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Mother, Daughter Caretaker

I don’t know how she does it.

My mom is a superhero: the Wonder Woman of our family. I’ve always respected her. I mean, how could I not? Along with her siblings and parents, she left Cambodia as a refugee to escape the Khmer Rouge. She acclimated to Western society and found a new life for herself and her family.

Everything she went through required strength and bravery, and her life in the present day is no exception. Her parents are still alive, and she is the primary caretaker for both of them. My grandparents planted their roots in new soil, so their family tree could flourish. My grandpa is 94 years old and doing well. His voice is deep and rich like shifting earth. His eyes sparkle when he’s surrounded by his grandchildren. And he has a habit of trying to give money to them for no reason other than being a grandpa.

My grandma changed the status quo for all of us. She’s 88 and has Alzheimer’s and dementia. The two diseases make up the Cheetah to my mom’s Wonder Woman, with my grandma being an innocent bystander. My memories of her before are faint, wisps of light in a thick fog. When we were children, my mom used to make my sister and me to visit. I would see my grandma washing a bowl of rice at the kitchen sink. She would wrap her thin arms around us in a hug. The first question she would usually ask us was if we had eaten.

Those days are long gone. The diseases have ravaged my grandma’s mind. Her memory has fractured into splinters. Before her stroke, my mom would offer to shower her, but my grandma would insist she had already taken one (if there’s one trait that runs through our bloodline, it’s stubbornness). If my grandma didn’t want to shower, there was nothing you could do. As a result, the typical pattern was her agreeing to a shower once every three months when she was in the right mood to do so. My mom half-joked that when my grandma wanted a shower, she would drop everything because there was only a small window of time to get it done before my grandma changed her mind. She may have been a victim, but in some ways, she was the one who called the shots.

There were times when my grandma's memories became a prison. She would regress into the mind of being a child in Cambodia, asking for her sister who had died in the Khmer Rouge. My mom would gently explain that her sister had passed away, but my grandma would keep calling for her. I never witnessed those moments, only heard about them from my mom. To lose your sense of time and space and reality itself—I still get goosebumps when I think about it.

Other times, it wasn’t my grandma’s memory that was the issue, but her personality. Dementia and Alzheimer’s would cause this other “person” to manifest. She was dark and vicious, the complete opposite of the grandma who told me I was too skinny. We’ve suspected this personality is most likely linked to my grandma’s religious upbringing. It would claim to be a spirit taking over my grandma’s body, that she was gone forever. As someone who believes in ghosts and spirits, these exclamations sent shivers down my spine. It was something you might find in a supernatural horror movie. My mom never cowered in front of this “evil spirit,” mainly because she was more rooted in reality than fantasy. She would roll her eyes, ignore the spirit’s ramblings, and tell it that it was time to take its medicine.

Then the stroke happened a few months ago. It was small, but there’s nothing minor about brain damage caused by improper blood flow. The damage was done. She became bedridden, and since then, she has needed a wheelchair to move around. She can’t feed herself, and whatever she does eat has to be blended to the consistency of baby food. She doesn’t have full motion of her arms and legs, and her joints are locked up. She became a child, and my mom became her mother.

My mom’s work schedule consists of two days on, two days off, and three days on, which alternates each week. On her last days of work, she goes to my