Words

Quinna Halim

Northville, MI

Northville High School

Creative Nonfiction

The words inscribed at the bottom of my father’s thesis paper:

To my daughter, whose presence always brings joy to my heart.

 

My childhood is a series of snapshots. Tugged between Boston and Indonesia, the only constant is my father, who appears frequently in the pages of the glossy photo album. He talks to me in my crib as I make futile attempts to form words between my lips, bolsters me on his shoulders at his graduation as I wave his black cap triumphantly in the air, and hugs me goodbye at the airport in Jakarta, the camera capturing the sad smile on his face as he turns away.

 

For the longest time, we are a family of three fractured across three cities. My father lives alone in a small apartment, staying at the office until eight or nine p.m. and eating from Chinese takeout boxes in front of the hum of the TV. Wasn’t he lonely? Sometimes, he admits, but most times he was too preoccupied in his work to dwell on those thoughts.

 

I think how hard it is to be a parent. You watch your children trip and fall ill, cry over broken remains of sticky sugar candy hearts. You get fired at work, watch the pantry grow sparser while putting on a smile and pretending to be strong.You kiss them in the mornings, pressing your love and well-wishes to have fun into their soft hands, watch them come home with bruises on their necks, hunched backs, slumped shoulders, eyes downcast to velcro sneakers. You feed them spaghetti and Cheerios and they refuse to touch the green ones. For Christmas you give them books with stories of scientists, buy them baseball bats and soccer cleats and plop them in front of the keyboard for piano lessons. You smile as you pack their lunchboxes with neatly-trimmed crustless sandwiches, imagining how they will dazzle the stage with sonatas, become a doctor, save the family business. (In the back of your mind you know it is a futile attempt to turn back time, live out all the what if’s and paths that you never will - isn’t that part of being a parent?) But they are filled with other dreams.

––––

 

My father is fascinated by stars. I think that in another world, a world where he didn’t grow up on a farm without electricity and didn’t go to school surrounded by boys whose parents rented out hotels and owned two or three badminton courts and didn’t get a call on his birthday in his junior year of college saying that his dad had died from a heart attack and left to support an aging mother a thousand miles away; a world where a lack of money didn’t plague his worries and mold his desires, he might have been an astronomer. In the summers, he waits until the sky unearths the stars to lace his beaten-up sneakers and spring out the door. He comes to a stop every two feet of our nightly walk and points up at a glint, a speck of brightness beaming down from a canvas of dark blue. He peers over my shoulder as the iPhone app spits out a name and maps out the constellation and number of light years between us, dim glow of the phone illuminating the childlike curiosity in his eyes.

 

––––

 

We walk in silence as our soles clatter up the hill overlooking the elementary school playground - the closest you will get to a hike in our little pocket of Midwestern suburbia. My father’s eyes are a million miles away, dark eyebrows furrowed in worry. I catch mutters of “need to go home” and know he is plotting his much-anticipated return to Indonesia, to the mother and family he loves dearly.

 

––––

 

“Do you believe in the multiverse?”

-a question I pose in an attempt to pull my father out of his thoughts

––––

 

My father frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean...we’re living a certain version of our lives right now. But at every point in our lives, we make a choice. So the path splits. And maybe there are parallel universes where we took the different path. And there are infinite universes because there are infinite choices.”

I expect my father to scoff, call the notion outlandish. Instead, he shrugs his shoulders, glancing at the sky. “Well, it’s not something you can prove or disprove.” And the question lingers in the air.

 

––––

 

Cracking open crab legs is a craft, one that few have truly mastered with the same precision as my father. Plop down a platter of crab legs in front of him and he’ll no sooner return a plate of empty red shell. He waves aside my own feeble attempts to splinter the leg with the cracker and peel away at bits of shell with my fingers (“no, no, let me show you how”). Rolling up the sleeves of his button-up polo, he locates the point along the leg and deftly applies the right pressure and crack - the leg splits into two. With his fingers he carefully extracts the long, glistening white crabmeat and dips it in the warm, golden liquid butter, holding it up in the air like a pearl.

 

––––

 

The words I hear myself choke out as the curtains close around my father and the sound of beeping machinery fills the air:

 

I love you, Dad.

 

––––

 

What I remember about the emergency waiting room:

How I think that the very existence of an emergency waiting room is a paradox in itself. The collegial atmosphere, as if it were a trip to the dentist or some other mild perfunctory annoyance. The little pockets of conversation that I would like to burrow myself in to forget that thirty minutes has turned into an hour and fifteen and still no word about my father. The bald man in the wheelchair flipping through a colorful guidebook of South America, chattering animatedly about sightseeing in Brazil. How it feels like a crime to divulge myself on luxuries like chips and Oreos from the vending machine when my father’s life hangs in limbo. The policeman and the receptionist gossiping about colleagues and tedious shifts.  The way everything smells of antiseptic and yet never in my life have I felt so unclean.

 

––––

 

What my father isn’t supposed to have but asks for anyway when he leaves the ICU after nine days:

A hamburger with grilled meat and the works. Ayam goreng- Indonesian fried chicken, the way my grandma makes it. Or, at the very least, something with some salt.

 

––––

 

The TV drones in the background. My father’s fingers are wrapped around the cool beer can, glazed eyes staring at the flickering images dispassionately. Onscreen, fake tears stream down the detective’s face in the way directors try to give grief a tidy appearance. His dark brown eyes focus on mine, as if seized by some sudden, urgent spirit. “Dream big. You can afford to.”

 

––––

 

I have always been a good listener, good at holding my tongue and following directions in class. Only with each minute the preacher’s wife speaks, a settling sense of unease grows in my stomach.

 

I raise my hand.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Are you saying that when people get sick, it’s because of sin?”

 

I think of my father, who still eats cheesepuffs in pajamas and plays retro videogames, who doesn’t go to church except for the potlucks, who watched his life flash before his eyes, who pokes fun at the way politicians cling to religion in their spiels.

 

I stare at the empty line waiting for my name, waiting for me to sign my life to this faith and cleanse away my sins. I shake my head, passing the clipboard to the boy next to me.

 

His eyes grow wide. “You’re not doing it?” he asks incredulously. I shrug, half-apologetically, half-defiant.

 

The preacher’s smile is sympathetic. Nothing in his deep brown eyes betray a hint of judgment or condemnation. “That’s alright. Maybe with a little more time…”

 

––––

 

The words I say to my father after ten minutes of the dull hum of the car and Top 40 radio:

I’m sorry, Dad.

 

A non-exhaustive list of things that I am sorry for:

For being selfish. For acting out and being rebellious. For snapping at him to go away. For thinking I could throw away everything he’d given me - financial stability, the foundation for a respectable career path - to go blindly chasing after some “passion”.

 

My father wheezes. The headlights cast a shadow over his impassive face staring out at the road ahead.

 

––––

 

I watch him out of the corner of my eye - the way his hand jerks back as the oil sizzles around the runny egg yolk. His face is calm, steady, as if there isn’t a single thought in the world except for which packet of seasoning to mix with the noodles (he’ll go for the onion powder and the sweet kecap manis - it reminds him of home.)

 

What they don’t tell you about these fights is the silence, the disappointment and distance in the air. I wish he would hurl words at my skin. Words mean substance, something to grasp at and protect myself with. Instead, he scrapes the bottom of the pot with a spatula.

 

––––

 

How I want to remember my father:

The seven of us are gathered around the circular table in the crowded restaurant in San Mateo, passing around steaming platters of dimsum. My father laughs at something my uncle says, the pure joy lighting up his face and boyish smile. He coaxes a piece of pork bun into my brother’s protesting mouth (“it’s something your grandmother made, try it.”) He grasps the long vegetables delicately between his chopsticks and spears the meat with his fork, shouting something to my aunt across the clatter of silverware. It’s hard to tell which makes him happier - the food or the family. When he is finally satisfied, he leans back in his seat and rests his eyes shut fleetingly, the contentment etched across his face of a man after a very long, fulfilling meal.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

Through this series of snapshots, Quinna Halim paints a vivid portrait of her father, capturing the complexity of his character with well-grounded memories. And the ending is fully satisfying. In the final scene, Halim ends with a nostalgic image of her father that readers will not soon forget.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Quinna Halim graduated from Northville High School in Northville, Michigan in June 2019. Her work has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Foundation, where she received a gold medal in the personal essay/memoir category. Outside of writing she enjoys mangoes, maps and rain.