When I was four years old, my father bought me a toy fire truck, and I count that day as one of the happiest of my life.
It was a big deal for four-year-old me because we were a family of meager means. My parents, my older sister, and I shared a 1 bed/1 bath apartment in an area of town best known for the clandestine drug deals by the playground swing set. Our clothes were hand-me-downs from our older cousins or cheaply sewn cotton sets picked up in the bargain bins of Chinatown. Our furniture was mostly from the street or the dumpster, sprayed with industrial-grade air fresheners and cleaners to make anew. Both of my parents worked; my father had two jobs at the time, one deep within the bowels of one luxury hotel as a laundryman and another as a luxury hotel café waiter, catering to the wealthy D.C. elite. Some days, when he worked multiple shifts in a row, he didn’t come home, opting to sleep at the hotel so he could save the dollars and cents that made up a day’s commute.
Toys were not our main concern.
And yet that evening, I remember walking to the Goodwill about a mile from our apartment. It was summer, so the sun shone bright and unyielding even around 6 PM. My father had picked me up and placed me upon his shoulders, my sandaled feet dangling across his chest–it had stormed just before and the potholed streets and cracked sidewalks were filled with puddles. What happened next isn’t so clear, but I remember bits and pieces. The stale, air-conditioned air within that Goodwill. The way the summer light barely came through the grimy windows. The toy fire truck, dusty and with slight chips and stains across its chassis, sitting forgotten on a bottom shelf. Pulling the ladder that caught momentarily on its own cheap plastic construction but gently extending to its full length. Pressing the buttons on the side of the truck, the siren whining plaintively as it was on the last legs of a dying 9V battery. Rolling the truck across the dark carpet, one wheel squeaking because the axle was bent.
We walked out of the Goodwill with the toy fire truck that day, and I was so happy. Because in a child’s simple mind, having a new toy is almost like making an entirely new friend–especially if the only people you knew were your family members. I remember my mother chastising the two of us when we came home for making such a nonsense purchase. My father said nothing as he went to rummage through the closet for a new battery and some disinfectant spray.
Before going to bed that night, I gave him a big hug and I remember his embrace–strong, gentle, and warm.
I can’t recall the last time I gave my father a hug. I can’t recall the last time we had a conversation beyond the weather, driving directions, a sale at a store, or a random tidbit about some person in our lives. I can’t recall the last time we shared a private joke or the last time I told my father “I love you.”
And it’s a bit strange because all of the happy memories I have left of us are deeply affectionate moments from my childhood. How my father used to bounce me atop his knee when we both sat on the sofa. How my father held my hand whenever we crossed the street or had to walk through a busy parking lot. How my father always helped check my math homework, smiling whenever I got an answer correct and patiently correcting my mistakes. How my father tied my shoes in double-knots before I learned how to on my own.
Sometime after those moments, after the day he bought me that toy truck, a part of him had died, perhaps consumed by something else or perhaps just withered away.
Perhaps it was his anger, for he took after his father and possessed a temper that sparked brilliantly at a moment’s notice and continued to flare after it had destroyed its target.
Perhaps it was knowing some of his close friends were nothing more than intimacy impostors, siphoning off his energy and time whenever it was convenient for them.
Perhaps it was after my grandmother died, someone whom he deeply cared for as the most filial of her sons but never received any recognition.
Perhaps it was after my mother began imposing her will on us, for she was always more forceful than him at indoctrination and persuasion.
Perhaps it was when he was diagnosed with liver cancer, a poison that had emerged within his body after decades of, sometimes heavy, smoking and drinking.
Perhaps it was after we grew up, forming more sophisticated ideas in our heads, finding new friends and role models, completing assignments beyond his intellectual grasp.
And for so long I pondered about the cause(s) of his loss of love that I didn’t quite realize the bigger picture.
Yes, the toy fire truck made me very happy; I was but a materialistic child in search for the tangible object with moving parts and lights and sounds to satisfy my American television-driven desires. But, perhaps it made my father even happier, knowing he could give his children what they wanted and needed in this world.
And despite my accusations of him losing his ability to love, perhaps he had never lost the ability. For my father, love could have always meant being able to provide for us, protect us. In our early years, perhaps we needed that affection more, maybe our status as cute, needy children demanded it. But now, we were grown, more independent, more free-willed, more equal to him in his mind. So perhaps I had merely misunderstood his thinking process, blinded by the notions and depictions of fatherly love I’d grown up with and the much more forceful love my mother had imposed upon us.
For he still works long hours–even after cancer diagnosis and other illnesses–at the hotel despite unequal treatment by his superiors; for he still drives us wherever we need to go–doctor appointments, testing centers, school visits, picks up us from the train station or airport at all hours of day or night, doesn’t sleep until he knows we’re each tucked away for the night; for he scours coupons and circulars to make sure he can buy the things we need, never failing to stock up on essentials like laundry detergent or toothbrushes and the occasional pack of chocolates; for, even if he lost a part of himself emotionally, he still tried to give himself physically in every way.
And sometimes, I do admit, all this isn’t enough for me. I want a father to hug me when I feel sad, to ask me how my day went when I come home from school, to smile and joke around with me. Don’t we all?
But I am no longer a child with a simple mind living in the black and white world of have’s and have not’s, yes’s and no’s. I may never understand what happened to my father–his reticent personality now more apparent than ever: The traumas he endured as a child sent to a harsh boarding school, at times forgotten by his own family; the dangerous two-year journey he undertook as a teenaged refugee from his homeland through the Pacific islands and ending in Virginia; the dilemma he faced when asked to drop out of high school to find a job; the prejudice and injustices he encountered when he first started working, not knowing much English or anything about American culture; the internal struggles he slept upon every night knowing he had to support three young children on paltry wages; a disease that continues to lie dormant inside him.
But I truly believe he still loves me, in spite of the challenges, in his own way.
The other morning, I woke up and padded my way down the steps to the kitchen. The light was streaming through the kitchen windows, illuminating the steam piping out of my mug.
These days, even when we’re in the same room, we don’t exchange many words; my father rarely initiates conversation. But that day, he said to me in a quiet voice, “I made you some tea.” (Still, whenever it was just the two of us, he would speak in his native Teochew).
“It’s the one you like. The jasmine tea in the green bags.” He had remembered that I liked the Dammann Frères tea from his hotel (perk of working at hotels = lots of free/pilfered stuff over the years) more so than the other brand he usually took home.
“Thank you.” I tried to hide the shock in my face as I took a sip of tea, savoring its slightly bitter taste that spread across my tongue.
Setting the mug down on the table, I smiled. From my very core, I felt warmed again.
Continuing with our family themed week at G3S is a beautifully written story from @ro-mantik.
Growing up in immigrant household, we don’t always have a lot of luxury in terms of material goods. However, our parents really do love us in their own ways with all their hearts. Many times it is us who fail to appreciate how much hardships and obstacles our parents have endured just to provide us with daily necessities. In this New Year’s Eve, I will tell my parents I love them and that I appreciate all their sacrifices for me.