“You’ve got to line up there.”
The airport attendant pointed at a flock of people waiting to check in. We were the late bunch, the timid rebels who didn’t arrive at the airport by the suggested time. I eyeballed the situation anxiously, calculating the quickest way to check in. The line for the Super Elite flyer was the shortest except I wasn’t one. Desperate, I pointed at my baby and begged the attendant for an exception. She smiled politely and walked away. Feeling stupid, I turned around to search for my dad. It was just a moment ago when I walked away from the old man, thinking that I would find a better solution than to merely wait in line. And there he was, innocuous among strangers and suitcases, being old and steadfast, holding a spot in line for us in case we needed it. I walked over to him, embarrassed, and without a word he took over the stroller to free my hands. I watched his knuckles turn white and his wrinkles smooth out. An intricate map of veins on the backs of his hands came into focus as he wrapped his palms around the handles and squeezed.
Thirty years ago, the same hands gripped mine as we watched my mom dash between lines, bearing annoyed looks from travellers while she tried to get us into the slightly shorter one. His hands were veiny too, back then, they always were. We kept our spot in line in case mom decided to join us. Dad held my hand tightly, steadfast, as if I’d slip away. It was then when he said, “Be good to mom. Daddy won’t be coming.” At that malleable age, I quietly accepted without protest. Hand in hand, we inched forward in line.
And here we were now, inching forward again. We were both quiet and well practiced in parting ways by now. Since that first time, I’ve arrived and departed from this very airport many times, visiting my dad jubilantly at first, until the visits stopped altogether. When it was our turn at the counter, I handed the attendant our passports, the luggage, and we were finally checked in. We were the last ones. Dad pushed the stroller beside me as we both walked towards the departure gate. I hesitated for a moment, thinking that we needed a proper goodbye. I looked over at dad and he gestured to keep going. Maybe he saw how panicky I was moments ago, or maybe it was out of habit. I blamed myself for hurrying like mom. I should’ve been calm, like dad.
My mind was still ambivalent when our bodies arrived at the yellow line just before the gate. Dad kept going until the guard stopped him. But he didn’t let go right away. In that latent moment, he kept a tight grip while his gaze turned forlorn. I fixed my eyes on him to pick up a sign of where to go, what to do. I was a child again, waiting for permission and hoping for a surprise. The bag on my shoulder threatened to slide off. If it fell to the floor and made a crashing noise, this moment would shatter. Too afraid to move, I let the bag dangle. My body stood still, allowing thoughts to appear and linger until a familiar pang settled in my stomach. I held my breath to cut out the thoughts, a little trick that worked most of the time. But dad, did you want to let go? I held my breath again. The pause grew awkward while the guard waited. Pressured to break the silence, I drew in a small breath, ready to speak. This was the divide, the fracture that brought us back to that moment. What if I’d asked: Dad, can you come along?
And then he let go. Dad took a few steps back and waved. I fixed my bag and nodded, guided by muscle memory I pushed the stroller through the departure gate. Dad stood there for another moment, and then slowly walked away, heading back to where he belonged. On the other side of the gate, I did the same.
The attendant who dismissed me earlier greeted all of the passengers with the same glossy smile by the boarding gate. She took our passports for scanning while I studied her face for a trace of recognition, maybe an apology, or some softness knowing that we made it there after all. There was none. She handed the documents back to me in the same rehearsed sequence as she did for everyone else. Feeling small and ordinary, I carried my baby and boarded the plane. Did dad let go of me, or did I leave him behind? The plane started to ascend and I cupped my baby’s squishy hand in my veiny one. Maybe next time. I let that thought sit with me, suspended in the air.
Sarah Cheng was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, and grew up in Markham, Ontario. She immigrated with her mom and siblings in the 80s while her dad stayed behind. Now in her 30s, she often looks back on the impact of this decision on her family’s collective lives. Her work, “All The Things We Didn’t Say” was previously published in Blank Spaces Literary Arts Magazine. She currently lives in Markham, Ontario with her husband and two children. You can follow Sarah’s journey @heyitsbluish on Instagram.