In about an hour I’ll change out of my pajamas (uniform of the unemployed) and drive some fifty minutes to LAX, where my father’s plane will have just landed. He’ll be itching to stand up and stretch his legs, perhaps help an elderly woman retrieve her bags from the overhead bin just as I’m switching freeways. I spent the morning doing laundry, changing the sheets on my parents’ bed and putting fresh towels in the bathroom. I washed the blankets on the sofa my father likes to sleep on, and dried them in the afternoon sun so that they smelled only faintly of detergent and strongly of summer sunshine. For lunch I cooked the rest of whatever produce I’d bought when I came home last week and wiped down the refrigerator shelves to give my father the impression of a blank slate. He likes to grocery shop and fill an empty fridge with fresh produce.
In the afternoon, I took a swim and sorted the mail: my mother’s casino invites in one pile, my father’s finance periodicals, bills and bank statements in another. A few of the bills were opened and paid last week when I returned. My father had asked me to do so. He is a punctual man and would have done the same for me.
That’s what I was doing all day, returning just a handful of the thousand acts of care my father does for me, for any member of the family, when we are away. He washes my sheets, puts a fresh towel in the bathroom, and stocks the fridge with tubs of Fage Greek yogurt, my addiction for which confounds not just him but everyone in the family. He buys organic bananas and granny smith apples because the giant ones from Costco freak me out.
But last week I came home to an empty house and had to change my own sheets, replace my own towels, and stock the fridge myself with Greek Yogurt from Trader Joe’s, because I don’t have my own Costco membership. It was odd, an inaccurate preview of my life in New York if only because this is a home I’ve always shared with my parents.
This is, I think, only the second or third time I’ve picked my father up from the airport. I am subconsciously adept at not being around (mostly abroad) when my parents return from their trips. My trips often start first and end later, so my father’s tasked with shuttling me to and from the airport. Back then, my brother would sometimes go with him. Sometimes my mother would go. Sometimes, it was just him. Mostly now, it’s just him. To and from. To and from. It’s a long drive.
When he drove me to the airport a few weeks ago, he’d dropped me off and said, “See you in a week.” We were all of us going to Taipei to attend my brother’s wedding, and I bent down to wave goodbye to him. “Yeah,” I said, “drive safe on the way back.”
That could have, on a darker day, been the last thing I ever said to him. My father has a bad habit of nodding off at the wheel, and that day he didn’t shake himself awake in time to avoid driving into the car in front of him. I remember walking into the airport with that strange unspeakable feeling, the one I always get when my parents are flying or when my mother is working alone in her garden on our sloped back hill or when my father is driving a long distance by himself, without my mother there to keep him awake. I always shrug it off because I’m blessed, I tell myself, in more ways than being born into this family. I’m blessed because the family will stay intact, its members healthy and happy.
Two hours later my flight, delayed, still had not departed and I called my mother, who answered the phone with an edge in her voice.
“Did you talk to dad?” she asked.
“Don’t call him. He got into an accident.”
My father’s pride keeps him from telling me the truth.
“I was merely reaching down to change the radio station,” is his way of saying that he was in fact, very wide awake when the accident occurred, he had just gotten carried away, fiddling with the dial. But I’ve seen my father on long drives and heard mom’s sudden, shrill, “Kwang Tien! WAKE UP!” when she suspects his eyes getting heavy. That warm afternoon, with nothing but the fuzzy Chinese radio to keep him company, my father fell asleep at the wheel.
The car was severely damaged, but my father was wearing his seatbelt (also something he doesn’t do very often) and was not injured. The other party too was thankfully, unhurt. But it was and is terrible to think about what might have happened. Reasonable me knows it could have happened on any other long drive, not just the fifty miles home from LAX because his daughter had to be somewhere. But part of me knows too, that there is an unspoken limit to these types of things – a cosmic quota, if you will, because some things are meant to shift. Daughters are supposed to grow up, move out and up, find a way to the airport without their parents, via friends, boyfriends, shuttle service.
You might disagree, but I think I’m reaching my quota of how many times my dad can take me to and from the airport. It’s just one of those weird feelings, even though I know he’ll always be willing; hell, he’ll be more than willing he’ll want to, because he considers himself a practical, useful man and he loves me and would rather I save the seventy bucks it would cost to take a shuttle and spend it on dinner with friends, but… but I’d rather he drive a little less, especially at my expense.
Anyway. It’s 9:06PM and I need to head out. Somewhere in the air, just off the coast, my father is stirring. It’ll be a little disorienting for him, seeing my face in the arrival hall instead of my uncle, who usually picks him up, but I’ll take his bags and lead him to the car. Pay the 3$ parking fee. He’ll complain a little about ergonomics in the Prius, not much better than the goddamned airplane, but I’ll roll my eyes and drive onto World Way, heading home. He’ll settle back, watch LAX turn into LA turn into the OC, free to nod off whenever he wants, just the way coming home from the airport is supposed to be.