My mother recently landed in Vietnam — her new home. I’m sure she saw tropical trees, hoards of bikes and lots of people with yellow skin, like us. For her, this is perhaps more foreign than Dorothy going to Oz, or an 18-year-old Korean girl immigrating to the U.S. and naming her son Alvin. Still, it must be freeing.
But just hours after arriving, she received a call. It was me.
“Something is wrong with Rainbow,” I said from 9,000 miles away.
My mother has been our dog’s caretaker for the past 11 years. The first time Mom left her with me, Rainbow sat at the door for three days, waiting for her to return; she eventually did. So each time thereafter, Rainbow was more OK with Mom leaving.
This time, Mom’s not coming back for a while.
But Rainbow’s been doing great. The veterinarian said she was healthy for her age — that she had another five years. And lately she’s been eating like a hoss. But a few days ago, as I was frantically trying to meet a deadline, she pawed at my leg; I looked down. She was panting and shaking. Her chest ballooned out, then shriveled back.
I panicked; tried everything. Nothing worked. Then, around bedtime, it stopped. She nestled up next to me on my bed and fell asleep.
It happened again the next day, and the next.
There are times when I get so angry I want to get rid of Rainbow.
It usually happens in the morning, when I am swamped with work, and Rainbow has to go outside for the third or fourth time. She whines and cries; she pouts and begs. I wish I had a backyard or a porch to let her run around in. But she is stuck in my 400-square-foot apartment, yearning for more time to stare at the sun or chase New York City pigeons.
I get angry with this situation. My parents left her — us — here like this. Sure, Rainbow’s technically my dog, a sixth grade birthday present, but they are the adults who have always been responsible for her. The timing of all this is all incredibly inconvenient. I’m trying to ambitiously chase a dream, but so often I’m preoccupied with making sure my dog’s bladder is empty.
So, sometimes, when I walk her, I let out my frustration. I march down the sidewalk and drag her along. I don’t have time to fight with her as she pulls the leash the opposite direction.
I didn’t worry much at first. It wasn’t the first time Rainbow panted or shook. But it got worse each day. I’d pet her stomach to calm her down, but she was still hurting; there were little tear droplets congregating on her nose. “What’s wrong?” I begged. “What’s wrong with you?”
I called Mom. I told her I was taking Rainbow to the vet. Mom said OK. But before she hung up, she asked, “Are you doing OK?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. I shifted to Korean: “It’s OK.”
On my craziest day of the year — the day I had to write my first blog post for ESPN, which would appear next to my headshot — I gathered Rainbow’s medical records and we went to the canine hospital. The vet took my violently shaking dog into the exam room. A few minutes — and $80 — later, the vet came back hugging Rainbow.
“Let’s sit down,” she said.
I partly expected it — some disease, maybe cancer. Always happens to dogs, it seems. I wondered if I could pay for treatment, or if I would have to watch an animal whither away in my apartment. It hardly seemed fair for me to do this alone, at this point in my life.
“Rainbow’s an old dog,” the vet said, “so it could be a number of things. There’s a chance she could have a senility disease — dementia or something. And there’s also a chance she could have something … else. We would have to do blood work to find out.
“But,” she added, “it’s probably just indigestion. Just give her a tiny antacid.”
For two years, Mom stayed in Kansas, apart from Dad, to let my brother finish high school with his friends. For 20 years before that, she spent every minute of her life ready to drop everything she was doing and come to our rescue. And now she is finally free, and in paradise. There’s no more leaving work early to pick us up from school; no more leaving the department store empty-handed because I need to pee real bad; no more staying up until midnight helping my brother finish a procrastinated project; and no more days going to bed with a sour heart because of the dumb things teenagers do.
And now, 9,000 miles away, there are no more inconveniences.
But on her second day in Vietnam — her second day of freedom — with a new world sitting outside her door, Mom trapped herself inside and tried to call me, time after time. The calls wouldn’t work, she said. She finally reached me, via instant message.
I started to write, “Rainbow is…” But before I could finish, I got her message.
“Alvin! Hi! Are you okay?”
I think I’ve been using the wrong word. It’s not inconvenience, it’s sacrifice. And love.