Sri Daoruang’s heartsick mother treasures her sickly son.
When a young child eats very little, and fails to gain weight over several months, its parents will search avidly for ways to correct the situation. Should the child then begin to eat well, to sleep well, to grow by day and by night, the parents will be happy, and their worries will fade away. But I am not like those parents . . .
It was very difficult for us to have a child. I went to the obstetrician only three weeks after I missed my period. My husband had been advised to take me to a doctor who was also a professor of obstetrics. He worked for a government hospital and had private office hours in the evening.
I did everything the doctor suggested. I took medicine for morning sickness and tonics to build me up, and every week when I went to see him, I got a hormone injection that he said would be good for the baby. The expense of these weekly visits was considerable, but we were glad to pay. I was grateful to feel safe and warm, week after week, under the doctor’s watchful eye.
During those months, friends who knew how difficult it had been for us to have a child were full of advice, especially about what I should eat, so that both the baby and I would be strong and healthy. My husband forbade me to do any strenuous activity. I had to present a good reason for walking up the stairs. We have no servant, and he took on all the household tasks.
My stomach grew very large. We dreamed, during those months, of a big, strong child, and I myself suspected that I might give birth to twins. A very large baby, or twins . . . Would it be a difficult birth? I would willingly endure it.
At last, our Tanoo was born. He weighed four pounds, and his heart was defective. His mouth was blue and his tiny fingernails were rounded and thick.
During his first few months of life, whenever I took him out, whispers followed us.
“Look at that baby . . . so pale, but—bluish—”
“Why is he that color?”
“They’ll never raise that one.”
Often, I had to stop and answer questions. People walking down the street would ask about Tanoo just as casually as they might ask, “What do you think of this weather?” or, “Have you had lunch yet?” Having asked their questions, they would go on, their duty done.
We live in a neighborhood on the edge of Bangkok that is much like a village. Our neighbors felt a different duty, which was to give advice, from the heart. They gave us the names of doctors, institutes, and hospitals that we should try. And remedies that we should try ourselves. Nor did their advice stop with medical remedies. They were also concerned about the details of Tanoo’s upbringing.
“You make that child play in dirt and sand. That will strengthen him.”
“Look at those flat feet. They look like the bottoms of the Lord Buddha’s feet on holy statues. You know what that means—the child has a great destiny. But, my dear, I can tell you why he doesn’t walk so good yet. He needs to walk on the grass when it’s still wet with dew. You put that child out on the grass before the dew is off, and he’ll get some strength in those legs. Dew makes the bones strong.”
“Condensed milk, that’s what he needs. It always works. I never saw it fail, you give a baby condensed milk, and that baby puts on weight.”
I could not believe in the remedies they suggested, but I understood that they meant well. Even when they looked at Tanoo as if he were a strange creature.
“How old? What are you feeding that child?”
“My little boy is three months younger than him, and he’s twice that size . . .”
I tried to contain myself. Perhaps I will have to contain myself all of Tanoo’s life. Who knows? Perhaps for all of my own life, too. As for Tanoo’s papa, he has no patience whatsoever with people’s comments. He believes that their remarks, in addition to doing no good at all, don’t come from the heart. He believes that holding up “the problem areas of people’s lives” for scrutiny is a matter of insult, and that an insult deserves to be answered in kind.
We do not agree on this subject. However . . .
During the first year of Tanoo’s life, his doctor at the hospital gave us advice that has been difficult to follow. He said that it was important for us to raise Tanoo like any ordinary child, so that, if he did grow to adulthood, he would not have an inferiority complex. Then he told us that we should not allow Tanoo to tire out and that we must try to prevent his catching colds and other illnesses, because he is more apt to contract secondary infections than are other children.
Tanoo perspires so much while he sleeps that his pillow and mattress are always damp when he awakens in the morning. His hands and feet are always warm, and he doesn’t like to have covers over him when he sleeps. I wipe his tender skin with a soft cloth, and during the hot season I turn the fan on low to keep him dry when he sleeps. It is turned on during his midday nap, whatever the time of year. I buy the softest, lightest clothing I can for him, but even so, sometimes he refuses to sleep with a shirt on. When he gets a cold, he perspires more, and if I do not keep his head dry, blisters cover his forehead.
And yet, who does not know that Tanoo is the star of our hearts? We are exactly like other parents. He was the cutest little baby in the world, and now he is the cutest little boy. It is what I think, although I know what other people see, from a distance: a small, homely boy whose head is too large, whose ears stick out, and who is very thin.
From a distance that is what they see. They don’t notice the clear, sparkling, round eyes. The beautiful long eyelashes. The clean, white little teeth.
Tanoo didn’t begin to walk until he was nearly three, but he could sing several songs before he could walk. He even remembered whole poems that his papa and I had read to him.
He has a fierce temper and is angered easily, but before long, he becomes my sweet boy again. Tanoo is like his papa in this respect. When he cries, we can almost always make him laugh, and he hugs us happily, the tears still wet on his face.
He loves to play with a necklace of tamarind seeds that the girl next door made and left at our house. He will sit very still with his legs crossed, running the tamarind seeds between his fingers and pretending to be a monk he saw saying prayers on television.
He also loves an Ace bandage I used when I sprained my ankle. He patiently wraps himself up in it, unwinds it, then wraps himself up in it again, until he has exhausted its possibilities. But of the real toys in the house, nothing is as precious to him as his train.
It is quite a trip from our house to the hospital. Usually, we take the train. Although the noise of its whistle is so terrifying that Tanoo covers his ears, grows paler than ever, and finally takes his hands off his ears and clings to me in terror, when we return home all he talks about is trains, trains, trains.
He will drag his train around the house on a string. Or make his own line of “cars”—a small chair, a piece of brick, a basket, a stick, a flower, all in a row. Then Mama and Papa must come and admire. “Chook-chuck-chook-chuck, boo-oon boo-oon! Mama, it’s my train. See, Papa? This is Train 555, the rocket-train.”
Mama and Papa must listen with interest and show that they are impressed.
Sometimes Tanoo will play by himself for a long time, or just sit watching leaves flutter in the breeze or clouds float by in the sky. This can last for hours. One afternoon we heard him call out to a little bird that sits on a branch outside the door crying “Jiaw! Jiaw!” He asked the bird, “Are you going to bring me kai jiaw?” and laughed heartily. (Jiaw is the sound a little bird makes, and kai jiaw means “omelet.” My clever Tanoo!) Another time he called out to a grass snake, inviting it to come and share his candy with him.
On a sultry night, he called through his window, “Moon, are you hot up there?” And another night, when he could see only one star in the sky, he pointed at it and asked me, “Where have all his friends gone?”
“Ah, the moon is gone, too,” I said. “Maybe they have all gone off to buy a present for Tanoo.” He liked that.
When he’s sat playing by himself for a long time, or when I have been absorbed in my work for too long to suit him, he will suddenly appear beside me, and ask the questions that he asks several times every day.
“Mama. Do you think about Tanoo a lot?”
Each time, I feel the same cold little stab. When I answer, without looking up from my work, “Thinking of you, Tanoo,” he adds, “And loving?”
It is a game, a ritual that is important to Tanoo. If instead of saying, “Thinking of you, Tanoo,” I say, “Hmm, no thinking,” or, “no loving,” he throws himself into my lap and holds onto me tightly. He looks up with a beseeching, pitiable expression on his face, raises his eyebrows, draws them together in the middle, and makes a silly face.
“Think about Tanoo!” he commands. “Love Tanoo!”
Often he will decide that it is time for me to stop working, time to play with Tanoo. I know that he is lonely. There are no children of his age near us, and I am usually busy. Too often for Tanoo anyway. Sometimes I will leave my work and play with him.
But I have my irritable days, too, and I cannot always drop everything and play. Then he will whine, and fly at me, and perhaps, in exasperation, I will reach out as he hops by in his rage and tap him lightly on the behind with my hand.
“Ooh, you hurt me! Ooh, my poor bottom where you hit me! Kiss my bottom where you hit me. Oh, my poor bottom. Make it better, Mama.”
“Ooh, don’t hit me, Mama! I’m going to grab your hand, and I’m going to stop your hand from hitting me!”
All this for a tap on his behind. But, wise child that he is, he recently adopted a new tactic. When he sees that I am in a bad mood, and that his whining or irritating behavior is going to end badly for him soon, he will quickly turn to me and say, “Let me hug you, Mama, and make you feel better.”
The pediatric cardiology appointments at the hospital are on Wednesday and Friday. The children’s symptoms are varied, but most of them look weak. They don’t run around and play in the waiting room. Many of them are thin and pale and they walk in a tentative way.
Some of them seem to be sick all the time. Some have bad teeth. Some are mentally slow, too. The fathers and mothers look at each other, and exchange looks of deep understanding.
Some of the parents never sit with the group. They walk slowly back and forth before the windows, or wander off into the X-ray department waiting room, which has fewer people in it. From time to time they turn and look back and then hold the child in their arms a little closer, as if they were afraid that we are going to get up, come after them, and run away with it.
When Tanoo was not quite a year old, the doctor told us that he needed a special X-ray so that they could see the place where they would operate on him. When Tanoo’s papa asked whether it was a dangerous procedure, the doctor replied that he could not guarantee anything. But what did it matter? We knew that the chance must be taken.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, though,” the doctor said. “All we are going to do is to sedate him, inject dye into the veins, and take an X-ray. It is a very common procedure.”
They injected him with a sedative and I carried him into the room marked “Cardiac Catheterization.”
He hadn’t fallen asleep yet. Two little girls, about nine and ten, were also waiting, and they too had been given injections but were still awake. Finally, a nurse gave all three of them additional injections, and Tanoo was the first to fall asleep.
The nurse comforted me and said that Tanoo seemed like a very clever little boy. Then she said that it would be a good idea if I had another baby.
I had to fight back tears of anger. I wanted to tell her that I want no replacement for Tanoo, not even another child of my own. No one could take his place. But I said nothing, because of the two frightened, crying little girls whose bodies still fought sleep. I forced myself to smile and tried to give them a little courage. “Look,” I said, “Tanoo is just a little baby, and he isn’t frightened at all. Besides, if it were scary and dangerous to do this, do you think I would let him go in there?”
They sniffled quietly together. They had no parents or relatives to wait with them because they were from a village up-country. A visit from their parents would mean a journey of many days to Bangkok.
It was time to carry Tanoo into the operating room. It was cold in there and furnished with large machines. The people who would do the procedure entered. They moved stiffly because of the huge, thick plastic garments of red and green they wore over their clothes. They looked like actors in the Roman theater. Everything was huge: the people, their clothing, their machines, the table about which they lumbered as they prepared to work on the child who seemed so much tinier than he had moments before.
The catheterization was over, leaving a small wound in Tanoo’s groin. In one more week, they would operate to improve the blood flow between Tanoo’s heart and lungs. This would not be the “big” operation. That would come someday.
I was determined that Tanoo’s papa should carry him to the operating room, that he should be the one, this time, to hand him to the nurse. He refused. He would not hand him over, and he would not see his son go into the operating room.
I prayed for something to happen to my arms, so that even his small weight would be impossible for them to bear. My fear, which I could tell no one, seemed senseless even to me: if I gave Tanoo to them, when they gave him back to me would all of him still be there?
There we were again, waiting outside an operating room. Tanoo lay across my lap already unconscious from an injection of something obviously much stronger than the sedative they had given him before the catheterization. Somewhere, not very far away, I knew that his papa sat waiting. I could see him in my mind: he sits, he rises, he walks, then sits again. He waits.
I let my tears fall on Tanoo’s face. I held him tighter, kissed his cheek, his forehead, his milk-scented mouth. I whispered into his ear, “Tanoo, come back.”
The nurse came for us. At once, my arms and legs began to tremble. I rose and followed her. My mind was full of questions, but no sound would come out of my throat. At the door, she turned, and I reached out, and put my heart into her hands.
It isn’t very hot, or very cool tonight. It is rather late. The sound of the clock in the room is like a faint, even heartbeat. Tanoo is fast asleep. I sit and watch him in the quiet darkness, and I think of all that has happened during his life.
“Stay with me, Tanoo.”
It is something I say to my son when I sit in the darkness and watch him sleep. The little forehead and the hair are damp with sweat. The shirt, too. I make his nightshirts out of old, soft diapers. Every evening before the night air has become cool, I wipe the perspiration from his skin with a soft towel soaked in tepid water. The scar from that first operation extends from beneath his right nipple down under his arm and across to the middle of his back. It is clearly visible, even in the faint glow from the nightlight.
Carefully, I lie down beside him, trying not to wake him. I want to slip my arm under his pillow and hold him for just a few minutes before I go. He doesn’t like to be held while he sleeps, so I move cautiously, holding my breath. I hear his heart, which beats more quickly than mine, and louder. It beats more slowly now, when he is asleep. And it makes a sound my heart does not make, a sound I cannot stop myself from listening to. It is a whispering sound, “Foo-oo, foo-oo, foo-oo,” a whispering that continues all day and all night, between the beats.
I am about to rise and leave when he begins to talk in his sleep.
“Mama, where are you?” He grabs at the air.
“Here, son. I am right here.”
He often talks in his sleep, but I never get used to it. When I have calmed him, I lie down once again. I don’t leave. What would the psychologists say? I know. They are right. A mother who sleeps in her son’s bed, who will not endure his crying in the night, who thinks only of the pain in those bright, brown eyes, of the heart that will beat faster, faster when he is afraid . . . what kind of a man will such a mother make of her son? I don’t leave.
Sometimes when everyone is fast asleep, Tanoo will let out a piercing scream and call for Mama or for Papa. Or mumble about a bad dog that bites; or, argue over a toy with an imaginary friend. Or, worst of all, just sob into his pillow, saying, “Ooh, you are mad at Tanoo . . .”
During an ordinary day, in front of my husband, or the neighbors, I do not let my weakness and my fear be seen. The two of us, mother and child, we play together, talk, laugh, and bicker. My husband will shake his head and say, “What a pair.”
The two of them play an odd little game. Tanoo’s papa comforts himself with it.
“This is how it’s going to be, Tanoo,” he will say, creeping up on Tanoo in a slow, scary, thrilling way. “I’m going to push this button, and then you will have to stay with Papa until you are an old, old man . . . seventy-two . . . and four months . . . and two more days.” Or, “Ah, Tanoo,” lifting him up and settling him into his lap, “You must be a doctor, like your grandfather. Not a pauper of a writer like your papa. No, Tanoo, I will not allow it.” Tanoo will stare solemnly into his papa’s eyes and nod.
But often, my husband will become gloomy and warn me, as if I needed to be reminded, “Don’t love him so much.”
Usually I walk away when he starts with such talk, but sometimes I lose my temper.
“We have to live from day to day like everyone else. We can’t sit and worry about him all the time. We have to love him as much as we can and be as happy as we can be. Doesn’t that make more sense to you than this daily suffering?”
Tanoo’s papa holds me in his arms and says, “My dear, fathers are not as strong as mothers.”
But neither he nor anyone else knows how I am when I am alone. I cannot keep from thinking, You are my beloved child, Tanoo, and the doctors refuse to promise me your future.
If it happens.
How shall I live? Tanoo’s papa wonders the same thing. I look at him, I know.
The clothing I have made for Tanoo with my own hands, his favorite toys—the train, the dump truck, the laser gun, the astronaut. His favorite bedtime stories. How could I bear to look at them, or to touch them? Would I give them all away?
I cannot help thinking these thoughts. My mind grows confused, disordered, irrational. I go further and descend into the worst thoughts. Could I say, “Now is the time,” and take that little body to the monks at the temple to be cremated? No. I will take good care of him, and he will never leave me.
Time goes by. My Tanoo is three and a half now. But his weight has not gone up in seven months. I’m not the only one who’s distressed. The doctor seems angry. Since the first operation, the blueness has gone away, and his fingernails no longer have that thickened, rounded look. But his breathing is still not normal. There is still a leak in his heart. He still perspires, even in cool weather. He gets frequent colds and has a difficult time getting over them. The doctor says that the first operation was only to relieve the “blue baby” symptoms. The big operation, the one to repair the heart itself, cannot be undertaken until Tanoo weighs at least thirty pounds. Or until his symptoms become alarming and we are forced to take the chance.
We and the doctor agree that the best thing is to wait until Tanoo reaches the desired weight and to enjoy each other as much as we can until then. If possible, the doctor would like to perform the operation before Tanoo goes to school. He has prescribed a new medication, something to improve Tanoo’s appetite. Tanoo made a face when he tasted it. I tried it; it is sickeningly sweet. Nevertheless, it has become a part of his life, and he takes it without complaint. To my surprise, it works, but when we ran out of the first bottle before his next appointment, within two days he was picking at his food, leaving it on the plate.
Now the second bottle is half gone. If Tanoo continues to eat well and sleep well, and if his weight climbs toward thirty pounds, the doctor can begin to think about operating. But he won’t promise anything. Tanoo must take his chances. Doesn’t everyone who has an operation, young or old, take a chance? Does anyone extract that promise from the doctor? That’s what I think, anyway.
Life, for Tanoo, has all been a preparation for this battle.
Well, then. When a young child eats very little, and fails to gain weight over several months, its parents will search relentlessly for ways to remedy the situation. Should the child then begin to eat well, to sleep well, to grow by day and by night, the parents will be happy, and their worries will fade away. But I am not like those parents . . .
I am a mother who has no choices. I lift a spoonful of food to my child’s mouth and my hand trembles. Am I giving him strength and life, or am I hastening the arrival of the day when I lose him forever?
I do not know about fate. I do not believe in karma. But I have faith in the words that echo in my mind . . .
“This is how it’s going to be, Tanoo . . . I’m going to push this button, and then you will have to stay with Papa until you are an old, old man . . . seventy-two . . . and four months . . . ”
My eyes are blind with tears.
“ . . . and two more days.”
© Sri Daoruang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Susan F. Kepner. All rights reserved.