Memories of Mother at the PlayPlace

In a McDonald's PlayPlace, one boy experiences a transcendent moment while reflecting on his mother, the Vietnam War and the trauma that we hand down through the generations.

Illustration by Debbie Alalade.

Before her divorce with my father was all but finalized, my mother must have sensed that she didn’t have much longer with us. In the vast majority of divorces, the mother rarely loses custody of her children but, at that time, the courts had deemed my mother too mentally unfit to receive custody. 

Despite all of the things she may have done to me and my siblings when we were children, I have come to forgive her. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever blamed her for anything.

Now that I’m older, I try to make as much of an effort as I can to visit her at that squat little house on the hill out in the suburbs. My brother and sister are both out of state now, and my younger brother has his own things going on. So it’s usually just me who visits her every Sunday, when I can. 

The distance doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m used to the drive. It isn’t so much a physical distance as it is a spiritual one. When I get there, my mother and I usually just have a quiet lunch together and maybe sit on the couch in silence while the TV runs on in the background for a few hours. If I were any younger, I would have felt like I was sitting on coals because of how boring it is. Now, I don’t mind. 

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I try to stay as long as I can, but my mother can sense when I need to go. I never say it first — she is always the one to ask me if it’s time. I think she knows I don’t like saying it, and I know it hurts her whenever I do have to leave. She would never tell me that, of course, but I can see it in her eyes. 

When I reach my car I turn back around and see her house with the empty driveway and that lonely tree in the back, I feel my condition worsen and my chest tighten up as I grip the hood of my car and try not to black out. 

Thinking of my mom always seemed to trigger my condition — my condition being what doctors say is some kind of rare, stress-induced narcolepsy. 

I think I was maybe six when I first remembered it happening. There was this period of time during the tail end of my parents’ marriage when my mom used to take us every Sunday to some place she thought was “special.” One time she took us to a McDonald’s PlayPlace in the middle of nowhere. That was her notion of special. But of course, my siblings and I were just kids so you can imagine that it really was for us. 

I remember that cloudy afternoon vividly. My siblings and I were enjoying our time there, playing in the ballpit and going down slides, while my mother sat on the sidelines, watching us silently, like she always did. When I reached the top of the structure of rainbow-colored tubes, I looked down at my mother, hoping to get her attention, and in that moment I saw her face more clearly than I ever had before. 

When she thought that none of us were looking, she let the sadness on her face show — the lines around her mouth, the bags under her eyes, an aching heaviness on her shoulders.

Imagine: to undertake this unbelievable journey across the world, across the hemispheres — for what? For a failed marriage, mental illness, an empty house on a hill, a country that doesn’t know you and for spiteful children that barely acknowledge your existence. What meaning could there possibly be in this? For what do we survive?

To survive bombs and boats and battles, just to discover that all we are are the reenactments of our various neuroses and traumas upon each other, upon those we love the most, that our histories are inescapable, carved on our bodies and in our DNA, etched on our faces. Is there ever really an out for people such as us, ever really a way to end the cycle? 

What if the only recourse is to reverse the course of time itself?

Seeing my mother there was my first encounter with loneliness, at six years old. After seeing her, I climbed down and went over to where she was sitting, and I hugged her. 

Immediately, she pulled away and pushed me off of her. I fell to the floor and started to cry. She hurled some curses at me in Vietnamese as I sat there: calling me “weak,” “too soft” and “just like my father.” I got up, cried and ran over to her again, clutching her pants. She flailed her legs and kicked me off of her. As soon as I landed, I cried even harder and ran to her again, with the same result. I don’t remember what happened next. I was told that I cried myself blue and passed out.

Not long after, I remember waking in my mother’s arms. We were back in the car in the parking lot. She was fanning me, wiping my tears and telling me to come back to her. Her black hair was pulled back and strands stuck out in every direction, and her face was the sickly yellow of old newspaper. 

When she saw that I had regained consciousness, she did something that she never did before or has done since. She touched my cheek and hugged me so tight that I felt I might pass out again. She brushed the dust off of my shirt and hair, and for what felt like forever, I just laid in her arms right there in the car. 

When I was unconscious there in my mother’s arms, I had this dream. A dream that comes back to me at random nights to haunt me during my darkest hours of sleep, one that has only gained more and more awful features throughout the years, as if rolling and gathering bits and pieces of my subconscious like trash or dust. 

In it I am walking over to my mother’s house from the city. As I walk off the highway and enter the town, I am growing larger and larger. By the time I reach her house on the hill, I am as tall as the house itself. A giant. I split the roof open like it’s made of straw and I reach in and grab my mother, who is sleeping in her bed and cradle her in my arms. I take her from her house and walk across the country towards the Pacific, and I grow larger and larger in size until the country itself becomes like some sort of children’s floor mat, with states delineated and spelled out in large bold letters, and I am like a toddler walking all over its face. 

We reach the Pacific Ocean, and when I dip my feet in it, it only barely reaches my shins. We walk across the sea, chasing the sun, which cuts diamonds in the pool of water around us. 

As we walk, we go back in time. 

We finally reach Vietnam. There, in a random village, I set my mother down, who has now become a child, in a river, where she rests once again.

Above me, airplanes buzz like flies and drop canisters of napalm on us. I extend my arms wide and catch all of them into my chest. I throw them all back up into the air, and I make the bombs fly backwards. Some of them drop and there is fire all around me in the fields. But I breathe, take in all of the fire into my chest, and I exhale smoke through my nostrils, like a dragon. The airplanes take aim at my mother, but I get down on my hands and knees and shelter her from the hail of bullets, from everything. As they beat upon my back like rain, I look down and I see my mother under the water there, smiling, asleep.

Email Dan Truong at [email protected]

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