Art work by Anushka Koirala
I remember. I remember the times my mom hugged me, told me not to worry and to no matter what, to not leave the room. And no matter how loud the screams were, or how the ceiling felt like it was about to collapse onto us from all the running, to never go upstairs unless she said we can.
Then she would rush upstairs, and I would wait. I wouldn’t dare to make a sound because I was afraid she might hear me. I was afraid she could hear my shaky breath. I was afraid she can sense the sweat between my belly rolls. I was afraid she could hear how my heart pounded against my chest. I was afraid.
But I think the person who was the terrified the most was my aunt. She would scream on the top of her lungs, hit her head against the wall, smack her chest and pushed anyone to the floor who tried to stop her. Her big doll-like eyes swelled up with a sheet of blood, flickering left to right, right to left. Glaring.
I’ve always loved her big childish doughy eyes. When she smiled, it looked a bit goofy. Her puffy rosy cheeks widened and you can sometimes see some of her red lipstick on her front tooth. She’d kiss my cheeks and purposely stamp her lipstick all over my face, and we’d both giggle. Whenever she’d laugh, it sounded strained and wheezy. As if she laughed for centuries and her voice was finally giving up on her. Her eyes always glistened when she laughed.
But her eyes were different now. Red and swollen, covered in dark thick lines. Her body so frail that it felt like it would fall apart any moment. Her cheeks sank, dangling from her face.
And as always, it seemed like nothing ever happened the next day. The fragrance of rasmalai thickened the air as she mixed the sweet milk in a large pot and sang her favorite folk tunes.
“Aro-sa-sa-sa…”, she would whisper. “Does this have enough salt?” She handed me a spoonful and told me I was her special little chef, even though I would accidentally sprinkle too much salt each time.
But of course, within hours, I would find myself locked in my mom’s room, holding my heart in my stomach, counting sheep and hoping I would tune out the bawling and screams and fall asleep. This happened every day for four years until the day my family and I left.
My mom decided to move into her sister’s house when I was 8 years old. My parents never explained why, but I was too busy thinking about how my cousins and I can finally play house-house whenever we wanted to or how I can borrow their Barbies anytime. Never did I realize that I would be covered in blankets in the corner of the bedroom, locked inside, wondering if the neighbors would call the cops this time.
“She’s sick”, my mom would say. “She’s a bit scary sometimes, but she’s still the same person. Don’t be afraid. She’s still in there somewhere.”
Sick? I wondered. A fever? A flu? What does Amu mean? I couldn’t understand the language for what my aunt was dealing with. I just knew she was really sad all the time. Later in life, I realized she suffered with Bipolar Disorder.
Sometimes, when my aunt was in a good mood, all the kids and adults came together and the laughter was loud enough to cover the teapot screeching, my uncle would sit me down and tell me things I never understood.
“Your aunt is a bad person. She does this for attention.”
“Bad?”, I repeated, sucking on a lollipop. Eight year old me was confused. I remembered all the times she blew duas (prayers) on my body, stuffed money in my hand when the ice cream truck sang, stamping her red lipstick all over my face. How she’d let me trace my tiny, sticky fingers on her big childish doughy eyes. How can she be bad? I heard more things like this from different people. Sometimes people I didn’t know. And soon enough, I believed them.
Mental illness is completely dismissed in the South Asian community. It’s seen as a weakness or a cry for attention. We are always expected to work hard since the minute we enter the world. With uncomplained burdens and responsibilities we never asked for weighing on our back, we are taught that we don’t have enough time to feel.
The more she screamed, the more she hit herself, the more her words didn’t make sense, the more her eyes was filled with blood, the more I hated her. I stopped going upstairs to my cousins house in fear of what would anger her and in fear if I would find another reason to hate her even more.
When my mother realized that she could no longer take care of her, we moved when I was 14 years old.
As I’m growing older, I realized she’s still the same person. She’s still the same person when she holds my hand to pick up more sweets or when she punches the thin walls. I wish I understood back then that all of it wasn’t her fault. That she’s not the bad person they make her out to be. It makes me wonder all those times her heart must’ve ached.
I see my aunt time to time as my mother tries to help her little sister as much as she can. Cheeks still dangling off her face, red lipstick smeared on her tooth. And her big childish doughy eyes, glistening in the sun. Oh how it makes me want to kiss her, peck my lips onto her puffy cheeks and feel them sink into her soft skin. How it makes me want to dip my fingers into her hair and comb each knot apart. How it makes me want to lock my hand with hers and feel how her once velvet like touch now feels like sunkissed raisins.
Oh, how I love her big childish doughy eyes.