“Cancer,” my father’s voice whispered in the night.
I rolled over on the mattress on the floor. The light was on in my parents’ bathroom.
“Cancer,” my father said again. “Now it’s in her bones.”
Nai-nai, I thought as I drifted off back to sleep. He was talking about my grandmother.
The year my father’s mother got sick was the same year I couldn’t sleep. I was nine and had seen The Exorcist at a friend’s house by mistake. I didn’t know it was scary till the girl started flipping back and forth on her bed, her eyes rolled up, and her throat swelled as though by a bee sting.
“Maybe you shouldn’t watch this,” said my mother, who was playing mah-jongg with the friend’s parents. But it was too late.
Shortly afterward, I came down with the flu. Weird thoughts of demons and shaking beds mingled with my fever. Too much cough medicine gave me hallucinations – the curtains in my bedroom shrank and grew, shrank and grew – and the jitters. I had ringing in my ears and could only sleep where there was noise – in the living room with the TV on, in the den with the clock radio, anywhere there was someone else so that I could hear their breathing. On bad nights though, nothing worked, and I’d sit snuffling on the stairs, long past midnight.
I was already an anxious kid. I worried myself into stomachaches over book reports, was terrified of situations with lots of people I didn’t know, and broke into tears over any harsh word. But now I felt nervous all the time.
One night when my father came home from work, I threw myself into his arms. I was crying uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned. “Why are you crying?”
“I don’t know,” I sobbed. “I can’t help it.”
My parents worried silently, as they did about everything. Our grades, the mortgage, the kids on our block who called us ching-chong. My father kept his concerns about my grandmother quiet too, whispered only to my mother at night.
He rarely talked about his family. It was my mother who showed us the black photo album hidden in the closet, the tiny black and white photos of Nai-nai, older and younger, but always the same. Her hair in a bun, her face bare of make-up, her large bucked teeth protruding over her lips.
“You don’t want teeth like Nai-nai’s, do you?” my aunts on my mother’s side said when they learned I was still sucking my finger.
No, I didn’t. I wanted to look like someone pretty in my family. Everyone said my brother resembled my mother’s handsome baby brother. I told myself I was the spitting image of my father’s beautiful sister. I knew I actually wasn’t, that I took after my father, who had Nai-nai’s smallish eyes, her peasant cheekbones, and thick coarse hair.
“Your grandfather didn’t want to marry Nai-nai,” my mother told us. “It was an arranged marriage.”
I gazed at the photos of the handsome young man. He had big eyes, round black glasses, and favored natty suits and ties. When the Communists took over China, Nai-nai and her two children fled to Taiwan while my grandfather stayed behind. I wasn’t sure why. He worked for the government and couldn’t get away. Or he underestimated the situation and thought his family could return. Or he saw it as a chance for escape.
Whatever the reason, he’d eventually marry the widow of one of his colleagues, and would raise the widow’s daughter as his own.
At nine, I didn’t think too much about my grandmother, although I knew she was ill. I wasn’t close to her the way I was with Puo-puo, my mother’s mother. Puo-puo was loud and fat and cooked constantly – dumplings, scallion pancakes, and steamed buns. During the summers, she taught us Chinese, and quizzed us like a real teacher. My grandfather, Gong-gong, would watch game shows all afternoon with the volume turned high.
“Come on down!” he’d shout with Bob Barker.
The several months Nai-nai stayed with us was like living with a specter. She mostly stayed in her room, knitting vests and socks from brown scratchy wool. She’d make sudden appearances, once to present to my brother and me origami animals she had folded from pages torn out from old magazines (we weren’t impressed). Another time to scrub pots and pans with the same torn-out pages, which for some reason, made my father mad.
“We have perfectly good paper towels!” he yelled.
When the weather got warmer, she emerged again to wander in the wood behind our house with a scythe. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do. Clear weeds, perhaps. Sometimes she returned with flowers; once she came back with poison oak.
My father was so angry, he couldn’t even say anything, just shook his head. My father rarely lost his temper. If he did, it’d be for a second, then over, unlike my mother who was a storm that raged on and on. A nurse came to help with Nai-nai, and it was my mother who sat with her and translated.
Nai-nai was always nice to us, in her quiet way. She was always smiling. But I was glad when she returned to L.A.
* * *
My nervousness continued through the rest of the school year.
Scary things followed me everywhere. Commercials for The Elephant Man on TV. I didn’t know what Joseph Merrick looked like, but what I imagined was far worse. The two-faced man on That’s Incredible! UFOs and aliens.
When my language arts teacher didn’t feel like teaching, she read us Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe. We fourth-graders listened with horror at The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sometimes I was able to tune out, but then somehow I’d catch the scariest parts: a man peering through a keyhole to see a troll-like creature drain a woman of blood. At night I’d lay petrified, wanting but not wanting to peek through the crack of the door, in case I saw the same thing.
My father came and went, came and went, to Los Angeles. He’d always leave in the early morning and return in the dead of night. Finally, that spring, Nai-nai died.
“Bow to Nai-nai,” our mother told us gruffly. We’d just run in from playing. A large picture of Nai-nai, embossed inexplicably in a porcelain plate, sat on the kitchen counter.
Did my father know? I wondered stupidly as I bowed once, twice, three times. He was watching television in the living room. He had no reaction.
I wasn’t sure if I believed in ghosts, but I wondered if Nai-nai’s was with us. The creaking in the room where she stayed were her footsteps, the heater click-clacking were her knitting needles. I stopped sleeping in the den, which was where Nai-nai had slept. I bunked in my brother’s room till he got sick of me. Finally, over a year later, I moved back into my own room.
* * *
I once asked my father about his father’s second wife. I was in the 7th grade and had a family tree assignment. My question was purely pragmatic: Should I include his father’s second wife and daughter in the tree?
My father’s face darkened. “Who told you my father has a second wife?” he asked. “My father doesn’t have a second wife.”
Confused, I felt my cheeks burn. “Mom said – ” I started.
She appeared in the doorway. Without looking at her, my father asked, “Did you tell her my father has a second wife?”
Her mouth dropped open. “No,” she said. “I didn’t say that.”
It would be a long time before I asked my father about his family again.
* * *
My junior year in college, my grandfather died, and only after that could my father display his portrait. Only then would the black album appear on the shelf with our other photo albums, and in it pictures I hadn’t seen before. My grandfather and two young men in 1930s New York. Decked out in suits, fedoras, and long winter coats, they posed on top of the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue.
I was amazed. How was he able to go? Did he ever get to go again? Did he think, looking at the snapshots my mother secretly sent him, me on Columbia campus, at Rockefeller Center, in Central Park, Now my granddaughter is there too, where I once was, so long ago?
“My father was very handsome,” my father says now. “Of course I look like my mother.”
I don’t know if my grandfather’s second wife is still alive. His stepdaughter is. Does my father ever think about seeking her out on one his annual trips to China with my mother? His stepsister would be able to tell him all about his father. But would it be too painful, knowing how much he had missed?
My father is now the same age as Nai-nai when she came to live with us. She had already seemed ancient at 70, as though I might break her if I sat on her lap. My father walks three miles a day, and sings karaoke and plays mah-jongg several times a week. He reads two or three books at once, and paints constantly.
But he’s aged suddenly, in the past five years or so, since his retirement. His hair is grayer, he’s a bit more stooped. He can’t hear as well. He’s not a grandfather yet, and I want to make him one, not an easy task now that I’m 38. Some nights I lay awake worrying about this. What if I never get pregnant? My boyfriend and I could adopt but would that be the same? I don’t want my father’s lineage to die out.
I’m not ready yet for my parents to be old. I look for obituaries of people ten, fifteen, twenty years older, and somehow that makes me feel better. I don’t want them to be breakable, then gone, then mere ghosts. I can hardly bear to imagine walking through their empty house, only traces of them left in hollow clothes, untouched books, the places in the bed where they once slept.
For now, I remind myself, they’re real. For now, it’s not too late.