“You said people would never understand,” my therapist says. “You were talking about the fear people have that prevents them from opening up to others, that it makes you sad. Are you afraid to talk about your father? And if it is fear, I’m not saying it necessarily is, where does that come from?”
My father, Baba. There are not many reasons why I don’t open up to people about Baba, why I write about him sparingly these days, why I’d rather focus on the evolution of my life in Portland or my heart. Those relationships will encounter new action, dialogue, easy, pithy anecdotes, my relationship with Baba is now solely for my digestion. I can reinterpret past events, think of new questions, but the food will still be the same.
Am I afraid people won’t understand? Is it possible to be afraid of something you take for granted? I guess my answer to that would be yes, I know death awaits me, but I still fear it. I grew up knowing none of my friends were having similar experiences. Friends were not comforting their mother the fourth time he was sent into the hospital for water retention, studying GRE vocabulary words for fun with their brother on the way to the herbalist every day all summer. I knew Baba’s sickness made me different and I hated him for it. It wasn’t enough I had to be culturally different from everyone in our town, that it could be seen in my wardrobe, my pronunciation of “r,” that I grew up without any neighborhood friends, no, now I had to have a dying father. It was the kind of selfish anger I don’t blame myself for.
When people ask me about my father I start with a few details.
“He died a few years ago.”
“He was from China.”
Then move on.
“He was…very interesting. He escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution, became a monk in Thailand and then came to the U.S.”
“He was…probably the most difficult person I’ve ever known.”
Probably a little more.
“He had heart disease, he was sick for a very long time.”
If I’ve been drinking.
“I always wanted a normal dad, you know, he was so difficult, but I was told I should always do what he asks because he might die soon, but that meant I couldn’t argue with him ever. I don’t know, I have a lot of mixed feelings about him, it really depends on what angle you take, if I tell it one way you’d think he was the greatest person ever. If he were alive and visited I’m sure he’d make you love him. But there was the other side of him, the tyrant, always hours upon hours of lectures about what we would have become were we raised in China. My family doesn’t talk about it much, but my sister and I have talked about how we have trouble deciding probably because Baba made us feel our ideas weren’t valid if they didn’t match his. Sorry, I’ve been talking a lot.”
I still wonder what he’s doing sometimes. I wonder what he’d want to talk to me about if he were still alive. I think about how he probably would have the same habits – calling and telling me what was new in his life (property being scouted, medicine, new herbal miracle), then getting off the phone without ever asking me about my own; buying too many Chinese New Year candies and dried fruit; wanting a quilt with him in the car on our long family vacations. They would still annoy me. I don’t imagine him changing at all from who he was when he died. I miss him infinitely. And I know I never won’t. I know he was our sun. How did we continue going. Being strong, that’s what he taught us, probably preparing us to support Mom after his death. Tai agrees with everything she says, supports any fun idea she has. The Enabler. Julian is the manly man who is there to solve her problems, devoted to her. The Hero. Evan tries to ground her, progress past her exhaustion. The Staff. I try to fix her the way I fix myself, build up in her what I want built up in myself. The Therapist.
Of all the things I could confide in someone about, Baba feels the most legitimate. By that I mean, no one thinks you’re over-reacting if you’re sad about your dead dad. People don’t know what to say, but no one will ever compare it to “what’s going on somewhere else” and make you feel bad.
I don’t tell people because it is so personal, private, it’s mine. I don’t need to know if it’s part of a larger pattern of loss. I don’t need to know this is part of the human condition. I treasure my loss in a way, the pain is pure, untouched, it makes sense to me. It keeps me separate, an individual, it’d be like trying to explain to someone what being Chinese means to me. I could mention facts, wider cultural context, history, but it’s like explaining the ocean to someone who has only ever seen water out of the tap. You can explain, but they’ll never really know what it feels like flowing through their fingers. They’ll never know the clean chasm of loss until they’re in it, until they feel it inside of themselves. The hot ragged edges of anger when you think of all the time others have, think of who Baba was in the world, all that he’d done, all that he was, how much bigger he was than anyone else you knew.
I’m not worried about not talking about Baba. If I wanted to talk about him I would, if I wanted to explain to someone what his loss means to me, I would. I don’t fear talking about him, I simply don’t want to. I haven’t found someone I trust enough to remain there in that space with me, not make me want to move us to another estate, not feel like they’re trespassing. It’s a small room, and I’ll open the door. I don’t need to force myself to show anyone else. It’s a quiet, dark room the size of a large closet. The walls are lined with the type of silk fabric that wrapped Baba’s statues when they were sent overseas. It billows out, comfortingly, you’re always brushing against it. I kneel in the room, I hold a candle, and I cry and think about Baba.