It was never a question whether my mother loved me—it was a given, the cornerstone of my life that shaped everything about who I was. Even after my mother died when I was twelve, her love pulled me like dark matter toward her through places unseen.
I’m not sure I’ve ever loved a man. All the men I might have loved told me the same thing: that I am afraid of love, perhaps even afraid of them. I know they’re right. It’s always on the brink of true affection that I shrink away. One man even told me he is afraid to be tender, because it seems to scare me so.
I want to say I loved my father, but I can’t remember if it’s true.
There are photographs of us laughing together, with me in diapers. I’ve watched recordings of my older sister and me lining up in turns for my father to swoop and toss us into the air—all three of us shrieking with delight, and my mother egging us on from behind the camera. I’ve seen images of a toddler me, artfully styling pink plastic rollers into my father’s hair, while he sits on the sofa reading some paper in full 90s flare.
Did I love him then?
I know these moments happened because the evidence is there. But I cannot remember laughing like this with both my parents together. I cannot remember ever being so near my father in a way so unafraid, too young to fear his anger.
I feel I must have loved him because the film says so—the infant child is laughing, she embraces the man beside her. Look at how she smiles, look at how he laughs. What is it like to feel so safe, I wonder. I’ve studied the tapes over and over, looking for memories of my mother that I cannot recall. But it is my father who captures my attention—a stranger with his gentle hands and easy laughter.
When I turn off the tape to search my own childhood for proof my father loved me, and proof that I loved him, there are only two memories I can name.
The first is blurry, and lives more as a feeling than a true memory. A suggestion of something like love. I am in a darkened room and can see the outline of my father above my crib. Maybe the door is slightly ajar, and the soft light from the hallway frames his silhouette. Or maybe the door is closed, dampening the muffled adult voices on the other side.
I am in a crib looking up at my father; my sister Shira sleeps on the bed beside me. But sometimes in the memory I am not looking up but rather over at him as he sits crouched on the floor beside us. Sometimes I am not even in the crib at all, I am looking down at my father from above. Is there a bunk bed?
Shira is asleep. Maybe I was sleeping too because everything is blurred around the edges. I can hear my father’s voice—soft and gentle, so different from the voice I’ve long remembered.
It is a nonsense rhyme to lull my sister and me to sleep, about the Buddhist monk who journeys west with Sun Wukong. My father tells me it’s a tune of his own invention, one he came up with during the nights when we resisted sleep—
But I do not trust this memory.
I do not trust this memory because my sister and I never shared a room with a crib. In that first apartment, my crib was in my parents’ room; my sister slept in the living room with my grandparents. There were never any bunk beds.
I do not trust this memory because it is a story my dad tells often. Like when he tells me his “business is about to take off,” every year for the past fifteen years. Or how he brags about his health and fitness, until we get into an argument. Then he says, “just wait until I’m dead in a year. Actually, I went to the doctor last week. And when I die soon, then you’ll see”.
I do not trust the memory because my father changes the past. Like when he tells me how he and my mom were so in love and well-paired, as if I hadn’t been there to witness the endless nights of fighting, silenced only by police knocking at the door after calls from worried neighbors. He doesn’t know mom showed me their torn-up marriage certificate once when she was crying. She told me how she’d ripped it into tiny fragments just weeks after signing, and my dad was the one who taped everything back together.
I do not trust this memory, because I sang this song once to some friends in China, and halfway through they picked up the tune and sang the ending.
Maybe I only imagine I’ve lived this, because my father has described it exactly so, so many times. Perhaps my mind simply invented a room to fit the narrative and filled it with a voice I wish I’d known. My father’s voice, both foreign and familiar. Had I ever really heard it like this? Maybe it is like the video tapes, which I can only ever picture in the third person—an observer to a scene witnessed from above, constantly vying to peer around the edge of the camera angle.
And now there exists a memory where there never was one, in the space that always longed for this moment to be real.
The second memory I have of my father, of a man with whom I might have shared something like love, is very clear, almost colorfully vivid.
It is my first year of grade school, the year I learned to speak English.
Prior to my first day, my mother taught me this much English: how to say and spell my name and ask to go to the bathroom. Despite her efforts, at some point that year I peed my pants in class. I was sent to the nurse for a change of clothes, and for the rest of the day, I wore a pair of over-large, bright orange sweatpants tied at the waist with a rubber band. I remember exactly how the teacher looked at me and exactly what the other students said. But the kids moved on quickly, and they were the least of my worries.
I was in terror at the thought of showing up at home with different pants.
Any normal day it would have been fine. I would be the first one home, and I could change into my own clothes, clear the evidence, and tell my mother in private later to be consoled.
But of course, my dad was in town that day. By then he had begun his business endeavors in China, the failed ventures that would leave him in debt for the rest of his life. He spent most of the year on the other side of the world, but this was one of the odd weeks he was with us in the States. Which meant he would be there when I came home from school.
All afternoon I planned how I would enter the house very quietly and run to my room before my father even noticed I was there. The entire bus ride home I rehearsed this plan, mentally preparing to avoid discovery. Anything to escape my father’s wrath and his “三角眼”—his triangle eyes.
Triangle eyes. This was the name Shira and I used when my father’s face dropped from calm to anger in a flash, and his eyes tensed into two hard triangles. Their appearance was sudden and unpredictable. Ignited by a poor exam score from Shira, or when I burnt the bread in the toaster. Usually accompanied by screaming and smashed objects and my dad opening the front door raging at us to get out. He’d point out the door and yell, “滚!”—which was really more like “get the fuck out”—grab our shirt collars and hurl us toward the exit.
Who knew what peeing your pants in class would get you.
So I carefully planned to avoid his notice, but the plan backfired. I paused too long at the front door to check for my father. When he yelled out, “Hello?,” I promptly bolted into the coat closet. I hid there in the dark until my dad found me in the ill-fitting pants, and I had no choice but to tell him.
Then my father did something very kind and very strange. He reached out for me and gently patted my head—or was it my shoulder? Maybe my arm?—This is the only part I don’t quite remember because it all seemed so strange. My father took the soiled pants, still stuffed in a plastic bag from school. He put the pants in the laundry and said he was glad I was okay.
And that was it.
I remember this moment so well, I remember these feelings so clearly that even as I write this now I am crying, because this is the kindest, the most tender memory I have of my father.
And as I remember, I want to scream through the hallway of time: “That’s it! Look! He loves you!” I want to reach toward the little girl staring down at her feet, the girl so relieved that she has not upset her father yet again but is still afraid to meet his eyes. I want to raise her head so she can see what her father’s face looks like when he loves her, to lift up her eyes and know it is okay to be loved.
But I didn’t look, and now I have only this to remember—the weight of his arm where it rested on my head. A feeling of comfort, that may have been only relief. No photograph to affirm this moment. No picture of his face to hold now and say “here. Right here. This was it.”
Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash
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