Let the World See My Daughter
Six months after my 40th birthday, I got an urgent text from my sister and immediately flew from my Wilton, Conn., home to Hong Kong. My father was dying from cirrhosis of the liver.
After a sixteen-hour flight, I arrived at my father’s bedside in the hospital to find a frail man. He had lost a lot of weight, and I could see the veins in his neck stretching out, as if to take a breath. My father had always stood elegant and proud for as long as I had known him. His stature and presence far exceeded his 5-foot-6-inch frame.
He was well-respected in our Hong Kong Indian community. As the leader of a local spiritual chapter, many people sought his advice on personal and spiritual matters. And many wanted their sons to marry into our family. My sister, nine years older than me, was pretty, dainty and petite. I think she could have won beauty pageants if she had been taller than 5 feet 2 inches. She was the primary attraction.
I, on the other hand, became more and more misshapen after I turned 13. I often hid in my bedroom on our 13th floor apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong’s equivalent of New York’s Times Square, scarfing down Cadbury milk chocolate. My waistline betrayed my binges. My parents didn’t say anything about the speed at which I was expanding. Somehow I developed facial hair, which made me look like a boy. My breasts grew, unsupported. I existed as this blob in a boy suit for most of my teenage years, marooned from any vestige of femininity and girlishness.
Seeing Dad so weak compelled me to get closer to him. I sat in bed with him and noticed for the first time a birthmark near his left eye, perfectly shaped like a heart. I felt it exuded love to me in a soft and tender way. I think Dad had always loved me, but he treated me differently than my sister. He’d always called me Seema putta, which meant “beloved son.” If I’d wanted hugs and kisses, I would have to ask. I learned to make do without them. He hugged and kissed my sister delicately, in deference to her porcelain-skinned beauty.
There in the hospital bed, I asked my dad if I could massage his feet. I had brought a bottle of Mary Magdalene oil with me from the U.S. I liked the way it smelled, a blend of rose and lavender, floral and calming. I put a couple of drops on each palm, mixed it with a massage oil I’d brought, and rubbed my hands together. When I touched Dad’s left foot, his cold, chapped heel drank in my warm, soft hands. I felt his body relax each time my hands squeezed his foot. After I oiled and warmed both feet, I gently touched the outside of his leg to let him know I was done.
My father opened his eyes, which looked startled in his sunken face. He looked like a starving boy who had been fed for the first time. I felt love pour from me to him and him to me. There, two months before he would die, I felt bathed in the warm glow of a loving, intimate connection with my father for the first time in my life.
Many months prior to my visit to see Dad, I started taking ballroom dance classes in anticipation of my 40th birthday. On the big day, I entered a major ballroom dance competition and exhibition and danced to Girl on Fire by Alicia Keyes. I wore a fitted black dress, with a black ruffled trim at the bottom that danced when I danced. My rhinestone necklace and earrings shone as brightly as I felt. Someone had recorded that performance, and I’d shown it to friends, but not to my parents. I grew up in a conservative and sexually repressive culture and household and, though my Indian husband was okay with it, I did not think Dad would approve of me taking the dance floor in a snug black dress with my male Russian dance teacher.
In the hospital, I felt brave enough to show my father the dance. I propped him up on the hospital bed, clicked on the video, and watched him watch me. He was smiling and marveling throughout. My body filled with happiness, relief and a warmth of finally being understood by him. At the end of the video, he said, “Wow, my gosh! Can we play this video on the TV at home, on the big screen?” His eyes sparkled.
“Yes, Dad, we can do that.”
He asked me if I’d shown it to anyone.
I feared his disapproval, but I mustered up my courage and told him the truth. “Yes, to a few friends.”
“You need to send this to everyone. Let the world see my daughter!”