“Pau is in hospital call for details.”
In April, my mother tapped that blunt message out to me from her ancient cell phone at 2:30am her time. Back when I lived in Brooklyn, whenever I got texts in the middle of the night, I’d always be up like a shot. This was the scary message I had expected for many years, not the good night texts or “emergency” website outage texts I got from work. I came to fear this message after my father had a quadruple bypass while I was doing a junior year abroad in London. I worried when I saw him pull the car over to take a nitroglycerin pill for his not-infrequent chest pains. I fretted at the thought of my Pau overexerting his body while threading the mouth of a 5-gallon Sparkletts bottle into the water cooler.
Despite my mom’s protestations that I wait a few hours and see how my dad felt, I purchased the next available ticket to LAX, put my laptop and two outfits in my backpack (oops — minus socks), and called a cab to get to New York’s LaGuardia airport.
In the cardiac ICU, my dad’s jolly Buddha proportions were flattened out and woven with tubes. He looked like a frog on its back, white belly round and vulnerable. I felt so acutely the utter uselessness of my chosen profession while watching the evening nurse administer morphine and oxygen to my panicking, out-of-breath father. The ominous machines around him blinked, beeped, and hissed, communicating his status in codes I was powerless to understand. My mom asked me to take a damp cloth to clean his hair and head. I realized as I wiped his forehead down gently that I had never put my hands that close to his face, as Thai culture forbids the younger from touching the heads of elders.
The hospital dinner came, a sweaty tray served with small packets of acrid, dessicated “salt-free seasoning”, which failed to make the drab, but heart-healthy, entree any more appealing. I used the plastic knife to dice a pale, thin chicken breast swathed in dull, beige gravy, and flexed the bendy straw into a small plastic tumbler of water for my dad to drink from. We laid another washcloth down to use as a bib and he scooped up the chunks of meat with a bit of dry brown rice pilaf and spongy frozen string beans. He ate, and he groused about the nurses stealing his Jello cup.
Eating and complaining — this is life.
I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again: I last attempted to hug my father about twelve years ago. I had just flown in from Brooklyn to L.A., and my parents had both come to pick me up. Seeing them smaller and older, I felt daughterly guilt and altitude sentimentalism burst from my heart like goop from a pimple. I wrapped my arms around my Pau. His whole body kind of clenched, and when I released him from my grip, he gruffly said, “Chinese people don’t hug.”
He may not have been speaking for the whole diaspora, but it’s certainly true in our Thai-Chinese family; we’re not touchy-feely. But my Pau showed his love in the kitchen. My whole life, he’d go to great lengths to prepare the foods my brother and I loved. Dinner always included at least two dishes with rice, which he’d have prepared while cooking until midnight the night before. Sundays were reserved for congee with a phone book-thick, speckled frittata; or Thai rice soup made with firm, sweet fish or long-simmered pork ribs, fragrant with julienned ginger and a shower of cilantro. When my brother and I clamored for the lasagnes we saw on TV shows, my Pau used his imagination and approximated the dish using pasta layered with cottage cheese, pepperoni, and little cocktail weenies. When we begged for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins, my Pau fashioned a ring mold from a folded piece of tin foil and fried eggs into the perfect circles his facsimile demanded. His culture — our culture — had never given my Pau the vocabulary for expressing affection, but I had always recognized these thrice daily culinary rituals as gestures of love, as demonstrative and clear as American TV families’ mawkish embraces.
Now, food has become the enemy in our midst.
The household is on a diabetes-friendly, low-salt, low-cholesterol diet now. All for one and one for all! If he can’t have white rice with every meal, neither will I! I worship the nurses and doctors who literally saved my father’s life, but I don’t want to have to see those people again. Once my dad was discharged, I came home and purged their kitchen of bouillon cubes, breads, croutons, and other high sodium culprits.
But I paused in front of my dad’s stoveside army of Asian condiment bottles. The once familiar, brown friends, flavors that nourished me and stoked my appetite, had become infiltrated perpetrators overnight. What used to be benign fish sauce, thick black soy sauce, coffee, palm sugar, and Splenda had become harbingers of high blood pressure, lung fluid retention, heart palpitations, diabetes, and cancer.
This is a problem, me being a food writer and all. I haven’t figured out how to reconcile it, yet.
At first, my mom and I shared cooking duties, making invisibly seasoned vegetable stir-fries and kaeng jud, bland, clear broths with mild blocks and blobs like translucent winter melon, tofu, and a tiny bit of ground meat.
On the second night he was home, I made a fish soup meant to be ladled over rice. Even after boiling the bones for some time with aromatic Chinese celery, slices of ginger, and crushed cloves of garlic, the soup was wan, and not up to par, I knew.
Later that night, I saw my dad enjoying his dinner with a suspicious amount of gusto, so I went to the pot and stuck a spoon in. He had clearly added thang-chai, mouth-puckeringly high-sodium preserved vegetables. Look, I knew it needed the thang-chai‘s unique musty tang and salinity; I also knew he didn’t need it. I surreptitiously added more water to the pot to dilute it down.
This would be our game now, I could see.
My cousins sometimes hint that I ought not to police my dad’s diet so much. That’s what he enjoys in life, they say; Can’t you let him have what he likes? NO. I want him to live, and I’m going to be selfish about it.
Months have passed since my move back here, my grand gesture. My dad’s back to doing most of the cooking, though he’s recalibrated his seasoning hand to accommodate the doctor’s orders. Though we still don’t hug, this latest brush with death seems to have made him a little more ABC Afterschool Special.
As he watches me eat, he says, “You know, my Mae used to cook for me, too. Even when I visited her in Thailand before she died, she tried to get up and cook for me. Can you believe that? At 80 years old.” He shakes his head. “Nothing tastes like home, right? That’s why I cook for you. Makes me happy to see you happy,” he says with a smile.
Sometimes, my social network feeds are dangerous to peruse. I see what my friends are eating (particularly my friends in New York), and I am seized with cravings that make me want to chew my tongue off. I try to scroll quickly past descriptions of chewy soppressata pizza hit with hot honey or milky pork tonkotsu ramen. For now, I’m eating in solidarity with my parents; after all, it was never the food that mattered. We are eating together, and that’s enough for me.
(My dad asked me what I was doing. I said I wanted to take a picture of him wearing this insane highlighter yellow, probably irregular, XXL t-shirt, surely purchased at the 99 cent store. He laughed. I took the picture.)
And so the natural pecking order has been re-established in our kitchen. The other day, I spy my Mae at the sink with the biggest kabocha pumpkin I’ve ever seen. She’s balancing the monster on one curved side and is trying to hack into it with a thin, long carving knife. I feel pretty confident that she’s going to take off several of her delicate digits with it.
“Mae, don’t do that.” I come over and choose a large, heavy, 10” chef’s knife from the block. After setting the pumpkin on its ample bottom, I dig the heel of the blade into the pumpkin near its stem. Just as I’m about to give the knife another whack with the flat of my palm, I see my Pau hovering next to me, shaking his head with disdain.
“Lheek,” my dad says in Thai. Get out of the way. He pulls a giant cleaver out of the knife block. Using a wooden pestle as a mallet, he taps the cleaver blade and chisels the tough gourd into chunks. Tap-tap-thwack. Tap-tap-tap-thunk. I smile at his ingenuity, and I hear his message, loud and clear.