Copyright 1981 Sunbury, A Literary Magazine

Fay 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.