I was eight years old the only time I saw my father cry.
This was when we still lived in the red brick apartment building. First unit, second floor. I know that apartment so well. There are white metal rails on the stairway up to the main door and two hedges that frame either side of this stairway. We lived in 2A.
My family never ate our dinners together. We hustled in and out of work and school, our lives barely overlapping to make time for synchronized meals. But when I was eight years old, I always waited for my father to come home so I could eat with him. He has worked in construction all his life, perpetually smelling like paint thinner and cigarette smoke, even though he quit smoking years ago.
That evening, he and I sat alone around our wooden fold out so-called dining table. The table was about the height of a coffee table, so we had to sit on squat, plastic stools for comfort. In front of us, the TV played whatever drama was on the Cantonese television channel. Everyone else was already in their bedrooms for the evening.
We ate white rice, pork with shrimp sauce, and steamed cabbage. We ate in silence. My father and I—we didn’t talk much. If we did, it would be about my performance in school.
Tonight, though, he abruptly asked, “Do you remember your great-grandmother, your bak?”
I nodded. I knew what he was about to tell me. I had heard the adults talking about it days ago. She died of old age. She was 93, a great age at which to die.
“She’s dead,” he said. He said so with half a laugh, to keep the conversation light.
I nodded again. Tears started streaming down my face. I’m too emotional. I take after my mom in that way. We cry over everything.
He pushed me a little. “Why are you crying? What’s there to cry about?”
I didn’t respond. I was shuffling tiny mouthfuls of plain white rice into my mouth. No pork, no cabbage. Just the bland taste of steamed jasmine rice.
I wanted to console him, but I couldn’t say anything back because I knew I’d start bawling.
My father was very close with his grandparents. He is the youngest and only son of his parents. He grew up in his grandparents’ house, in Taishan, a small rice farming village in southern China. That house was the only property the Mei family ever owned for a long time.
He got married to my mother in the alleyway of his grandparents’ house. I took my first steps and said my first words in that house. He was supposed to inherit that house, but promises of bigger and better in America ruined that sentiment.
But bigger and better turned out to be renting the second floor of this red brick apartment building by the month.
And so I saw my father break down in this ruined promise of a home. I watched him cry straight into his rice, his chopsticks still halfway in his mouth. His shoulders trembled at a steady rhythm. Because he was looking down, his glasses collected a pool of tears on the bottom rim. His nostrils flared with snot.
I looked away, toward the TV. I was ashamed for him. He was my dad. He was supposed to be strong, forever. But at that moment he seemed so weak. I still heard him sniffling into his food. I started to pick at the remaining bits of cabbage.
I couldn’t say anything to him, but I desperately wanted to. I wanted to tell him it was okay and that I have fond memories of her smile.
We both scarf our remaining pieces of rice, staring straight ahead. The TV transitions into the nightly news. My father announced the finality of this moment, of this meal and conversation, by clearing the dishes. Before he stood up, he broke the silence.
“Did you finish your homework?”
Lang Mei, 44, 312-927-1129
By Cindy Mei
Image by Eddi Aguirre