonfuls down, just in time as Grandma came in again. The bowl was wordlessly handed over, and we received a satisfied “Hmph!” in return.

 

Those months were a blur of hospital visits, faith healers, elders, and more scrutiny of our lifestyle than ever. God definitely must be punishing us for something. Obviously Mom must have some hidden sin in her life. Perhaps a mistake must have been in our decision to switch churches. Mom was required to agree going back to the previous church if she got healed. Perhaps a curse was on our family. Was Dad’s mother a witch? Some of these conversations took place inside hospitals, not just at our home. Mom would be so drugged up with morphine that her speech was babble that didn’t make any sense. In between doses when her speech was more coherent, a helpful individual would shower her with these suggestions and questions.

 

The doctors had some bad news for us after some more tests. The surgery couldn’t be done because the antibiotics were administered too late. They should have been done right away when Mom had her accident. Her situation became worse: either the blood was clotting, or something was happening to the veins and they were affecting the lungs, or the lungs themselves were collapsing. To top it all off, she caught the MRSA bug at the hospital and had to be placed into quarantine. One person at a time could come in, only if dressed up in protective clothing and mask. That day she slipped into a coma.

 

The next day, September 11, in my first period class, something strange was happening. The TV was turned on, the students were panicked, the teachers frantically scurried from one classroom to the next. The World Trade Center twin towers had just been attacked. The dreadful anxiety I was feeling because of Mom’s coma didn’t have to be hidden. It was a relief to let it out and cry with the rest of the students.