The Grind

Cat mom

May 1, 2022, 9:24 p.m.

Jan. 22, 2022

“Hello? M-mom?”

“Hanmin! I’m sorry … are you busy right — ”

“No, not at all! Is there a reason you called?”

“Oh …” She hesitates. “Not really, I just wanted to see how you’re doing. How’s winter quarter going?”

Aug. 2 – 12, 2021

My mother, 51 years old, spends her nights tiptoeing around our apartment building’s playground, playing hide-and-seek with a stray kitten. “Come back in, it’s been two hours!” I call. Crouched underneath a bench, she mouths to me, “Quiet! She’ll know I’m here!”

My mother tries to brush the kitten’s head — but as soon as she raises her arm, the kitten hisses. “Oh, you silly cat — why are you making that face! I gave you sardines yesterday, remember?” And the kitten’s slit pupils open into the eyes of a baby.

My mother starts visiting her. Sometimes two times, three times a night. One night she brings her my old toys. One night she collects cardboard and Styrofoam from the basement to build a cat house. One night they start meowing at each other.

Each night, the kitten sits a little closer to her.

Aug. 13, 2021

The kitten climbs atop a tree, perching herself between two branches. She tilts her head, her tender eyes gazing curiously at us.

My mother reaches out her finger. For the first time, the kitten reaches out her paw.

“You’re clever, aren’t you! I’ll name you Ttokttogi.” (Smarty-pants.)

Sept. 3, 2021

The night before I leave for college, I ask, “Are you sure you’ll be okay while I’m at Stanford?”

“Are you kidding, of course! I have Ttokttogi to care for now. Also, you know those other strays we always see? I’m gonna start feeding them as well, every single night.”

“Looks like you’re gonna be a cat mom now,” I say with a chuckle.

“I guess so! And I promise, Hanmin — I’ll be okay.” She squeezes my hand and smiles. “I just want you to be happy.”

Later at night, after I get into bed, I faintly hear a weeping sound. I peek into the living room, and my mother is curled up in the corner, her temple against her knees. She is gazing at something in her hands: a baby photo of me sleeping in her arms.

Jan. 22, 2022

“So … how are things in Korea?”

“Good! They’re good. Weather’s still cold.”

“Yeah … that’s nice.”

“Yeah.”

We continue talking awkwardly until the conversation stumbles onto a wedding she attended yesterday. It was her first time meeting the bridegroom’s parents, but she says she ended the night touched by how warm and cheerful they were to her.

“When you get married, I hope your bride’s family will feel the same way about me.”

“I mean, how could they not like you — all you do is meow at cats every day!”

We laugh together. Beneath the laughter, I sigh in relief.

Dec. 12 – 31, 2021

I come home from my first quarter of college, now a young adult. Suddenly, her love feels so stifling. All the ways she worries about me are more palpable than before, and we start to fight more. The clothes I wear. The classes I choose. What time I have to be back in the house. Where I want to live after college.

One day, as we’re folding laundry, she says, “You know, you’ve been talking more recklessly to me since you got back.”

“Is this still about last week?” I drop my shirt and turn my body towards her. “I meant what I said — I want to stay in America after I graduate. How is that reckless?”

“I don’t know. It just hurts, why can’t that be enough?”

I sigh, and my face turns red. “Because you’re too weak, Mom! None of your worries make sense! And I can’t trust you with anything anymore.”

Her face blanches. I notice a tear hanging at the corner of her eye.

“Why are you treating me like this?”

My heart shrivels. I want to say sorry, but she cries:

“You don’t think I counted down every single day until you came home? All I thought about was how happy I’d be to see you again — and this is how you treat me? What the hell am I to you!”

She starts choking on her tears. I look down at the floor, too weak to watch her cry.

After a long pause, she says, “I should’ve never sent you to Stanford.”

She runs away to her room. I fold the rest of the laundry in silence, before I have to leave for my flight back.

Jan. 1 – 10, 2022

I come back on campus, and I get what I desperately wanted one week ago. I move back into my dorm, my classes start, the weather turns warmer. I am as far away from home as possible.

My friends start moving back in, chirping about how nice it was to see their families again. “Your parents must’ve been so happy to see you again!” one of them tells me.

“Yeah,” I mumble. “They were.”

Jan. 3, 2022

At four in the morning, I’m curled against the wall by my bed, unable to fall asleep. It’s my mother’s birthday and I haven’t called her. My finger has been hovering over the “call” button for the past hour.

Suddenly, my phone buzzes from a text; I jerk at the sound, hoping it’s her.

Instead, I find a photo from my father. My father, brother and grandmother are huddled on the living room floor with my mother, eating persimmons together. We did that every year.

I gaze at Ttokttogi, nestled in my mother’s arms. They look so happy.

Why can’t you give her that? I think to myself.

May 23, 2016

In middle school, a teacher catches me cheating on an exam. The whole class finds out, and the rumors spread online. I eat my lunch in a bathroom stall later in the day. The principal sends a scathing email home.

My mother is waiting by the door when I come home.

She hugs me.

“Can you hug me back?” she asks. But I can’t raise my arms around her. I don’t deserve to be held, I think to myself.

She keeps hugging me anyway.

Jan. 22, 2022

“You know, Hanmin, words are so unreliable. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned since adopting a cat. With people, we might mean to say one thing — but it’s so easy for the words to come out all wrong. The other person could misread the words as well.”

She continues, “But with Ttokttogi, I don’t have to say anything! I sew clothes for her, I scrub her paws when they get dirty, I play hide and seek with her all day long. And in return she nibbles on my toes, she waits for me by the door when I’m outside, she falls asleep in my arms every night.”

She says, “I did a better job showing how much I love her. That makes me so happy.”

There is an unfilled silence. My heart begs my mouth to say, “I love you.”

“Aw, that’s so nice to hear! Wait, sorry mom — I just remembered I have this important essay due tomorrow … can I call you back later?”

“Oh — yes! Of course! Don’t stay up too late. Good night, Hanmin.” Just before I hang up, she says:

“I miss you so much, my son. I love you.”

Her voice cuts off, and I cry like a child again.

Present day

Every once in a while, when I have trouble falling asleep, a familiar kitten visits me in my mind. Her tender eyes gaze at mine, and I can faintly feel my mother’s arms wrapped around my chest. As I cry helplessly, I ask my little sister: Have you nibbled on her toes today? Do you wait for her by the door while she feeds the others? Can you hug her when she comes back?

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