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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The American Way

Last night, while reading a new novel on Chinese cooking, I suddenly started sobbing. There was only a passing reference to death in the book, but it struck a match, illuminating a memory. The memory of my family not waiting for my Chinese family before cremating and burying my father. I never put any significance on it before. When we told them the memorial would only be about a week past his death they were shocked. They said there wasn’t enough time for them to get tickets to come to the US from Guangzhou. We had never expected they would consider coming to the US, the expense, the time. It had probably only been months since they had last seen Baba. The oldest sister had lost her husband a few weeks before after months in the hospital. Now they would never see their brother again. I think about how I would feel if my brother died in a foreign land and there simply was no time. If the people around him had to go on as quickly as possible through the process of grieving, planning and executing. The rush convincing them they were coping well, getting things done. I hope they forgave us. Maybe they decided it was the American Way.

On my walk back from buying a new bike tire today I thought about cutting M out of my life completely. It wasn’t too drastic for other people to stop talking or seeing someone they felt a profound connection to, if it were in the name of self preservation. When I hear that phrase I think of Cher in Moonstruck, talking about how Nicholas Cage’s fiancee was a trap and he was a wolf who had to cut off his own foot to get away from the wrong love, but that’s what he did. I wouldn’t gnaw my foot off in a trap, I’d probably start decorating it, drag it around, convinced one day the springs would rust and open. That’s what I did with Izzo. I thought eventually he would grow sick of being depressed in a relationship with someone who clearly didn’t feel the same way as he did. When I brought this up with M the other night he said, “I don’t think Izzo would have ever broken up with you because he really liked you, even though it made him insecure and…I can’t think of the word…not good, I wish there were a better word, but you know what I mean, being with you. And you didn’t break up with him because…well maybe you were afraid…and so one year became two became three.”

Fuck, me and pain.

I remember after I was in the bike accident a few months ago I told M how silly insurance is.

“You pay a company to try to protect you from something which in the past would be chalked up as a freak unfortunate accident that you had to deal with and suffer through. Now we want to be paid when something inevitably goes wrong? It makes no sense. I’ve been dealing with crap my whole life, why should I be compensated for it now?”

“Well you’re hoping you won’t have to use it, but you pay for it to help if things do go wrong,” he said. “…and don’t tell the other car insurance company you feel that way.”

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Helping High

Z’s uncle died this past Sunday. He has mentioned going up to visit his now widowed aunt (she/formerly they live in eastern Washington, six hours from us). I said I would go up with him. His mom and aunt said he would probably want to look through the uncle’s things, there were tools, a banjo.

I jumped at the idea of the banjo, “There’s a banjo for you? We have to go!” I was partly joking, banjos are expensive, but in the case of death I can be an “oversympathizer.” There’s really no such thing in my book, I created the term for use around “normal people,” who may not know the depth of sorry and sympathy they should feel when they hear of someone else’s loss. When Z got the news his uncle died he didn’t cry, but I did. I didn’t cry because I am in anyway better than Z or was connected to his uncle. I will not say I am reminded of my own loss, because to be reminded is too strong a phrase. In times like these my heart protracts, catching them and their grief for at least a brief moment before falling back to my own pain.

On Friday Z texted me near the end of my shift asking if I was still up for going to WA this weekend. I said sure and asked if I should hurry home. He said he was still finding someone to cover his schedule. I bought a few things at the cafe to take to his aunt and biked home.

In our living room we sat around, unsure of whether to do weekend chores, like go grocery shopping, pack for the trip or what. We settled on making a lunch of pork and cabbage stir fry. He was receiving texts every few minutes. I’d watch him anxiously as he read them, wondering if I would need to spring in to action. His boss was calling around, looking for someone to cover his shift, but it had been two hours and wasn’t looking good.

After he did dishes Z sat on the couch. I brought my book and sat next to him. I was trying to be comforting without talking too much, aware of my own habit of needing help and not asking for it, but also for my capacity to overwhelm him with questions. I faced him and put my right arm around him as he sat looking at his flip phone. Usually he’d be on his computer typing up emails to local venues trying to get a music show, or working on his schedule in his calendar. Instead he sat looking at nothing.

“Do you need a blow job?” I asked. This was me asking to help him relax.

“No,” he smiled. “That’s okay.”

“Okay,” I said, “just let me know.” I continued to face him, looking up at him, hoping he’d tell me how I could help or let me know that I couldn’t.

“Sometimes, when I’m stressed, and you’re trying to help, you stress me out more because you’re another person and I feel like I have to make you feel good about offering,” he said.

“Oh. Okay. Do you want me to just ignore you?”


“Okay.” I got up and walked away, turned on my computer and sat at my desk. I understood this situation separate from myself. He didn’t want to deal with another person, he needed to have all of his energy focused solely on the issue at hand, he couldn’t spend it making sure I felt appreciated. I was working on leaving him alone without appearing mad and without feeling mad. I wanted to help him, I usually didn’t have to offer my help twice to people. My coworkers accepted my generosity without a hiccup, my boss appreciated it, my family expected. It was probably this trait which Izzo worked on exhausting for all those years. I was taught to offer my help, that to do so was always the right thing to do. It was this same instinct which almost made me tell Z’s ex a few days ago that she and her cousin could stay with us rather than find their own hotel room in the city. I had stopped myself by asking that easy, but often discarded question, “Do you want that?”

Z and I are both people who do not want to ask for help, but unlike him, I offer my help endlessly. I crowd him in our tiny kitchen, attempting to take condiments out of the fridge before he needs them. I try to send his mail because the post office is close to my work. I try to make his life easier even if the action I’m taking is not something I necessarily want to do. What I want to do is not what’s important. What makes others happy is always more of a priority. I was taught that over and over again in my childhood. It’s a hard habit to break because it’s a self sacrifice which appears noble.

“Sometimes you gotta sacrifice for the team,” the weekend manager at work told me a week ago when I was complaining about putting more on my plate to appease the complaining staff.

“No,” I said and he laughed. What I didn’t say to him then, but which I am teaching myself now is, sacrifice isn’t sustainable. Sacrifice becomes habit becomes resentment becomes self imposed penance.

I honestly want to advance my help more infrequently. If people are not asking for my help it is not absolutely necessary for me to push it on others. I don’t always have to be that nice. It’s unfortunate that offering someone help who doesn’t ask for it is one of my tenants of being a good person. The reason why I occasionally ask someone who looks lost on the street if they need directions. I assume most people are embarrassed or shy by their need for assistance and I want to make it easier on them because I assume their lives or days will be better for it. I don’t think if it will make my life or day better. I tell myself it’s not a big deal, a little inconvenience, nothing I can’t handle. Of course it isn’t, I tell myself, I can handle anything. I need to keep proving to myself and others that I’m this good person, a person who can take it all, take whatever people don’t want to deal with.

My therapist says it’s like a bag of candy. I keep eating everyone else’s problems, but I “need to share the candy.”

The fact that Z rarely needs my help is a relief in a way. I ask him for it constantly, an addict for this helping high I’ve reared myself on, but he refuses to give in. I’ve gotta go cold turkey.

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Two Years Out

I was washing dishes when I had the thought. It was a thought that had never occurred to me, but which made so much sense. A thought I fleshed out later while wetting my hair in the shower.

I never knew the depth of my love for Baba until now.

It’s a cliche in a way, the “you never knew how good you had it till it was gone,” type of situation, but it genuinely had never crossed my mind. Maybe I always figured my desire to do everything right in his eyes stemmed from deep seated, manipulative Asian dad guilting. Maybe because the times weren’t good. I am not nostalgic for any of the hospital visits, the back/feet/hand massages twice a day, his swollen feet, having to get him a change of clothes over and over again because the fabric was too itchy. Or perhaps it was the fact I became numb to the idea of his death. “Used to the idea” in a way. Before he died I thought of the aftermath of his death a few times, in a sort of pragmatic, of course it will be sad, but then we’ll get to watch a movie all the way through without him interrupting, kind of way.

Now though, now I see how much I loved him, how devoted I was to him, how much I admired him for his adventurous spirit, the type of spontaneity I can never imagine having. It has been two years, and no one ever asks me about how I am doing, what it is like, two years out. Perhaps it is because they think it is none of their business, or, what I have been thinking more, is that they don’t want to hear what it is like.

This is how it is:

You still have dreams about him. Dreams of killing him, of him returning – his absence explained through spy movie plot lines, of annoying him, but sometimes you dream of nice things he never said, never would have said, words your subconscious fills his mouth with when he is kept, created, as you wish he were. In my last dream, during a nap in mid-day on the, “too loosely knit” according to Z, couch I kissed him on the cheek and he said, “Your kisses always have so much love,” and I smiled.

When someone mentions their dad something pings inside your head. You want to talk about him, descriptions of his shortcomings, the chores he made you do, the trips you went on, come out whenever remotely related. You hope people want to hear it, but never ask. You still feel guilty about the time he bought you Jack In Box after school to bribe you to run errands with him, but instead said you wanted to sit in the hot Suburban, eating the sandwich slowly and then reading your book.

You worry about your friend’s dad who has cancer, don’t want him to die, but at the same time imagine how you will be a better friend to him than he was to you. How you will get a last minute plane ticket, go to his house unannounced, hold his Mom’s hand, make them food, help, be unsolicited help. He probably won’t feel guilty that you are doing this and it will cement the idea in your mind that you know how to take care of people in grief. You know people can’t ask for the help, the comfort they need. You know how infinitely their lives will never be the same.

You wish there were still formal mourning traditions, searching for a way to display your grief, wishing you could simply stitch, “Baba 1942-2011” on the back of your jean jacket, wondering if anyone would notice, what they would say, what you are expecting of people. You want every individual that runs across you to recognize that yours is not a traditional path, you have been touched by death in a significant way. You go so far as to google “mourning etsy,” hoping there is some kind of DIY grief gear for the 21st century.

You can’t give pep talks to Z because you find it hard to muster optimism. You feel uncertainty in your bones, in the carpeting, in the stucco of your dilapidated apartment building. Occasionally when you say goodbye in the morning you say, “Bye, I hope this isn’t the last time I see you. I love you, be safe.” You decide this intimate knowledge of uncertainty, not in a carpe diem on a magnet kind of way, but in the way you’re annoyed by anyone being “certain” of anything, is important, makes you better than others. There must be a reason this terrible thing happened to you, to your family. It must be necessary for your development, to unpeel a layer of bullshit spread over everything by long life spans, media (obvi), those people with brick-by-brick idyllic lives who you stalk on Facebook. It can’t simply be that life is truly that fragile, that tenuous. But it is.