Interlude Chapter: Confessions on **Auntie Audrey
Just before school finished in the summer of 1992 and I was about to turn 10-years-old, my family and I completely split up and went out separate ways.
My Mom had officially left my Dad, sister, and me when she married and lived together with the man she had an affair with in a small and cozy basement apartment with cluttered belongings in Flushing, Queens. My somber older sister was at writing camp with her floppy disks and wild mind filled with stories running rampant. My Dad had thrown himself into pile-high papers and long office hours in an air-conditioned office as he crammed away at scientific research and experiments. Then, there was me. I was looking forward to those summers of cartoons, smooth ice cream sliding down my throat, and our big red brick house all to myself to do whatever I wanted and whenever I wanted.
My Dad had other plans. He was sending me away that summer to Canada to stay with my **Auntie Audrey and cousins **Edward and **Jill. I had never met them before.
The car ride to Canada was over ten hours. I spent that time crooning aloud to Mariah Carey and Madonna. I would only speak up when spoken to or whenever I had to go to the bathroom and eat McDonald’s at a rest stop. My Dad spent the hours silent and staring straight ahead with his hands clenched on the steering wheel. I noticed that the skin of his fingers were cracked and peeled. Whenever my Dad worried, he bit the surfaced layer of his skin and spit out until his fingers were nearly raw.
In a long car ride such as the one to Canada, the number one thing to do is to get lost in thoughts. So, I thought I lot about my Mom and if she was enjoying her new life with this new man. I wondered when I would no longer feel that tight squeeze of sadness and anger in my chest when I thought about my Mom. I thought a lot about my Dad and if he still loved me even after all my complicated health problems since childhood and how they contributed to the demise of my parents’ marriage. I wondered about my sister and if her silence meant that she still hated me or was reeling from our broken family like I was. I thought about how great that summer had finally arrived because I would not have to be in school and around my seemingly perfect peers who did not have the uncontrollable bladder that would let loose urine at any given moment or who were not overweight with the need to constantly eat because of the Prednisone immunosuppressant medication.
When my Dad pulled our blue Windstar mini-van into the driveway of the most beautiful house I had ever seen with the exception of **Gina’s, I suddenly froze and my infamously happy demeanor and smile disappeared. That is when it hit me. What were these summers going to be like without my Dad and sister? Would my Dad and sister leave me with this strange aunt like my Mom had left?
A tall, thin, and statuesque woman in simple and fashionable clothes emerged from the house with a graceful stride. She was just as beautiful and flawless as the house before me with her jet-black hair in a shoulder-length perm style and her charcoal mascara and eyeliner outlining her luminous and sharp black eyes. She approached my Dad first, touched his hands tightly, and then reached over to put her arm around him awkwardly. I felt like an intruder watching their unexplainable and emotional reunion. They began to speak rapidly in a foreign language that I did not recognize, which I learned later on was Cantonese.
My Dad seemed to remember that I was there at some point when he introduced me to this tall lady as: “Mary, this is your Auntie Audrey. She’s going to take care of you this summer and probably next summer.”
I expected her to wrap me in a hug and coo superficially over me as most adults did over children, but she shocked and scared me with a pat on the shoulder and saying in a serene voice: “Good to meet you, Mary.”
I was not accustomed to this calm and almost cold behavior. I had grown up surrounded by people pinching my cheeks, coddling me, and clamoring over how cute I was and how brave I was to have gone through all I had gone through with my kidney transplant and multiple health episodes that started from the time I was born. I gulped and braced myself for what was about to happen.
My Auntie Audrey gave my Dad and me the tour of her absolutely spotless home with two bedrooms for my cousins and I was to stay in the guest room that was nauseating with its peach-colored décor. Peach comforter and bedspread. Peach drapes. Even the carpet was a very, very pale peach. I preferred my cousin Jill’s bedroom with her million stuffed animals sitting comfortably on her bed. However, almost every other room on the main floor was white. Her kitchen was all white. The foyer was all white. Even the main living room and dining room had a cream color to them. However, the family room was the one cozy and homey room with magazines scattered around, relaxed leather couches, and a TV and stereo system. As for my Auntie Audrey’s bedroom, it was tucked away on the other side of Jill and Edward’s bedrooms with an aura of “DO NOT ENTER, UNLESS ALLOWED.”
My Dad and Auntie Audrey continued to talk in Cantonese, while I wandered around aimlessly and digested my surroundings. The dawning realization was blanketing me that this was going to be my home this summer. There was a mahogany piano with miniature alcohol bottles lined like soldiers on top. My Auntie Audrey interrupted my wordless tour when she said: “Your cousin Jill collects those and small perfume bottles.” I looked up at her with an empty expression. She met my gaze as though she was trying to read my mind, but could not.
When my Dad was about to walk out the door and leave me with Auntie Audrey, he looked down at me, reached for my hand, and said quietly: “Be good. I’ll be back before you know it. You are in very good hands with your Auntie Audrey. I’ll call you every single night. I’ll miss you.” He gave me a quick hug and did not look back.
I stood there, staring at the opened door. I never felt more abandoned and alone than ever. First my Mom. Now, my Dad. Now, I had to face Auntie Audrey.
I turned around and met Auntie Audrey’s still stare with a dubious gaze to match. I waited for her to smile as way to draw me into her, but her lips stayed pursed in a line. I waited for her to say: “We are going to have a lot of fun together this summer,” but, instead, she said that she was going to show me how to water the plants.
Water the plants? This woman must be strange to want to show me to water the plants. She showed me how to fill the pale pink water pot and water the plants. There were at least three potted plants in the formal living room, two more in the family living room, and one more in the kitchen. At the end of our lesson of watering plants, she said to me: “Every once a week, you are going to water the plants in the morning. Plants need their water, care, and nurturing, though you won’t see how they thrive until weeks and weeks go by. Every day except for weekends, you are going to get up in the morning before we leave at 9:30AM for your art class to get up, get dressed, and we will set the table together to eat breakfast.”
I stared at her. Get up and get dressed? Art class? I normally never got dressed during the summer. I would literally spend the summer days away in my Disney pajamas. My Auntie Audrey then explained to me that she had a whole schedule laid out for me from Monday to Friday while Saturdays and Sundays were more flexible. Surely, my mouth must have hit the ground and my eyes wider than UFO saucers when she told me of the daily plan. The morning routine of making bed, getting dressed, setting the table, and eating breakfast happened before leaving to go to art class. The art class finished in time for me to eat lunch and run errands with her. By the time we finished running errands, it would be mid to later afternoon and I would help her with making dinner or cleaning the house. After dinner, we would go for walks because, according to Auntie Audrey: “Walking is good exercise and helps digestion.” Auntie Audrey ended the explanation of the daily plans with me by saying that she had chores for me, including polishing the furniture in all the bedrooms and mopping the floors at some point.
My appalled expression transformed into a scrunched up and pouted face with my lower lip stuck out and arms splayed across my chest. What happened to cartoons and ice cream? What kind of summer was this? Some kind of freaky boot camp summer? And, suddenly, the pangs of pain traveled all around my body and particularly in my chest that I wanted my Dad more than anything in the world now. Why did he leave me here all alone? Tears filled up my eyes, but I quickly blinked them back when Auntie Audrey snuck at look at me when she heard me sniffling. Yet again, I thought she would maybe provide some soothing comfort, but her sharp expression said for me to stop right then and there. And, so I did. And, so the adventurous routines with my Auntie Audrey began.
In the beginning, the days were drawn-out and horrific for me. In the mornings, I expectedly woke up to a slightly wet bed even though I wore diapers due to my uncontrollable bladder, and I would miss my Dad all over again. Auntie Audrey did not say anything when she would strip the perfectly peach-colored attired sheets to wash them in the mornings when the stench of my urine was overpowering about two or three days later. She also had not said anything at night when she had to help me put on the diapers. She said that she was soon going to teach me how to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom properly and to no longer wet the bed. When she mentioned that, my expression must have been fearful and shameful because she would immediately say: “Not now…maybe in the next couple of weeks or so when you are more adjusted here.” I swallowed hard and just turned away.
I dragged my feet to get up and get dressed in the morning. I was not a morning person by any means and it never seemed that the scowl on my face would vanish when I was forced to set up the table and eat breakfast, which I was not accustomed to at all. Since my parents divorced, I spent school-free days getting up late and eating a brunch meal of the magically and marshmallowy delicious Lucky Charms cereal. In Auntie Audrey’s home, there were no colorful cartooned cereal boxes with sugary candies and prizes. Instead, there were eggs and toasted light bread with only a little bit of butter and maybe a treat of strawberry jam. I was sullen and half-asleep when I went to art class, but I soon came to like the kind-hearted and petite teacher who taught me how to use colored pencils to make birds soaring on the pages and bunny rabbits with square bucked teeth. I was rejuvenated and all smiles when Auntie Audrey came to pick me up. My spirits were even higher as a kite when we went grocery shopping. I laughed when Auntie Audrey drove because she started to curse in Cantonese when her road rage flared up over stupid drivers.
“How do you say that curse word again?!” I giggled with glee.
That is when she would crack her crooked smile and soften a bit. “I’ll teach you some good words rather than bad words.”
My favorite times with Auntie Audrey were when we went food shopping because I never remembered food shopping before with my Dad or Mom before. She let me push the cart or eyeball all the food items on shelves that were eye level to my short and plump stature. She scrounged the colorful aisles and compared prices of the foods that Jill, Edward, and I loved. Apparently, Auntie Audrey, Jill, and Edward loved seafood, particularly fish, shrimp, and even crab. I remembered the first time Auntie Audrey brought me to a Chinese supermarket where we chose live blue-colored crabs with their arms flailing crazily in the seafood section. The seafood section was particularly hectic with people lining up to spat their seafood choices ranging from fish flipping in their confined water tank or fresh shrimp ensued in a tango dance. I was physically in Canada, but it felt as though I was in a foreign country whenever I was in that Chinese market. Looking back, I later learned that the area of Canada I stayed in had a high Chinese population, though I could not remember the name of the town or city. I was a frightful little 9-year-old girl when it came to these live crustaceans and in the hustle and bustle of the Chinese market.
I squinted and stuck out my tongue when Auntie Audrey revealed seafood goodies to me.
“What’s wrong with you?! You don’t like seafood?! All Chinese people like seafood. Very good for you!” Auntie Audrey announced.
“Yuck! No way! I just like Chinese spare ribs that Dad makes and chicken and broccoli!”
Her face screwed up in disdain, she shook her head, and said: “Your Dad only makes you spare ribs and chicken and broccoli?”
“No. I eat other things like rice and pasta,” I said defensively.
“Well, it isn’t good for you to eat so much meat and salt because of your kidneys, right?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I am going to teach you to try some new foods that will be good for you and your kidneys. And, I’m going to teach you how to eat with chopsticks!” Auntie Audrey said proudly.
I was intrigued with the idea of using chopsticks, but could not help but ask her suspiciously: “How do you know so much about kidneys?”
“I just know. A mother always knows,” Auntie Audrey said firmly.
That familiar painful pang returned again. I missed my Mother. I missed my Father. Almost every night, I talked with my Dad on the phone. He sounded cheerful and excited to hear about my daily adventures with Auntie Audrey, and especially the live market tales with the crabs and fish. I reported dutifully that everything was fine with Auntie Audrey, but my eyes would tear up yet again when I heard his voice on the phone. I would tear up even more when I received letters from my sister that she was having fun at writing camp. I loved reading her loopy and cursive handwriting over and over again. To make up for the absence of my sister, I turned to Jill and played the bratty little sister or cousin with jumping on her bed and touching and looking at everything in her room. Jill was just a year older than my sister, so she was just finishing high school. I squeezed her stuffed animals and gazed longingly and curiously at pictures of her when she was little and with Edward, Auntie Audrey, and her father (my Uncle **Calvin). Uncle Calvin was still working in Hong Kong. I thought that maybe Jill and Edward knew how I felt about not having my mother because they did not have their father around, but I was reminded that at least Auntie Audrey and Uncle Calvin were still married and Uncle Calvin was away to work while my Mom had just left my Dad, sister, and me in the dust for some bald-headed man. Jill, Edward, and Auntie Audrey never talked about Uncle Calvin, and I knew better to keep quiet. After gazing intently at the photos in Jill’s bedroom, I always went to her mirrored dresser and picked up her tiny jewelry box that had all her baby teeth.
“Why do you keep these?” I asked.
Jill shrugged and said, “I guess no reason why, but it has certain memories of when I was a little kid.”
I nodded and shut the flowered lid. I understood more than she could ever imagine.
Jill was very patient with dealing with me and played the role of playmate when Auntie Audrey was unavailable, but Edward seemed bored by me and would hole himself up in his room whenever he saw me. I rarely saw Edward anyway because he was at university at the time and maybe returned to Auntie Audrey’s home every weekend or so.
The nights with Auntie Audrey, Jill, and occasionally Edward were the best with fresh and homemade meals. It was not that my Dad’s cooking was not as good as Auntie Audrey. My Dad was an excellent cook and I would devour his food as though I had not eaten in endless years, but there was a homemade and home feeling to Auntie Audrey’s cooking and especially when we all sat around the dinner table without any technological device turned on. Growing up with my Dad and Mom, we had a small and portable black-and-white TV that we watched while eating rather than really conversing with one another. I forgot what it was like to be in a family, but I remembered and fell in love with the idea of a family when I sat with Auntie Audrey and Jill to scoop up fluffy white rice into the bowl and dive in with chopsticks for the first time and in the days that followed with fresh vegetables and poultry. In addition to the familial feeling, Auntie Audrey also introduced me to a plentiful variety of food that my taste buds openly welcomed: spicy spaghetti with meatballs, steamed broccoli, bok choy infused in garlic, rice, and pink-fleshed salmon with crispy skin. The only thing I hated about salmon were the bones, but the bones were a small price to pay for the fat and sultry salmon that swam satisfyingly in my tummy.
“Auntie Audrey, how do you make the salmon and spaghetti?” I asked all excited.
Auntie Audrey grinned brightly at me like a blinking Christmas tree. She had a beautiful smile. "You watch me and you will learn," she said simply.
The longer I stayed there with her, the more routine was becoming a comfort and sanctuary for me. The longer I stayed with her, the warmer she was with a smile and a tale to tell with the chores that she religiously made sure that I followed through on. I suddenly began to hum when I watered the plants. I no longer complained when I set the table or washed the dishes. I observed and watched carefully when Auntie Audrey bought food from the grocery store and cooked. I laughed when I helped Jill mop the floors for the first time. I ate sweet and juicy fruits and savory dishes in soothing comfort. I looked forward to our evening ritual of walking fifteen to thirty minutes in the neighborhood with Auntie Audrey and sometimes Jill. Their neighborhood was quiet, relaxed, and almost cookie-cutter suburbia that family sitcoms depicted. The sun dipped down into darkness when we walked in silence with only our shoes making slight slapping noises on the pavement.
Once, we surpassed our thirty-minute walk and discovered this tall and proud tree with cherries dangling in tantalizing temptation for us to pick and eat them. The colors of the sunset burst with oranges, reds, and pinks when I stared longingly at the cherries with my mouth watering. The stranger’s house with this beautiful cherry tree was dark, which could only mean that no one was home. Auntie Audrey, Jill, and I all stared at the cherry tree in a hypnotized trance.
I finally said in an excited whisper: “Let’s take some cherries!”
Jill’s eyes widened and she shook her head hard at me. “No way! We’ll get in trouble!”
We turned to Aunt Audrey to see her reaction if we could or could not take the cherries. She slightly chuckled and reached the highest and plumpest red cherry and then stuck it in her pocket. That was all the confirmation we need. I was pleasantly surprised at her mischievousness! Auntie Audrey and Jill were much taller than me, and so they easily took as many cherries as their pockets and shirts could hold. They then stuffed as many more cherries as possible into my pockets and cupped shirt as possible. I laughed with delight. Then, abruptly, we saw a light turn on from the stranger’s house in response to our scrambling to take as many cherries as we could, and so we half skipped and hobbled back home as fast as we could with juicy and ruby-red cherries falling around us.
When we finally returned, we washed and ate as many of the cherries as we could. Their juices spurted and danced in our mouths as we ate in pleasant silence. It felt good to do something just a little bad.
Auntie Audrey also had a recreation area in her basement with a karaoke set, pipe organ, plush couches, a Chinese Mahjong table, and shelves and shelves of endless photo albums. When it was clear that Auntie Audrey and I were settling into our routines and growing closer with one another, she showed me some black and white photos of my Dad, her, and the rest of their brothers and sisters and their parents (my grandparents). The wax paper crinkled loudly when I turned each sheet to reveal stark black and white photos of my chubby baby or child Dad with squeezable chipmunk cheeks or Auntie Audrey posing flirtatiously into the camera with her short and sassy bobbed haircut. I could not remember ever seeing my Dad so happy! He was a different person in a different lifetime. Would I ever see him happy again and would we ever feel happy again ever since my Mom left us? Could we ever move on from all the pain from a broken family and broken, unhealthy me? Even after this first kidney transplant pumping life into me to move forward, we were still stagnant in the past.
“It was different times back then,” Auntie Audrey said in her usual tale-telling voice, “Times were harder, and there was just about no technology, but we were happy with the simple things. Your Dad was always smiling and happy, though, and a real survivor—just like you, Mary.”
I looked at her and then returned to examine the photos of my Dad and his family. It hurt all over again to know my Dad was not here.
When the first summer month with Auntie Audrey came to an end, she came to me with a slightly solemn expression on her face. Uh-oh. I recognized that expression. What chore did I have to do now? That same fearful feeling when I first met her came back with a vengeance. I hated when she looked so serious. Her lips turned into a thin line and her back was rigid like an ironing board. She took a deep breath, puffed a gentle smile on her face, and said: “We are going to work on a project together before you leave us in the next month.”
I did not like the way she said that. My heart beat picked up speed. I gulped and squeaked with a mouth that felt like cotton. “What is it?”
“Do you remember when you first moved in and I told you that we are going to take care of your bed-wetting problem? Well, I think you are ready. I know we are both ready. From here on in, I am going to wake you up at 3AM on the button so we can try to train your body to go to the bathroom.”
My face turned red with shame. So, this was what was going to break my relationship that I had developed with my Auntie Audrey—my bed-wetting. Didn’t she know that I wanted the bed-wetting and wearing diapers to stop? I didn’t have a choice. My body had control of me and not the other way around.
Auntie Audrey seemed to read my mind: “I know you’re scared and you can’t help it, but we are going to try very hard to take control of your body again. We are in it together.”
I had never once shed a tear in front of Auntie Audrey. Not when my Dad dropped me off at her home like a little Asian Annie orphan. Not when I received letters from my sister. Not when thoughts of my Mother would drive me crazy and crush me all over again. But, that is when I began I shed silent tears.
“I know you can do it! We can do it!” Auntie Audrey boomed.
For the next month, we discarded the itchy diapers and I wore underwear. I could not remember the last time I wore cotton and designed underwear that hugged me warmly and comfortably. The nights were much cooler and more bearable with the underwear rather than the diapers. All I ever remembered were those itchy diapers that left me with red rashes and blotchy skin. For the next month, Auntie Audrey woke me up at 3 in the morning on the button as she promised. Her gentle nudge and smile shone in the moonlight in my peach-infused guest bedroom when she led me to the bathroom.
Half asleep, I muttered to her almost every night: “This is pointless.”
“No, it isn’t,” Auntie Audrey said to me vehemently, “Nothing is pointless. Remember that we are in this together.”
Because of her waking me up in the middle of the night, my bladder managed to control itself and I would wake up to smooth, dry, and cotton bed sheets. I was ecstatic to wake up to such dryness and thought that maybe Auntie Audrey was right that we were in this together and would succeed against my body so I could wake up on my own in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and never, ever wear diapers or wet the bed or myself again!
Then, it happened that there was one night that Auntie Audrey forgot to wake me up at 3AM. I failed to wake up on my own. I woke up the next morning earlier than usual to the most pungent and wet scent of urine that made me gag. I wanted to cry so badly, but stopped before I even started when Auntie Audrey burst into the room.
I looked up at her, tearful, shame-faced, and guilty.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said as calmly as she could.
“It is okay…we are still in this together,” she reassured and had me roll out of bed to take a shower to disinfect myself and so she could also disinfect the sheets as much as she could.
I could smell the urine all over on my skin and me. I looked in the mirror, and hated myself. I hated that I was born this way with this body and bladder that I could not control. I was breathing heavily with hatred. I pushed the shower curtain to the side with fury, and dove in to scrub myself clean. My family and I never asked for these health problems, so why was it this way? Why was I this way? Auntie Audrey and I did not dare to even talk about this ultimate bed-wetting episode. She never forgot to wake me up at 3AM again for the rest of the summer.
Almost by the end of the month, we learned that the only thing that Auntie Audrey and I had accomplished with trying to break me free from my bladder and body was that if I was woken up at 3AM, I would keep the sheets dry. If I was not woken up, I could not wake up on my own to keep a wet-free bed. It was a startling and sad realization that Auntie Audrey was wrong about me stopping to wet the bed. I had never been a witness to her being wrong in the time I had known her. I had held on to a morsel of hope that maybe she was right and bigger than all my health problems, but she was just a tiny ant like me that could not undo my greatest faults that would stay with me for the rest of my life: chronic kidney failure and bladder issues.
My Auntie Audrey and I never talked about the failure of our experiment and it was only years later that I realized that Auntie Audrey was right that nothing was pointless when I asked my Dad: “Why did you send me to live with Auntie Audrey that summer and the next summer?” My Dad confessed: “There are some things that only a woman is good for. I did not know what to do with the urine problem that you had. No one knew what to do. Auntie Audrey offered to help. I think those times were the best thing for you and for all of us because you learned a lot about yourself and what you are capable of when she helped you with your urine problem and gave you chores.”
My Dad was right.
That summer was the best I ever had. Auntie Audrey created this bedwetting project and threw chores at me so I could grow up, take responsibility, try to take control of all that seemed out of control, become stronger, and know that, deep down inside, I was not alone as I believed because there were caring and extraordinary and disciplined people like Auntie Audrey in this world who had showed me that there was a better and stronger me inside and outside.
At the end of the summer of 1992, my Dad, sister, and I finally reunited with one another in time to celebrate my birthday at Auntie Audrey’s home. My Dad seemed happier and less broken than he was when my Mom had left. He gave me the biggest bear hug ever, and said: “I’m so happy to see you!” My sister, as usual, stood on the sidelines awkwardly. She just patted me on the head. And, yet, she appeared more relaxed and focused. My family was together again. I felt more together again than ever before since my Mom left because of Auntie Audrey and this unbelievable summer where I learned and gained more lessons through the chores than I could have ever desired.
On the night of my tenth birthday celebration, Auntie Audrey made the spaghetti with meatballs that I loved so much and the crabs that my Father craved, but the crabs still made me squeamish when I saw their hands flailing when they were once alive at the Chinese market. We ate together with a feeling of family and home as we cracked crabs and twirled spaghetti with our bamboo chopsticks. Jill and my sister surprised me with homemade brownies and a chocolate cake with creamy vanilla frosting and fresh berries on top.
“Mary! Mary! Make a wish!!” Jill exclaimed.
My Dad clapped his hand on my shoulder. My sister gave me a shy smile. And, then there was Auntie Audrey in her confident tall stature as she smiled crookedly at me. And, I thought to myself, so this is what family feels like. Home. Food. And, the people who loved me more than I could ever love myself or love them. I shut my eyes, made my wish, and blew out all ten candles.
When I opened my eyes, I realized that this summer of 1992 and the next summer of 1993 were the best summers I ever had. They turned out to be the times that my family and I were put together again because of Auntie Audrey. Her routines, her chores, her can-do and collaborative ways were indented in my mind as the first time I had a motherly figure in my life and there came a time that I had to grow up. Though I continued to wet the bed and struggle with the absence of my mother and the newfound family dynamics of only my Dad, sister, and me, I can never thank Auntie Audrey enough for never giving up on me and for showing me the way to a better and truer family and me.
**denotes fake names to protect privacy of individual