My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was five years old. My mom always told me how his mother had recently just died because of cancer so this was something that was very shocking for our family. But unlike my grandmother’s situation, Mom said Dad was fine after a quick day in surgery. She said he went in the hospital on Friday night and came back out Sunday morning. That’s how most things with my dad tended to be: Easy.
It had snowed the day before. I can tell even before my eyes open because of the bright whiteness seeping through my closed lids. I open my eyes one at a time, slowly trying to blink through the white. When I look outside my window I see that the ice is just beginning to melt in sad sappy drips. It is probably very wet. My alarm starts blaring right next to my ear. I groan, rolling over my bed to smack it to silence. Dad was adamant that he wanted to leave for school early that day. The sun was just starting to peak from the horizon. What could possibly be so important that I have to wake up at 5:30 for? I slug on my jeans slowly and put on the nearest sweatshirt.
Before I even reach the back step I can hear dad thumping down the stairs. “Come come,” Dads says as he pushes my shoulders gently towards the front door. He already has on his ancient nike sneakers. Because he never unties his shoelaces, he’s able to just slide them on easily. He says he hates wasting time on stupid things; he even keeps his ties untied and just slides them on over his neck when he needs them. Mom had asked him millions of times if he wanted to get new sneakers, but Dad always replied with how new shoes would be a waste of money, especially on him. I slip on my uggs and follow him out the door.
I step right into a puddle. I lift my foot up. It can almost hear my poor ugg groaning under its newly acquired weight. I begin to feel the water seeping into my shoe making it heavy and soggy. I groaned, knowing that there is no way that a wet ugg can be fixed. My father, seeing my wet foot, begins to laugh. He always laughed at things like that, things that made my mother and I so angry that our faces began to turn a deep shade of red. He signals for me to get into the driver’s seat. I don’t hesitate, knowing that he usually never lets me do anything like that. I run to the front and buckled myself in before he could change his mind.
Even though the entire world seems to be waking up from a deep hibernation, Dad’s car is still frigid inside. His lexus doesn’t have any comforting seat warmers like Mom’s car, but Dad never did get a new one because of “sentimentality” as he called it. Mom thought that it was an eyesore to see a car that was over twelve years old in our driveway, but Dad always said that that was the first car that he had ever bought with his own money in America and he wasn’t going to give it away for anything, and that was that. It was one of their longest standing debates. I don’t mind it though. Whenever I sat in his rundown car, it seemed like I had traveled back in time a couple of years. I open one of the side drawers and pick out my favorite cassette player. I wound the casette up with our designated cassette twister pencil and slipped it into the cassette player. Edith Piaf’s soft voice begins to stir in the background. Her soft lines waft through the air as Dad huffs on his fingertips to warm them up. I can see the faint outline of his breath wafting through the air.
“Appa, where are we going?” I ask again as Dad backs his elderly car out of the garage and speeds away from our home. He didn’t say anything back, but he did smile and begin to whistle along to Edith Piaf’s soft voice. Dad never got around to learning the actual lyrics, which he told me everytime we listened to this song, but he knew every pause and note that Edith sung, and he would always hum or whistle along.
“Do you want me to tell you what the lyrics mean?” I asked one day when we were sitting in the middle of my living room playing cards.
“No,” He said putting another card down. “I like to imagine what is going on in my mind.”
“Well, what is she saying now then?” I had listened and memorized the English version of la vie in rose by Nat King Cole, and I knew that Edith was talking about roses blooming when her loved one speaks right about now.
“She is very sad. Her heart is breaking. Don’t you hear it, Soojung?” He said back as he picked another card up from the deck.
“No, Dad, she’s in love. She’s saying she’s in love.” I said laughing.
“Not to me she’s not. That is the voice of a woman whose heart is breaking.” Dad said. After that I had never attempted to explain to him the lyrics of a song again.
We have been driving for a the longest time. The trees seem to get denser the farther we go. Again, I rummage through the car’s drawers, looking for another good song to listen to. I feel a dusty thin paper between my fingers.
“Who are these people?” I asked pulling out an old black and white picture of two young boys in military uniform holding up guns.
“That’s me.” Dad points at the shorter boy to the left.
Dad seems like he doesn’t want to talk about it more, but I keep pressing him for answers.
“How old were you?” He is quite for a bit, long enough that I assume that he is done with this conversation. I’m about to put the photo back into the shelf when I hear Dad saying,
“Twenty-one. I was in army.”
“Who is that?” I move my finger to the man on the left. He is skinny and tall, and his smile spreads from ear to ear.
“Uncle Sun-tae.” I can barely even recognize Uncle Sun-tae. I only know him as the talkative uncle who owns his own restaurant with his wife and two kids. He was always a bit on the chubbier side and went on walks on Sunday with his dog Duri in order to lower his blood pressure. Around Christmas time Uncle Sun-tae never forgot to come over and give me a crisp hundred dollar bill, even if some of Dad’s other brothers forgot sometimes. His hairline is receding, and he has developed an alarming widows peak over the past couple of years. I could never imagine him and my quiet father in an institution as brutal as the army’s. “I forgot I had that.” Dad says as he peeks at the photograph again from the driver’s seat. I look at Dad from the corner of my eye while acting like I’m rifling through his collection of cassettes. Even now, sometimes, I feel like I don’t know Dad at all. I slip in another cassette. Patti Page’s lonely voice slowly fills our small car.
“Appa, you still haven’t told me why we are going here.”
“I just thought that you were stressed is all.” He says looking at me sideways as he makes a sharp turn. I’m jolted to the left, and for a second I think I’m going to fly through the window, but at the last moment I’m jerked to a stop because of my seatbelt. Last night, Umma and I were up for the longest time, screaming about my grades. Dad had stayed downstairs trying to calm both of us down for a little bit, but when we refused to relent he just shook his head and walked up to his room. I look outside as I place my head on window. The trees are so thick that I can’t even see the sunlight anymore. I only see bursts of gold for seconds at a time that disappear fleetingly.
I see a cliff in the horizon. Dad begins to slow down. I’m scared that we might fly over the cliff like Thelma & Louise, which happens to be my Dad’s favorite movie. But we slow to a stop, and I see that there is an iron fence that is going to keep us from doing so. Dad gets out of the car slowly. He walks to the edge of the cliff, and just stares out into the sky. The sun is starting to shine so bright that I can only see the outline of his silhouette. The silhouette turns around and gestures for me to join him. Come Come, I can almost hear Dad saying. I look down at my soggy shoes and groan, thinking about all the dust and dirt that is going to be absorbed by my foot sponge. But I step out of the car and join him anyway. Dad is standing with his arms folded across his chest. I cross my arms too.
“Wow,” Dad says shaking his head in awe. “Would you look at that?” And, I do. I really do. The light is not blocked out by any trees anymore, so I can see the sun in all of its golden glory. Its light is blinding, and makes everything seem to be glowing in its soft yellow paint. My heart relaxes, and my breathing slows. The sunlight bounces off the Hudson river, illuminating the sky tenfold. For once, I don’t think of the Hudson as a dirty cesspool where disease and vermin go to die, but just as any other river on the Eastern Seaboard. Maybe even better than any other river on the Eastern Seaboard.
The leaves are starting to bud on their branches on the hill below us and I almost want to reach out and pull them off, separating the tiny green pieces from their stems. For a second, I smile, thinking of how Mom would slap my hand softly if she knew I was about to break a branch off of a tree. “Don’t hurt it,” she’d protest, ironically hurting my hand instead.
It is quiet. Not eerily quiet, but still quiet. I close my eyes trying to listen to the hum of the highway behind me. I hear nothing. There is nobody here but us. The world is still. The ground beneath us is solid, and the only two things grounding me to this earth are my own two feet. I look at Dad. He isn’t moving at all, except to occasionally move his cigarette to his lips. His eyes look far away, like he is trapped in a distant memory. Standing next to him, I try to mimic him. I pretend that I’m also smoking a marlboro, looking off into the distance as well. I look over the edge of the iron fence, wondering what he is looking at.
Mom always knows what Dad is thinking even before he says it. She says it is because they have been married for over twenty years, but I think that it’s because their souls are just connected like that. Dad is such a quiet person, though. And even after all this time, I still don’t know what he’s thinking half of the time we are together. I want my thoughts to merge with his. Just so I can see what he can see and feel what he can feel.
“I found here when I driving down Palisades Parkway to work.” He looks back at me and smiles. “You were this big. I tired because you cry all night. But I just stop to look at sunrise and I feel calm.”
I look beyond Dad. I see the pinks and the purple receding far into the sky and slowly being replaced by a brilliant blue.
“Imagine if I didn’t stop.” Dad says.
When we pull up at my school, Dad ruffles my hair before I get out. I shut the door and begin walking to the front doors.
“Don’t forget to have a great day!” I hear Dad’s voice exclaim as he drives away. I turn around and he’s already gone, one hand sticking out of his rolled down windows, whistling along to Easy by Lionel Richie.