Posted on | September 16, 2013 | 1 Comment
Programming Note: after a long and incidental online absence, I’ve decided to return to blogging during the remaining 25 days of my Kickstarter campaign. Please expect updates, 3 – 5x a week. If you have any questions or fonts of inspiration, apply within.
“You know,” my father said, “I divorced you once.”
He spoke in English, his second language and my first. Although my father has lost his stilted Chinese accent, he still confuses certain English words. Accept, except, expect. Later versus latter. When I first heard “divorced” that winter break my sophomore year in college, I did not flinch. Instead, I scanned my American-born vocabulary for what he must have meant.
I suggested “disowned,” a word my father should have known from the ultimatums he gave me in my adolescence. In seventh grade, he criticized me for wanting to study melodic French instead of practical Spanish. In high school, he found me rebellious for refusing to attend the Texas Academy of Math and Science which my older brother had joined a year earlier. By the time college admissions came around, I had committed an act of family treason in considering liberal arts institutions. My pursuits seemed frivolous to him, a self-made entrepreneur with a postgraduate degree in Computer Science.
“You are not my daughter!” my father had shouted during a particularly intense dinner. “Leave this house. If I see you on the street, I don’t know you. Never come back.”
My senior year of high school, I was disowned from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. At first, I spent my nights in the empty model homes of our gated community in the suburbs of Dallas. I snuck back into the house through the backdoor when I was hungry. The lack of heat and furniture, however, drove me to live with my boyfriend. I completed my undergraduate applications on his computer. Finally, my mother begged me to apologize and come back.
“The problem is,” she sighed, her cheeks wet with tears, “you are too much like your father.”
My mother, however, was not in the living room the Christmas Eve he used the word “divorced.”
Indeed, I treated college like a trial separation. Legally an adult yet not financially independent, I practiced polite estrangement from him. On my Sunday calls home, I spoke exclusively to my mother. Only before hanging up did I acknowledge his existence, casually asking her to send him my regards. On major holidays, I returned from college and hid in my room, emerging only for mandatory family dinners.
“No,” my father dismissed my correction. “I once had a wife just like you” – he pointed, continuing in perfect English – “and I divorced her.”
Turns out I was not too much like my father.
I was too much like my father’s ex-wife.
Until that moment, neither I nor my brothers knew of my father’s previous marriage. He rarely spoke to us about his past. Perhaps as children, we simply were not interested.
He provided just enough information to dispel my disbelief – she was Chinese, had worked in the medical field, and likely lived in New Jersey – but not enough to reveal a name or her identity. These details, he insisted, were irrelevant. More worrisome was how our arguments paralleled of his first marriage. He feared that I was becoming selfish, stubborn, and distant – qualities he associated with his ex-wife. “As your father, I have to tell you the truth no one else will. You are still young and you can still change,” he said.
Exasperated, he continued: “why can’t you be like your mother?”
As I grew older, I stumbled across more facts about my father’s past. Our family vacations were limited, for instance, because he had never camped, learned to swim, nor even ridden a bike. From one of his childhood friends, I discovered he had skipped classes in high school to smoke, gamble, and pool shark. With a poor academic record, he had only managed to attend university due to his redeeming high marks on the scholastic national exam. (In retrospect, this explained why my father insisted on keeping me housebound for the two months leading up to my SATs.)
After college, I learned not only was my father born the eldest son in his family but that he also had two brothers and three sisters. I had accepted a teaching fellowship in China and hoping to learn more about my heritage, wanted to use the opportunity to visit them. For winter break, I booked travel to the southern province where my father claimed he was from. As I plied my parents for information in preparation for this trip, however, the facts around his upbringing grew inconsistent. All my paternal relatives lived in Kunming. Yet, my father grew up 1200 miles east in Taipei. In fact, he seemed not at all close to his siblings and always hesitated on their names, ages, and occupations.
My mother spoke candidly about what my father would not. He was born in the 1940s, in the midst of the volatile Chinese Revolution. When he was young, his parents had sent my father to live with my great-grandparents in Taiwan to protect him. They did not foresee that the island would be declared a sovereign state and that travel between its new Republic and the mainland would be banned. With no way of returning home, my father was inadvertently abandoned by his parents. He was six years old.
“You should try to be kinder to your father,” my mother said. “He’s had a rough life.”
In January 2010, my father was admitted to Baylor Medical Center. Although his appointment was intended to simply address his shortness of breath, a routine EKG scan revealed two clogged coronary arteries. 67 per cent of his blood flow was blocked from his heart. He required emergency double bypass surgery. Before my mother could ask me to come home, I had already booked my flight.
I arrived after the operation and spent the following three weeks helping her care for my father. He had suffered two strokes under anesthesia and was suspicious of strangers during his recovery. Although visiting hours normally ended at nine o’clock, for my short-tempered father – who was convinced the medical staff was conspiring against him – the nurses made an exception. When my brothers returned to work and school, my mother and I alternated shifts tending to him in the hospital’s intensive and critical care units. I slept over in the evenings, untangling his drips and tubes to help him move between reclining chair and hospital bed. I rang the nurses for urgent care when he was too proud. When my mother snuck away for lunch, I paced the corridors with him to strengthen the new arteries to his heart.
While he was healing, I also recovered from my hurt. I had never asked who it was that ended my father’s first marriage – if it were he or his first wife. Yet, it might have been from that experience and from his parents that he learned to push love away. After all, one cannot be abandoned if one demands that the other leave first. After his major surgery, I assured him there never had to be that risk with me. Regardless of what had already happened between us, I still returned.
It is not in my father’s nature to vocalize love or gratitude. Yet I found both in the bedside moments he tightly squeezed his hand in mine. After 27 years, we were finally learning how to be family.
We never spoke of my father’s first wife since that evening eight years ago. When I returned to school for spring term, my roommate Caroline and I exchanged stories about our holiday break. It was difficult one for her as well. Her parents had recently separated and this was the first Christmas she and her siblings spent shuttling between two households. When she was done, I shared with Caroline the secret first marriage my father confided in me.
“You have to remember,” she said after I had finished, “that to get divorced, you first have to get married.”
“If it’s any consolation, there were qualities about this woman – and you – that must have made him fall in love in the first place.”
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