Minoru’s mother is suffering from progressive multiple sclerosis. Uncertain if she should stay close to home, Minoru goes off to work for a nonprofit in Thailand to pursue her passion: train with professional Muay Thai fighters who themselves are fighting for stronger bodies and a chance to escape poverty.
There was a loud crash downstairs. My cotton socks slipped on the wood floor as I scrambled toward the sound. Mom lay on the ground, the upper half of her body lodged in the dog’s crate. Her spindly, toothpick legs stuck out, grayish white, decorated with the purple, blue and red of constant injury. Her walker slowly rolled into the wall.
Mom strained to lift herself, but her joints refused to bend, her arms unable to push her backwards, out of the crate. Her dog, excited by the commotion, ran into the kitchen. She sniffed at Mom and turned her furry black head to me in confusion, then stuck her head inside the crate, to join my mother. By the time I managed to drag Mom out of the dog crate and onto a chair, she was crying.
“I think it’s coming back,” Mom had told me over the phone, when she started falling again. After two years of treatment, the doctors had decided her Lyme disease was essentially cured. “It’s beginning again,” Mom insisted, but her doctors told her no, this time it wasn’t Lyme disease. She had progressive multiple sclerosis.
At 59, Mom found herself less independent than ever, unable to walk confidently across a room, even with the help of a walker. She frequently tumbled headfirst down the stairs, each fall cracking her head, and her hair parted strangely where the staples held her scalp together. One afternoon, she slipped and caught her eye on the corner of the door strike, slicing her face open. My brother found her hours later, lying sprawled on the kitchen floor, her face covered in blood. She hadn’t called for help because she couldn’t stand up on her own. The emergency button that dangled around her neck had slid over her shoulder and down her back, out of reach. Sometimes Mom would fall in the night, slipping on the bathroom tile or tripping over the lip of the carpet. When she was strong enough, she crept or dragged herself back to bed.
Mom became a fixture in the emergency room, and jokingly called herself “Frankenstein,” because black stitches lined her face. When my brother and I begged her to move downstairs, she laughed and waved us away. Instead, she demonstrated her new method of descent—sliding down the stairs one by one, on her bottom. “What do you want me to do?” she asked, “Stop living in the top half of my house?”
I graduated from college two years after her diagnosis. I felt torn between staying close to home to take care of my mother and the itch to travel and explore, so I was relieved when a nonprofit organization offered me a temporary position in Thailand, and she told me to go. I had been training in Muay Thai, a martial art that incorporated punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. In Thailand, I would be able to train every day with professional muay thai fighters at a Thai boxing gym. I could travel around Southeast Asia, and I was young—the time to do it was now. When I accepted the offer to move to Chiang Mai, I repeated these reasons to myself and to anyone who asked, so as not to admit that I also moved to Thailand because I couldn’t stay and watch Mom’s body shut down. I was afraid I too might find myself immobile.
My days in Chiang Mai followed a routine: I trained, went to work, and then trained again in the evenings. Early mornings held a rare, sacred silence, without the food carts and street merchants that arrived later in the day. Five o’clock was my favorite time to ride through the city, watching the monks collect their alms, the quiet broken only by the whirr of my bicycle and the soft pattering of their bare feet. As the monks filled their baskets with food, I pedaled faster, warming up my muscles for training.
The gym sat outdoors on a steep, winding hill, covered with a tent, but without walls. Battered, heavy bags swung from the ceiling, their canvas coverings peeled and torn from constant use. The floor was concrete, brutal to virgin feet, but the fastest way to callous soles for footwork in the ring.
The gym was owned by a middle-aged man named Andy, a native Canadian, and his Thai wife, Pom. Once all the sleepy boxers staggered in, we piled into the back of Andy’s silver pickup truck and headed toward Huay Tung Tao, a reservoir outside the city that bordered the jungle for our morning run.
I began training at the gym in February, the first month of the burning season, and much of the jungle was set on fire, so we ran along the water instead of through the trees. I loved the serenity of circling the reservoir, watching the peach reflections of sunrise glistening on the surface, while one or two fishermen waded in to try their luck.
By the time we finished our morning run and returned to the gym, the trainers sat outside waiting for us, drinking tea and gossiping amongst themselves. They were all retired fighters, who trained both the young resident Thai boxers and any visiting foreigners, or farangs, as they called us. I usually trained with Den. He was 37 and his face was scarred from elbow strikes. He stood around my height at 5’6″ and had lean, muscular limbs.
“Keep your eyes open,” he said when he punched at my face and I flinched. I strained my eyelids and followed his smooth, fluid footwork as he danced around the ring. Den strapped large, firm pads to his arms to serve as targets, and he held them at different positions and angles to signify the techniques he wanted from me: upright for straight punches, against his stomach for knees, and angled by his hip for round kicks. We trained in series of several five-minute rounds, broken by two-minute “breaks,” during which I did push-ups. Afterward, Den sent me to work on a heavy bag to deaden the nerves in my shins and toughen my skin. I loved how the bag shuddered when smacked with a well-measured kick. I trained every day before and after work, relieved to discover that my conflicted feelings about my mother were overwhelmed by my physical exhaustion.
Most of the Thai boxers at the gym were either orphans or from poor families who could not afford to support them. The boxers lived at the gym, which supplied their housing, food, and training in exchange for part of the profit they earned from fights. These boys, and occasionally girls, began professionally fighting as early as five years old. Each victory earned them money, some of which went to the gym that supported them, and if any was left over, to their family. At other gyms, young boxers were sometimes asked to leave if they lost too many fights or if the trainers decided they lacked “heart” in the ring. Since the children were usually uneducated, Muay Thai was their best chance to escape the extreme poverty they were born into.
This gym was unique in that all the young boxers were kept, regardless of their success. They still felt pressured to make money for their families, but there was no fear of expulsion. Here, there was always plenty of food and a safe bed.
The trainers worked with the young boxers twice a day, for three to four hours every morning and evening. When a boxer had a fight coming up, his preparation was often too brutal to watch. One of the boys, whom they called “Big,” was preparing for a fight that would be held at Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok. He was 14 and it was the biggest fight of his career. All the trainers gathered in the ring and forced him to spar continuously. They rotated, so he always faced a fresher, stronger opponent. I watched as they sparred, Big’s eyes rolling in his head as he fell against the ropes. When he was too tired to stand, the trainers dragged him back up. As he gasped for air, they beat him. “It is for his future,” the older fighters told me. “So he will have one.”
After training in the evening, the mood at the gym changed dramatically. The young Thai boys chased each other around, this time fighting playfully. The foreign boxers loitered and socialized, before wandering home, while the Thai trainers put their equipment away and gathered together for dinner.
Foreigners usually left after training, but the boxers knew I was alone in Chiang Mai, and they often invited me to eat with them. We all sat around a long wooden table and shared sticky rice, fried eggs, and papaya salad. My favorite dish was a whole fried fish covered with garlic. We picked the meat off with our chopsticks until the entire skeleton lay exposed.
When I left the gym each day, I navigated my bicycle through the now crowded streets back to my apartment, past butchers waving away flies, the air thick with the smell of meat cooking. Dogs were everywhere—sleeping in doorways, next to food stalls, and often in the middle of the road. The strays looked lethargic and sorrowful as I passed, staring up with watery red eyes, or lying collapsed under trees, overwhelmed by the heat. Those kept as pets roamed freely near their owners’ homes or food stalls. Their owners often dressed them in old T-shirts, and I laughed at the mean gray dog who chased my bicycle every afternoon when he emerged one day in a pink mumu.
The trainers had always talked to me, but after a few months, the younger boxers also began to seek my company. They showed me their favorite photographs, talked about their girlfriends, and challenged me to weightlifting competitions. They cheered and bent over laughing, when even the smallest boy, at 75 pounds, bench pressed more than me.
“Don’t you miss your family?” they asked.
“Yes, I miss them,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” said Den. “You say your mother lives alone? You leave her by herself?”
“She wants to live alone,” I said.
“No, I don’t think so. Nobody wants to live alone. She is your mother. You should be there to take care of her.”
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t explain how guilty I felt for leaving, or how freeing it felt to be further from home.
Den had left his own family at 12 to pursue Thai boxing. During his career, he had fought over 300 times, at one point holding the Northern Thailand title. He had earned enough money to buy his parents a house in their village, where he visited them every weekend, always bringing his mother durian, her favorite fruit, when it was in season. It was her only luxury, and she hung the pungent fruit peel above her bed so she could breathe in its aroma while she slept.
Now, Den dreamed of returning to his parents’ village in the countryside. The only reason he still lived in Chiang Mai, he said, was because he had to work at the gym every day. “One day,” he said, “ I will build my own gym. I already have the land.” He told me he had bought the plot adjacent to his parents. “One day, I can go back,” he said. “I can live with my family again.”
In June, I called my mother’s physical therapist. “How is she?” I asked.
“You may want to come home and spend some time with her,” he said. “I think she’d really like that.” She was getting worse and there might not be much time left.
When I told Den about the phone call he said, “You should go home. You are her daughter and you need to take care of her.”
“But I don’t want to go back,” I said. Den shook his head.
The jungle was green again. During our morning runs, I marveled at its regrowth since the burning season. It had sprung back to life, fed by the heavy tropical rains. The underbrush crunched beneath my feet and giant, spear-shaped leaves reached across my path as I ran, the sunlight often blocked by the dense treetops.
Andy invited me to hike with him to visit a monastery on a mountain further in the jungle, where he said there were some ancient statues of Buddha. It was a quiet morning and neither of us spoke during the hour we trekked uphill. I walked behind him, following his sure steps, watching his muscular calves flex against the steep incline. The vast expanse of nature stretched out below us as we climbed.
The trees now grew triumphant from the charred earth, but the lush beauty would be burned again the next year, flames devouring the crisp leaves that now decorated the mountainside. And there, at the top, the four smiling statues of Buddha sat cross-legged in a row. Monks had draped orange cloth around the statues’ shoulders, but despite their bright costumes, the stone bodies were chipped and broken. I could see they had once been beautiful, but over time, one had lost an arm, another an ear. They were honored and beloved, but alone. Over time, their features had eroded from exposure to the elements, their faces blackened by fire.
It took me a long time to board the plane that would fly me back to the United States from Thailand. What if I just stayed? I wondered. I could make a more permanent life for myself in Chiang Mai. When I thought of myself in California, I felt as if I was remembering a past life, or at least a life on hold. But of course I knew it wasn’t really on hold, or at least Mom’s illness wasn’t on hold. I knew if I stayed now, all I was doing was stalling, passing time as if putting distance between myself and my mother had some bearing on her condition.
If I felt unprepared, I thought, my expectations were to blame. I had expected my mother to live to old age. I had expected my 20s to be relatively flexible and carefree. I had expected her to be the one who still took care of me.
When I landed in California, Mom met me at the airport, slouched on the seat of her little red walker. She looked exhausted, but eager as she gazed up at me with two black eyes.
“You’re back!” she said. She caught me looking at her bruises. “Oh honey, don’t mind my face. I know it doesn’t look good, but it’s nothing.” She feebly stood. Her arms were shaking, but her hands wrapped her walker in a determined grip. We headed toward the garage, Mom updating me on how Sacramento might have changed since the last time I visited. She kept repeating herself, and I noticed much of her hair had turned white.
By the end of the summer, she was in a wheelchair. “It’s because they took me off the Tysabri,” she said. Tysabri was the only medication that seemed to improve her condition at all. “I can only take it for a year and then they make me go off it, because they don’t want me to get that brain infection.” “That brain infection” was a rare but unpredictable disease called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), which is typically fatal and has no known treatment, prevention or cure. The chances of contracting PML increase the longer a patient continues to take Tysabri, so Mom’s doctor limited her treatment to 12 months on the medication, 12 months off. During the year without it, Mom’s MS kicked into full force, and it became an increasing struggle for her to control her movement or to move at all.
Soon, she could barely stand and she couldn’t stay alone at home anymore. Even with supervision, she managed to hurt herself, and she always had fresh cuts and bruises and at least one leg in a cast. Her cognition was also failing and she would forget what she was talking about halfway through a sentence.
Mom got back on the Tysabri just in time. After a few months back on the medication, she was out of the wheelchair and was able to walk short distances, however clumsily, with a walker. Her improvement was a great surprise to her doctors who said that improvement is very rare and warned us against expecting it during her next cycle. They said the next time she is put back on the medication, it will probably just maintain her condition, wherever it happens to be. This means that if she goes off it, she may be stuck in a wheelchair, but too weak to push it, for the remainder of her life.
When I called the next April to wish her a happy birthday, she talked about all the things she still wants to do. “I can’t believe I’m 62,” she said. I wonder how I’ll feel when I’m 90.”
We both know it will be either a miracle or a terrible tragedy if Mom lives to 90, but I know she says it to feel normal. To feel like she still has time, that life might still surprise her, that it is still full of possibilities. In her case, I don’t think this is an expectation. I think she just has hope.
“Just wait till you’re 62,” she said, “and you’ll see. Life goes by so fast.”
Christina Chung is an illustrator based in Brooklyn. Her work blends traditional and digital media, held together by line and pattern. Her illustrations have appeared in publications including the New York Times and Buzzfeed. christina-chung.com