Even when I was 7, I was jealous of my classmates when they would complain about going to the dentist. Insurance was a luxury. Dentists were luxuries. Choices were luxuries. But a smile was important, and I knew that. So I brushed and gargled and pretended I had dentist stories when my friends had dentist stories.
My dad never really knew how to smile. Photographs of him always showed the same hard-pressed lips. But he loved being behind the camera. A lot of his money would go into developing photos and the 50-plus albums stacked in our closets. He captured our young faces who could laugh any time we wanted to in front of anyone, who could eat anything we wanted anywhere, who didn't need to learn how to smile.
My dad, a Vietnamese refugee, prided himself on his will. He had gone to other countries with little money in his pockets. He could persuade his peers to think one way one day, and the next way the next. He donated money when he had no money to donate. He knew what you liked without having to ask you what you liked.
But he could not eat meat or broccoli or other hard things.
When you're escaping a war and trying to keep your parents and eight younger siblings safe, you don't think about teeth. When you're trying to feed everyone crammed in a small house on Guam, you don't think about teeth. My dad didn't think about teeth. Not until my sister and me and my brother.
Every time we went out to eat, we would always order a dish that had tofu in it. My dad hated tofu. He would try to eat the beef or the chicken instead, but when we left the restaurant, there would always be a pile of chewed meat covered with a napkin on his plate.
Whenever I came home for breaks, my dad would make me drive him out for lunch every day. These lunches would usually be spent in silence or with him making a few observations about people in the restaurant. Those two have probably been friends for a long time, he would say, or the waiter forgot to give that lady her water.
A little over a month before he was hospitalized, he asked me to take him out for lunch again. We were sitting in a Cantonese restaurant. He said he wanted to sit us all down and talk to us. There is still a lot to say, he said.
He never had the chance to sit us all down and talk. When I returned from a travel-study program, he had his first and second and third cardiac arrests and ate through an IV.
That day at the Cantonese restaurant, he had ordered duck noodle soup for me. It was his favorite as a kid, he said. I spent the entire meal staring at the tofu on his plate in silent guilt.