The Astonishing Thing that Happens When You Reveal Your Most Personal Secrets
My mother is Chinese, apple shaped, with a frizzy home-dyed bob. Dad's a white guy with a bad toupee. They're not getting any younger, as Mom likes to remind me: "How come you no call me back? You know I gonna die soon." She's been in the States for 49 years and still sounds like she arrived yesterday.
For most of my life, I never thought about Mom's age. She still cooks huge dinners. The only health issue that's plagued her is hives, which she developed in 2003. They were so bad, they sometimes flared up in her throat. She was on a strict diet and a regimen of cortisones, antihistamines, blood pressure pills, and Xanax. (Or at least she told me it was Xanax; once, she offered me one, and it turned out to be Zyrtec.) The drugs made her spacey, forgetful. She was happy to share her misery with strangers.
"I love shrimp. But it make itch all over my body," she'd tell the waitress.
One day she decided to quit her meds. Her hives disappeared. Her mood lifted. She started eating everything she thought she was allergic to. It made no sense.
Not long after, she came to my house for dinner. When we finished, she helped me clean the kitchen.
"Hey, Monee, you wanna hear a secret?" she asked.
"Sure," I said.
She leaned in. "I 82 years old."
"What? No you're not, you're 76."
"No, I say 76. I 82." She beamed.
"Don't I look good? I tell you this so you know you no need a facelift."
"I wasn't going to get a facelift," I said, dazed. "Is Dad really 72?"
"Yes, I ten years older. Your daddy divorce me if he find out. He no want to be married to a old woman."
I asked her how, in half a century, Dad hadn't noticed the discrepancy.
"Is all changed," she said.
While she was attending college in the '60s, a friend took out her calligraphy set and turned 1932 into 1938 on my mom's Taiwanese visa. With that, my mother's age changed for good.
Mom kept grinning. I didn't get what she was so happy about.
"I told you I almost dead!" she said.
I don't know why the lie came as a shock. Mom was no stranger to secrets. I was in college when she called one day, starting the usual way: "Monee, what you eat today?"
"I don't know, Mom. Chicken," I said.
"What kind? It taste good?"
"It was chicken, Mom."
"Okay, okay," she said. "You wanna hear a secret? You know Sarah?"
"The lady who works with you?"
"She your sister," she said. "I no tell your daddy when we marry, only tell about Lulu"—Lulu being her daughter from a previous marriage. "One daughter no big deal, can be mistake. Two daughter—no look so good."
When I was a kid, Mom's word had been gospel. Two-way conversations didn't exist; if we disagreed, she'd say, "I Chinese mother. Don't ask question." But now the secrets began trickling out. Minor plastic surgeries. Affairs with high-profile men. And she was six years closer to death than I'd realized.
I'd never acknowledged that Mom would someday die. Hell, I'd barely considered that she could die. Now I'm fixated on her mortality. I cannot imagine not having her here.
Yet she seems healthier, lighter, than she has in years. Maybe because the burden of her lies has been lifted.
Recently, Mom told a story about a visit to the post office: "A nice man help me. He ask where I from. I say Taiwan. His wife from Taiwan, too. He say she 73. I say how old are you? He say 53. I say you got a bad deal!"
Mom cocked her head toward Dad, then "winked" by squeezing both eyes open and shut a few times.
"Someone else got a bad deal, too!"
Dad was oblivious. And Mom just laughed and laughed.
Monique Barry lives in Los Angeles and is writing a collection of personal essays.