Small Movements

The subway and then the bus took me east to the hospital, through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, to say what I know we should have said to each other years ago. Decades ago.

BY MARIA HSIN //
ART BY GETTY IMAGES

The subway and then the bus took me east to the hospital, through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, to say what I know we should have said to each other years ago. Decades ago. He wouldn’t respond—he couldn’t—but at least I would have said it out loud.

“Stay With Me” played on my Pandora station. Fitting. I was headed there to plead that he stay. That he open his eyes and understand me.

My father and I had a long, rocky relationship, and in the past year he had suffered a major stroke. It rendered him speechless and unable to swallow or move the left side of his body. Because of the abnormal way his heart pumps blood—a separate condition—the doctors didn’t think that things were going to get better. The latest complication was pneumonia. If I was going to say anything, now was the time.

He was awake when I entered the room. I hadn’t seen him open his eyes since he was transferred back to the hospital with a fever of 101 a few days ago. Now his gaze was locked on something.

I cautiously stepped closer to him. When I spoke, he looked up at me.

I said hello in Mandarin. I held his hand. I wanted to see if he would squeeze it back when I asked him to. His strength had diminished. We went through our usual routine—I asked him to move his fingers, feet and toes—and the pistons began to fire, as the machine that was his nervous system seemed to warm up.

With puffy eyes and a red nose, I began my speech. I apologized, and said I knew we hadn’t gotten along for many years, and that there was a lot we had not said to each other. I started to cry and his face became red, and he shook. He was crying too. I felt bad, and then realized he had understood me, that he was acknowledging our difficult past. That it had hurt him too. I stopped crying and I told him it was okay. It was time to focus on his hands and his movement right now.

I remember the screaming and the crashing of plates from my childhood, all too many nights. I longed for my mother to leave him. I remember his betrayal and his verbal abuse. After the divorce, we erased all physical traces of him from the house. But his daring, his cooking and what I knew of his culture—they lingered in my psyche and in my heart.

Of course I had regrets about the years that followed. I could have spent more time with him, I could have done a better job documenting his journey from Hong Kong and Shanghai to America. I never learned enough of his native Mandarin to converse with him in his language.

Other attempts to confront the past, and all the hurt, had failed. As we shook, after my speech, I wondered if his tears and mine might be some way forward.

It has been a year since then, a year of watching my once commanding and independent father struggle, helpless, in his body’s rebellion. I have learned to see that he is just a man, flawed and broken, in many more ways than before. I see that I have an opportunity to talk to him, to share my life with him. One day, he may talk back. I now speak for him at his therapy appointments. I celebrate his progress, including the day he was able to say hao, or “good,” in Mandarin.

Some people have asked why I would do this. The answer, I now realize, is simple. Because I see that he has not given up. He is certainly not the man he was before, and he may not be able to do the things he did before—including cook or walk. Perhaps it is this transformation into someone else, someone we both are discovering, that will finally allow us both to be free of the past.

 

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“Small Movements” was published in Proto magazine.

 

Cleaning Up After My Father

My godparents, who knew my parents before they were married, hopped on a train from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles for the Thanksgiving weekend. I was excited to hear it, and excited I would be able to see them again after two years.

On Thanksgiving morning, my godparents and older brother drove from the LAX area to Highland Park to see my father. He has been a resident at a skilled nursing facility there since May, following a stroke in March.

By all accounts it was an emotional visit. At least a decade has gone by since my father and godparents last saw each other. It also marked the first time my godparents visited my father since his stroke.

Seeing them was the high point of the Thanksgiving weekend.

The next three days would be spent at my father’s house.

My siblings and I had agreed to sort through his belongings and clean out the house. Unable to rent it at a rate that would cover his mortgage payment, we decided to sell it.

While it saddens me to part ways with his 1910 Craftsman, it seems it is our only option.

While it saddens me to part ways with his 1910 Craftsman, it seems it is our only option.

My three brothers were in town for the holiday, and we made our way to Alhambra from my mom’s place in Inglewood.

We started the process by tackling the master bedroom.

The main closet contained his deceased wife’s belongings. (My father was married twice after he and my mother divorced.) His ex-wife passed away last year, but for whatever reason, he had not brought himself to remove her things from the house.

Another closet, a dresser and cabinet upstairs also contained her clothing, photos, legal documents and various mementos.

I had an uncomfortable feeling for most of the day Friday. I was clearly intruding, and while I knew there was no one else that could do this and that we didn’t have another option (we don’t know how to get in touch with her family), I still felt out of place.

Her clothing was donated and we placed her photos and other mementos in a safe place. While I packed and sorted, I learned she loved to sew and knit. I saw photos of her life in China, and it looked like she visited with her son and his family in Australia.

Here we were, cleaning out and dismantling the life of a man (and woman) we clearly did not know well.

We may have taken three carloads of bags and small boxes to Salvation Army that first day.

His clothing, photos and paperwork are staying in there for now. There will be upgrades and construction before we sell, so it buys us some time.

I don’t know that we’ll ever solve the puzzle, and each visit to his house seems to complicate what we thought we knew.

Every now and then we’d find an old photo or letters that represented one more small piece of a large puzzle.

I don’t know that we’ll ever solve the puzzle, and each visit to his house seems to complicate what we thought we knew.

We found a Seaman’s Discharge Book, and it looks like my father worked on a ship in Hong Kong. At one point, he worked as a radio operator.

aredThis small red book shows my father worked on a ship in Hong Kong.

We also found letters my father and my mother wrote to each other, and I saw that he wrote to her in English and then translated it into Spanish.

They had their own language, as lovers often do. They sometimes borrowed the Spanish-sounding words my older brother made up as a toddler in their letters to each other.

It was the mid ’70s, and in one letter my mother mentions she heard on the news a large earthquake would hit California.

It made me laugh.

I recalled the countless earthquake drills in grammar school in the ’80s, and the constant talk of the “Big One”, and that California would fall into the ocean.

While sorting through his dishes and cookware, I found clay pots that looked like they were used often.

I wondered if I should set any aside for him. Would he be able to use them again? Would he miss them? I guess I could learn what to cook in them. But where I would I store them? The apartment I now share with my boyfriend is already a tight squeeze.

Should I keep them just to store them in the garage?

I did not like the idea of having to give things away that did not belong to me. To dismantle what he had created. But realistically, how much could I keep? And, again, I wondered, which ones?

I did not like the idea of having to give things away that did not belong to me. To dismantle what he had created. But realistically, how much could I keep? And, again, I wondered, which ones?

If he learns to speak again, will he ask me about his house? About his things? About hers?

Perhaps I should be grateful if he gets to the point where he can speak and eat again. But I am certainly not looking forward to that particular conversation.

2015-11-20 15.48.45A persimmon tree, full of fruit, and life, in my father’s backyard.

Cleaning up after my father has been a theme for two weeks now.

The week before Thanksgiving my youngest brother and I worked in my father’s back yard. A persimmon tree is full of fruit, and some of the persimmons had been picked at by birds and fallen to the ground.

I saw that my father had started small vegetable gardens. One still has the hoes he used.

In another area, it looked like he was growing tomatoes. A small tomato had dried up on the wood supports he created.

He is not gone, I am well aware of that.

And I am grateful.

I can see him, and talk to him and share what is happening with me. Perhaps one day he will be able to respond. Second chances are rare, and hopefully we both make the best of this one.

 

agreen2Photo of my father, circa 1976.