Copyright 1981 Sunbury, A Literary MagazineFay Chiang
Autumn dusk seven years ago in a hospital room he lay dying of cancer in his last days she came daily after classes with books and sketch pads had coffee with him smoothing out pillows small talk about weather never the pain or sorrow on one of these late afternoons he sat us straight in bed recited his life events looking into air catching fragments he wove his story sighed, lay down till shadows grew long she listened in silence never having heard this remained still and taut as the street lamps flickered on Here are words they may have spoken if they had known how to then The Daughter speaks: Father, can I say I love you, that I'm proud to be your daugther. I know we don't say these things in our family and sometimes you don't realize how quick time goes by, even as we're changing, we take all these things for granted. I couldn't say it then, in the hospital room, when you told me your life story in less than ten minutes. Father, your life was greater than than. somehow you came to this country, married, settled, I don't know how you did it I'm too scared to try you raised a family with a laundry business working without complaining six days a week. I look at the photographs you took with the Brownie the family growing when we kids were in our teens we got grumpy, didn't want to go with you and ma to museums, parks on sundays because we were trying to grow up, away. it was a big thing. I hadn't thought about a father missing his kids on sundays. I feel sad sometimes when I see autumn light, when I see children with their fathers, that I can't tell you all that's happened to me. looking back I see you were proud of me in your way. the morning I left for a meeting in washington, I was scared; it was snowing. you said you wanted to go to the airport, for the ride at six o'clock in the morning. we had coffee and when my flight was called, you gave me the morning paper, a package of gum, pecked me on the cheek saying good luck! I found in your papers a story from junior high school I wrote in your flowing script; now it's the only copy I have of it. we always had schemes about real estate, how we would mortgage the house, buy others, renovate to sell, buy one with a garden for ma filled with flowers we would do this with our hands I want to tell you how scared I was when you died. Ma was hysterical, frightened, pacing the house, cleaning and re- cleaning. There was the laundry to be run, I didn't know how to do it. Father, I learned to iron and starch, to package and to work 12 to 14 hour days and to help the family. slowly Ma healed. then when I thought it was getting better, and I could carry on with my life Peter got sick, bruising and clotting. it was hospitals and emergency rooms again. on a bed he sat up with blood pouring from his mouth, his nose onto his chest, on the white sheets, onto the nurses, doctors, ma and me. Peter saying he was allright, ma saying Peter was allright, when it wasn't allright. I didn't feel anything for the next two years I was scared, but I thought of you working in america at 10. you must have been scared, but you did it. I would too. I had two hands and I thought I would try very hard to build a life. I wanted you to be proud of me, made believe you were still here. you became Papa-in-the-Sky; when things went wrong I would have conversations with you in the head and things would clear up. I was going to build a life my writing to share this pain, the ache yes, joy in the memories and I thought the hope that someday I would understand all of that. I think I've begun to, Papa-in-the-Sky. The Father speaks: That afternoon in the hospital the autumn light pouring in you sitting at the foot of my bed, with your school books and drawing pads dozing till the room was gray in dusk my eyes closed I thought of other autumns. september, the month I was born in china. that seemed so long ago. Father took me walking with him in the mountains looking for his burial plot. to rest his bones, he said. he was 65 when I was born, still a strong man, he was rich now, having worked in the gambling houses in London; he could afford to prepare for his old age. Mother said he was foolish taking me with him, since I hobbled on my bad leg. it was some bone disease that kept me from running with the other children. I was different, dreamy, reading books Father collected. until I was told to come to america, to support the family. Father, after you died Mother sent me to work with older brother in a laundry. I couldn't study the new language washing socks at 6 a.m. till it was time for school where I would fall asleep. then back to work until midnight ironing, washing, I fell asleep on the ironing board. it was my bed. this was being a man. like you Father and my older brothers, we would leave the village to send money home and hope to go back some day. I stopped school in the 8th grade and continued working in that laundry in staten island. sundays I would meet the hingdai from the village in chinatown, go eat, gamble a little. the others went to whorehouses, i spent them with Paul over at Old Man Chiang's place. he had three daughters and we would go to coney island, on picnics. Chiang's daughters were so americanized, he had to offer a thousand dollar dowry for each one. and this was in the 30's! well, paul and I just went for the fun. in the war I couldn't join up with Paul and Bing. it was the old foot. it couldn't run fast enough, so I worked the shipyards over in brooklyn, welding on scaffolds sides of ships; making the most money I've ever seen. I met Leo and Ruth at church, an older couple who showed me a photograph of a niece of theirs in china, the next village over. she was so sweet and innocent looking, I thought I would go to china and see if she was willing to marry. Paul said he wasn't ready to settle down and wanted a city girl, but I wanted someone like myself, from the country at the foothills of the mountains. our marriage was arranged traditionally; things didn't work that well. her grandmother said because she was raised alone without her family and she was especially shy, in ill health for the past few years. she would adjust if I were patient with her. we were in hong kong when the communist took over our village, her uncle leo brought us back to new york. all our family, friends, belongings, wedding gifts were left behind. with money from friends we started a shirt pressing factory, but Paul, Bing and I weren't businessmen. we were young, didn't know enough. we lost money, closed the place down. I had you to support, and your ma was pregnant with jeanie. Paul and Bing wanted me to go out to california, said the big thing out there were grocery stores. they said, ever hear of burning fruit, like holes in shirts, we couldn't go wrong. your ma wanted to stay here in new york, close to uncle leo and aunt ruth. I was torn. I've been in new york with Paul and Bing since we were 10. I couldn't leave your ma. the first few years in queens passed by so quick. I tried to make the business work. sometimes it got too much. I know I was wrong I went to chinatown to the fong and I know I gambled the food money away and got your ma angry, and all of us hungry. I was young. almost as young as you now, with wife, with four kids in the back of a laundry and the debt still to pay off from that shirtpressing factory. I know your ma, you, we all deserved better than that. I was doing all that I knew the best I could. I think you knew. you were always quiet, your eyes bigger than your mouth, watching, taking care of the kids when your ma was tired, running to the store. in this country, it's not like there. I would teach you to be a son. when you were 5, I remember holding your hand, teaching you calligraphy: black ink on white paper. you sat for hours after kindergarten writing characters, feeding your baby brother in between. I was proud of you winning those writing contests, writing in english. something I never had the time to learn. the chance to learn, I wanted you to have the chance to learn, the time I didn't have. I din't want you to worry about the things I had to when I came here at 10: working all the time, like a man, to not have free money to spend or new clothes to wear. I didn't want you to work in the laundry too much, just enough for you to know you must help your family in a little way. your grandfather and I were proud of you going to washington. somehow the times had changed, people were angry. you didn't have to be afraid like my generation. I am not dozing. just thinking with my eyes closed. sneaky, as my mother would say in china. this is my last september. I am scared of dying. I will not see you grow up. I have known of this dying, this cancer eating me up, of the nightmares, and the hospitals this pain in my stomach these tubes and needles these drugs that separate my body from my mind the way my body has shriveled with this cancer that once held you in the ocean that picked you up when you fell that built a laundry from scratch that used tools, my hands which taught you to use tools to build that carried weights and loads that is limp that is decaying that is dying I had tell you my life in those sentences. I had to hear it out loud. to let you know my fear, the pain that was searing me for two years and the sorrow and pain as I saw you at the foot of my bed in a chair with your books and your drawings in this light, in this autumn light, this september.
Sunbury, a literary magazine, 10, pages 160-171, 1981
All rights reserved by the author, Fay Ping Chiang.