I was nine years old and doing my business in the bathroom, wholly absorbed in the Archie comic on my lap, when I was interrupted by a quiet cry coming from down the hallway. After flushing and washing my hands, I peeked through the crack in the bathroom door to investigate. It was my dad, sobbing in front of the washing machine in our basement. He had not heard the flush, and did not know I could see him. I didn’t dare declare my presence; even at nine, I understood that this vulnerability was not something he would want me to see.
This crying was a private act — one I knew my naive, childish eyes should not be witnessing. But I continued to watch through the crack of the door. I watched my dad pick up each piece of clothing from the hamper, examining the garment slowly, wistfully, before dropping it into the machine. I watched for at least 45 minutes, wondering how many sweaters, t-shirts, pajamas, and adult undergarments he would need to get through before reaching the bottom of the hamper.
He hadn’t cried at the funeral. I remember being angry. This was a simple emotion, one that surely a grown man could feel, if I could. Aren’t you sad? I screamed, through tears, kicking his shins. But he stayed expressionless and simply hugged me, and we sat together for the rest of the afternoon in our own silence — save for the dissonant, repetitive chants coming from the traditional Cantonese singers that my poh poh and gong gong hired for the ceremony. I remember fiddling with the edges of my scratchy black dress while my dad followed along in the songbook they provided us. His index finger traced each line of the song. Don’t you wish you could read Chinese so you could follow along too, Lucy? he asked me in Cantonese. This is why you should pay more attention in Chinese school, he said with a shake of his head, in a tone that suggested I should be ashamed of myself.
But now, believing he was alone, in our basement, he was crying. His crying was neither loud nor dramatic, and had I not heard the first soft cry, I might not have known he was crying at all. He picked up a white blouse — one that she had worn for his birthday a few weeks ago. He held it in front of his face, said something barely audible from the bathroom I was still hiding in. Was it I miss you? Or perhaps he was simply reading the washing instructions aloud, so as to not damage the silk. I knew it was from the birthday celebration because of the chocolate stain on the sleeve. I knew it because I remembered laughing at the ice cream explosion, stupidly, naively, ignorant of our impending misfortune. After a brief moment, he removed the blouse from his face, and it, too, was dropped into the machine, another artefact from what would now be my old life, diluted, washed away.
I later found out that the white blouse and the rest of the garments were going to be donated. I was supposed to come with him to help load and unload the bags of clothing at the Salvation Army. I refused, bursting into tears, insisting that we keep them all. My father just furrowed his brow, looking disappointed. His face pleaded, somewhat hopelessly, for me to stop my fit. Lucy — now it has become too bitter of a past. We try not to hold onto the bitterness, okay? It hurt. So we donate the clothing. And you help me unload bags from car. He spoke firmly, and in English, which told me he was more upset than usual. But I felt no sympathy. I wanted to hit him.
I did the verbal equivalent. Oh ho zung lai ah! I really hate you, I told him, a phrase I had only ever heard on Cantonese soap operas. And then in English, You don’t even miss her, fully aware of my words: cold, cutting, drawn out—the image of him in front of the laundry machine holding the white blouse, vivid as ever.
After that trip to the Salvation Army, I quickly learned that my father had decided to keep nothing of hers in their old shared closet. Half the space was simply empty now. But his side of the closet remained intact, carefully arranged. He never spread his own shirts and ties out, never made full use of the space. I knew because for weeks after the funeral, I would creep into his room after he fell asleep, look inside shelves, investigate the corners of the room, peek behind the curtains, scavenging for remnants of my old life that I could add to my collection. Within a few weeks of this habit, I amassed a wide variety of artefacts: my mom’s old paper planner, a chequebook, and her favourite hat, which he had accidentally forgotten to include in the donation pile.
In the darkness, I could often make out the faint outline of my dad sleeping, on his usual side of the bed (the left). I noticed that he never bothered to shift to the middle. The middle was where I had sometimes slept whenever my childhood insomnia struck me, able to rest only after being sandwiched between the warmth of my parents’ bodies, only after clenching my already asleep mother’s hand, only after feeling this small comfort — one that told me she was there, even if not awake.
These days, about once a month, I return to a home that looks almost identical to the one I knew in my childhood. There’s a few old family portraits, including my parents’ wedding photo in the living room, a decade-old, hand-drawn father’s day card and a bunch of fake crystal swans lining our fireplace mantle, plastic wrap on some of our furniture and looped around our TV remote. There are small changes of course, ones that are subtle and to be expected after the course of seventeen years. There’s a flat screen plasma TV where the boxy, black one used to be. My dad wears slippers around the house now. There are Chinese tabloids, ones that he gets from the grocery store a few kilometers away, strewn across the couches. It’s a little less tidy than I remember it being in my childhood, but then again, why bother being neat when you’re the only one to see the mess?
Tonight, I can tell that my dad is happy to see me. He’s always content with my visits, but this time it’s a little more: he greets me with a smile and a pat on my shoulder. I take off my shoes and enter the kitchen, and a mixture of savoury aromas fills the air around me. I feel myself salivating — my dad’s cooking has always been my favourite. I smell pork congee with bits of preserved, salted and century eggs sprinkled throughout, and a platter of thick, chewy udon noodles with slices of steak, red peppers, onions and mushrooms.
My dad opens the fridge, cracks open a bottle of Tsingtao beer. He doesn’t bother to offer me one; his daughter doesn’t drink beer, of course. She is good, everything he wanted her to be, for the most part. I don’t bother to tell him about the hangover I have, or the stranger who woke up in my bed this morning. We talk on the phone every other day, but we are worlds apart. We know everything and we know nothing of each other, all at once. We are family, and we are strangers.
He ladles congee into two bowls, passing them to me to set on the placemats. I’m reminded of Sunday morning lunches from years ago, the three of us forming a right angle triangle sitting around the table, my mother beside my father, my father across from me, my parents talking business about the shop, while I sat in silence; mute, unheard, aside from the occasional slurp of congee entering my mouth.
Habit’s a funny thing. We sit down, in the arrangement we’ve sat in our whole lives, though now we form a line instead of a triangle. I’m starving, and immediately pour the congee into my mouth in huge spoonfuls, occasionally interrupting this motion with a bite of noodle. Ho ho mai ah! Really tasty, I tell him with childish earnestness, my mouth full. I look up from my bowl and see him chuckling at my gluttony, my lack of manners. He’s smiling, but he looks tired. His head is entirely grey these days. The textures on his face, the craters for eye bags—they look like they belong to a man in a nursing home, not someone in their late fifties. I can tell he’s lost weight recently; his polo shirt hangs off his body, looking one size too large. When did he start looking so old?
I search for something to say, ask him if the shop’s been busy these days, think about the craters under his eyes, tell him he should think about retiring soon. He asks me if I’ve been eating enough fruit lately, asks me how my dissertation is going, laughs and says he still doesn’t understand what his daughter does, but trusts that it’s important. I tell him that I’ve been eating fruit every night and the dissertation is moving along, albeit slowly. I tell him I should defend by the end of the year. I don’t tell him that my doctor just increased my Zoloft dosage, or that these days, I sleep under two hours every night, tossing and turning with a bad, unidentifiable feeling in my gut.
Our words over dinner carry themselves as they always have, presenting half versions of ourselves. We don’t ever say much about her. We don’t actively avoid the topic; we’ve simply acknowledged her absence as fact, the way our lives are now, had been for a long time.
After dinner, I help do the dishes, and my dad chops a few apples up for us to snack on. He’s still not convinced that I’m eating enough fruit. We bring our heaping plates of fruit to the living room, sit on the couch, and my dad pulls out his new iPad, tells me he’s having trouble logging into his e-mail. I explain that it should be the same as his desktop, but go ahead and take the gadget from him, offering to help. I sit cross-legged, put the iPad on my lap. I need your password before I can do anything, I tell him, as he hovers over my shoulder. He leans over and types the four-digit password on the homescreen, and I can’t help but be nosy and watch. I replay the digits in my head. It’s a month and day, I realize. It’s my mother’s birthday, I realize. I look at my dad, who looks unfazed, taking a bite of apple, waiting for me to carry out the next step to help him figure out his email.
And I realize, that there is a ghost that haunts my father. She always has. He may rarely talk about her, but he nods to her, continues grieving, in small ways. He carries her with him, gently; she lives in our house, continues to sleep on their bed, sits with him at the kitchen table, her memories dig craters under his eyes. I think back to the day we unloaded the bags of my mother’s clothing at the Salvation Army. Realize that a spindly nine year-old isn’t much help in carrying a couple garbage bags of clothes out of a car and into a building. Realize that perhaps, my dad just didn’t want to do it alone.
Raine Ling is a Chinese-Canadian writer interested in exploring how loneliness and suffering exists within families, across generational and cultural lines. She is currently based out of Toronto, Ontario.
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