young, humorous, and grieving

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Why Don’t You Talk About Your Father?

“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.


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When It’s About You

I often forget M is still in the midst of a mental health issue necessitating daily SSRIs, and worries of addiction to them.

I want to forget about it. The same way I’m sure my mom wants to forget grandma’s blindness, or her Charles Bonnet syndrome, how if I could have ignored my dad’s heart disease maybe I would have been able to treat him the way I wanted to, the way best serving me and only me. It’s a luxury to forget others’ feelings and perspectives, what they’re dealing with. Perhaps sociopaths are the luckiest among us.

I figured if M is not talking to me it doesn’t exist for him. His silence tells me his father’s stem cell transfusion was successful, his girlfriend is great, his mom hasn’t had any crises lately. His mental health is fine, he’s leading a normal life. What we assume of all of those disconnected from us. They must be doing great, because if they weren’t, we’d hear about it.

It still feels true, but I can’t use that excuse anymore. He dusted it off, after months of silence about it, and now I don’t know how it leaves me. How do we share the truth without ignoring others’ experience? Is there a degree of importance when it comes to what one person wants over another?

In response to my continued prodding about why he never initiated conversations and rarely responded to texts/emails, he said, “I guess part of it is that I want your perception of me to be what it used to be, because I liked myself more back then. I haven’t really done anything in the last few years and to me that makes me seem pitiful. And so I try to avoid things that make me feel that way, one of which is talking about myself to you.”

My first thought upon hearing this was, “Does no one else ask you about how you’re feeling? Is everyone else shying away from the subject even though it’s not going away?” When M and I are alone I’ll ask him how his anxiety is doing. That’s what I say, anxiety, I don’t say “mental health issue,” or “unexplained mental health problem,” which I think may be a more precise way to describe it, because anxiety is the rubber band bundling all of his other more vague symptoms together.

How do I support M while making sure my own needs are met?

“You can just tell me that you feel off,” I texted back, “but don’t know why. It sounds really frustrating and I would accept that. I do want to hear about how you’re doing and what you’re doing, because I wonder. Even if you feel bad, I want to know. I don’t think you’re pitiful, a lot of things have been thrown at you in the past few years and I think you have dealt with them in the best way possible. I still think of you in the same way. I want to share things with you, but if it doesn’t get reciprocated it makes me feel like I’m talking to myself and should take a hint.” I want this conversation to be about me, my feelings, but it’s stretching out of my grasp.

“I know,” he says, “I haven’t been fair to you, but I don’t want to lose you.”

What am I supposed to do with this line of conversation? If someone doesn’t want to lose you they should act like it. My therapist says I should have asked how to support M without needing to talk to talk to him often, but no one is that good. No one thinks of that on the spot, except for a therapist.

I want to throw it back in his face. Tell him he sounds like a Hallmark domestic violence video, but I don’t. I haven’t yet given up on our friendship, but this conversation didn’t go where I wanted it to. I wanted him to comfort me, tell me he’d change, but instead he says communication with me is a problem, sharing with me reminds him of an unfortunate truth he’d rather ignore.

What’s your game plan M? Plan on teasing me along until your next break up when I can support you again? When I exist again?

We finally talked, “face to face” on Google Hangout, a few nights ago and I asked him what my therapist had suggested.

“Is there some way I can support you without trying to talk to you? I just don’t know any other way since…that’s our primary means of communication…”

He sorta smiled and said, “Yeah, that makes sense. You can be here for me when I need you, and you always have been, one day I might have some big catastrophe and I’ll need you. You don’t need to do more.”

“Okay, well I will be there, and I’ll bake scones and bring a large assortment of tea.”

He smiled.

I am attempting to uncover in myself the type of friend he needs. Whether I can be a friend who is here when he needs them, but doesn’t push him, doesn’t get angry because you never hear from him. Is it possible to be that selfless?

“I was wondering… you said you don’t like talking about how you’re doing because you mostly ignore it, but…do you talk to anyone about how you’re doing? Do people ask?” I said.

“I mostly ignore it, which I know isn’t healthy.”

“Yeah, I’m in therapy. It’s all going to come out eventually, just wait,” I held up a finger.

“Maybe, or maybe that’s how therapists sell you their services.”

“Says the psychology major.”

“That’s how I know their tricks,” he said. “But, I talk to you about how I’m feeling, and J, and G now sometimes. There isn’t really anything to say about it though, so I don’t like talking about it and it seems like I need to be here as a shoulder for other people to cry on.”

“But you need a shoulder too! Everyone needs a shoulder.”

It made me think of my shoulder during the car ride home from the Hale wedding. I wondered if the thought passed through his mind as well.

When you really care about someone does it make sense to convince yourself you don’t deserve what you want from them? Can I be a friend who waits for him to need me without asking anything of him?

When it was about 11:30 pm there was a knock on his door. His mom poked her head in wearing a white long nightgown.

“Hey,” he said turning in his chair.

“Who are you talking to?” she said.

“Lucy,” he motioned towards his screen. I waved.

“Hi,” I said. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was that her husband’s cancer hadn’t gone away. That they were gearing up for round two of chemo and transfusions. Fuck. I wanted to, but thought she might not want me to know, that it’d be too personal, too close.

“What’s up?” M said.

“I came to say goodnight,” his mom said.

“Okay, I’ll come in and say goodnight if you guys are still awake later.”

“Okay, goodnight. Bye.”

“Bye,” I said.