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 most of the time we hid at home. Oh RB40Jr had a game of Ultimate Frisbee on Sunday morning. It was hot and windy. The kids had a terrible game, but that’s life. Sometimes you win, you lose something. After the game, we bought dim sum to eat at home and spent the rest of the day watching movies. We had a good family weekend. But, I’m a little sad this Mother’s Day. My mother passed away a few weeks ago after a long battle 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 hard to see her like this. At least she won’t have to suffer anymore. She had Lewy body dementia and this condition only got worse over time. Unfortunately, there is no cure.
Anyway, today I would like to tell you a little about my mom. RB40Jr can read this when he’s older. I was very sad when we received the news. They spent a lot of time together when he was young. My mom’s name is Benjamas. That’s Thai for chrysanthemum flower. Her friends and family call her Ben. This is perfectly fine in Thailand, but it puzzled people in the US, as Ben is not 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 is unthinkable today. Here, I am thinking that a child is difficult. Wow, 9 kids! The three eldest children were girls, and they helped raise the rest of the children. The family shared a room in those early years.
His parents emigrated from China to find a better life in Thailand. His mom (my grandmother) sewed burlap sacks for a few satangs each. (100 satangs = 1 baht). Her father was a teacher in China, but became a day laborer when they moved to Thailand. He started a cloth business and substantially improved his lifestyle in the years that followed.
Ben was a brilliant kid. He passed the entrance exam and was the first in his family to attend college. She majored in applied statistics at NIDA and later earned an MBA. This was quite an achievement in those days. There were only a few universities then, and only a handful of women earned a master’s degree. She inspired her younger siblings to follow her example and they all graduated from a university.
Ben met Will (my dad) when she was in college. He was president of the Chulalongkorn University photography club. Ben’s uncle owned a photo 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 its department. Meanwhile, my dad started a series of businesses. He sold Tupperware, opened a chicken farm, a pig farm, a copy and 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 Los Angeles to visit his sister and decided to stay. He sold Buddha amulets to the Thai expatriate community and did various menial jobs to make ends meet. Ben had to decide whether to stay in Thailand and raise 3 children alone or immigrate to the US and start over with nothing. Her family meant 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 whole new environment? Her titles and work history meant nothing in the US, and she worked in restaurants for many years.
She went to work at an Italian restaurant and was fired after a few days. Her English was not good enough and she did not know the Italian ingredients. After that, she worked in a pizzeria washing dishes and helping in the kitchen. My dad delivered pizza for $6 an hour.
Five of us shared a room at my aunt’s house for a couple of years. God, one big family in one room again. We moved to an apartment after my aunt returned to Thailand. They were hard years for me. My parents didn’t earn much and we lived frugally. I remember we all went to put hangers on the doors of the pizzeria to earn some extra money. We also collected cans. They did enough to get by, but the future was pretty bleak at the time.
After several years of moving on, Ben saw an ad in the Thai community newspaper. A small restaurant was for sale for $10,000 in Newbury Park, CA. It was an hour’s drive from where we lived. At the time, my father was working the night 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. She gave up and drove to see the restaurant. My dad walked around 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 children took orders, served, washed dishes, and helped prepare. It was a true family restaurant. This business allowed them to buy a house and send 3 children to university. After about 10 years, they sold the business and returned to Thailand in 2000. The restaurant was too difficult to run without the children.
Thailand to USA 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 he went to take care of her. He was happy to spend a lot of time with his mother in his senior year.
In 2014, Ben decided to return to the United States to be with his children and grandchildren. He lived with us 9 months a 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 on a handball.
Unfortunately, those comfortable years did not last long. In 2018, Ben was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment. He 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 hit our son while he was sleeping. She said that he was possessed and that she needed to chase the ghost away. RB40Jr ran into our room crying. After that, RB40Jr slept in my room and I slept in her room.
We couldn’t leave Ben just because we couldn’t trust her. Once she was alone, she couldn’t open the door to get out. She called 911 and said that she was in prison. Fortunately, I got home before the police arrived and cleared it up. At the end of 2018, we decided that Ben needed to return to Thailand. I couldn’t worry about her and RB40Jr at the same time. Also, he did not want to put her in a nursing home in the US Her English was slipping and she would have a hard time communicating.
RB40Jr and I helped Ben return to Thailand at the end of 2018. My dad didn’t think he had dementia. He thought it was some kind of psychological problem and that he would fix it. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Her condition worsened and my dad took responsibility for taking care of her.
Lewy body dementia is a mixture of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Her mobility worsened over time and she lost the ability to walk in 2022. She was very stiff and she could not keep her balance. Her hands clenched into claws. The memory of her was also degrading. She remembered old things, but she couldn’t retain any new memories. She wouldn’t remember if she ate after 5 minutes. Fortunately, she still knew her family and she was always happy to see us.
Dementia is the worst. steals everything
Over the past few years, I have traveled to Thailand frequently to spend more time with her. He knew that time was short. People with Lewy body dementia usually survive 5 to 7 years after diagnosis.
In October 2022, Ben contracted a lung infection and was hospitalized. it was the 2North Dakota time he checked into the hospital that year. She recovered from the infection, but everything else got dramatically worse. She couldn’t move at all and they put in a feeding tube, an oxygen tube and a catheter. It was shocking how weak he looked when I arrived last November. She was so fragile.
I convinced my dad to take out the feeding tube. My siblings and I didn’t think the feeding tube was helpful. It is better to eat what you could. He developed a terrible ulcer because he couldn’t move. He was bone deep and looked very painful. We got an alternating pressure air pad and turned it often, but the pressure ulcer got worse.
His oxygen level would drop without the oxygen tube. Her body wasn’t working so well anymore. I left with a heavy heart in February. I knew it would probably be the last time I would see my mom. In April, she developed a fever and her oxygen level dropped. The doctor recommended a ventilator, but we declined. A couple of nights later, she fell asleep and passed away. My dad stayed with her in the hospital for 6 months and did everything he could for her. We are all very grateful.
We donated his body to Chiang Mai University for medical studies. That is the last good deed of his. They are going to cremate the remains in 3 years and we can go collect 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 and miss her this Mother’s Day. Happy mother’s day mom. You can rest now. No more fighting.
Be good to the mothers in your life.
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