My gaze catches on the running stitches peeking over the vee of his hospital gown, and I understand my father is no longer invincible. The machines are humming, asserting the fact that he is alive. But the tubes in his throat breathe for him.
He shoots a glance in my direction as if to check the side mirror before changing lanes.
What do you want for dinner?
You’re not cooking?
Ma’s working late tonight.
Doesn’t matter, I say, but I know this means we’re going out for dinner because this is a rare moment where we get to pick the meal. We look forward to nights such as this. We plan for them: steaks, prime rib, butter and sauces poured liberally. He loves me too much.
Adrenaline flows heavy as I exit the mall, free and clear. Stocked up on fashionable stationary and shoplifted jewelry, I am invincible.
My father calls.
Twenty minutes later, I’m searching for the emergency room he swears is easy to find. What does he know? He came in through the back entrance.
Here he is, still in the gray dress shirt and linted black slacks I saw on him this morning.
Asking if he’s okay terrifies me, so I say, Does ma know?
She’ll get the message when she’s out of the meeting.
Oh. I look for a place to sit. On the chair is a blue plastic bag with the hospital’s logo. It’s a thick plastic- the good kind that will surely suffocate the landfill animals. I move the bag and take a seat, holding it in my lap. In it are his tie and the shiny leather office shoes he never lets my brother borrow. His jacket is draped over the back of the chair, as if someone had the care and peace of mind to place it there.
He nods at the shopping bags by my feet. Buy a lot of things? The words are routine, teasing.
Just a couple things. I do the dance with him, the steps familiar though they felt wrong. I dare myself to ask him what happened.
As he tells me of the EKGs, the ambulance ride, and the faceless strangers, he smiles the way he does when telling me a story that will surely make me laugh.
So now what? But my asking was not an act of bravery.
I don’t know. This, he tells me in Cantonese, the language of my youth. I read the uncertainty and the fear in his words as if they were spelled out in syrup.
The corners of his eyes crinkle, and I begin to comprehend what I have steadily ignored. He is human. He is aging. He will die.
Will it be today?
We are not invincible.
Jokes and easy remarks of old friends are all we have between us because he is old, and he’s my first friend. He’s been my friend the second my baby hands grabbed his wide-knuckled fingers. But two jokes in, his face crumples. He doesn’t want to die. I turn my face away.
The nurse is male and British, and my father thinks he looks like someone on tv.
We have to take him in for another test. The look is reassuring as if the nurse thinks I’m going to cry the second he leaves me alone. Why don’t you leave your watch with your daughter? You can get it back after.
My father’s left shirt cuff is rolled up to where they took his blood. He unclips his watch and slides it off his wrist. I stretch out my hand, and it falls into my palm, warm from him.
Don’t lose it.
I’ll give it back to you later.
Later, not after. There is a difference.
I slip it on, studying the silver bearing small scratches of the everyday, the big, bold face. The roman numeral four has lost its place and now sits precariously on V.
The heart surgeon speaks to my mother in hushed tones. His words and hair are the texture and color of gravestones. His name tag makes me think he’s Irish. The green clover pin on his lapel better be lucky.
Guy Fieri moves in the television set hanging above a set of hospital chairs. He is instructing us, the impressionable viewers, on the traditional techniques of breading onion rings. I don’t question where the remote is or what kind of god would force The Food Network on people in waiting rooms. Sunflower’s a tough color for a wall to wear in a room with no windows, leaning towards cheery and falling short of hopeful. It’s important to be careful and sparing with hope in hospitals. I tug a sleeve to cover my father’s watch, feeling the tick tick tick keep time with the beat of me.
The television set is silent, and I understand why. The voices would undermine the rootless emotions floating like ghosts in the room. I wish my thoughts came with volume control. The paint is more mustard now. Pictures of the city’s hills and peaks are the only windows. There is nothing to look at but the television. The hospital furniture was forest green and in need of reupholstering. My eyes linger on the face of the watch. It stares back at me accusingly, unwavering.
At nineteen, I’m at the age where parents are allowed to die on their children, as if it were merely punishment to the ungrateful. I am the daughter who is afraid to spit out an “I love you” as they wheel my father away. There is not enough evidence to convict me as ungrateful, but I could be incarcerated for two lifetimes- mine and his- for being a coward.
Has anyone else noticed I’d grown up?
Morbidly insensitive, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to wait for someone you love to be okay again. Now I know. Waiting is like being stabbed, sliced down the side like a fish and having to sit quietly as someone stitches you back together to close you up. Then they stop, mid-stitch, no warning, and walk away, letting the ends of the thread run with them.
His knife cuts into the prime rib like butter. I slice my steak, rare and bloody, and offer a piece with my fork.
Put some fat on that. It tastes better with it.
I nudge a lump of the fat I had segregated with the lima beans on to my fork. He takes a bite of his own, nodding as he chews. Now you try.
I do, and I look up at him, the same way I did in a field of sunflowers.
I told you to trust your father, didn’t I? He grins, and it is like the sun- warm and bright and alive.
I smile back because my mother isn’t here to spoil this moment, to remind me to eat my vegetables, to nag him to stop eating so much red meat. I bear witness as he eats his sixteen-ounce prime rib, fat and all, without qualms. This is the way we love each other. When my mother is not present, we ensure the other gets what they want without guilt, without strings.
The nothingness of waiting hollows me. My eyes are dry, and I am voiceless like the people on the screen. It’s me, my mother, and her cellphone. In perfect silence, Guy Fieri instructs viewers on the methods of constructing the great American burger. My mother types with one finger and periodically steps out of the room. Desolation weaves silkily in the up and down inflections of her words. I don’t need to hear her to understand what she’s telling people. This is her coping: shoving people’s faces into her reality, fishing for sympathy and pity, talking to everyone she knows except the daughter who sits two chairs away with nothing to look at but a noiseless television set.
He’s not supposed to go first. I look at my mother, at her thinning hair and guarded eyes. She isn’t the one who does the taxes. She doesn’t know where our passports or birth certificates are hidden. He’s not supposed to die. This is the man who keeps up the pretense of knowing all, though we know better than to believe. He should have been invincible.
I sit on the cold hardwood floors by the closet where my father keeps everything important filed away. The scatter of photographs have me surrounded as they make six by four sinkholes into a past I am assured have happened. In one window is me, red and white checkered sunglasses, two ponytails planted on both sides of my head in the only style my father knows and my mother loathes.
Sunflower faces lift up to meet the sun. My head is turned to the camera.
This one’s nice, I say.
Do you remember this?
I look up at my father and shake my head.
He smiles, not sad or disappointed. There was a field near the park where we used to live by the lake. Don’t you remember?
I look at the green sweatshirt I wore, the way it blended with the giant green stalks of sunflowers. The memory gasps for air, but I make sure to drown it.
The room holds a disturbed stillness, a kind of quiet where ghosts argue in hushed tones, where no sound, no shape or shadow, was ever defined. It was purgatory with all the misery and none of the sin.
Guy Fieri studiously watches a woman fry chicken thighs. I think of the oils, the fats, the clogged arteries. My father’s arteries are clogged. I did this to him. Over and over again, he let me do this to him. I’d thought of my mother as the villain, the strict teacher in class who turns their back and you pass notes to your friend. But it is me who is the villain. I’m the one who’s been killing him with this selfish love my whole life. The only thing I could accuse my father of is loving me more than he should.
My mother lowers into a seat four chairs away. Her disdain is cold. Do you care what’s happening with your dad?
I don’t dare tear my eyes from the screen. Of course, I say.
You don’t look like it.
How would you know? You’re too busy to look. I look at her now.
She didn’t meet my eyes, and so she only assumed by the solid glass of my clear, unwavering voice. You don’t look worried.
How do you think you look?
Do you even care?
Go call someone else.
She opens her mouth, most likely to let me know what I am worth to her, but she hesitates as her eye catches on his watch on my wrist. Where did you get that?
He told me to hold on to it for him.
Her anger claws its way free of chains. Distracted by the watch, she doesn’t notice the tissues clenched in my fist. She says to me, I hope you can live without him.
It wasn’t hard learning to live without her.
We forget the other is not invincible either.
Her eyes are dark and hard, beady. My grandfather thinks I have my mother’s eyes. I hope he’s wrong, but I see what she sees. I blame me too.
He is not invincible. I have put that to the test.
I am four years old, and I am invincible.
Little Dumpling, where did you run? Where are you hiding?
Home to my ears, the cadence of Chinese tickles giggles from me.
Where did my Little Dumpling go? His head glows from the sun as he pretends to search for me in the field. I smile wide, my face posed as still as the flowers swallowing me.
Eyes on mine, he takes a camera from his pocket and points it at me. Shutters flutter with the wings of butterflies, but the meaning of what he had just done, stealing a moment, is beyond my understanding.
The sun stands behind his head, haloing him. He is the sun, bright and bold and warm. He is invincible, I think to myself, and I am a sunflower.
I grin up at him as the sunflowers do, faces bright and young and sweet. The field stretches endlessly. There is no horizon- only my father. Like the sunflowers, I don’t understand this can’t last forever.
Hour six and three-quarters. The only medicine I know is what Hollywood has taught my generation.
They said they’d be done at six. The watch does not lie. Something is wrong. Something is wrong, and they’re trying desperately to fix it now. Something is wrong, and my father won’t ever look at a sunflower and think of me again.
The watch does not lie.
How do you fix a bad heart?
Flowers are for the living and the dead, though only those left alive can appreciate them.
The hospital flower shop boasts a selection of teddy bears and balloons with disgusting, bright cursive cajoling patients to Get Well Soon! To my right is a stack of cards, but I think, what’s the point?
Up on a shelf are sunflowers in a vase.
They make me think of halos and sunshine and red-checkered sunglasses. I turn away and bring the vase of lilies to the checkout counter.
A week after the surgery, and we are going to my grandparents for Saturday dinner.
In the car on the way there, my father asks, Do your parents know?
No. My mother’s knuckles burn white at the wheel. Her voice is too soft, too yielding, the way it is when she’s after something.
He merely accepts it as fact not to be questioned.
So I ask, Why not? Why can’t they know?
My brother turns to me. He needs me to keep my mouth shut. But the black sheep never learns just how to do that. Or doesn’t he know?
Just don’t say anything. Her lips pinch tight and ugly. The sour acid of her words burns. I let it go.
She takes her revenge at the dinner table.
Give your father some vegetables. I don’t bother to look at my mother. With my chopsticks, I pick up the green beans and neatly drop it into his rice bowl. I look at him.
He’s pale. He’s lost weight. Who does she think we’re fooling?
Give him chicken.
Give him some soup.
My grandfather takes this as a cue and orders me to pour him soup too.
Enough, my grandmother snaps. Your husband is not an invalid.
But wasn’t he?
Blame is bright in my mother’s eyes as if I’d hinted at something to my grandmother, as if I had somehow manipulated her to say this.
I do not use my voice.
I ladle bone broth into the bowls. Heat seeps through fake china like water through a sieve. It burns hotter than my mother’s words, but I do not drop the bowl, and I make my way back to the table. My eyes do not give me away. I deserve this.
He’s a free man who’s escaped death and pushy nurses. The sight of meals that do not come preordered on a tray brings him to his knees.
The long scar down the center of his chest veers left. Each night I swab the zippered line, tracing the path of the scalpel, and he jokes how the surgeon must’ve been drunk, and now he’s stuck with a crooked scar.
He’s home with me, and the tv remote is attached to him like a fifth limb. When his snoring feels like thunder again, I want to be relieved.
I cancel my plans to take care of him the last month before school starts again. I am the one with the most convenient things to give up. My mother continues to go to singing rehearsals. My brother fits in three-hour workouts four times a week. I stay quiet.
And I continued to stay quiet when one week later, my father stands for a forty-five-minute Chinese opera show, singing a duet on stage with full capabilities. In my head, I turn the fact that he was supposed to die to be all about me. When I give him back his watch, he doesn’t see what it has come to mean to me in those five days.
There is no line splitting my sternum where a surgical blade had been. My ribcage is not held together with metal wire. My heart wasn’t fixed, but his pumps normally again, and mine is still shredded. I wish someone would take a scalpel to me too.
I didn’t cry, not once the whole seven hours we waited in that room. Does that make me cold or strong?
Sunday afternoon, my grandmother calls.
Does your mother think I’m stupid? Her Cantonese is rapid fire and sandpaper to the ears.
I pretend I don’t know what she’s talking about, but she knows I know. That is the nature of our relationship, grandmother to granddaughter. She says to me what she can’t say to her daughter, and I say to her what I won’t say to my mother.
Doesn’t she think we care about him too?
I let her go on, lecturing her daughter through her granddaughter, the only one left listening. At last she asks, Is he okay?
Yes, I answer, though it feels like a lie.
Never in all these years has your mother taken such good care of your father. Do I not have eyes? Can I not see for myself? She’s my daughter, isn’t she? And I am her mother. I see what she will do before she even thinks it.
Does she think I’m stupid? she asks again. This time, she sighs, exasperated.
It drains me to play the role of confidant.
She decides to make a special soup, just for him next Saturday. Before she hangs up, she makes me swear not to tell my mother she knows our secret.
Three months later, it is November- Thanksgiving weekend.
I glance over at him from the passenger seat. The sun puts him in sharp silhouette, and the clouds are soft yellow with dusk.
He grins. Everything is almost the same again.
What do you want for dinner?
Aren’t you cooking?
Your ma’s working late tonight.
Doesn’t matter, I say. Guilt burns its acid streak.
He loves me- too much.
Watching as he cuts into his piece, I comment about the fat. What I don’t say is that he’s stealing my father from me.
You know how they bypassed the clogged arteries?
Yeah. My heart trips.
Well, I felt it clog all the way the other day.
His fork scrapes over the pile of cubed carrots. He can’t meet my eyes.
I look down at the steak on my plate and pick up my knife.
Steffi Sin was born and raised in San Francisco. She is a recent graduate from the University of California, Davis with a major in landscape architecture. Her love of literature has led her to explore writing both short stories and mystery novels. She is currently finishing her second novel and working to get the first one published.
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