Watching You Sleep on the 5th Day of Your Life
The truth of some promises is not as important as whether or not you can believe in them, with all your heart.
~Michael Chabon, Summerland
Son, fathers fuck up. Fucking up is what fathers do. I’ve spent my adult life trying not to be my father—a man who loves quickly and leaves even quicker. But I see him in me—his chin, his nose, his long dangling earlobes. You have his chin, his nose, his long dangling earlobes. My hair is thick and black, like his. Your hair, even when you emerged into the world, is thick and black, like fine spun silk. I see my father. In me. In you. One day you will look at me and think, My father is a fuck-up, like how I looked at my father five years ago, waiting for me in the lobby of a Bangkok hotel after a two-year absence. I stayed hidden, spying him from behind a column, noticing how age had had its way with his body that sags and slouches, and thinking, I love you, but you have fucked me up. At that moment, anger turned into pity. “Let pity, then, be a kind of pain…,” Aristotle wrote, which makes me think his father fucked up, too. When the time comes, son, do not pity me. Let me apologize now, when you are asleep and dreaming, I hope, of whatever makes you love. And forgive.
Son, you came into being like a Florida thunderstorm—quick and hard. Elephant rain, your Thai grandmother likes to call it. You announced your arrival through your mother’s screams. The commotion out of her mouth was your commotion. Her anguished face was your face. The midwife and nurses could not find your heartbeat, that rapid little sound I loved to listen to during prenatal check-ups. It vanished. I knew something was the matter. I knew by the organized chaos in the room—the fifteen or so nurses buzzing around, everyone doing something. And then, in the midst of this hectic-ness, you came out. “He’s arrived,” the midwife said. Arrived with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around your neck. There was a forever second of silence until you cried. And then I cried. That night, at the hospital, I could not sleep. I hovered over you, as I do now, checking the rise and fall of your chest, the twitch of your tiny fingers, making sure you were breathing and alive.
Son, when you become a father, time will lose meaning. Your mind will propel you into the future, your child grown and happy. You hope you are responsible for that happiness. Or, you will imagine the unimaginable, and it will knot your jaw, and it will fist your hands. Time for a father is not linear. I have seen you through college, seen you married, seen all your successes and regrets. I have gone backwards, too, when you did not exist, when I did not exist, witnessing this lineage of fathers, who strayed. My past is your past, son. Time intertwines like a suffocating weed. It is not measured by light, but memory, which is timeless and unpredictable. Where, I wonder, will this memory of your sleep be thirty years from now? What will harken it? At my death, it is this memory I want to slip into and carry with me into the next life.
Son, a few days before your arrival, a man entered a nightclub and extinguished forty-nine lives. When news broke, I shut out the world. I wanted you to enter a happy world, in a happy family, in the arms of a happy father. Happiness, however, is illusory. The truth: the world hurts. Six hours before your arrival, I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir, Between the World and Me. In it he writes to his son: “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” There is so much that I want to shield you from, so much I do not want you to witness. But I wonder if you already know the world is broken. Sometimes you furrow your brow in your sleep, like you do now, a look of someone betrayed, and I think we all begin our lives with a cry, our first breath the beginning of suffering.
Son, your mother worries people will not know you are hers. You have inherited all that is Thai in me. She fears, when you look at her, you will not see a mother but a simple white woman. But she wanted this. “I hope he looks like you,” she said. “I hope he looks like you,” I said. You look like this country. You were born from a yellow man and white woman, who wakes you with kisses, who holds you so tight fearing you might evaporate. Son, love your mother. Son, love her more than you love me. See yourself mirrored in her eyes. But do not forget your father. He will be there. He promises. He promises so many things.