A Father and Son: Poetry of Everyday Life
My father would come home at midnight smelling of oil and metal, the stench of the American Dream forged in the concrete rooms of manufacturing plants. He has worked there for all of my life, from 3 PM until midnight, a timeframe that would rob me of his presence.
I would only get to see him in the mornings when he dropped me off at the bus stop. I would put on my clothes, brush my teeth, wash my face, eat some breakfast, and when it was 5 minutes before we had to leave I would wake him up to drive me there.
Our car rides were always quiet. Sometimes music would play on the radio, but often times it was just the static hum of the engine. But before I would exit the car, I would always let him know that I loved him, and he would reply back with an “I love you too.”
By the time I arrived home from school, my father was already out of the house and on his way to work.
Friday nights were a luxury because it meant that I finally got to stay up and wait for him to get home. I would sit in the living room with one ear on the tv and the other listening for his car to roll into the driveway. When it did, I would wait by the door, swinging it open as his footsteps touched the top of the stairs.
There was always a noticeable weight that he carried in through the doors but there was also an infinite lightness in the softness of his smile that he greeted me with. My father, like my grandfather, were men sewn from an intricate thread that wound through the paj ntaub that told our Hmong story.
These were threads of the matriarchy, threads that balanced the forces of the ardent bulls that would define the particularly powerful characteristics that were found in Hmong men. But my father didn’t have an innate desire for power or control like a bull does. He didn’t desire any recognition or felt like anything was ever owed to him. There was just a silent desire for him to “be”, and in that silence was a purer form of power: Love.
And of course my father was hardheaded and fiercely independent to a fault, but there was a certain softness and love within him that drew his attention to the beautiful poetry of everyday life.
That’s what his smile was for me when he came home from a long day of work—poetry of everyday life.
After showering and settling in for the night, he would grab himself a plate of food that my mother had prepared for him and we would watch Conan together in the living room. I would always eventually fall asleep on the couch, only to wake up in a tired daze and realize that i was in his arms and he was carrying me to bed—his last task for the day.
There was one particular Friday night where I was patching Pet Cemetery with my sisters when he came home. I heard the front door open and I darted across the house to greet him. As I turned the corner leading from the kitchen and into the living room, I saw a plastic bag in his hand with something in it.
As I walked towards him, he stretched out his arms with bag in hand to signify that it was a gift for me. I grasped the bag and felt the box inside, the plastic bag and box making a crunching sound as I squeezed it in anticipation.
I unraveled the plastic bag and pulled it off of the box to reveal that it was a red power ranger toy, new and unopened. I looked at it with awe, thanking him with hugs and “I love you’s” in an excited haste to play with it.
I played with the toy everyday. It came with a sword and a mech suit with wings that would open up and close. I would fly him through the air in my living room and battle it against other toys with it always churning out the victory. I would stand the red ranger upright on a bookshelf in my room and it would protect my room from any danger. I cherished the toy, but above all, I cherished my father who gave me that toy.
The memory remains with me to this day, not because it was a toy that I sought after, but because my father was the red ranger to me.
I was the only boy for a long time before my younger brother was born, and I was the youngest child amongst my four older sisters. As the only male figure in the house, my father was a beacon of light for me and I cherished all the little moments that I had with him.
But the world is never as kind as you’d hope it’d be, and there is never a defining moment that you can recall on that created the rift between a son and his father. It is a gradual process, like the formation of a valley in the mountains sitting close to heaven. It occurs over countless millennia, and when the words for “I love you” sit at the top of your head as you leave the car but only a “bye dad” comes out, the chaotic forces of life will have found their way in.
As I grew older and progressed further through school, my father and I began to naturally drift apart.
I would eventually stop greeting him at the door.
I would no longer notice the weight that rested on his shoulders.
I would become too heavy to be carried to my room.
He would no longer know what i was interested in.
I would spend the weekend with friends and argue with him about how the house was too boring when he wanted me home.
I would become resentful that he wasn’t there for my soccer games.
I would forget about his sacrifice for the family working all day at the factory.
I would become upset when he told me he accidentally took off the wrong date for my high school graduation, but lose sight of the fact that he still found a way to be there anyways.
And now in adulthood, when I drink with him and all my uncles at the long table, I will always just be a child in his presence. The tears at the table are uncontrollable. I would always cry, angry and upset that our mountains are so far apart now, that I love him so much but the manifestations of our feelings are lost in the static channels of generational, cultural, and societal expectations of men that tries to turn us into bulls.
And through the tears and the frustration, when I can collect enough of myself to speak and tell him that I love him, I am only met with a reply of “I know that you hate me.”
There seems to be a insurmountable amount of guilt that begins to accumulate for men as we grow older. Our failures will attach to us like leeches and we begin to lose sight of our accomplishments. We will continue to try and no matter how hard we try and how far we get, there are constant memories nagging us at the back of our heads of where we have failed.
At 25 this is true for me and it is true for my father as well. Because even though I don’t hate him, and the truth of the matter is that I love every part of his being, a voice inside him will say that I am lying.
I have never hated my father. I have only ever wanted to know his story from his own mouth, always waiting fervently to see if today would be a day that he decides to speak. But his sacrifice to second shift to support the family and my assimilation into American society through education will deem some things almost impossible.
So I would only hear stories of my father from uncles who spoke of his famous iron left leg in his younger days of soccer. I would only be able to observe the respect given to him from the community but never truly understood what it was that garnered that respect. I would only be able to imagine the stories of a young refugee man traveling 3000 miles from California to Massachusetts and what he discovered about himself along the way.
So I traced his story in reverse through the story of my own. I made my way to California, 3000 miles apart from him and my home in Massachusetts. I am attempting to discover him through myself, trying to become the person that I always saw in him. While the valley between us is wide, we are bound together by the poetry of everyday life: Our individual sorrows that tear us apart inside becomes the thread that ties us together.