I entered the short driveway of my old family home. I put my car in park and hesitated for a few moments. I slowly took off my seatbelt and waited another few moments. Then the ghosts of my past surrounded me like a bedside vigil—the images of my own childhood memories, conjured up as I remembered past summers when my brothers and I would chase each other around. There was a basketball hoop, which reminded me of times when I used to play one against two, pretending I was Scottie Pippen and my brothers were Dickey Simpkins and Jud Buechler; it now stood alone, unused for years. Then I saw the two trees that my dad planted 25 years ago, as they stood peacefully and cast a tall shadow over my car. The bonsai bushes along the sidewalk were slowly dying. From the looks of it, everything seemed to be in its right place, but I wasn’t ready to step out. I stood there gazing at our white garage, reminiscing on how a home that once carried many years of important moments could feel so somber, empty, and uncertain. It was the first time in 3.5 years that I came back to this place that I lived in for 25 years. I had not seen my dad during that time. The last time I was there, I hastily left with my belongings stuffed into my car. My dad was behind me, begging me not to leave. I did not care. I did not give my dad a chance to say goodbye to me. I drove away and saw the garage door close from my rearview mirror. I harbored great resentment toward my dad when I left and it carried on when I refused to answer his phone calls and kept him out of every holiday since then. Now, I was sitting in my car thinking about how he would react to seeing me after 3.5 long years.
I got out of my car and I slowly walked on the sidewalk leading to the entrance. As I approached the front door, I saw my dad sitting down in the backyard with his front facing the family garden. I called out his name. His back shook instantly. He turned his head around and saw me. He stood up and beamed with excitement as he approached me. He hugged me and said over and over again how much he missed me. I didn’t hug back nor smile. He asked me how my brothers were and how I was doing. I said, “Fine.” And didn’t want to say anything more. I created miles of emotional distance when I saw him because I was so focused on preparing for whatever emotional triggers that could set me off inside.
My father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is a survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields, a genocide that killed over 2 million Cambodians. In the last several years, I have watched him suffer through the injustices of the genocide, the apologies and reparations he never received, and the damage that he has inflicted upon my family and myself to combat the fury and betrayal he has felt from his experiences. In my adult years, he was no longer the loving, jolly father I remembered, but he became a person consumed with paranoia and a total distrust of society, which left him away from his friends, colleagues, and our family.
My dad, now his hair showing silver colors blending in with his once pure black, has started losing his teeth. His once round, brown face now looking gaunt and catatonic. My dad started complaining about his teeth and thought that I should be writing to President Obama for help. He insisted that someone came inside the kitchen to poison his food once. As he continued to talk, I remained silent, choosing not to question his theories.
I searched around in my old bedroom. It has accumulated in dust, but it remains untouched, as it was the day that I left 3.5 years ago. I quietly gathered a few belongings that I left behind. I picked up a few of the family photo albums. One of the albums that I discovered had an envelope inside. I opened it, and a letter from the US embassy came out. It wrote:
This was done while he himself was a refugee that escaped near death. The letter was dated June 10th, 1976, a little over a year since the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, and a month before his 23rd birthday. For the first time in many years, I was proud of my dad. He was not the person that was the abusive, distrustful, bitter man that I had known him for, but that I saw a man who once carried hope and determination. It’s what gave him the will to survive, the sacrifice to help many of his fellow folks, and what led to him creating a new generation of his children being born here in the US. I took the letter with me. I came downstairs and was ready to say my goodbye to him.
As I was ready to leave, my dad brought me a box of vegetables that came from our family garden. He wished me well and hoped that I would see him again. He hugged me, but I still didn’t hug back. As I drove off, my tears broke loose. I remembered how much that garden has fed our family and has now kept my dad alive. Then, I thought about the letter, and realized that his own sacrifice and desire to do good would never allow him the opportunity to heal. Instead, he has been trapped in a never-ending cycle of betrayal and self-harm that I have yet to find the key to unlock him from.
But even in the midst of his own struggles, he never lost the ability to offer love in return. For myself, in that one day, I found a moment that made me love him. Even when I do, I do not know when I will ever return home.
About the artist...
Randy Kim is a queer Southeast Asian-American, born from a father who is a Cambodian genocide survivor and a mom who is a Vietnam War survivor. These experiences have inspired Randy to explore the effects of intergenerational trauma through storytelling and writing. Currently, he serves as a board member with the National Cambodian Heritage Museum in Lincoln Square, and has done past work relating to non-profit relating to Asian American advocacy, elder care, LGBTQ, among other issues. He has performed at other storytelling events which includes Pour One Out, Is That A Thing?, TenX9 Chicago, You're Being Ridiculous, and PREACH.