A Conversation with my Mom about Artificiality
It took four different calls. The first call was three-and-a-half seconds long—my ears heard the first ring go through, but it was my thumb that decided to respond as it immediately hit the red button to tell my phone, “Nope, Riva’s not ready yet.” A moment later, my brain jumped into the discussion and argued with my thumb: “Hey wait, what are you doing? It’s just a conversation, she’s not about to take a midterm or anything—what do you mean she’s not ready? She’ll be fine, call again.”
The second call lasted 28 seconds. I was fine for the first ring, I was fine for the second ring, I was fine for the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, but on the eighth ring, the illogical parts of my brain started finding logic in the multiple, unanswered rings and told my thumb, “You know what, maybe this conversation simply isn’t meant to happen today.
The third call was 3 minutes and 12 seconds long. Two days had passed since the initial attempts. The column was due soon, and the week was too old for me to be able to bide more time. My mom answered the call and I introduced this week’s theme: Artificiality/Fake.
– Kē? Artificiality? Fake?
– Yeah, like things that aren’t real!
She looked confused. Her eyes and her eyebrows shook hands as her lips reached up to high five her nose; all the features of her face met together at the center to try to understand what I was saying.
– What fake things do you want to talk about? The only fake thing I can think about right now is Splenda, but I don’t know why you would want to talk about that.
– Haha no, what I want to talk about is a little less sweet. I want to talk about fake statements. I want to talk about lies. And this could mean talking about lies that I’ve told, lies that you’ve told, and/or lies that we’ve been told.
– Okay…lies…how should we start?
How should we start? I had created a range of routes in my head for all the different directions this conversation could go, but when I turned left into Lies Lane, all the street lights went out. Panicked, I abruptly made a U-turn.
– Actually, I’m pretty busy right now. Can we have this conversation later in the evening? I was only calling to let you know the theme so you could start thinking about it.
– Okay, chōrī. Tyō kāma gardacha. But don’t call too late, I’ll be tired then.
– Okay, will try!
Hanging up, I note the irony in my lying to get out of our conversation about lies. Why did I feel so reluctant to have this conversation? I knew the answer, but I lied again as I pretended not to know.
I could’ve called her back at 5 o’clock that night. Or 6 o’clock, or 7 or 8 or 9. But 5 o’clock was too soon, 6 o’clock was too close to dinner time, 7 o’clock was during the middle of dinner, at 8 o’clock I was too full from dinner, and 9 o’clock was too late. It would have to happen the next morning.
The next morning, I make the call. My thumb moves to push the red button once again, but my mom’s face interrupts the motion.
– Haloo chōrī! How did your work go yesterday?
– It went well! Is this a good time to talk?
– Ēka minēṭa. I’m fixing lunch, let me turn the stove off.
– Okay, just yell when you’re ready.
I put the phone down and grab my water bottle. Drinking is supposed to calm your nerves, right? And isn’t water supposed to have some healing properties or something?
Going back to the screen, I see my mom wiping her eyes with the corner of her shirt.
– Mommy, is everything okay?
– I’m fine, I’m fine! It’s just from cutting onions.
– Oh, okay. I heard if you chew gum while cutting onions, it keeps you from crying. You should try it next time!
– La, I’ll try to remember.
I watch her situate herself at the foot of the stairs—close enough to the kitchen to be able to make quick trips, but also isolated enough to feel distanced from the others in the house. She was creating a space where the two of us could feel as if it were just us.
– So again, for this column, we will be talking about lies. Have you had a chance to think about it yet?
– Okay. Do you want to start with lies you’ve told or lies I’ve told?
– I’ll start. I haven’t had a chance to think about your theme yet. I was lying when I said that I had.
Her mouth tries to hold itself together but loses as it breaks into a mischievous grin.
– Ha. Ha. Ha. Good one! But I was hoping to talk about lies that held more impact.
– Hmm…maybe it’ll be better if you start. Then, I’ll know what you mean.
I take a sip of water and try to determine where to begin. Lying was a skill that I had learned to hone very early on in life. Growing up, every time my mom would see me, she would bring me a snack. But her definition of snack was very different from mine. Her definition of snack was synonymous with MEALS—heaps of dal bhat, māsu, chana, aloo, and other types of sabjiharu, Tetris-ed to the max onto a single plate, everything threatening to spill over if one moved too quickly. I was grateful to have a mom who doubled as a chef, but my body couldn’t keep up with how much I was being served. I remember I would strategically avoiding hugs after eating because I was genuinely afraid my body would explode.
Coming from a culture that views finishing plates as a form of respect, my mom would take offense every time I returned the plates back with food still on them. She either wouldn’t accept them and force me to finish the food in front of her, or she would adopt a look of hurt and disappointment for the rest of the day. In order to protect both her and myself, I began lying. I began carrying around plastic bags in my pocket. Whenever I was given more food than I could finish, I would alternate between giving spoonfuls to myself and to my plastic bag. When the plate was empty, I would tie up these bags and hide them in the creases of our house where various other things had been known to disappear. I purposefully didn’t throw them in the trash because I knew my mom would find them.
– Do you remember how I used to lie to you about eating everything on my plate?
– Hē bhagavāna, how could I forget? In the moment, I would be so happy. But then the rotting smell of your lies would seep through—literally. I remember being so confused, where is this awful smell coming from? And then I would discover them everywhere. Under the couches, inside the couches, behind your dresser, between your bed and your wall, everywhere. It was like we were playing hide-and-seek, with you constantly hiding your lies and with me constantly seeking them out. But there was no fun involved. Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?
– I tried to! I always told you that you were giving me too much and that I couldn’t finish everything without feeling sick, but you would either get really mad, or sad, or both—refusing to believe that I simply couldn’t keep eating and instead believing that I was rejecting you through your food.
– Well…that’s what it felt like. I…could’ve fed you simple, easy dishes but I was putting so much of myself into everything that I made you. It wasn’t just lentils, onions, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cilantro, chilies and salt; it was also… me… And my time, care, and love. When you would come back with food still on your plate, you weren’t just saying you didn’t want my food… you were saying you didn’t want parts of me and my background.
She paused between phrases as she spoke, as if she was reading a hard text for the first time; as if she was identifying these feelings for the first time, even to herself. I had known that food was important to my mom, but I hadn’t properly recognized why until this moment. With her being an immigrant mother and with me being me—a second-generation Nepali-American who’s more interested in making memes than doing daily puja—the type of food I ate was one of the few areas of my life that she had held power over. Through food, and through making Nepali food that she grew up with, she was revealing parts of herself and trying to bridge the distance she felt between us. I feel guilty for being unaware of these intentions.
– I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel as if I was dismissing you and your background—our background. I loved everything that you made me, it was really just about how frequently you fed me and how large the portions were.
– That’s my fault. How I grew up, it was completely different. We didn’t have much variety in the types of food we ate and because we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have ways to store things. There was no fridge, no way to preserve food for a later snack. I have memories of being so hungry throughout the day, my belly aching for something to eat, but having to wait until the next meal time. Raising you two here, where everything is the complete opposite, maybe I was overcompensating for everything I missed out on and ended up doing too much.
– Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate it then, but I appreciate its significance now.
My mom reaches her hand out and lightly traces my face through the screen, an act saved for the ones you love.
– Okay, now that I’ve told you about something that I’ve lied about, it’s your turn.
Her hand moves back and buries into her chin.
– If you want, it can be a lie that’s been told to you, it doesn’t have to be a lie that you’ve told.
– Well…I don’t know about all of the lies people have told me. But the lies I always caught were your dad’s. I didn’t catch many before he got sick, but afterwards, there were so many.
– What kind of lies?
– Innocent ones. Like I would ask him not to walk without a walker and he would tell me, “Okay, don’t worry.” But then, when his medicine kicked in, I would turn around to find him walking without a walker. Another time, I found a stash of chocolates and sweets in his desk. Since he was supposed to be on a strict diet, I questioned what he was doing with the stash, but he waved the issue away saying “Oh, I just have it here so that when the kids come, I can easily give it to them.” That might have been true, but I caught him giving some to himself too. I would also come home to find him cutting vegetables for dinner time. He was only trying to help me, but it wouldn’t help me if he slipped, or fell, or had some sort of accident with the knife. We used to have this kind of lying all the time. I used to get so frustrated, thinking that he wasn’t listening to me, but I understand things better now.
– Yeah, it’s hard to lose your freedom so suddenly. I…
I pause. This was the part of Lies Lane that I had been nervous about going down with my mom. I knew this turn was bound to happen sooner or later; I needed to ask her this question, but it carried with it such heavy weights of emotion that I knew it would be hard to get the words past my vocal cords. I watch my mom close her eyes as a single tear slips away.
– Do you need any gum?
– It’s amazing how powerful words can be. As I’m talking to you, I feel as if he is once again sitting at his desk in the living room, saying to me “No, no, no, the chocolates WERE for the kids. Maybe I had just one or two, but I was just testing them out…I can’t believe you’re telling her all of this.”
She turns to the general direction of where his desk used to be and laughs in a way that strikes me as both loving and lonesome.
As I’m trying to push the words out, the doorbell rings. Whew, thank god. I have a few more minutes.
– Hold on, let me go see who that is.
As she leaves, I take a few deep breaths, relax my shoulders and even release a low hum—attempting to warm up my vocal cords so that my words might be able to get past them better.
– Haloo, I’m back! Are we almost done?
– No lying, right?
– Haha no, I think we’re almost done.
I drink some water, thinking lubrication could help the cords. I forget how to swallow and the water goes down the wrong pipe, making me spiral into a coughing fit.
– Riva, are you alright?
– Yes, I’m alright! Sorry, I just drank the water weirdly. OKAY, last question. Talking about daddy, why did the two of you lie about his Parkinson’s for so long?
My eyes fall, reluctant to meet her startled eyes.
– Actually…in the beginning, he didn’t tell me either. I only learned about it after I found a prescription bottle addressed to his name. It rattled me because I hadn’t even known that he was taking anything. Quickly, I wrote the name down on a notepad, put the bottle back in its place and Googled its meaning. When the words Parkinson’s Disease came up, I was shocked. I confronted him about it, but he told me not to worry, the doctors weren’t sure yet, it could be anything…Before, he had been going to see the doctors alone. But after I found his bottle, I made sure we went together. That’s how I knew. Because a few trips later, they confirmed that yes, it was Parkinson’s. I remember that moment. He just looked at me, and I at him—unsure of what this diagnosis would mean. To us, to you kids, to him. He kept telling me, “Don’t worry, I will survive this. Don’t worry, it will not kill me. I’ll make it at least 10 years more, don’t worry.” Assuring me, even though he had no clue.
The corners of her nose start to turn a deep red.
– After he was officially diagnosed, why didn’t you guys tell us then? Why continue to lie when you both knew the truth would eventually come out?
– We knew, but we didn’t know. A part of us held out hope that maybe it was a misdiagnosis, doctors get things wrong all the time. And we didn’t want to burden you and Susan during your critical years if there was no need to. We were doing it out of protection, both for you two and…also for us. Not telling you allowed us to pretend nothing had changed, allowed us to escape to a more idealistic reality than the one we were facing behind closed doors. And your daddy, he really didn’t want to disappoint you two. He was your father, he was supposed to be this strong figure in your life, it was very hard… You know he was always looking out for you and Susan… Even on that morning… he was thinking of you. Before I left for work, he reminded me to print out your college application materials and set them on his desk when I came home during my lunch break, so that you would be able to find them easily. But…
She trails off, but there’s no need to continue. I hadn’t known what had happened at the beginning of that day, but I knew what would follow. March 11, 2014.
My ears are ringing and my body temperature feels as if I am sitting in the sauna at Oak Marr that he used to love. It was hard for me to think about my dad planning for a future that he must have known wouldn’t include him. Without permission, teardrops pool and fall from my eyes, blurring my vision.
As my mom’s glasses fog up, the tips of her wet lashes brush against them, creating tiny lines on the glass. She takes them off, wipes them with her shirt and puts them back on. But it’s no use, they immediately fog up again.
I want to say something, but the words to describe the magnitude of this ache are inaccessible to me. She looks at me, and I try to muster some resemblance of a smile.
– It’s okay, you don’t have to smile. You know, I used to cry but then go to him smiling, hiding my true feelings. This was bad, because it caused him to hide his as well and we ended up having to deal with our shared pain in isolation. I’m done with hiding. And after all that food hiding you did when you were younger, you should be done too.