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 aunt’s house where my grandparents live. She sleeps over there instead of coming home; that way, she can start the day taking care of them. For my grandma, that entails feeding her, changing her diaper, moving her into her wheelchair, giving her medicine, massaging her joints, and taking her to doctor’s appointments.
In some ways, it’s better than before. My grandma takes a shower once a week instead of every three months. She still has her bad days, but they’re not from an evil spirit. (They mostly consist of my grandma trying to hit my mom and swearing at her in Cambodian.) My mom stays all day and comes back in the evening, exhausted from essentially another day of work. That only leaves one day off for herself before she has to repeat it all over again. One of my mom’s superpowers is resilience, but even she needs time to rest and replenish.
My grandma’s declining health has had ripple effects in our immediate and extended family. When my mom is working, two of her sisters will step in to cover, performing the same duties on their days off. My dad and uncle have built gadgets to help my grandma, like outfitting her wheelchair with a headrest and seat cushion to make it more comfortable. I’ll stop by to bring lunch for my mom when she wants something other than traditional Khmer food. I’ll help move my grandma or feed her and give my mom a quick reprieve to catch her breath. I’ve spent more time staying at my parents’ house than at my apartment. With my mom either too busy or too tired, I try to alleviate some of her typical responsibilities: making dinner, washing the dishes, doing the laundry—whatever I can do so that she can have more time to herself. I’m grateful that this is all happening when my sister and I are adults. Our mom taught us how to look after ourselves. Because of that, she doesn’t have to be a parent in two different households.
I wonder if my mom knew this would happen, that she would have to give up so much of her time and life to take care of her mom. She went from child to adult to wife to mother to caretaker—so many roles in half a century. She has two full-time jobs but only gets paid for one of them. It takes its toll on her. If my grandma is being particularly difficult or if a medical appointment gets canceled at the last minute, my mom will come home and vent to us about it. My dad, sister, and I never interrupt. We don’t accuse her of complaining. We all know how much she does for her parents; if what she needs from us is to listen to her recount the stressors of her day, that’s what we do.
A few of my American friends have asked me over the years, “Why doesn’t your mom just put your grandma in a nursing home? It would probably be easier for both of them.” They said these words casually, as if they were asking if I’ve seen the latest superhero movie. If only it were that simple. Logistically, a nursing home would cause more harm than good. My grandma didn’t pick up English as my grandpa did. I would be surprised if there were employees who spoke fluent Cambodian. My grandma wouldn’t be able to communicate. She would be trapped in more than just her mind and body.
Culturally, a nursing home is completely out of the question. Like many Asian countries, Cambodia has a collectivist culture that emphasizes the importance of community. Combine that with a duty to family and filial piety, and the answer is pretty straightforward. Putting my grandma in a home would go against my family's values. Our parents took care of us, so we’re expected to take care of them when the time comes. We tend to the trees that provide us fruit for nourishment, shade for comfort, and roots for remembering where we came from.
With my grandma, it’s a matter of when, not if. Each day she’s still with us is a day cherished (yes, even the cranky temperaments). When I visit her, she doesn’t remember who I am. But when I tell her I’m one of her grandchildren, her eyes will light up, and a small smile will break across her face. She’ll comment on how tall I am and how curly my hair is (I personally think it’s more wavy than curly, but I let it slide for her). It’s the little victories that matter most. And just as I am writing this, my mom sent me a video of my grandma. She was eating orange slices and feeding herself! It was the first time she could do either of those since the stroke, so it was a huge moment.
When my grandma eventually passes, I wonder how it will affect my mom beyond the loss and grief. Superhero or not, she’s still human, and with that comes a host of complicated emotions. As terrible as this sounds, I hope a part of her will feel relieved. She can come home straight from work. She can go back to what her life was like before. Then again, taking care of her mom is ingrained into her identity. Will she feel lost? Will she be able to get back into a different routine? Those are questions we’ll have to deal with when the time comes.
Wonder Woman is powerful but not invincible. A hero isn’t immune to the burdens they carry. I am in awe of my mom every day. I wish I could do more to help her and show my love and respect for her. But for now, my mom will continue to take care of her mom. This is the role she carries now, and the best the rest of us can do is support her. That’s what family is for, after all.
Editors: Nikki J., Anoushka K., Nadine R. Sam L., Emily X., Zoe L., Joyce S.