Ho and Below

            Dinner was the best time to share with Mom and Dad the new words that I learned at school.  Euphemistic, frivolous, apropos—I could spell it all by the fourth grade.   And I knew fancy phrases like, lo and behold, and as luck would have it.  Most of the time Dad listened quietly and nodded, but sometimes he would shout across the table in Cantonese. “Ai ya!” Then pound his fist and say in English, “Why you always tell what you know? This is not spelling bee!”  I learned early on to read his face and try to figure out what he really meant because Dad was always loud, even in his praises.

Dad loved stories about bravery, heroism, and anything having to do with redemption.  Every morning he combed through both the Chinese Gazette and our city’s daily Chronicle, looking for real-life stories that showcased heroes battling it out.  At night, instead of reading me fairytales, he brought in the newspaper.  One night I learned about a man in Fresno who broke into an animal shelter and rescued one hundred cats that were going to be killed.  “Big balls, is what you kids say?  Imagine, take home stink of one hundred cats’ pee.” He shook his head and smiled. 

On another night, Dad read aloud a story about the worker on an oil rig near Peru who got blown apart; his limbs and organs were found days later floating in the ocean.  The family of the victim won fifty million dollars and hired doctors to put the man back together using long, Frankenstein stitches.   It reminded me of the time I shattered Dad’s favorite coffee mug and he had screamed, “You like Chinese in a bull shop!”  As I fell asleep that night I thought, at least Dad didn’t ask me for fifty million dollars.


When Dad had his heart attack, I was ten and in the fifth grade.  This is how I remember that day:  It was late afternoon, rainy and freezing cold.   All Mom said on the bus was, “Your Dad still alive.”  When we got to the hospital, I stared hard at Dad’s face, searching for some features that reminded me of the Dad I knew, but I saw none.  His eyes were swollen shut, purple and green.  His hair, which was normally smoothed down with handfuls of mousse, stuck out everywhere, like black-and-white feathers on an Indian headdress.  Here was not the same man who’d blended my favorite beef noodles so that I could slurp it through my new braces, or who tap-danced whenever he ate particularly good shrimp dumplings.  This was one of Dad’s jokes, I thought.  Dad must have a friend at the hospital, and they let him play a prank on Mom and me.  In one second he’d sit up and pull out the tubes crammed up his nose, wipe off the dried blood, point at me and say, “Aha! Look what happens when breaking my favorite mug.”  But Dad did not wake up.

“Oh, your Dad and his lazy heart,” Mom said in a hoarse whisper.  She placed her palm gently on Dad’s forehead.  “Open eyes, please.”  I closed my own eyes and pictured the fifty-pound smoked ham that she said Dad had tried to carry up from the basement right before his heart attack.  I pictured the meat melting into the concrete at the foot the stairs as it swarmed with ants and maggots. 


For three weeks, Mom and I took a bus to visit Dad in the hospital every day after school.  His nurses liked to pat my head like I was a dog.  They talked in low voices with Dad’s doctor, Doctor Munro, who smiled whenever he caught me watching.  It was not until the rains stopped and the plum trees near my school began to sprout flowers when Dad finally woke up. 

Mom could barely keep up with me as I sped down the hospital corridor.

“Wait, you wait!” she shouted.  I gripped the back pocket of my jeans to make sure that the rolled up Chinese Gazette I’d picked up for Dad at the Asian Superstore didn’t wiggle out on its own and try to run ahead. 

From outside his room, I could hear Dad chatting away, but with a voice much softer than I was used to. 

“Let me tell you,” Dad’s voice said.  “My father make his famous duck-web recipe and then die.  He passed recipe down to me on his deathbed.  Ho and below, I only two years-old.”  Another man laughed a deep throaty laugh, and he didn't seem to mind that Dad had mixed up the fancy phrase.  In the next second, Dad’s door flew open and Doctor Munro stepped out.  This time I smiled right at him.


Dad was propped up on a pillow, and he was pale but smiling.  He spread open his arms and I leapt across the room and burrowed my head into his shoulder, careful not to touch the place on his chest where he had been cut open then stitched up like the oil man in Peru. 

“Hello, hello,” he said with a creaky voice.  Mom nudged me out of the way, wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve, and gently hugged him. 

“Are you all better?” I asked Dad.

“I the same, but better.”

When I asked him if his stitches hurt, he peered down into his chest and winced.  Dad thought for a moment longer before answering me.  

“This different, to be chopped up by Good Guys.”  He patted his heart, so I grabbed his other hand and squeezed it.

“And you never guess.”  He paused and a smile crept across his face.  As luck would have it, they shaved my balls!”  I began to laugh.  Loudly.  When I couldn’t stop, Dad’s nurse ushered me out of the room and into the waiting area, but I didn’t care.  I thought: Shaved balls.  My dad was hilarious.


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