The Other is Gold

by Richard Lin

           On the first day, one of the staff members provides me with a brief orientation and tour of the facilities. Its most distinct feature is the hospital smell with hints of disinfectant, iodine, and witch hazel. The look also resembles a hospital overall, aside from larger rooms for each guest and the common areas filled with the elderly in varying states of engagement with the world around them.

           The staff member introduces me to Gertie and Maddie. It seems that they are inseparable, and they have chosen to be next-door neighbors. Gertie is blind, fussy, highly reliant on Maddie. Meanwhile, Maddie is lighthearted, garrulous, loves to take care of Gertie. Best friends forever, except when they’re not. Infrequently, strife flares between the two, usually because Gertie is in a dour mood over having to rely on Maddie. The latter then tries to compensate while feeling a touch underappreciated.

           This is where I come in. Four days a week, I spend time with the two of them. I play Chinese Checkers with them when they need a third player. I play hearts with them when they need a fourth. Gertie, who is German-American, informs me that Chinese Checkers is, in reality, a German creation. Meanwhile, I let her know that hearts is, in fact, a Chinese game originally. After we both do some research, we end up concurring with each other.

           All these games are in braille, so Gertie plays as well. When Maddie needs a break, I read to Gertie her favorites from the Georgian romance trifecta of Austen, Brontë, and Brontë. Lastly, and most critically, on the rare days when they bicker, I act as the go-between, shuttling back and forth between their two rooms, passing along a steady stream of messages while they are supposedly submitting the other to the silent treatment.

           I also get to know an elderly gentleman I first call Mr. Donato, but who insists I just call him Dom. When I inform him that I cannot address an elder merely by his first name as I am of Chinese descent, we settle on me calling him Uncle Dom (Gertie and Maddie refuse to be called Auntie Gertie and Maddie as they “want to feel young”). He and I pleasantly while away the afternoons chatting about baseball, football, history, and physics as he used to be a high school coach and teacher. I also try to play matchmaker for Uncle Dom as I feel he’s such a stand-up guy, crusty as hell, and hilarious without any sense for political correctness.

           “So, Uncle Dom, I noticed Abigail checking you out today during snack hour.”

           “Oh? How could you tell? She’s as cross-eyed as a crossword puzzle.”

           “I’m pretty sure she was looking at you with intent.”

           “More likely, she was checking out your skinny ass, but her cross-eyes made you think she was looking my way.”

           “Well, then what about Mary? She’s quite cute. And definitely into you.”

           “Which one? Short Mary or Tall Mary?"

           “Uh, Short Mary.”

           “Too short. It’d be like hanging around a munchkin.”

           “Then what about Tall Mary?”

           “Too damn tall. Would be like dating Miss America, but older and not as pretty in a swimsuit.”

           “Aw, c’mon, Uncle Dom. You gotta pick someone here. It’s a target-rich environment.”

           “I don’t gotta pick anyone. And you young people gotta stop talking like you’re in Top Gun all the time,” Uncle Dom says.

           Truth is, he’s lonely but doesn’t really need anyone. If he were surrounded every day by all the actual Miss America contestants, he’d likely find fault in every one of them. I get the sense that he has been burned by love once or twice too many times. All he needs are his VHS movie collection, sports on TV, history and science books. And perhaps his son, whom he speaks of all the time but whom I have never encountered despite all my visits.

           As Thanksgiving approaches, I broach the subject with Dad and Mom about inviting Gertie, Maddie, and Dom to our house for dinner. They are both for it, but Dad opts out of attending. He doesn’t explain why, but Mom hints that he may be uncomfortable around old people and those with disabilities. She shares with me how A-Gong once got extremely pissed at him when Dad balked at helping A-Ma change her urinary bag while she was dying of ovarian cancer. I don’t mind Dad excusing himself from the dinner so much as the whole house tends to be much more relaxed when he is not around.

           Gertie and Maddie eagerly accept my invitation, but Dom graciously turns it down. His son will visit him for Thanksgiving, and together they will go out for turkey dinner. He’s excited by the prospect, and when I come over to pick up Gertie and Maddie on the evening of the feast, I help him to put on his favorite tie (well, the only one without a stain) and best (well, only) suit. Uncle Dom wants me to meet his son as he says I remind me of him, but I need to get going with Gertie and Maddie.

           Both gals dress up like they are going to opening night at Cannes. I feel a bit underdressed in a purple Polo shirt, white Members Only jacket, and blue jeans. Gertie has sprayed a perfume dripping with hints of bergamot and jasmine, while Maddie sports darker tones of black cardamom and white musk. I step in between them, offer each an arm, and escort them out to our chariot, the Dodge Dart. Gertie gets a bit nervous as we step out of the familiar environs of the care center, but she visibly relaxes once we get into the car.

           When we arrive at our house, Gertie tenses up again. I ask her, “You okay?”

           “Yes,” she replies. “I’m just a bit nervous about using chopsticks. I haven’t used any in a long while. What if I use the wrong end?”

           “It’s like riding a bike, Gertie. Plus, the good thing with chopsticks is there is no right or wrong end. You can use either one,” which is a white lie, but I tell it as I don’t want her to freak out. “And if you don’t feel comfy with chopsticks, you can use a fork.”

           “What if I use the wrong end of your fork?” she says, half-jokingly.

           Mom serves up some excellent Chinese to accompany a big-ass turkey that she stuffed herself. It’s a pleasant evening, and all goes smoothly, including with the chopsticks and forks. Gertie tries almost every dish except for the tofu, while Maddie lives up to her name and goes mad over everything. Whenever the conversation runs dry, Mei picks it right back up with one of her silly stories, which somehow Gertie and Maddie find endearing. I realize tonight that only three types of people genuinely enjoy listening to my little sister: old people, babies, and those that want to zone out like an old person or baby.

           After dinners and a few rounds of goodbye hugs with Mom and Mei, I take Gertie and Maddie back home. Both fall quiet on the way home, so I put on Barry Manilow, whom I figure is every elderly ladies’ secret crush. As the stereo soars to the chorus of “Looks Like We Made It,” I think about its lyrics of moving on and finding someone new, while the heart yet yearns for the one you still love.

*****

           Uncle Dom sits alone at the entrance of the care center. He sees me and offers a weak smile as I wave and walk past, escorting Gertie and Maddie back to their rooms. After wishing both goodnight, I rush back to Dom.

           “Uncle Dom, you okay?”

           He doesn’t say a word. He just nods twice and then looks away. I kneel by his wheelchair and hold his hand.

           I’m afraid to ask, so I don’t. Instead, Dom speaks up first, “San Francisco.”

           “San Francisco?”

           “Yeah. He had to go to San Francisco. My son.”

           I feel a stab of pain deep in my heart since I had suspected but hoped that this would not happen.

           “I’m sorry. I’m sure he wanted to be here with you, Uncle Dom.”

           “Yeah, you’re right,” Dom says. A single tear wells up in each eye. He pats my hand and offers me a smile as if to make me feel better.

           “I wish you had come home with us for dinner.”

           “I know, me too.”

           After a while, Dom wants to go to sleep. I push him back to his room in his wheelchair and help him into bed. I give him a peck on his cheek, and he holds and pats both my hands once again. Then he closes his eyes to shut out the evening, one that has passed so sadly for him.

           As I drive home, I feel a wave of deep-seated anger towards his son. Chinese parents hammer into their children from a very tender age the importance of family and taking care of their parents as they get older. Nursing homes are out of the question for many Chinese. And if elderly parents have to live in a care center, frequent and extended visits are de rigueur. Whether it comes from the heart or mind, whether it is out of love, duty, or appearances, the Chinese spend time with their elders. It’s natural and expected.

           For the first time, I realize that the independence and individualism that I strive for as I chafe under my parents’ control may come with a hefty price later in life. I don’t want ever to have a stranger see on my parents’ face the hurt and dejection that I witnessed on Uncle Dom’s tonight. Nor, when I am old and gray, would I ever want to communicate these sad sentiments with my eyes to any young man, no matter how kind he might be.

           On the spot, I swear I will never be like Uncle Dom’s son, even with Dad, despite our anger and animus. Moreover, I promise to myself not to abandon Dom, Gertie, or Maddie. However, truth be told, after my semester of community service at the care center concludes, I go back a few more times, and then I too fade from their lives. It becomes my first of many lessons that, in the end, perhaps we all fall victim to our own best intentions as we move on from the ones we love.

Concurrent statement from the author and editors:

With the recent escalation of violence against Asian-Americans, many against the elderly, we hope this piece is a timely reminder of and call to action against the marginalization and discrimination that the elderly often face as a population.

About the Author

After thirty years as a corporate executive, Richard Lin recently retired to focus on writing, philanthropy, and his family of one extraordinary wife, three lively kids, and nine adventurous hamsters. “The Other is Gold” is excerpted from his memoir, Arizona Awakening, the first in a series of four centered on themes of interracial romance, intergenerational immigrant conflict, and cultural identity. Aside from Prometheus Dreaming, Richard’s work has started to appear in The Dillydoun ReviewThe Write LaunchPotato Soup Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and other literary journals. He can be reached via his author website, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (@LinChenghao).