Happy Mother’s Day
Happy Mother’s Day! I hope you had a good weekend with the mothers in your life. There was a heat wave in Portland so we mostly hid out at home. Oh, RB40Jr had an Ultimate Frisbee game on Sunday morning. It was hot and windy. The kids had a terrible game, but that’s life. You win some, you lose some. After the game, we just got dim sum to eat at home and spent the rest of the day watching movies. We had a nice family weekend. But, I’m a bit sad this Mother’s Day. My mom passed away a few weeks ago after a long struggle with dementia. I’m still grieving, but it’s a relief in a way. She was in the hospital for the last 6 months. Her mind, body, and spirit were very weak. It was difficult to see her like that. At least, she won’t have to suffer anymore. She had Lewy Body dementia and this condition only worsened with time. Unfortunately, there is no cure.
Anyway, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my mom today. RB40Jr can read this when he’s older. He was very sad when we got the news. They spent a lot of time together when he was young. My mom’s name is Benjamas. That’s Thai for the chrysanthemum flower. Her friends and families call her Ben. This is perfectly fine in Thailand, but threw people for a loop in the U.S. as Ben isn’t a typical female name.
Ben was born in the slums of Bangkok in 1948. She was the third child in a family of nine children. That’s unthinkable today. Here, I’m thinking one kid is hard. Wow, 9 kids! The three oldest children were female and they helped raise the rest of the kids. The family shared one room in those early years.
Her parents immigrated from China to find a better life in Thailand. Her mom (my grandmother) sewed burlap sacks for a few satangs each. (100 satangs = 1 baht.) Her dad was a teacher in China, but became a day laborer when they moved to Thailand. He started a fabric business and improved their lifestyle substantially in subsequent years.
Ben was a bright kid. She passed the entrance exam and was the first in her family to attend college. She majored in applied statistics at NIDA and went on to get an MBA. This was quite an achievement back in those days. There were only a few universities then and only a handful of women got a Master’s degree. She inspired her younger siblings to follow suit and they all graduated from a university.
Ben met Will (my dad) when she was in college. He was the president of the photography club at Chulalongkorn University. Ben’s uncle had a photography shop and they met there. After college, they got married and moved to Chiang Mai. Ben became a professor at Payap University and eventually the head of her department. Meanwhile, my dad started a series of businesses. He sold Tupperware, started a chicken farm, a pig farm, a copy & printing store, and then an appliance store. We had a comfortable life in Thailand, but that would change…
My dad expanded the appliance store too quickly and the business failed. He owed a lot of money to the bank and we lost everything. With no savings, he came to L.A. to visit his sister and decided to stay. He sold Buddha amulets to the Thai expat community and did various menial jobs to make ends meet. Ben had to decide whether to stay in Thailand and raise 3 kids by herself or immigrate to the U.S. and start over with nothing. Family was everything to her so she gave up her career, status, and stable lifestyle to keep the family together. This was pretty crazy. How many of you would sacrifice a respectable career to become a dishwasher in a totally new environment? Her degrees and work history meant nothing in the U.S. and she worked restaurant jobs for many years.
She went to work at an Italian restaurant and was fired just after a few days. Her English wasn’t good enough and she didn’t know the Italian ingredients. After that, she worked in a pizza restaurant washing the dishes and helping out in the kitchen. My dad delivered pizza for $6 an hour.
Five of us shared one room in my aunt’s house for a couple of years. Jeez, a big family in one room again. We moved to an apartment after my aunt moved back to Thailand. Those were tough years for me. My parents didn’t make much income and we lived frugally. I remember we all went to put door hangers for the Pizza restaurant to make some extra money. We collected cans too. They made enough to survive, but the future was pretty bleak at the time.
After several years of grubbing along, Ben saw an ad in the Thai community newspaper. A small restaurant was for sale for $10,000 in Newbury Park, CA. It was about an hour’s drive from where we lived. At that point, my dad was working the graveyard shift at a gas station in Hollywood. He was tired and didn’t want to drive to see the restaurant. However, my mom kept pestering him to do it. He gave in and drove up to see the restaurant. My dad walked through the place and said let’s go for it. They sold Ben’s jewelry to pay 30% upfront. Then they paid the rest in installments.
The Thai restaurant was another turning point in their lives. It was the only Thai restaurant in the small town and they turned it into a good business. Ben and Will worked in the kitchen and delivered food. The kids took orders, served, wash dishes, and helped prep. It was a true family restaurant. This business enabled them to buy a house and put 3 kids through college. After about 10 years, they sold the business and moved back to Thailand in 2000. The restaurant was too difficult to run without the kids.
Thailand to the US to Thailand
In Thailand, my dad started a Buddha casting business. He and his partner made and sold many bronze Buddha statues. Ben helped run the business and they had a good decade. Ben’s mom got sick during this period and she went to care for her. She was happy to spend a lot of time with her mom in her final year.
In 2014, Ben decided to move back to the U.S. to be with her sons and grandchildren. She lived with us for 9 months of the year and with my brothers the rest of the year. Those were the easy years for my mom. She relaxed, exercised, and helped take care of the grandchildren. It was a good retirement for her. We had a lot of fun exploring Portland and enjoyed many free events. This was before Portland went to hell in a handbasket.
Unfortunately, those comfortable years didn’t last long. In 2018, Ben was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. She had hallucinations and did many strange things. She was sharing a room with RB40Jr, but we had to change the arrangement after an incident. In the middle of the night, she spanked our son while he was sleeping. She said he was possessed and she needed to chase the ghost out. RB40Jr came running into our room crying. After that, RB40Jr slept in my room and I slept in his room.
We couldn’t leave Ben alone because we couldn’t trust her. One time when she was alone, she couldn’t open the door to go out. She called 911 and said she was imprisoned. Fortunately, I got home before the police arrived and cleared it up. At the end of 2018, we decided Ben needed to move back to Thailand. I couldn’t care for her and RB40Jr at the same time. Also, I didn’t want to put her in a nursing home in the U.S. Her English was regressing and she would have a hard time communicating.
RB40Jr and I helped Ben move back to Thailand at the end of 2018. My dad didn’t believe she had dementia. He thought it was some kind of psychological problem and he would fix it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Her condition worsened and my dad took on the responsibility of caring for her.
Lewy Body dementia is a mix of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Her mobility worsened over time and she lost her ability to walk in 2022. She was very stiff and couldn’t balance. Her hands tightened into claws. Her memory was also degrading. She remembered old stuff, but couldn’t retain any new memories. She wouldn’t remember if she had a meal after 5 minutes. Fortunately, she still knew her family and she was always happy to see us.
Dementia is the worst. It robs you of everything.
Over the last few years, I traveled to Thailand often to spend more time with her. I knew time was short. People with Lewy Body dementia typically survive 5 to 7 years after the diagnosis.
In October 2022, Ben got a lung infection and checked into the hospital. It was the 2nd time she checked into the hospital that year. She recovered from the infection, but everything else worsened dramatically. She couldn’t move at all and they put in a feeding tube, oxygen tube, and a catheter. It was shocking how weak she looked when I arrived last November. She was so frail.
I convinced my dad to take out the feeding tube. My brothers and I didn’t think the feeding tube was helpful. It’s better to eat what she could. She developed a terrible bedsore because she couldn’t move. It was bone-deep and looked very painful. We got an alternating pressure air pad and turned her often, but the bedsore got worse.
Her oxygen level would get low without the oxygen tube. Her body just didn’t function that well anymore. I left with a heavy heart in February. I knew it would probably be the last time I saw my mom. In April, she developed a fever and her oxygen level dropped. The doctor recommended a ventilator, but we refused it. A couple of nights later, she fell asleep and passed away. My dad stayed with her at the hospital for 6 months and did his best for her. We are all very grateful.
We donated her body to Chiang Mai University for medical study. That’s her last good deed. They’ll cremate the remains in 3 years and we can go pick up the ashes. I’ll probably go to Thailand then.
Life is short. I thought my mom would be with us for many more years, but her time was cut short by dementia. We all love her and miss her this Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day, mom. You can rest now. No more struggle.
Be good to the mothers in your life.
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