Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Think about your husband and children!"

Today, Mom seems a bit less talkative, but about the same as yesterday: awake, alert, and even able to feed herself (though she didn't mind getting help at lunch).

My buddy Mike came by and regaled us with stories from his life as a husband and father; he turns 40 tomorrow, being among the first in my circle of friends to do so (my turn comes in late August). After we had fed Mom, we-- that is to say, Dad, Mike, and I-- drove down the street to The Four Sisters, a Vietnamese restaurant that had been recommended to us by Sean. For once, this was our treat for Mike: Mike has already treated us two or three times to dinners at Sweetwater Tavern, a family dining spot that features good food, but isn't exactly cheap. Dad and I thought Mike might enjoy a lunchtime birthday treat; it was the least we could do for my buddy since third grade.

The Four Sisters proved not to be cheap, either, but the food was delicious and very reasonably priced. The service, though a bit harried, was prompt and error-free. I, for one, enjoyed my spicy chicken and ginger. I think Mike liked his seafood combo and Dad enjoyed his sesame chicken. How Vietnamese any of this was is anybody's guess. Dishes change when they enter a foreign culture, sometimes to the point that visiting natives can't recognize them. Case in point: when you order spaghetti at an "Italian" restaurant in Korea, you'll get a little bowl of sweet pickles on the side-- a fresh, crunchy substitute for the normally ubiquitous kimchi. Korean pizza might include ingredients like corn and bulgogi. The list of conversions and perversions is long, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that most of the "Vietnamese" menu at The Four Sisters isn't really Vietnamese.

Mike left after lunch to go home to his family and grill flounder for dinner. When Dad and I walked back into the hospital's main lobby, we saw that two of Mom's Korean friends had arrived: Mrs. Kopf and Mrs. Quigg. They bought Mom balloons and a bouquet of hospital-safe silk flowers; when we got to Mom's room, they showed Mom that they had also brought along some Korean food, which Mom will have for dinner.

Mom now has a roommate, a MRSA-positive grandmother with a deep, rattling cough. She didn't have any visitors at the time she was brought into the room; I can only hope that someone will come see her before visiting hours are over. She looked sad and alone.

Because of the new roommate, and because Mom was initially asleep when we gowned up and walked in, we all had to talk in hushed tones. Dad and I updated Mom's friends on her condition; I sensed sadness and optimism emanating from the two ladies.

Perhaps as a way of cheering Mom up after she had awakened, Mrs. Quigg asked Mom if she would be up to assuming the role of president of the local Korean-American women's society again. She also told Mom to get better: "Think about your husband and children! They need you! You know you want to cook for them!" Mom nodded assent.

Upon hearing this, I found myself recalling a scene from Juzo Itami's movie "Tampopo," in which a dying wife is commanded by her husband to make dinner for him and the kids. The scene doesn't really fit the cheerful tone of the rest of the movie, and is instead a window into poignancy: the wife, deathly ill, shakily pushes herself to her feet and proceeds to make a meal for the husband and her children. She manages to sit at table with them, and holds herself up long enough to see that everyone is eating heartily. With a weak smile on her face, the woman slumps sideways to the floor and dies. The tearful husband commands his children to keep eating: it's the last meal their mother would ever make.

Why would the husband make such a demand of a woman so near death? I suspect it was an appeal to the wife's love and her sense of duty. The husband wasn't trying to be cruel; like anyone else, he wanted to see the love of his life move about-- act alive-- just a little bit longer. What's more, the wife wanted to show her love and devotion to her family. Such a scene might seem foreign to us non-Japanese, but it follows a comprehensible emotional logic.

The husband's behavior doesn't qualify as "tenderness" by Western standards. Similarly, some might interpret Mrs. Quigg's words to my mother as overly harsh or demanding: how could Mom possibly serve as the women's society president, or even expect to cook for her family, months or even years from now? Mom's got an incurable brain tumor, after all. But I'm sure Mrs. Quigg was appealing to Mom's own sense of love and devotion, providing Mom with simple reasons to go on living. She did this in a Korean way, but her intentions were benign.

Mom was a bit quieter today than she was yesterday. This may have been because she was content to listen to Mike and to her Korean friends. Perhaps it was enough for her to let the pleasing sounds of conversation wash over her; perhaps it was enough for her simply to nod "yes" when she was directly addressed. Conversation is something we can hope for later. It can't be forced out of her; she'll heal on her own time.

Both of Mom's friends are eager to help out by bringing Korean food to the hospital. As long as food deliveries are timed to coincide with Mom's mealtimes, this won't be a problem. The problem arises when food is left to sit in Mom's room for several hours: there's no place to refrigerate it.

I'm in my usual aerie right now (the cardiac telemetry waiting room), and just learned via text message that a third Korean friend, Mrs. Bishop, has arrived to see Mom. Many thanks to her as well for visiting. I suppose I should head back to Mom's room.



Charles said...

Belated comment. I saw "Tampopo" when I was young, and I remember thinking how messed up (I thought) it was. I think I understand it a little better now.

Kevin Kim said...

I used scenes from "Tampopo" in an informal course on Asian religions that I'd taught at my church a few years ago. Didn't show the erotic egg yolk scene, but did show the scene where the young businessman showed up his stuffy elders at a French restaurant.

"Tampopo" was also the movie with the infamous "noodle sucking as code for blowjob" scene, long before that scandalous Korean ramyeon commercial from a couple years back.

The "Tampopo" scene that weirded me out the most had less to do with anything about the plot and more to do with acting technique. Do you recall the suave gangster who appears throughout the film? In the end, he gets shot and delivers a long speech to his lover (the lady from the erotic egg yolk scene) about hunting wild boar, stuffing their intestines with Japanese goguma, and roasting them over a fire. What freaked me out was that the gangster died with his eyes open, face-up during a rainstorm. I was astonished that the actor playing the gangster was able to perform that scene without once flinching, despite the fact that raindrops were constantly smacking his eyes.