The night after my stepmother told me my dad had been imprisoned, I lay down on my friend’s carpet and considered killing myself. The fibers reached out towards my skin almost as if to welcome me to the earth.
I remember that feeling pretty well — that pearly middle between life and death. The way it burrows a hole into your chest and sleeps there. I remember my father’s gravelly voice calling me in panic at the courthouse. I love you so much, my child. I’m sorry.
I was his last call before being detained.
Helplessness, I’ve found, is probably God’s cruelest punishment. My father was miles away in Cambodia, while I was catatonic on the floor of a Berkeley apartment. Not to mention, my brother was left in the guardianship of his mother, who was prone to violent fits and flights of absence.
If I wasn’t worrying about my dad, I was worrying about my brother. Thinking, scheming, plotting fruitlessly on how I could save them all.
I hated most of all that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do anything. No matter how much I wanted to be, I couldn’t be enough. It’s a feeling that I’ve always felt with my father — who emerged from the Cambodian genocide as the sole survivor of his family.
After he divorced my mom in my early childhood, I became his only family. In so many ways, he was alone except for me. I remember thinking as a child that if I messed up, there were no other chances — no other buffers. I refused to believe that he could have suffered so much and for so long for me to be mediocre.
There was no way a universe could exist where he lived through all that pain and ended up with a less-than-perfect child. So I lived my entire life in pursuit of that title. If I could be kind, smart, funny, gentle and beautiful enough, maybe I could fix all the hurt that happened before me.
It’s a curse that many Cambodian children shoulder: the burden of rectification.
It was a cycle that both drained me and sustained me. I beamed every time my father bragged about me to random strangers. I berated myself in my room every time I scored badly on an assignment.
Slowly but surely, it began to overwhelm me.
Years later, even when my dad had found a new family and I was a student going to UC Berkeley with a full ride, I still felt like I wasn’t enough. I settled for working myself to the bone. I got into organizations that I dreamed of participating in for years. I made amazing friends. I scored well in my classes. But even then.
Sophomore year came, and I found myself more helpless than ever. With my father in jail, I learned that I couldn’t do almost anything except cry.
I hated myself more than ever for not being strong. I told myself, if you were capable enough, then you would still be turning in your assignments in time. You would still be working everyday. You would still be hanging out with your friends. You would have found a way to get your brother to the United States. You would have set your father free.
These thoughts became the only ones I had. By the middle of the spring semester, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out alive.
My whole life came tumbling at me in ways that I didn’t want to process. My greatest fear had always been incompetency, and now it was all I felt. How do you carry the weight of loss on your back and not stumble? How do you sleep with grief buried into your chest?
At night, I could only think of my brother not getting picked up from school. Or see my dad in a lonely cell — broke, shattered and picking at his eczema.
I try to control my breathing, because I somehow feel nothing but everything at once. I remember to take my medicine. Inhale for 15 seconds. Exhale for 15 seconds. Repeat. My heart is beating, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m scared or if it’s because of how much I love him. It beats so loudly, I wonder if he can hear it too. That hollow, resounding thump. Oceans away.
I love him so much it hurts. Even though he messed up and got himself in jail. Even though he left me with my mom and never came back. Even though he’s made so many mistakes for so many years.
I realize that if I love him like this, then he must love me at my worst too. The me that’s half awake, imperfect and tired. The me that sometimes messes up. The me that can be petty and angry. The me that’s trying. And as long as we love each other, then I am fine. I can keep going.
I wish I could tell him that our coffee rides are the highlights of my life. I wish I could tell him that perhaps I’d never whistle as well as he does, but I sing — randomly — like he does. That shaky lovable falsetto. I wish I could tell him that he needs to sleep well and eat well. That he needs to survive this. That I need to survive this.
I wish I could tell him that I don’t blame him — that I’ve been waiting for him my whole life and I’d wait a thousand more years if I had to.
So Father, I’m reaching across to you through the veil, and I’m asking you to hold my hand. Put your calloused fingers into mine. I am going to keep living, despite the mess of it all. And you — you’re coming with me.