With His Absence, My Artist Father Taught Me the Art of Vanishing
My father was missing. How could I put him back in the picture?
Magnum, P.I. TV GuideChoose Your Own Adventure
That peasant boy on his knee in supplication? That’s my brother. The warlord all armored up before him? That’s my dad.
It’s not a good time,Maybe next year.
In those pre-boom Beijing days, my father lived at the end of a dirt lane, across the street from a shantytown where a pair of sisters washed their hair with a bucket of water dumped from overhead while chickens ran free at their feet. I snapped photos of this visual smorgasbord, thirsty for these glimpses of the world my father occupied without me.
That week, he proffered a hesitant invitation to paint with him in his studio, just like old times. We sketched, mixed oil palettes, sprayed fixative, opened windows to flush out the fumes. We whiled away the hours, painting the same old man’s face.
Much later, he told me that my visit fell during a period in which he was struggling to make ends meet. I was embarrassed.I didn’t want you to see me that way. This is what fathers want for their daughters.
As for me, I wish I could say that after that trip my father was back in my life, fully. Look at all the fun we had. It made us feel close again. This is what daughters want from their fathers.
You want him to miss you, to want to see you more. You want him to make more of an effort to meet you halfway. And you want your brother to talk to your father, too, so that you aren’t always doing all the work.
But it’s more like this: You go about living your life. Your father still doesn’t express much interest in seeing you more than once every couple of years. You get married. Everyone agrees that it’s probably better if he doesn’t come to the wedding. You make the trip to see him, this time with your husband. It’s a lovely visit, but it’s a major effort—in time, in money, in emotional labor.
Eventually, you have your own children to think about. You bring your infant son to Hong Kong to meet your dad, and have your trip cut short by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. When your second child arrives, you bring the both of them, traveling by yourself from a visit with other family in Japan, sweating through the diaper explosions and the interminable wailing, nearly missing your connecting flight, all because you want him to know them. On that arduous trip, as a new mother of two, you think that his interest seems to go little beyond aesthetics. He finds the boys beautiful, enjoys watching from a distance. But he doesn’t really engage with them.
When you return home, you give up—not all the way, not forever, but all the same it costs you something. The bitterness returns. Three years pass. But little things keep reminding you of him. Those Choose Your Own Adventure books your older son, now eight, is reading. Your father has only met him three times, the last time when the boy was five. That’s the age your younger son is now. No one judges you. But then comes a movie suggestion on iTunes—from a computer algorithm, of all things. Gently telling you what to notice about your own life, reminding you of your father and his work.
A little over a year ago, my brother and I went to visit our father—all three of us together in China, for the first time in nearly twenty years.Our dad lives in Guangzhou now, one of the most populous cities in China, right up there with Beijing and Shanghai in size and ambition. We boxed in his studio, did a little sketching, made plans for him to come visit us in California. Andy said it was the first time he felt that my father saw him as a real person, and not as the child he was when our father last lived with us. We were happy.
And then, on the night before we were to leave, we watched as our father nearly died on the floor in front of us.
The new exercise bar he’d been doing flips on had fallen off the wall. In the flurry to get the apartment ready for our visit, he hadn’t securely bracketed the bar. My brother and I rushed to his side as our stepmother frantically called for an ambulance. Our father’s eyes were open, but unseeing; his breath was irregular, gasping; there was blood on the floor. As Andy performed checks for consciousness, our eyes met over our father’s body.
Is this why we’re here? To be here when he dies?
No matter what happens, I want to see my father more often, on my terms.
When our father woke up, he didn’t know us. He spoke to us in different languages. When the ambulance arrived, I was forced to call upon my twenty-years-expired first-aid lifeguard training and do stabilization for head and neck injuries on my father; I screamed at the ambulance workers in Cantonese that we could not shove him into a wheelchair with the likelihood of skull fractures so great. I answered my father’s questions, repeated over and over again, on endless loop: What happened? Where? I did? At the horror-movie hospital, with its filthy, vomit-stained floors, flickering fluorescent bulbs, mildewed pillows, and people with head wounds walking around while flicking cigarette butts, I gave the young ER doctor a piece of my mind.
But my dad didn’t die. By the time my brother and I flew home, leaving him in the care of our stepmother, he knew us again. It wasn’t yet clear how far back he’d come from where he was.
As the months passed and we monitored his progress in the crisscross exchange of photos and messages across the Pacific, I knew he was going to be okay not when he started walking outside, not when he started doing his exercises, but when he started painting again.
I’ve been drawing again, too. Keeping a sketchbook. It has been my way of staying more acutely on nodding terms with him, with us, with the selves we used to be. With who we are now.
Most of the drawing I’ve done in recent years is as an on-demand sketch artist for my sons.
Several years ago, a group of designers developed “See Your Folks,” what might be best described as a global “family visit calculator.” You input a few facts into the calculator—how often you see your parents, how old they are, where they live—and it coughs up a number, based on World Health Organization life expectancy data. Once, when we hadn’t seen each other in a while, I told my dad simply that I wanted to see him more times before he died. It sounds a little macabre—but he laughed, because he understands that kind of bluntness.
A couple of months ago, I flew back to Guangzhou to see him again. We drew and painted together in the studio, took walks, had long talks on the couch. I only cried once, when we had that old familiar fight about him coming to see us in California.
The day before I left, he brought out some photographs he’d found. Us painting together, at thirty-nine and eight, and at fifty-two and twenty-one. I knew then, without him having to actually tell me, that he was saying he loved me, with all his heart, no matter how infrequently we saw one another in person.
I’m now older than he was in that first photograph. I made it a point to sketch him before I left, and to take another photo. No matter what happens, I want to see him more often, on my terms, than the family visit calculator predicted I would.
With any luck, my father will let me fly him to California this summer to be with us. We text each other almost every day, only now I’m sending images as well as words. The other day I texted him a photo of me drawing with my older son. It was taken from the point of view of me behind my page: my actual son blurry in the background, busy with his own sketchbook; the drawing of him sharp in the foreground, rendered in green ink.
Do you like my drawings? I asked.
A minute later, my father wrote back. Love your drawings.
Bonnie Tsui is the author of the award-winning American Chinatown. She has written about wildfires, Michelin street food, big-wave women surfers, shark fin soup, and China’s dancing grannies for The New York Times, California Sunday, The Atlantic, and Pop-Up Magazine. Her next book, Why We Swim, will be published by Algonquin Books in Spring 2020.