I imagine you dead – more so out of curiosity than morbidity. Emotion escapes me. The mental wall I constructed to block you out, sturdily built over the years, prevents any sadness from seeping through, brick refusing to crack or crumble under the weight of your death. I wonder if, with you gone, I’d feel the same freedom that I do now, sitting in silence in an empty house.
Maybe the absence of your physical presence would relieve my self-inflicted pressure to fabricate an emotional connection between us. Maybe I replace my days of tiptoeing around your encumbered sighs with guilt-free conversations. I get a job to help support the family. Mom and I move out of the house. We grieve, we move on. I walk down the aisle alone but healed, craving the closeness only a father can give from a man who will promise to love me, but who’s love I’m incapable of accepting.
A fork scraping the bottom of an empty burrito bowl cuts my telenovela short. I clean up my dinner and turn to Jane the Virgin’s portrayals of worried loved ones for guidance on what to do next. I’m not the screamer or journaler type, nor am I the stone-faced sufferer or anguished weeper. I don’t really know what I am. So, I take a page out of your book and head to the kitchen.
Crouching next to the dishwasher, I rotate the lazy Susan fifteen degrees clockwise, just past the bucket of rice. Next to it stands your confidant, your stress-reliever. Golden liquor peeks over the label. There’s enough liquid left that I can swipe some of the stash without arousing suspicion. I reach into the cabinet above the counter, searching for the appropriate vessel to carry out my first taste of rebellion. A glass cup seems fitting. I grab the bottle from the bottom shelf, twist off the cap, and pour myself a glass of whiskey.
I stood in the living room entryway when two strangers carried you up the front steps. You’re hunched, back contorting into a C, face pale with the effort to be on your feet. Mom rushes out to help your coworkers bear your weight. I stay an observer. When you make it inside and collapse on the carpet, panting and weak, I run to the kitchen to get a glass of water. It’s not a practical act – you can’t even sit up, much less swallow anything – but it keeps my hands busy. I kneel next to Mom who’s begging you to go to the hospital. Reason can’t persuade you. The threat of astronomical health care charges overrides your artery’s protests, so you lie on the floor for the next two hours, trying to catch your breath.
Mom told me she had to fight hard to have me. She didn’t want Sarah to be an only child. You pushed back. Dance classes, tennis privates, orchestra tours, music lessons, China trips – they add up. And that doesn’t include the cost of living, my price of existence. Mom won the argument like she always does.
Your side-comments and rare, explicit verbalizations over the years taught me that when money is on the line, the path of limiting expenses is always the best route. Don’t call an ambulance, drive yourself. Don’t order take-out, make your own food. Don’t buy new clothes, wear what you have. Although you don’t always express your disapproval of unnecessary spending, a nonjudgmental eyebrow raise after Mom forces me to parade my Marshall’s loot in front of you is enough to send me back to my room, embarrassed and self-conscious.
I pegged your saving strategies as thrifty, a consequence of learning the value of money at an age where the biggest worry I had was how to look cute for a fresh pool of boys on the first day of high school. You tell me how you slaughtered chickens for Pappi’s business and paid your way through college, how you saved and invested to fund your daughters’ aspirations. To provide for your family. Why else would you still be working now, if not to support me through college at a job that makes you reach for whisky after dinner?
Your sacrifice doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Yet what monkey sees, monkey does. Scanning menus for the cheapest dish and insisting on low-cost backyard birthday parties was my new norm. I became an extension of your ideologies, adopting them as my own, different only in their heightened extremity.
As my obsession with money grew, my distinction between what you believed and who you were blurred.
The night I got into Stanford, I phoned home with the news. Afraid of receiving a rejection at home with no privacy to cry, I had opened my acceptance letter alone and on the toilet in the Proctor’s first-floor bathroom.
Mom picked me up shortly after; I wanted to celebrate with my family. I walked into the living room to see your reaction, slightly underwhelmed by Mom’s stunned silence on the drive home. You closed your book and stood up to give me your signature bear hug that makes me feel safe, secure. But the joyous cheers and tears that I craved never came. I wracked my brain, trying to figure out what I did wrong. What made me so different from the countless kids in college acceptance videos I’d binged on YouTube, jumping and screaming with their parents in triumph?
In a fluster, I said, “You’re probably thinking about how much this is going to cost you.”
You chuckled to hide the wince on your face.
Just as I turned to head upstairs, Mom told me to check the freezer. Inside sat two tubs of chocolate ice cream – my favorite. She said that after I called, you bought it to congratulate me. I ate it alone in my room, with only Netflix as my company.
I lay in bed when Mom set off the house in creaks of protest. The rub of wooden floorboards protesting under pressure isn’t normally loud enough to wake me, but along with your labored breathing and Mom’s attempt at a hushed voice, I’m robbed of my morning doze. I just want you to shut up. I fiddle with my sheets, hoping to ride out the abnormal commotion. You and Mom think I’m asleep, which is nice. I don’t want to help, and I don’t have to. Guilt gets the best of me, though, and I roll out of bed. I couldn’t find a comfortable position anyways.
You sit on the edge of the bathtub, naked. You ask me to grab a shirt, a productive task, at least more so than fetching a glass of water like I did yesterday afternoon. I offer to help you stand, and even in your current state, stubbornness gets the best of you. Mom and I watch as you scooch down the stairs one-by-one like a starved inchworm, centimeters from a hunger-satiating leaf, determined and nearly resigned, accepting your fate of paper gowns and billable lab tests.
I go back to my room and curl into fetal position, waiting until the drone of the car engine subsides. I have the house to myself. Finally, some peace and quiet.
A pink three and a half by two-inch card sticky-tacked to my closet door catches my eye and pulls me out of bed. Mom gave it to me in fifth grade with new tennis clothes for my birthday. I thought its message was a little silly, but I’d rather read it than be left alone with my thoughts. The silence I desperately craved was more suffocating than freeing.
An inspirational sentence is sickeningly smushed between white and pink daisies, and given the circumstances, I figure there’s no better time than now to heed its message. Kneeling by my bed, I clasp my hands, close my eyes, and pray to a God I’m not sure I believe in.
I tell him that I can’t lose you, that I need you, that I love you. With each admission of weakness, a different muscle in my body tenses until I break out of prayer. My confessions feel insincere, so I head downstairs to eat leftovers for breakfast.
I tell you I love you on special occasions. The words fumble in my mouth and come out in unsure cadences, betraying my hesitance, but it’s sufficient in expressing my fondness for you. It is only in these rare instances when I make myself vulnerable that you return the favor. Tit for tat.
I tell Mom I love her at least twice a day. Once in the morning and once before bed. The mandarin translation of the three little words pop stars can’t stop belting about comes more naturally to my tongue, its meaning left untainted by overuse. Pure intentions radiate from each shift in intonation, a cohesive sandwich of a fourth tone nestled between two thirds — wŏ ài nĭ.
I wish I love you wasn’t a delicate phrase of deceit, a transactional statement littering Instagram comment sections alongside “omg STUNNING” and “you’re perfect I can’t.” I wish it wasn’t tossed haphazardly between teenagers as affirmation of a budding friendship, devoid of the great meaning it’s supposed to hold, serving as a replacement for sweeping paragraphs of passion and adoration — a trisyllabic phrase that somehow lacks the simple, elegant tone of wŏ ài nĭ. I wish it were considered as sacred instead.
If you spoke Chinese, then maybe saying I love you would calm my anxiety rather than induce it. Perhaps sharing a language besides English would fill up the lulls in small talk that permeate our conversations, though we don’t have many conversations to begin with. Maybe that would change too.
While you avoid conversation with stacks of books, I avoid the thick silences that hang between us, ballooning in volume after small talk, with a screen shoved in my face.
Occasionally, you cut these silences, doing so when you’re most out of your natural habitat. It’s as if leaving the safety of the living room’s familiar yellow glow and the rocking chair’s reliable click strips away the mask you put on at home. It’s during these times when you break character most.
On New Year’s Day, I sat around the Schweig’s dining room table playing Apples to Apples with the kids while you and the other parents were talking about big, important adult things. That evening, I witnessed an enthusiastic intellectual discussing the latest physics discovery, only breaking topic to segue into a detailed account of the most recent home-improvement project – a complete re-laying of basement tile to prevent flooding done entirely by you, carefully executed so that it not only granted the satisfaction of a job well-done, but also saved tons of money(!). This man laughed with a hearty Santa Claus chuckle and smiled without a pained twist. He carried conversation with ease, eager to engage. This man disappeared when we left.
Silence settled back in on the car ride home, interrupted only by the clank of the key missing the backdoor lock and the trudge upstairs to prep for bed. It being nearly 10pm, your bedtime routine had been pushed back over an hour, driving away any energy for post-party gossip. The mask was back.
I caught you in the hallway after you brushed your teeth and gave you a hug goodnight per Mom’s reminder.
You said, “Goodnight, Buppr.”
I said, “Sweet dreams. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
An I love you stuck in my throat. For a split-second, I thought I’d say it. Habit kicked in, saving me from a near lapse in judgement, and I swallowed the words without second thought.
I sat in the visitor’s chair when Mom unpacked your Panera. The room’s not what I expected. Bland and cramped, it’s nothing like the Grey’s Anatomy set with too good lighting and spacious ceilings.
You’re lying two feet away from me with your back propped on a diagonal by two flimsy pillows. At some point during your stay, you donned a paper gown which now crinkles under your thighs. I never thought I’d see the day when you weren’t in the practical navy or gray or white tee you wear religiously. Who knew it’d be severe oxygen deprivation that’d get you to break routine?
Mom hands you a broccoli cheddar soup and you turn your attention to me.
You say, “How are you?”
It’s been just two days since my seductive dance with whiskey, just three since your affair with the living room carpet, just one since my dabble with panic attacks.
I say, “I’m good!”
You crack a smile, the kind that I see you use at block parties and the Schweig’s — genuine, full of life, happy…? I check my enthusiasm when it disappears as fast as it came. We small talk for a bit, and when we run out of things to say, Mom swoops in.
I’m ready to go home after fifteen minutes, but I want to stay for at least an hour. To pass time, I picture myself fading into the background as an imaginary camera zooms in on you and Mom chatting about Panera’s ridiculously priced Pick-Two deal. Here on the periphery, I can observe without disturbance.
You look sad. Of all the things you are right now – ill, weak, tired – that’s all I can see. I prefer it to the bursts of harbored frustration and on-brand Dad jokes that break your otherwise emotionless complexion at home. I pause on this moment, hoping to capture its novelty with a mental picture. I label the image: “A Peek of Vulnerability,” then stow it away in my growing album titled “First Times.”
The first time I saw Mom cry was in first grade. She gripped my hand in shock, her face wet and blotchy. Nai nai had lost her fight against lung cancer. Even then, in the eyes of a child expecting perfection from her parents, Mom’s tears only made her more superhuman.
I’ve never seen you cry, though. I think the threat of vulnerability triggers a suppression of your feelings, creating more resistance to emotional intimacy. When this becomes too draining, you use annoyance and anger as a defense mechanism. On the rare occurrence that it surfaces, your anger fuels alienation.
I sat smooshed between friends in the Proctor’s basement, celebrating Galentine’s Day nearly a year before your brush with death. In the middle of our rom com, a notification popped up on my lock screen. Sarah dm’ed me on Instagram. Distraught, she messaged me that you picked a fight, yelling at her for taking advantage of your car and claiming that you “ruled” the house, only digressing from rampant accusations of her slipping grades to call her relationship with Siri “abnormal,” mandating them to break up on Valentine’s Day. You reminded her that once she turned 18, she was no longer your legal responsibility.
Her response? She’d be the perfect child until she could financially support herself and then cut you off. The next time she’d see you would be at your funeral.
The following morning, I acted as if nothing happened. You didn’t know that my respect for you plummeted, fueling my own silences during family dinners and occasional car rides, nor did you realize that removing your mask of “stoic father figure hardened by the world,” once or twice even, could’ve redeemed you from last night’s confrontation. Refusing to be let anyone in or let anything out didn’t make you superhuman, it made you unrelatable.
I sat in the living room after my visit to the hospital and proceeded to picture your death a second time. I’m sad. To my surprise, the emotion I deemed inaccessible broke through a wall I thought to be impenetrable. I no longer feel relieved, either, but guilty. Guilty because I didn’t try harder to get to know you when I had the chance, blaming you for our distance when in reality, relationships take two to tango. Guilty because I held your faults against you, ignoring everything else to create a dimensionless character that’s easy to judge. Guilty because I didn’t try to see you.
I think that’s the one thing you’re afraid of most — that someone will really see you. It’s why you wear a mask. But I don’t want to let your fears of intimacy determine my future regrets. I refuse to sit idly while we inch closer to being strangers, at least more so than we already are. Something has to change.