My brother is fed up. Our ninety-five-year-old father refuses to open his eyes, so instead of confronting him directly, Marc leads me outside.
Evening’s oncoming, the woods loud with peepers, and my brother has something to show me, but my thoughts keep turning back to this morning, Dad hauling himself to the scale he keeps in the kitchen, the warped fascination with which he marveled at his new weight of one hundred and twelve. Our father was always vain and handsome, in this a perfect match for our mother, though she keeps her distance now that he’s “going” – the euphemism he prefers, as in going home to China, where one hundred and twelve pounds might signify noble perseverance. In my teens I watched my own dropping weight with that same fascination; today I live on the other side of the country.
At the back of the house my brother fingers a dirty gash, like an old bite taken out of one of the porch posts. “I did that.” His words thud flat and hard. He still lives nearby.
“We were still building this place. I was maybe seven.” That’s more than fifty years ago, I refrain from saying. “I’d been out front where they were digging the well. I wanted to help, but Dad kept telling me to get out of the way. I was so mad I picked up an axe and came back here. I’d watched him sink these timbers just a few weeks earlier. He didn’t let me help then, either.”
He removes his hand from the jagged cleft, which hovers now by his paunch, and I picture a brother I’m not old enough to remember, a child in a red cowboy hat raising the blade above his head.
“I never heard this story.” I wait. When he fails to speak I say, “You know, Mom’s brother took an axe to her dollhouse when he was five and she was eight.” My mother grew up in Milwaukee, my father in Shanghai, my brother and I in Connecticut, but some frustrations, it would seem, are universal.
“Forty years later I did the same thing.”
“Took an axe to a dollhouse?” It’s really not funny, but it is.
“I ignored Rachel when she needed me.” Rachel is Marc’s third and sweetest-natured daughter. “She must have been four or five, and we were standing right here, right in front of this same goddamned post. I don’t remember what I was doing, only her reaction.”
His broad face brightens. “She had the good sense to bite me.”
Rachel now is twenty-four and has a child of her own. They arrive just a few minutes later to drop off their old baby monitor so we can hook it up in the bedroom as an intercom for Dad; Rachel, a registered nurse and Gen X earth mother, remains a master of sensible solutions.
Her daughter, Lily, is nearly two and improbably fair as a Swede. The rest of us offspring have variations of my father’s Asian coloring – as well as his tight winding. But little Lily breaks both chains. Intrepid, she struts into the bedroom and waits as if it is her due that my father sit up in her honor. Which, to my astonishment, he does.
Rachel lifts the child to kiss her forebear. “Hi, Pop-pop,” Lily says calmly. She strokes his gaunt unshaven cheek and then, back on her own two feet, breaks into a uniquely spirited rendition of the alphabet song.
Dad appears enchanted. He strokes the curious yellow hair and looks as if he might cry. I wonder, given his state, if he even knows her, this youngest member of his tribe – or whether he can appreciate the evolution she embodies. But he only sighs. And Rachel, an attentive and sensitive parent, guides her child away from the old man collapsing against his pillows.
Dad’s breath erupts in choking waves. Grinning has depleted him. And Rachel has to lean close to hear what will be his final words for her. This strange, once beautiful, exacting man, as confounding as the most inscrutable cliché, takes his granddaughter’s chin in his palm. Then he musters his strength.
“I’m so glad,” he wheezes. “You’ve got your shape back.”
My brother’s story hovers as Rachel’s clear eyes widen, but showing her good sense yet again, this time she doesn’t bite.