A family portrait.
Just the four of us.
All dressed up and fancy.
Keeping up appearances.
The portrait lay on the table between the three of us.
Dad took it with him on his latest move back.
Where was it all these years?
Mum, dad and Ｉ sat down together after our 'hot pot'. The temperature plummeted deeper tonight. Ironically, eating over a hot pot here is a symbolic gesture of reunion. And for a while, while the white cabbage, squid, oysters, tofu, dumplings and rice noodles bubbled to a boil in front of us, it seemed we were reunited. Once more.
Dad had come earlier in the afternoon, bringing more of his stuff over. I asked whether he wanted to stay for dinner, and he agreed. So together we walked to the market, braving the cold and gusty winds, against all odds it seems. Along the way, we passed lanes and streets we had together travelled so many years ago. Irony. The irony of it all. And I recounted the moments when I skipped and jumped down the pavements on my way to school; then, primary school. Already more than fourteen years ago.
As we shopped, mums and dads with children held tightly in their hands hovered around us. Saturday, family day at the department store. For a moment, I was mesmorised by the dancing bubbles and music show at the Takashimaya store...Such ever changing beauty...so many bubble-ts, winding and weaving their way from the bottom of the tank, like silver balloons, writhing their way to the top of the tank. And suddenly, they disappear. End of their existence, swallowed up by the mass of water all around them. All the while, fish looked on, probably jealous the bubbles and music had for those few moments stolen their stage and spotlight.
Back home, after our warming dinner, we sat down. First the conversation dwelled on dad's pending retirement in two weeks, about his plans, his pension etc. He suddenly spoke about the past few years. He said due to the downsizing in his company, he's been exposed to much pain and humiliation at work, which prompted him to want to retire early. And he spoke of how he used to safe every penny and stopped buying things altogether for himself just so that he could send any extra money to us abroad... Added to that, he said his ailing health has also caused him much grief and regret. The past few years have been really rough, and dad says he has isolated himself from society as a result.
One thing lead to another, and before I realised we became engaged in the conversation I had hoped we would have before dad moved back again. Mum spoke her heart, shedding all the feelings, hurt and anguish she's felt, and been forced to confront, ever since dad left home almost four years ago. I sat by and listened. I felt it was right that such things should be said, that such anger and frustration should be opened up for discussion. It's what I had hoped when I spoke to dad earlier on Monday.
Dad seemed unmoved, and at times defensive. He said he left was because he couldn't bear to stay at home anymore. The reason? Because mum allowed "all these people come and go", and he couldn't have peace. At first, mum and I didn't know what was meant by "all these people ". So he explained: all the decorators, the gas man, and all that money that had to be spent fixing all these things around the house.
I was surprised by his answer, as I expected a much more plausible one. The decorators, the repairmen? They were the reason dad left the house, the reason dad left and didn't have much contact with us? It made no sense.... it did not explain the mysterious phone calls, the scolding and threats to sell the house... It did not fit in with the excuse that our appartment was "too far from work" dad had once told me. It certainly does not explain why he left and in the past few years gave me so little chance to see and talk to him. Not a reason, but again an excuse, it seems.
So mum pressed on, this time alluding to the affair he may be having outside.
'What affair? What problem? What are you talking about?'
Dad outrightly denied everything. No such thing, nothing ever happened. Dad says he can vouch on this, that there's never been anything of the sort. According to him, it's impossible, whatever other people say. So, then Big Aunt must be lying...the gods and spirit mediums that were consulted must be lying...the ancestors I have so many times worshipped and prayed to; they too must be wrong about everything... and mum and I must have been hearing things, imagining things. And that time at Heathrow Airport, when some mysterious person called dad on his mobile at what would have been 2am Taiwan time-- just a colleague! Of course, how could I not have realised that then?!
'So you don't want me back then?', dad threw out.
"Whether you have an affair or not, whatever you did to move out doens't matter. It doesn't matter anymore to brother, to mum or to me whether you return or not. So much pain and anguish has been caused, and all we want is an explanation for those missing moments, for the sudden departure. I want you to be happy, to have a peaceful retirement, so you may rest and watch over your wellbeing and health.", I replied.
Dad then started talking about his ill health, talked about how he often packed his bags and checked into the hospital alone by himself, as if trying to gain a vote of confidence. He said that he isolated himself for our sake, as he didn't want to risk infecting us with Hepatitis C.
But then... such a disease does not infect unless through a transfer of blood. Even I knew that. And if he doesn't want to infect us, why is he coming back now? I responded:
"How can you say that? If you don't tell anyone, how can anyone know what is happening to you? How can anyone know where you are, how your health is, and whether you are in hospital or not? How can anyone know anything if you hide yourself and disappear completely? I've been to see your personal doctor, and he says what you need most is the company and support of family. You know how painful it was when the doctor seemed to be questioning me where 'the family members' were all these years...?"
At this point my eyese watered uncontrollably. It has been a while since I cried so much; so much in front of both mum and dad. I felt such euphoria, such a climax as I could let it all out, let the tears out, and tell him, tell dad what I feel and the emotions I've had to deal with.
"...do you know how many nights I've spent crying? Do you know what the past few years has been to me? If you say you don't have an affair, ok, but why did you leave this home, why did you just leave? I could count with my fingers the number of times I've seen you recently, I could count the hours...even on Father's Day you were too busy to meet. Perhaps we have wronged you terribly by our accustions of an affair...if that is so, I apologise deeply. If that is so, I apologise deeply. I've said before already, I am grateful for all that you've done over the years, for all that you've provided... I sometimes wonder whether it's because I was not here but abroad all this time that things have gotten to this point. What happened...?"
My voiced trailed off and my hands shook uncontrollably. Was it the cold? Or was it the bravery that led me to let all this out? I looked at dad, again he seemed unmoved. And for a brief few moments we sat there, in the living room, with bright spotlights shining on us. On the table, the booklet "Settling back into the moment" (回到當下) lay there, unmoved, untouched.
"How many people have been hurt...how many relationships have been torn apart, how many 'faces' have been thrown away... Whenever I go to Chiayi, wherever I go, everyone asks me what is happening. Because of this, I've even been accused by Big Aunt of being "a useless and unreliable child because [I] grew up abroad". If only people knew how much effort and how many moments I've spent dwelling and toiling over this issue...."
Dad erupted, and got up, about to leave. 'None of this concerns you...'
I responded firmly:
"You think what happens between you two is just between you two? It affects a lot of people, it affects me..."
I looked away, for a moment captured by feelings of disbelief, and perhaps disappointment and frustration, that all that I've said, all that mum's said seems to gone past dad without any effect.
Perhaps, some things are best left unsaid. Perhaps, some things are best ignored. And perhaps, some things are too 'grown-up' for a simple child to understand. Life goes on, as it always has, and undoubtedly, as it always will. Perhaps...
As dad left, he lugged a huge suitcase with him. I wanted to help him carry it downstairs, to lessen his load a bit, but he refused. I still tried to get a hold of it...as a result of which dad lost his balance and fell. I looked at him, at my feet. I turned away, as he too walked away, slowly downstairs, carrying the huge empty suitcase by himself.
Outside, a coyish full moon hid shyly behind dense clouds of white.
The irony of it all.