Saturday, June 28, 2014
The Guilt of a Long-Distance Daughter
There's a passage from Jhumpa Lahiri's book, Unaccustomed Earth, that resonated with me so deeply, I had to put down the book for a second because my breath caught in my throat. In one of the vignettes, a daughter describes her mother's homecoming to her grandparents' house in India, which she had left soon after getting married: "My grandparents had already lived in a state of mild mourning since 1962, when my parents were married. Occasionally my mother would return to them, first from Boston and then Bombay, like Persephone in the myth, temporarily filling up and brightening the rooms, scattering her creams and powders on the dressing table, sipping tea from cups she'd known since she was a girl, sleeping in the room where she'd been small."
And that, is precisely how I feel about the years I've spent abroad in England - or, even much earlier than that - when I moved to Massachusetts for college; years that have been sprinkled here and there with trips back to my childhood home where I wear the same pajamas I wore when I was seventeen, throw on my college sweatshirt, make my desk and downstairs bathroom a mess with all my new purchases and skincare products, and eat ice cream in front of the TV - like I never left.
My childhood room remains undisturbed; my parents did not undertake a renovation project and turn it into a study or sewing room or workspace, as other parents do. My high school artwork, a piece that won first place in the art fair, hangs above my bed - a now laughable manifesto of a clinically depressed teen who had a penchant for acrylics on canvas. The bead curtain still remains hanging from the doorway, tinkling every time I brush past it and a reminder for my mom or dad (who pass through to place mail on my desk over the year) of me constantly rushing in and out of that room - a teenager with too many after school activities and an active social life.
"Why don't you take that damn thing down?" asked John when he came over to visit for the second time. I didn't look up from the magazine I was reading. "Because it wards off bad dreams," I said, without thinking. "I took it down once and had nightmares for a week."
Last year, I turned 30. I looked across the chasm of my twenties and stood before it, open-mouthed at all that I had/had not achieved during the time I lived abroad. What did I spend my twenties doing? What was I doing here instead of there?
I go home once a year and my parents grow older each time. I notice more grey in my father's short, spiky cropped cut - the same cut he's had since college. Soon, it will be completely white, and I will cry. He works too hard. At the brink of retirement but still starting work at 7:00 a.m. every day. He limps a little when he walks and I ask him, alarmed, what's going on. "Bah," he says, waving his hand. "It's just my knee. Sometimes it gets really bad." I look away so that he doesn't see the tears pricking my eyes.
I glance up at the dinner table to watch my mom stirring a Chinese soup over the stove - a soup that she has gently talked me through making every time, assuring me in Cantonese that it is "very easy, you can even get the ingredients at Tesco for this one" - and one that I will probably never attempt. Her shoulders are slumped a bit further and she seems to have shrunk even more than her original 5'3" frame. I think of the mother who deftly parallel parked on a hill three times a week, every week, for ballet lessons. Keys in one hand, my toddler brother's hand in the other, and mine hanging on to her pocket or a belt loop as we crossed the busy Tacoma road. A sob rises in my chest but I suppress it.
"I can relate," says a friend from the south of England. "It depresses me to see my parents age. I wish I saw them more often. It worries me to see them getting old." She sighs and I am angry. "Yeah," I say, sympathetically, but my fingers have curled into fists without me knowing. 'You're a short train ride away,' I think to myself. 'You go home every month to visit them. You can see them more often if you'd like.'
It is guilt, coupled with sadness, that moves me to make up for the lack of my presence by showering my parents with gifts whenever I return home. "You know, Gar showed me this beautiful French knife he had at the office the other day," my dad said on FaceTime. "I don't know what it's called, but it has a bee engraved on the handle. Really beautiful." I Googled the knife and found Laguiole online, purchasing a cheese and butter knife set for him several days later. It arrived yesterday in a beautiful wooden box, which I added to the pile of gifts I had set aside for them when I travel back in a couple of weeks' time.
But we all know that gifts do not make up for lost time. Am I a deadbeat daughter? An absent sister? Reaping the benefits of my upbringing yet not bothering to show up when it matters the most? I think back carefully through the memories of my past - did my parents not prepare me for this? For getting the hell out of our small town and chasing new adventures? I worked so hard in high school - churning through calculus equations, titrating solutions in chemistry, attending after school AP Exam study sessions - because I wanted to leave.
Sometimes my parents appear in my dreams and they look sad, disappointed. "I wanted you to fly away, but not this far away," they say forlornly, as I turn away from airport security. Always there. That chasm between my 30th birthday and my 20s is the line of people at airport security inching forward, taking me a step further away each time.