“Yup, I’m on my way right now.”
The call came at 5:35. It is now 7:02, and we’re hungry.
We’ve decided to eat without Dad, as has become routine in the house. We’ve calculated that when Dad calls home, ten minutes means twenty, fifteen minutes means forty, and “just finishing up this last email” means we may as well go ahead and have dinner. So Mom, my younger teen brother Tyler and I set out the food and plates while my eight-year-old sister Cameron gently tucks the napkins beneath the forks.
When Dad does come home he drags himself into the dining room. Parkinson’s is his ball and chain, latched onto the left side of his body, slowing it, turning it to lead. Dad sinks into the chair at the head of the table and says he isn’t hungry, but we heap forkfuls onto his plate anyway. His clothes seem to have grown; his shirt is like drapery over a wall, hiding any evidence of a belly while most middle aged men sport a pooch. God he is so thin. He chews slowly and loudly– you can hear the spinach squelching between his closed jaws.
“Jim said he won’t help with Vail,” he says dully, looking down and out to the food at the middle of the table, “There’s another offer in the next unit down the driveway, though. Cheap.”
In 1995, my grandmother bought a brown condo in Vail, Colorado. It was a house for my entire extended family to share: my grandparents, my father and his brothers, Ross and Jim, and all of our families. The entire extended family went every Christmas and summer, then just my immediate family, and soon we were the only ones who ever used the place. So my grandmother and my uncles stopped wanting to pay for it, for a house they didn’t use, and so with three kids in private school, college in my near future, and an economic recession, my family thought it best to sell the vacation home. Or at least, my grandparents and uncles and mom did. Dad never wanted to give Vail up, so on the days where he doesn’t fight to keep it, he digs through real estate websites for other open houses. He talks about them every day.
“This one’s not too bad. I’ll work extra and we could be just fine affording it,” he says.
Mom shakes her head so immediately and gently it is almost condescending. She has just heard this so many times. She tells Dad that we aren’t buying a new place, that we cannot have a second home right now because we need to afford school and working extra is not what his health needs anyway. She says, “no Kevin, Kevin listen,” with her eyes down and her slow head shake rotating mechanically. Another addition of our recent routine, as are Dad’s melancholy and bitterness on the housing matter.
He raises his voice slightly and sits up straight and declares, “I need the place. I am better when I am there. I am healthier there,” fully believing that our vacation home is a miracle drug that will return all frozen mobility. One that will let him walk, even run, again.
But a second home cannot be his miracle drug. It is expensive and irrational. I think back to my service learning class today about privilege and social class, where we mapped out a spectrum of necessities and luxuries. I exercise my new vocabulary as I join Mom. I say that we need to assess the difference between our own necessities and our luxuries, and that having a second home cannot and will not cure him of his disease. The house is no miracle drug. Still he fights.
“No,” he says, pointing an accusatory finger, “We don’t need to assess, we need to redefine our luxuries and necessities. The house is a necessity.” He turns to my younger siblings to pull them into the argument. “You kids like Vail, don’t you?”
My mother sets her shoulders and says Kevin, not now, not in front of Cameron, and the mention of my sister makes him retreat. He takes the rest of his meal silently. We all do. None of us dare speak, for we know any word from either side of the dispute will incite an unwanted fire. Dad chews (squelch-squelch-squelch) and anger dimly melts his face. His expression is that of a silverback gorilla–glowering, sullen, sad, like the pitiful stubbornness of an endangered species.
Cameron is downstairs watching SpongeBob. Mom and Dad are in her room with the blue rocking chair and the purple flower carpet. I am crouched behind the hall wall. They don’t know I can hear.
“You are brainwashing them, Kim, you are giving them the idea that the Vail house means nothing. You want them against me.” He’s talking about us kids. He plays the victim; she is the villain. She holds her ground, says that is absolutely not the case. I cup my ear hard, stifling my breath to keep silent.
“You don’t support me. I supported you when you wanted to write your book,” he spits, “How did that turn out for you? Are you famous?”
I expect an outrage, or an outburst. Tears, at least. In 2001, we lost a family member. My baby brother, Mom and Dad’s son. Mom left her office job to write a book about it, and that book became her healing. I want to run out from my hiding place and protect her, defend her in any way I can, but she does not strike out. She stays grounded. I bite my hand.
“We are poor,” he says, and I want to be sick. I crawl back to my room. I can’t hear any more.
“Parkinson’s is more than just a muscle disorder,” Mom explains on the car ride home, “It’s neurological. It affects Dad’s mood too. One symptom is the inability to think rationally.”
“Like thinking he needs the Vail house?” I ask.
She calmly surveys the road ahead.
“I want you to know that this moody person you’re seeing is not your dad,” she says, “This is what the disease is doing to him. It’s making him lose perspective––” she sighs—“but it doesn’t mean it isn’t hard for us to deal with.” She’s right. Parkinson’s is brainwashing him, Dad’s behavior is not his fault. His reasoning is out of his control, I know, and yet I can’t seem to remove the blame from him. He would rather pay for a second house than my education. He said something awful about my mom’s book. All those words came from his mouth.
Mom’s hands are relaxed on the steering wheel. I think of the essay collections I want to publish, the musicology research I want to discover. The TED Talk I could give, the Oscar I could win, the Daily Show interviews where I could feature my new book.
“I want to go to college,” I say.
“You’re going to go to college. That’s not negotiable.”
We enter the road to Golden Gate Park and make our way home in silence.
I don’t remember the last time my parents went on a date. The only times they leave the house together is to see the doctor or go to a party, where they probably mingle independently. They used to at least kiss out of habit when Dad got home, but I don’t think they even do that anymore.
“Your dad is so angry with me,” Mom tells me on a walk home from the grocery store. She doesn’t flinch and her voice doesn’t falter. Her neutrality is both calming and ominously premonitory. I know I have to be serious now.
She’s changed jobs to find meaningful work that can pay the bills. She likes the people, but hates how much she has to travel and be away from us. She dreams out loud of buying a bungalow in her old hometown of Chapel Hill, where the public schools teach Chinese. Good for Cameron to continue her bilingual education, but Dad wouldn’t like the idea. She says she doesn’t want to scare me, but in the long run she doesn’t know how things will work out. I tell her that doesn’t surprise me.
He is late for dinner again, and he looks like he has lost more weight. His cheekbones are sunken, his head too angular. It always drives my grandmother crazy.
He finishes his meal and runs his hands from his pecks down to his belly, tactilely taming his waistline. He does this all the time. He probably thinks he is fat.
We try to scoop more food on to his plate, and he eats it, but reluctantly so. You need to eat, we tell him.
“Actually I need to work out,” he says.
It is the opposite of what I need to hear. Ever since the end of freshman year I have struggled with a tense relationship with my own waistline. I started simply trying to eat a little bit less and exercising a little bit more, then I started eating even less and exercised even more, counting calories like a madman and breaking down when I gave in to my hunger. At one point sophomore year I slipped into a crazed paranoia where I was God and food was my subject and any slip of control on my part was no less than utter failure. It was a dark time. I cried a lot. It wasn’t enough for doctors to diagnose an eating disorder, but they still recommended I pay weekly visits to a nutritionist named Tammy. She told me that calories don’t go into a bank, and that exercise is good but it does not mean you can’t eat without it. I still repeat her words like a mantra I am forcing myself to believe, but bodily hatred is strong and my strength is fragile. So seeing Dad, my parent who is supposed to help me rise from my own bodily hatred, it breaks me.
My father is what every skinny-striving teenage girl dreams of being. He eats nothing all day for he can’t bring himself to, and to be fed like a king, to need to eat, to need to gain weight, sounds like a blessing to me. He has no clue that I could ever envy his symptoms. Maybe I’m sick for being able to.
Like Simon Says I imitate him; I stretch my fingers around my waist. My barrel. It sticks out so much. Much farther than his does. Much rounder. I succumb, I choose to eat.
He runs his hands again down his torso. I hate him.
After rehearsal for the school play one Friday night I decide to take the bus into the Marina, a scenic bus route by the ocean and a hilly forest trek away from home. My friends all have plans. Mom is out of town for work, so I play the parent. I have taken the responsibility of preparing dinner and checking in with the babysitter about pick-ups and drop-offs because as Mom says with rolled eyes, there needs to be at least one adult in the house when she’s away. But I am sixteen years old. I should go to parties on Fridays like sixteen-year-olds do. I should be going to the movies with friends. Hell, my eighth-grade brother is at a school dance, socializing more than I have in God knows how long. I can’t go home. Home is where socially inept teenagers go to give up and where parents bicker. It is the last place I want to be. So I avoid going back. I walk along the trendy new burger joints and boutiques of Chestnut Street, all by myself, trying to be a wandering teenager and not a girl thrust into adulthood. Dad calls me.
“Hey, are you home?” He sounds cheery.
“Nope,” I say. I don’t want to talk, but I’m giving him an answer.
“Have you had dinner?” He wants to get dinner with me.
“Yup.” I don’t want to.
“Ok, well I’m leaving my office. Want me to pick you up?” he sounds hopeful.
“No, I’m in the Marina, it’s kind of inconvenient for you to come all the way from downtown. I can bus.” I really just want to be alone.
“No, that’s okay, I can pick you up.”
We have a language with each other, a language of hinting. We mask our meaning in courtesy. It drives me crazy. Why I use the language myself, I have no idea. Maybe because I know he wants to see me, and I know he wants to be my strong daddy—my “champion,” as he once called himself—even though he won’t say so. I suspect he’s trying to appease me by giving me some of the power to have a choice when all I know I will do is shut him down. Because when he treats Mom with the disrespect of a toddler and stubbornly holds on to Vail, reeking with privilege we need to let go of, he is no champion of mine. Still, a part of me feels guilty. In first grade it was a treat for Daddy to take Tyler and me to school. We’d have daily storytelling sessions in the car while we listened to Abbey Road or a playlist Dad compiled for Mom’s birthday in the early days of iTunes. We once had fun. I want to rekindle that joy, even though I know it will not spark tonight.
My ability to both resent my father and feel guilty for being a bad daughter amazes me. Out of courtesy and courtesy alone I accept his offered ride. In our tongue, it sounds like: “Kay, well if it’s not too much for you…”
When he arrives I get in quickly and barely cough out a gruff “hi.”
“How was your day?”
“You want to go somewhere?”
I pull the door shut. It slams harder than I expect it to. Fluorescent lights from vacant motels and bad seafood restaurants pass the windows as we drive by.
“Wanna get dessert?” he asks.
“No. We have to get Tyler from his dance.”
“Why are you so angry?”
“I’m not angry.” I’m angry.
“Ok. Well, this Saturday the Carrolls are coming over for dinner,” his voice trails off and becomes sad, almost mousey, “Just letting you know. I know you don’t care.”
Passive aggression at its finest. I want to lash out at him, and I do, but I disguise my anger in our language, saying everything but what I mean. It’s more poisonous than anger.
“What do you mean I don’t care?” I snap, “I care that we need to pick up Tyler, I care that the babysitter has been home with Cameron for way too long. You said you would leave work two hours ago. It’s past nine, have you even eaten? You know you can’t just skip meals—”
“I need to work out, Mackenzie.”
“No, no you can’t do that––” and suddenly it’s not his weight or the babysitter I’m yelling about. I’m yelling about his resentment of my mom, who protects me and who I stand by. I’m angry with him for betraying his commitment to my education. For exhibiting the negative kind of body image of a teenage girl. For his radical lack of perspective. I am angry with him because of Parkinson’s, or rather, because he is welcoming it to consume him and transform him into no less than a monster.
He says, “Mackenzie, when you get my disease, you will know how I feel.”
And there we were, father and daughter, trying to reconnect, estranged in a bitter stalemate.
— Mackenzie Kwok