I’d always experienced my mother as an unhappy person. In childhood, I remember her as being very temperamental, very quick to anger and often violently so, though she would be very different in company. She could turn on the charm just like that and you’d never know she could spit venom at me for putting too much fish sauce in the omelette or hit me over the head with a book because I couldn’t grasp fractions. But I grew up thinking this was normal. I hadn’t spent a great deal of time with other people’s parents and even when I did see other adults, I never entirely trusted what they were like “in company.” I don’t know when it became clear, but it seemed painfully obvious to me that most of them were putting on an act.
Then, in my late teens, I was home from University during a summer vacation. We were visiting Thailand and one of our rituals whenever we went “back home” was to visit a particular dentist as a family, even though we regularly saw a dentist in whatever country we were living in. She would examine every single one of us, even if we had no complaints. When it was my mother’s turn in the chair, we were in the waiting room and my father was talking to the dentist’s brother, who worked in the practice with her. I was reading a book and they must have thought I either wasn’t paying attention or that my Thai wasn’t good enough, or more likely, still saw me as a kid, rendering me invisible.
The dentist’s brother asked my father how my mother was. They referred to her by her Thai nickname, which made me realise that this man knew my mother better than I’d thought, and possibly even better than I knew her. I later deduced that they must have been friends a long time ago. My father said something that seemed fairly non-committal, something about her having her ups and downs. Then the dentist’s brother talked about my mother as if she had a serious mental illness. I couldn’t fully understand all the Thai terms, but he urged my father to get her serious professional help. I was shocked and outraged, but of course I didn’t show it. I pretended to be absorbed in my book. I think I was more outraged by the fact that my father didn’t stick up for my mother but just went along with it, even nodding as if he agreed with the man. And yet, I knew my father would do nothing, just as he always did nothing, in the face of one of my mother’s “moods.”
When my mother came into the waiting room, her bridge expertly replaced, they smiled at her as if they’d been talking about the weather. I felt as if we’d betrayed her, even me, even though all I’d done was unintentionally eavesdrop. I never spoke to either of my parents about what I heard. And I don’t think I saw either of them in the same way again.