Based on a true story- a coincidence too strange and too tragic to go untold.
“Mama?” The word was foreign to both of them. The mother continued to stare at the veins on her fingers until the daughter stood over her. At the sight of her daughter, the mother’s pulse quickened. Before the daughter had appeared, the LDS hospital café had been a place of solitude. Only two other nurses had occupied the café, their heads rested on their open palms in silence, as if saying a prayer. Now the daughter was one extra body, one more nurse to fill up the entire room. The mother’s fingers tightened around her mug.
The daughter sat down out of her own volition. The mother only stared blankly at the daughter’s face and tried to make sense of the word. Mom. Ma. Mama. Mu qin. Where had she been when she last heard those words? How long ago had they been spoken?
The daughter held her in an interrogative stare. Time seemed to freeze that way. The mother fixed her skirt from under her legs as she seemed to remember herself. “Lin,” she said in a way that expressed pleasantry rather than surprise. “Have you come here for the coffee?”
The daughter’s eyes turned incredulous. “No. I work here. Mom, why are you here?”
The mother folded her hands on the table and looked at her untouched soup, evading the daughter’s gaze. “This is a good café,” she answered pleasantly. She knew what her daughter was asking, but it was an inconvenient question to answer. “I come here for lunch sometimes. They have good broth. You should try sometime. I know everything in this hospital is good quality. The doctors are all smart men.” The English words felt loose on her Chinese tongue. The mother’s attempt at small talk only invited more searching expressions from the daughter.
The daughter waited. The mother focused on the wisps of steam that curled away from her mug of water. Eventually the daughter nodded towards the mother’s ring finger. “Did you remarry?”
“Yes,” the older woman answered as she turned her gold wedding band on a veined finger. “To a Mormon. I’m a Mormon now.”
“That’s why you’re here?” the daughter asked, finally reaching her answer. “Because you’ve married a Mormon?”
The mother turned to look out of the windows to the cold, grey city. Utah’s capital. The Jerusalem of the Latter Day Saints. She never though she would end up in Salt Lake City, where the snows fell even harder than during a Shan Dong winter. “Yes,” she answered. “It’s a beautiful city.”
One of the nurses stood up and returned their tray of food to the kitchen. The other remained sitting in a bent posture, face hidden behind his open hands.
“Are you happy?”
The question hurt. The mother seemed to remember that her soup was getting cold. She held a spoonful of it to her mouth. “I’ve missed good broth.”
“Ma.” The word was spoken in a harsh tone like the Chinese word for chastisement and abuse. “I need a real answer from you.”
“No,” she finally brought herself to say. It was hard for her to make the words travel the years of silence between them. “I was happy but now…” The mother’s eyes were glassy, but she could not cry. She took a sip of her broth. She noticed her daughter’s wedding ring and felt a sense of helplessness and shame. She could not look at this woman, and yet the mother felt compelled to burden her all the same.
“He beats me,” she continued, her voice unwavering. “He broke a plate over my head. I can’t leave him though. I have nowhere else to go.” The mother looked up at her daughter then.
The daughter’s face was still and silent and hard as stone. She could see a bit of herself in her daughter’s face. The daughter still had a boyish hairstyle. She remembered the day the daughter had come home one hot California afternoon with her hair all cut off, holding the hands of another young girl. The mother had to look away.
The daughter unfolded her arms then and surrendered her hard gaze. “Mom, you have to tell someone about this. You have to tell the police.”
The mother began to twist her napkin. “Take me home with you.”
The daughter shook her head. “I’m sorry, mom, I can’t help you right now. I have a life now. In about five minutes I have to go back to work. I just can’t.”
The mother looked desperately around the café. A young couple walked in and sat next to the salad bar. They looked so happy, a child clearly on the way. The mother forgot her shame and now felt only anger. “Is this how you honor your mother who raised you and fed you? You make excuses?”
The daughter’s face hardened again. “Raise me? Have you forgotten that it’s been twelve years? I got a college degree. I paid my own way. I went to medical school. And Angie? Yeah, I married her. But were you there? Even as a kid I was only ever your burden. Once I left for college and you left my life, I had no one.” She shook her head. “Don’t say you raised me.”
The mother dropped the napkin from her fiddling hands. She wanted to say something but her shame cemented her throat. The daughter stood up and pushed in her chair. “I have to go back to work,” she said, all business. “Please, take care. Talk to someone about your husband. Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”
“Wait,” the mother said in a feeble voice before her daughter could turn way. She forced her eyes to remain dry despite the guilt and fear she felt welling up inside her chest.
The daughter sighed. “You know, I was really excited when I first recognized you. I saw you sitting here and I thought that maybe you would have cried. I thought that maybe we would have hugged and you would have told me you had been searching for me all this time. You know I had really hoped you’d have told me you loved me for once, and that you missed me. Instead you looked as if you had seen a ghost, or rather a monster.” The daughter stood tall. “Bye mama,” she said bitterly. “Enjoy your broth.”
The mother watched her daughter leave, her eyes as dry as glass. Twelve years. It had been twelve years since she was last called mother.