My father always seemed to know the moment I was walking up the driveway. It was a gift he got late in life, along with a green thumb – some kind of melancholic magic. Inside, above the chatter of his other children, Sam Ahn’s antenna was up, picking up the sound of my boots crunching on ice.
He was here now, stooped, on the other side of the door. Once a globetrotter, now unchaining, unlocking, trembling.
Monkey is here!
On more than one occasion, he told me he wished he was in a coma and that this, his life today, was just a hallucination: Mommy was still alive, tending to the real gardens where orchids did indeed bloom, under a real sky while he lay in a deep sleep.
We could all be in comas. But my hunch is that my father grew old alone.
The white hair always shocked me, at first. His Hawaiian shirt in the dead of winter, no.
‘Margaret,’ he cried, face pinched. Mar-ga-ret. No chintzing on the English language. No Monkey, either – refrained but not forgotten. I would always be Monkey, not Margaret, to him; the name was always on the tip of his tongue. M-M-M… When he thinks Monkey, the past comes alive.
‘Happy birthday, Dad!’ I cried out.
Only Mar-ga-ret gets a kiss, a quick flutter on the lips, gone like butterflies. Korean men were not kissers, but I was his youngest and his favourite. He never said so, but I knew so. I was always his heroine; Monkey in tortoise-shell barrettes, winning a first place ribbon on the balance beam, a second prize trophy at the Science Fair, straight A’s in French. I was Madame Curie, Rosa Parks, Pearl Buck, all the heroines of our time. These days, on the rare occasions I was here, when I would turn my face a certain way in a certain light, or look up from eating, he would set down his fork or newspaper, his face silken with memory: ‘You look just like Mommy.’
Our months apart were lost years.
In the foyer my father took my coat, a ratty fake fur. ‘My birthday is tomorrow, Margaret, not today.’
We always celebrated his birthday one day early. His real birthday he spent at the cemetery, alone. Asked, he might describe his private ceremony with Mommy as ‘a fine winter ritual’.
‘I know, Dad.’
Whenever I visited, I found myself reluctantly recording the ways my father was getting old. It all hurt. Once I left, he reverted to forever forty, the Dad with shiny black hair combed back to show off his intelligent melon-sized forehead and the prince-like twinkle in his eye. He was much smaller and much nicer than all the other dads around – my girlfriends Jane and Carol Lee had stories and I heard the yelling. American fathers of his generation, as far as I could tell, were near-murderous beasts. Then there was Mr. Ahn. He treated his children – Vivian, Peter, Holly and Monkey – like heirlooms, once lost. And if his precious heirlooms addressed their parents as ‘you guys’, or answered a question with a ‘dunno’, his face would turn a sudden and scary shade of scarlet, followed by a firm yet gentle reprimand, ‘Now kids…’
I often wondered whether my friends’ fathers still had wives pouring their
coffee in the morning while my dad fixed his own, as he had for twenty-six years now. Light trickling in; quiet, so quiet.
‘How’s my genius daughter?’ My father believed the fantasy, and like a gift I would let him keep it. ‘Great, except I’ve missed you so much.’
He smiled like a flower would if it could then held my hand with crushing emotion. I felt the huge hole in his heart as we followed the sound of my siblings to the kitchen and made small-talk. Winter was a low point for him. He couldn’t get out and do yard work which Mommy would have liked. He lost his tan which projected a glow of happiness and health, especially against lavender orchids – the ones on his shirt.
Real orchids he couldn’t grow like Mommy did.
The neighbours admired him from the sidewalk like a bronze lawn fixture you couldn’t see up close for fear of trespassing. There’s Mr. Ahn, out gardening again. He had a wife who died a million years ago. Hello, Mr. Ahn!
Blinking out of a dream: Hello!
His loyal friends from college, dead, too. Strokes come early to those who smoke and drink, have second wives, spend years plotting against post-Rhee regimes and eat salted dried minnows like popcorn. My father chose another life, in another capital. Here, Seum-Young Ahn became Sam Ahn, and his Korean soul went suburban. Now he was who he was.
Tan, golden; glow, false.
Something worked its way through his brain to his lips, an ancient earthworm crawling to present-day. To a crackling fireplace: ‘Why did you
drive, Margaret? I said Peter could pick you up at the airport. The roads are too slippery.’
‘Girls are not good drivers.’
I couldn’t and wouldn’t argue with him. Girls – and we were his girls forever – weren’t supposed to operate dangerous machinery. Not cars, not lawn mowers. Washing machines, okay. Dishwashers, too. Egg beaters and blenders and garbage disposals, not good ideas. Too easy to lose a finger or a hand or worse.
Darkly: ‘I told Mommy not to drive, remember?’
Back on earth, my father steered me toward the kitchen like a rickshaw over rocks. Old Seoul in summer smacked me in the face, the fragrant alleys where flies feasted on melon rinds and pungent, pickled trash – I could almost hear them buzzing.
‘Margaret is here!’ he announced then wandered off to fill his watering can – plant-life in the bay window was calling him. Two kitchen faucets but into the powder room he went, for the silence, the solitude. Sam Ahn was never a loud man but he was even quieter now. You could almost say there was a beauty to it, even as he came out to water the orchids that would never bloom.