I had this dream that my father and I would one day sit in the back porch drinking a beer, and he’d finally feel comfortable enough to tell me the story of his life. There was this version of him that existed in Vietnam. What was it like to patch up planes and rearm them with bombs? Who found you when you crashed the motorbike? Why didn’t you write home after the war? They thought you were dead! You had a fiancé before Mom back in Vietnam? It’s not that I had an interest in the war, but I was dying to know the man he was before he was my father.
“The past is the past,” he’d say.
He was often in this old barn fixing something. Nothing was thrown away. He believed that everything was salvageable. The place was filled with old bicycles, rusted power tools, several lawn mowers, and other on-going projects. Tools hung from the walls. Inside his shrine, he drank beer and listened to Vietnamese folk songs on a tape player from the early 80s that miraculously worked.
Our conversations were often short and consisted of reminders and lists, which often led to arguments. I wanted to talk, but to him, this was talking. So, when these conversations escalated into fights, my mother would have to facilitate. It was like a peace-treaty between me and him. “You’re too much alike,” she’d say. But I didn’t feel like we were anything like each other, or at least he didn’t share those parts with me.
My wife and I had just welcomed our second child. Our first is my stepson, but I’ve raised him as my own. “Are you sure she loves you?” my father said. “Maybe she’s not looking for a husband. Maybe she’s looking for a father for her son.”
What the hell did he know? He didn’t know our relationship. Typical Dad, judgmental about everyone. He didn’t grow with the times. Look at his barn, filled with old things that he couldn’t let go of. Families these days take on different shapes. He didn’t know what her ex-husband had done to her. He didn’t know our love. I could be a good husband. I could be a good father. Better than him.
In the culture, Vietnamese are taught not to talk back or disagree with our parents.
We didn’t talk for nearly six months.
I’m an English teacher, so my life has always been about problem solving. How can I help a struggling student? Is there a way to present this material in a different way? How do I help a student feel more confident? There is always a different way of looking at the problem, but when it came to my father, all those analytical skills went to shit. I was angry, impatient, and petty, very much like him.
“You look old,” my father said when my second child was born. He touched the grey in my hair.
“They’re stealing my good looks,” I said.
“There wasn’t that much to take.”
My father had always had this third-world strength: unscrewing lug nuts with his bare hands or shoveling topsoil endlessly for hours, but when I saw him on the ground and cursing at himself next to spilt water jug, I realized that time was catching up.
“Are you taking your pills?”
He scolded me. His memory was starting to slide, and it was why he and my mother were fighting more often. I put all his passwords on a notepad. We limited our visit to less than a day so he could rest. He watched videos of motorbikes touring around Vietnam. On YouTube, he watched Vietnamese Kung Fu opera and this one soap opera about an evil Vietnamese bread company. I had to urge him to eat.
In the barn, I turned on the overhead lamp. I set down my rough draft and turned on the tape deck player, but the batteries were dead. The chair still had his shape. I pressed my nose into the fabric and tried to inhale what was left of him into me. I didn’t know what to say about him. Did he want to keep things tidy and simple? Did he want me to tell the truth? And if so, what was it? Sitting in that barn, I tried to be him, hoping that his spirit still haunted this place, and he would talk to me, maybe through the beams and wood, or that he would envelope me and I’d sense the right thing to do. In that moment, all I wanted to do was to believe in ghosts.
“What are you doing?” my son said, peeping in. His hair was like wild jungle grass. “Mom wants you to come inside.”
He didn’t wait for me to respond, but instead rattled off about his day at school, the dream he had, and his video game. Without realizing it, he was already so far ahead of me. I had left the eulogy in the barn. I considered going back for it. “Come on, Dad,” my son called out. The fireflies had begun to blink. I jogged towards him and the porch light.