My mother and I thought it was a good idea at the time.
I say, “Mom. Let’s go down the mountain and see a Chinese herbalist and get me some Chinese herbs to mix up and brew. I know they’ll make me feel better.”
“Good idea, honey,” my mother says. “You always have such good ideas.”
(This all happened many lives ago, while I was divorcing my second and last husband, and I was a physical and emotional wreck. I needed a cure.)
Off we chug; down the mountain to a quirky place called Hillcrest where I quickly find just the right little shop for me. It’s dark inside. From the ceiling hang swaths of dried plants. Glass jars packed with ground, pulverized, and shaved herbs (and probably beetles and dung and dragonfly heads), sit on shelves.
Oh yum. I forget all about my unhappiness with the Bad Husband.
The young man behind the counter, Mr. Tong, asks me what my problem is.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” I say, “And it spasms and sticks me inside with a sharp knife. I’m having a divorce.”
“You got to talk to my father, The Herbalist,” Mr. Tong says.
Mother and I watch as he turns around and slings aside a heavy, dusty, dark velvet curtain.
There sits a very old “mummified” Dr. Tong. He is sitting on a green chair.
“Best herbalist,” says Mr. Tong. “Step inside, please.”
Mother and I walk behind the counter, through the curtain, and stand before Dr. Tong.
“Sit please,” he says. “Who go first?”
“It’s just me,” I say. “I have stomach problems.”
I sit on a little wooden chair seat that is laced with red beads. Dr. Tong takes my wrist in his dry hand and feels my pulses.
“Worm in stomach,” he announces.
I blanch and draw back.
“Not good,” he says. “Very bad. And wind in stomach. Not good.”
His son is standing at attention behind us.
There is a sudden gust of Chinese language between him and Dr. Tong. Dr. Tong whips his arms and hands through the air.
Mr. Tong rushes to the outer office and begins shoveling chunks of herbs into white bags.
“All done,” says Dr. Tong.
Mother and I bow a little bit and mumble, “Thank you. Very nice. Much appreciated. Very fine.”
Mr. Tong is busily wrapping and bundling my herbs as he is telling me how long to boil them, how long to take them, and what I might feel while taking them.
“Your father is very interesting,” I say.
“He read the Future,” says Mr. Tong.
“Oh my gosh!” I shout. “I love that. How does he do it?”
“Look in hand. It all there. He will read your hand for five dollar.”
“Oh, Mom, this will be fun! Let’s do it,” I yell at my mother. I am always ready for an Adventure.
Back we go into the little room behind the dark curtain; the room that smells like old age and incense.
Dr. Tong is waiting.
“Who go first,” he says.
Mom says that I do.
I plunk myself down in the chair with the red beads and hold out my hands to the good doctor.
Dr. Tong frowns. “Always trouble with men. Never find right man for you. They not like you are.”
My mother laughs and says, ‘That’s right!’
There’s more, but I forget it because of the coming trauma.
Dr. Tong looks at me and states, “Seventy-one, that’s it! Dead!”
“Dead? Dead at seventy-one? Me? Me dead at seventy-one?”
“Dead. Bang. That’s it!” repeats the kind doctor. “Next person, please!”
I look at my mother. She is in her early sixties. I am terrified about what he might say to her. She is closer on the Dead End than I am.
“You know,” I say as I stare at Mom, “I think we need to go and get a cup of coffee. We’ll be back!”
I grab my mother’s hand and she doesn’t protest or resist my pull.
We are out of the shop like we’ve been shot with beebees.
* * *
Many years now pass, and my mother is in her late eighties. For some unknown reason, she has lung cancer. She was supposed to die within three months of diagnosis, but here she is bouncing merrily along years later, in relatively good health (well, besides the terminal cancer).
Mother tells us she has made friends with her cancer.
There is a problem, however.
Mother has a Chinese doctor.
Every time she goes to see him, he comes into the room where Mother waits, looks up from his chart and yells, “What?! You still here?! You should be dead!”
One day my sister says to us siblings, “This can’t be good for Mom. It’s not good to have a doctor scream at you that he is shocked that you are still alive…that you should be dead! It’s bad for her psyche.”
(How well I know.)
Polly gets Mother another doctor who smiles sweetly at Mom and gives her cough syrup when she has a cold.
Mother dies not too long after the doctor switch. Maybe we should have left it alone?
Maybe tactless Chinese doctors bring good luck? I’m waiting to see. Maybe I will jump the ditch to heaven at seventy-one or maybe I won’t. I’ll let you know.
This month is a perfect time for a phone reading with me!