55: The Chinese Chicken Incident

55: The Chinese Chicken Incident

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

The Chinese Chicken Incident

We acquire the strength we have overcome.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The most vivid memories from my childhood involve the road trips I’d take with my family to see my grandmother in Brooklyn. They weren’t particularly long drives, but to me, as a kid, we might as well have been taking weeklong journeys across the country. Squeezed between my two older sisters in the back seat, my father was at the wheel, leading us in a non-stop cavalcade of car games and sing-a-longs, his voice booming above the honking horns and noisy traffic outside. My mother, while occasionally chiming in with an off pitch note of her own, sat in the passenger seat casually looking on but mostly engaged in her own world among the cacophony of noise inside and outside the moving vehicle.

Growing up, it was always my dad who was the driving force in our development towards adulthood. His were the admonishing yells when we did something wrong and the encouraging words when we did something right. Many nights I sat with my father in my parents’ bedroom at the foot of his recliner while he explained the lessons I brought home from school, dictated my papers to me, taught me about Greek mythology or solved logic puzzles with me. All the while, my mother lay in bed falling asleep with yesterday’s New York Times in hand.

He was the creative pulse that made our house tick. He encouraged me to write, my older sister to take photos and my other sister to save the world. He was a surgeon, but could be found as often in the kitchen as he could in the operating room. Whereas many fathers spent Sunday afternoons on the couch watching football, mine was in his chair watching cooking shows and taking notes. Meanwhile, my mother spent her Sundays in her little makeshift office in the kitchen pantry paying the family bills and scheduling our upcoming week.

I remember the smell of the kitchen when my father decided to make dinner. It had the aroma of a French bistro one night and a Chinese restaurant another. Pans and dishes and food were everywhere. I watched him in awe as he transformed that kitchen into a five-star restaurant and became the master chef he wished he could be. On the nights he was too exhausted from the day’s surgeries, my mom took the cooking reins. Her kitchen was more like a diner serving the essentials—meat loaf, spaghetti, hamburgers. It was good. It was practical. It was boring.

When I was 15, my dad got sick. The car rides were less frequent and often to the doctor, my mom at the wheel and focused on the road ahead. The car songs were not as boisterous and the games not as fun. The lessons were now at the foot of his bed and they didn’t last as long. My mom still pretended to read her New York Times, but I could see her wide awake glances from behind the paper. The cancer quickly drained him of most of his energy. So the gourmet restaurant was eventually shut down for good and the diner took its place as blue-plate specials were served every night.

When I was 16, the cancer finally got the best of him. He had kept a smile on his face until the end, probably for our sake, but most likely because that’s how he wanted to be remembered. He was a fighter, but even he didn’t have enough fight in him for that. And while he kept the brave face and the rest of us broke down in tears, it was my mother who told us everything would be okay.

While my sisters were off at college dealing with their loss with the support of their friends, I was left home alone with my mother. The two of us only had each other. Being a teenager, I felt sorry for myself. I don’t know how much support I provided. I was a boy who had lost his father. I never thought about my mother as a woman who had lost her husband. And she never gave me reason to.

My mom would pick me up after school every day. Family road trips had become the two of us on the short ride to our empty house. On the way she would do her best Barbara Streisand impression singing along to the sounds coming out of the radio. She didn’t care how out of key and off pitch her warbling was. And neither did I.

She attempted to help me with my schoolwork. But I had reached the age where I could do it on my own. I didn’t need anyone to write my reports for me anymore. The one time I let her help, I nearly failed. But I appreciated the effort.

My mother was trying to be a mother and a father to me. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t fill that void left by his loss.

On my 17th birthday, she decided to make me Chinese Chicken. This was my father’s specialty and my favorite dish. He would marinate chicken in a mixture of hoisin and plum sauce, sauté it in a wok with red peppers, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, broccoli and cashews until the mixture filled the kitchen with the most succulent aroma, making my mouth water with anticipation. As I sat in the den waiting for dinner to be ready, the odor from the kitchen began to make its way towards me. It hit me in the face like a punch from a heavyweight. At first sour, then stale, and finally burnt. The pungent odor was accompanied by the crashing of pots and pounding of countertops. I couldn’t take it any longer and disobeyed my mother’s earlier instructions to stay away at all costs.

When I entered the kitchen, I saw a woman I hardly recognized. She stood frozen above a smoking wok, vegetables and poultry strewn about the kitchen, bits of cashews in her hair and flour covering her face like a Kabuki performer. And there, I could see it, however faint it was—a vertical streak which extended from the corner of her eye down her cheek breaking up the purity of her white mask.

It was then that I finally realized I wasn’t the only one trying to fill a huge void left in my life. I lost a parent, but she had lost so much more. I would never be alone as long as I had my mother. But she had to be everything to me and I couldn’t be everything to her. How could I not have seen that she needed my support maybe even more than I needed hers?

Ever since my father died, that one tear was the most I ever saw my mom allow herself in front of me. She is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She is the fighter. And she was the backbone of our family all along. And for that, I owe her everything.

And so I ran a towel under the sink and helped my mother wipe the flour off her face. “I was in the mood for spaghetti anyway, Mom.”

~David Chalfin

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