The Resilience of a Mother
My mom and brother had arrived some time before Christmas in 2003, and we loaded their belongings in the trunk of our tiny red Kia. Our first visitors during our year living abroad. We would make it to our first stop at Stonehenge, but only barely, after having driven through England’s winding back roads at night in the freezing fog with iced-over headlights. The ensuing two weeks are best remembered as a string of days in which my poor mother endured pure torture as a passenger on a 2,000 mile Winter road trip through Europe with three juvenile ruffians.
Against her better judgment, my mom again stepped from the tarmac and into our road tripping machine. It’s ten years later, it’s one o’clock in the morning, and Bangkok’s lingering night time heat threatens to melt the soles off of our shoes as we walk from the terminal to the parking lot where Nacho awaits. My mom is a smart lady, yet so soon she forgets her hard-learned lessons.
We walk from our guesthouse along Samsen Road, past the frippery shops and t-shirt hawkers on Khao San Road, past the row of meat-on-a-stick vendors. Sidewalks in Bangkok are generally used for motorcycle parking, store displays, storage, food preparation, and public urination, so we walk in the blistering sun on the side of the blistering hot roadway. By now, having been in southeast Asia for a considerable amount of time, Sheena and I have grown somewhat accustomed to the heat and humidity. I turn to look at my mom and realize that she’s nearly dead, just prior to the point of her red blood cells turning into lifeless bits of sand.
“Oh…look…” she faintly whispers, “there’s a…7-Eleven…Let’s…cool off…”
Bangkok is home to roughly 3,500 7-Eleven franchises, each of them spewing unregulated cold air into their clean interiors like little oases of freshness. Without these, my mom would be dead.
We eventually arrive at the Grand Palace and are turned away by angry security guards. They bite their thumbs at our tastelessness; both my mom and I are exposing our knees, which is an unspeakable atrocity inside the walls of a tourist attraction of such grandeur. We retreat to the sidewalk where innumerable fly-by-night vendors rent cheap elephant-covered gypsy pants to us foreign heathens. I school my mom in the art of negotiation.
“Four dollars!?” I rant, “I shan’t pay a farthing more than three dollars! Mom, walk away…they have to see you walking away…”
We procure some ugly rented pants at the aggressively negotiated rate, and we enter.
Having long since suffered from a condition that I call “wat burnout”, I walk around the complex looking at the painted gold buildings with a sense of boredom. My mom looks enthused, but after a few minutes I realize that she may have reached “wat burnout” stage far sooner than anticipated, undoubtedly fueled by the setting in of her heat stroke. We look at statues of Buddhas, admire the gold trim adorning the buildings, and take lots of photos, despite our condition.
Back on the street I return my rented pants, while my mom decides to keep hers and forfeit her deposit. “These will make great pajamas,” she says. After over an hour without air conditioning her tongue is beginning to swell up and become rigid. Later, while eating lunch in an outdoor, non-air-conditioned establishment, I tell her she needs to stay out of air conditioning if she ever wants to adapt. She doesn’t complain. Sheena spies a splash of heat rash on my mom’s leg, which my mom dismisses with a smile, and says “It’s nothing!” I come to the realization that I’m torturing my mother.
I’m eager to show Mom the Thai countryside, so we hit the road to Kanchanaburi – the one of World War II fame where prison camp labor was used to build a railroad bridge over the Kwai River on its trajectory to Burma. She had seen the film Bridge on the River Kwai when she was eight years old, and was stoked to see it in the flesh. The very bridge!
After two hours of driving out of Bangkok, it seems we’re still in Bangkok. The countryside never materializes, and instead we drive the two hours through industrial sprawl. We reach Kanchanaburi as I try to reassure my mom that yes, in fact, there are undeveloped parts of Thailand. We are spared, as Kanchanaburi maintains its small town charm, despite being attached to Bangkok by a gray industrial umbilical cord.
For two days my mom tries to remember the whistling song from the River Kwai movie. We walk, she tries to remember.
“I think it’s twéet tw?et, twéet twuh twéet…, no, that’s not right…”
Each day seems hotter than the last, but we ignore it to the best of our abilities. We find the bridge, we walk across it, we visit the museum, and as night falls we all enjoy the miracle of the $5 hour-long Thai massage. The three of us change into the provided comfy pants and shirts, lie down on the floor mats, and proceed to take severe punishment from the muscular Thai Army girls masquerading as massage therapists. My girl also happens to be a sumo wrestler. She wrenches on me so hard that she grunts, and on two occasions elicits whimpering cries of pain and I tap out.
We finally find a copy of the film and watch it. Of course! It’s twéet tw?et… tw?et twéet twÉet twÉÉt twÉÉt twéet… We’re so pumped about it that we actually book seats on the train, now affectionately known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway, and spend the next day snaking into the hills, and then slowly snaking back out of them.
We take a day to drive into the mountains, proving to mom that the Thai countryside isn’t a piece of propaganda that I dreamed up, and we visit a waterfall. In true southeast Asian fashion, the waterfall is marked by a ten acre parking lot lined with food hawkers and souvenir shops, from which a paved path leads to several pools and waterfalls. For some reason the place is full up with Russian tourists, but we shake most of them by walking to the farthest waterfall from the parking lot, perhaps two miles away.
The swimming is beautiful, our feet and legs are tickled (chomped) by flesh-cleaning (carnivorous) fish, and we have a nice time experiencing Thailand’s natural side. To our delight, we return to Nacho without having contracted any leeches.
When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Camry as we drove up the new overpass linking the Loop 202 to Interstate 17 in Phoenix. Just as we reached the zenith of the overpass my mom cracked. She ducked her head below the level of the windshield, clasped the steering wheel in a death grip, and started yelling “Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD!” This was the day we came to fully appreciate – and believe in – my mom’s fear of heights. By this year I had forgotten all about it.
In Ayutthaya, our final stop on mom’s Thailand visit, I have the great idea of taking my mom on a tour of the old city. Not on an air-conditioned bus, or even in Nacho, but on bicycles. And not on nice bicycles, but on bicycles that are so rickety and in disrepair as to be free of charge.
Sheena leads the way, heading west, and then curving north to follow the river bank. It quickly becomes evident that to cross the river we’ll have to temporarily cut onto the freeway and take the bridge. I look at my mom, her shirt soaking wet and her skin flushed from heat stroke.
We cut right, wait for a break in the heavy freeway traffic, and then precariously join the narrow lane for our trip across the high bridge. Sheena continues to lead the way, followed by Mom, and I bring up the rear. My mom’s seat has slipped down and her derailleur is stuck in a hard gear, making her pedal stroke slow, shaky, and powerless. As we reach the zenith of the bridge I notice that her head is ducked down, her arms are tense. Passing cars whiz by, heat radiates from the pavement, and my mom fights through the heat stroke and acrophobia while piloting, with quivering hands, the scrap heap of a bike I’ve placed her on.
Amid this calamity, a crystal clear thought enters my mind: Brad, you’re a bad person and if there is a hell you’re probably going to end up there. But she should have known better.