A few weeks earlier, I had called my mother. I had meant it to be the last call for awhile because we could no longer understand each other. Having been away for thirty years, I no longer remembered how to speak Chinese and my mother spoke only Chinese. In our calls, we would repeat the same easily understood Chinese phrases over and over. She would tell me how good it was to hear my voice. She would ask me if I was good. I would say that I was very good and ask her if she was also. Then she would repeat that it was good to hear my voice.
It didn't feel necessary to put either of us through those calls anymore.
This time, the call was different. Even the maid who answered the phone sounded upset, and when she handed the phone to my mother, my mother began talking to me at length in Chinese that I could barely understand. I understood "father" and "people" and a few other words, and she kept saying my name. I guessed she was telling me my father was ill, but it was alright that I didn't come home because the Indians' desert was so far away and people would not judge me for it. It had been so long that I had heard my mother speak to me in a full conversation, as if I could understand her, that I was frightened.
"I understand," I kept repeating to her.
Immediately after that call, I spoke with my sister who said that my father was the same, keeping to himself, not interested in anything except eating, sleeping. My brother hadn't been by to see them for weeks, and our mother was sad about that. There had been a minor flood in the area, but our other sister had reached my parents before the water got inside the house and had put our mother in the bedroom, so she never fully experienced the horror of the flooding which rose perhaps nine inches but soon receded. Everything else was the same.
I said, interested in the flood, "Did it ever flood before? Are they building too many homes around the lake, maybe not being careful about the drainage?"
We talked awhile about over-development in the community my parents had lived in now for twenty years, and by the time the call ended, I had again forgotten about any concern for my mother.
Instead, for the next hour I thought about the lake rising and drenching the lakefront homes, the neighbor's tiled and raised terrace causing run-off onto my parents' yard, making the rising flood look like rushing water. It also made me think of a man I knew who lived below 30th Street in my town in New Mexico, whose home backed an animal refuge area and open irrigation. The area was becoming over-developed but area drainage had not kept up. During the seasonal monsoons with drains plugged up or otherwise few drains able to funnel the seasonal torrents of water from off the streets, floods would form within seconds and pour down the slope off 30th, all of it pooling at the home of this unfortunate man.