I’ve made this spicy, funky, sour, mortar-ed and pestle-ed shredded, green papaya salad (thum makhoong) dozens of times. Sometimes if the Thai chilies and garlic that I’m crushing pops out of the mortar and gets into my eyes, I’ll cry.
This time, I’m crying because I’m remembering how my dad used to make thum makhoong for family meals: very sour, not too sweet, little bit of funk from the padaek (fermented fish sauce) and extremely spicy. Lao people eat thum something (papaya, cucumber, carrots, so on) with nearly every meal.
“Am I going to do this every time?” I ask my partner, as he gives my arm a squeeze, and I scrub at my face. It was day nine post-my father’s passing, and we were managing to stay warm and survive during the worst winter storm of my life, exacerbated by Texas’ energy grid failings (but that’s another story), and I have been moving through the days in a blur. I had consistently been able to cry while listening to “Live Forever” by Billy Joe Shaver to avoid emotional constipation. For whatever reason, the lyrics “I’m going to live forever, I’m going to cross that river” magically floated to the front of my mind on the day of his death. But other moments lately, I’m quite unsure what will bring tears to my eyes.
Mostly memories make my eyes sting but the pain is moving more toward thinking about what could have been and never was. What can now only be dreamed.
On hot summer days, when pa would water the herb and plant garden in the backyard, fragrant with spearmint and Thai basil, vibrant with giant green gourds and adorably wrinkly looking bitter melon, I’d play in the shower of the garden hose water, always hoping the sun would gift us a rainbow.
When pa smoked a cigarette after dinner, I’d bat at the plumes of smoke that he exhaled. Summer nights outside feeding june bugs to the chickens and feeling the sticky heat of the day slowly leaving.
I am comforted by the scents of mint and tobacco to this day.
I used to run into my father’s arms after pre-k and kindergarten classes. How I hated to be away from home in a foreign place those days, away from my caretaker and the family pets, and the creature comforts that a 5 year-old has, no matter how sparse they were.
Pa had a temper, but he also had tenderness for growing, living beings.
I questioned him here and there, perhaps foolishly, but when you’re young, you’re naive.
“Why do you get to watch your Lao comedy shows, but you don’t let mom watch her Thai soap operas?”
“Why won’t you let me participate in academic clubs and sports?”
“Why can’t we visit our friends’ houses?”
The concerns of a little girl, of course.
I never got to ask him certain questions that I was sure would help us repair our relationship, someday.
“Why won’t you tell your sons and daughters that you’re proud of them?”
“Do you love us?”
“What happened in the war?”
“Where were you born?”
“What was your relationship with your parents like?”
“Do you feel any remorse for what you did to your own flesh and blood? The woman you married?”
“What happened during the interrogation by the Thai police?”
“Would you ever want to visit Laos?”
“What do you miss about Laos?”
“What’s your favorite meal?”
The Saturday before my dad’s death, my siblings and I had a Zoom call for the first time, ever. We don’t talk much but do try to stay in touch and check in every now and then. We have a group chat but somehow managed to avoid Zoom even during the pandemic that burns slowly on.
The last time we had a call with all five of us was when my mother had a minor stroke in November 2016. Our parents somehow always bring us together even if one of them (my father) tried to drive us apart.
We arranged this Zoom call because our father had COVID. He was in a care facility in Texas City where my oldest sister lives.
He’s “okay but not great” is what the woman on the phone told me when I called to check on him. She hesitated. I felt the silence.
I asked if we could arrange a time to FaceTime.
She told me that would be “hit or miss.”
That it’s her and one other person taking care of the COVID unit. Her and Laura.
I asked for her name. Nicole.
Said “Thank you. Take care.”
Hours later, my sister told the family “Dad just passed away!” Time slowed down and sped up. Chaos ensued. Calls missed, FaceTimes urgently popping up, having to tell mom. Having to figure out how to breathe. Having to persevere. Having to hurt. Grieve.
Everything feels fragmented and disjointed when I try to think about the reality of what is happening right now. Like I don’t know how to use words and form sentences properly. Like I have brain fog, but I’m not the one infected.
Have I done all that I could? Probably not.
Would it be enough for me even if I did? Never.
Many things have come of this upheaval of life.
For one, I trust my cards, and I trust my intuition. The two times that I have felt a deep calling from the universe the way that I have regarding my mother’s health and my father’s death will remain distinct, incomparable, and telling.
This sense of urgency and inexplicable connection to them, to the universe, to some web of our collective unconscious, that struck me as “something profound is happening” comforts me, even if historically it has been a harbinger of bad news. In the future, should this sense overtake me again, I will know that I need to act.
I have to believe in the power of this sense and its source. Or else I can’t believe that my father knows that I forgive him, can hear me tell him that I love him, and I’m sorry. And that he loves me still, too.
My siblings and I have talked more than we ever have in the past few weeks, the five of us, as far as I can remember. We’ve shared emotions and tears that we never did when our father was alive. This has to mean something too. Thanks dad.