The absence of want

Image of Principal - 2023
Facebook Status Update: May 1st, 2020 
 
Happy 66th Birthday, Ba! It's the first time we are not celebrating together, but like the rest of the world, we make the best of it. We hang out over Facetime as Ba makes morning smoothies for him and Ma (bitter melon, carrots, apples, honey). He puts his iPhone on the kitchen counter, capturing his forehead and a lot of ceiling. 
 
After a flurry of WeChat messages, Ma and I pull off a surprise video call with my dad's siblings living in Jilin, China. Our faces populate his screen at a variety of unflattering angles, all grins and cartoonish waving. It doesn't take much to make my Ba smile with his whole face, the grooves around his eyes deepening with joy.
 
I post a photo: the three of us sit around a small square table with plastic covering, chopsticks poised in my chubby hand. The calendar on the wall is flipped to August 1992. My fifth birthday, the last we'll celebrate in China. The spread on the table looks ordinary: chicken, cake, fruit, apple juice. 
 
Several months before this photo, I had asked Ba for a peach instead of an apple. His answer had to be no. His day's wages could not buy a peach. Yet in the photo, four giant peaches were heaped in a bowl. A whole chicken, cake with red-jelly icing. Later, a neighbor asked Ma, incredulous, why they provided such an extravagant dinner for a child's birthday.
 
Any Chinese person will tell you that we do not use the word "love" in Chinese. In our language, it lodges on the tongue, an awkward, misshapen thing. It belongs in television dramas and in the mouths of foreigners. 
 
Instead we speak of xinteng. Heart pain. How our love is measured by how deeply we ache for those we hold dear.
 
My heart aches [from love] for you. 
My heart aches to be apart from Ba on his birthday. 
My heart aches to protect Ma and Ba by staying away. 
My heart aches every time someone loses patience with his halting English.
My heart aches when Ba goes to Costco and brings home enough groceries and bananas to stock a small bodega for our family of three. 
 
And my heart aches when Ba's face pops up again on my screen, pixelated expression momentarily serious, to ask if he could drop off dumplings today. He promises he will be careful, that he will double-mask, that he will stop in the lobby and go right back. Twenty-eight years later, on his birthday, he is still thinking of a child who wanted a peach. 
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