A Family Meal

June 15, 2020

As usual, we sit around the table and focus on our screens. My mom fidgets nervously, searching for a topic to break the silence. My dad’s glasses reflect glare from his computer, obscuring his eyes, but it doesn’t matter- I wouldn’t look at them anyway. A time of communion, soured by avoidance and discomfort, and I preferred it this way. It’s a far cry from my meals as a child, meals where I would gleefully share all the minuscule details of my day and listen intently to my family’s stories. It used to be second nature to tell my parents everything; like all kids, I changed.

When my dad told me he had stage IV lung cancer, I was a moody, rebellious teenager, unable to communicate my feelings to those around me. When my parents sat me down at the table and cried as they said we were going to beat the odds, I didn’t give words of encouragement or even a hug. I acknowledged them and looked at my phone, pretending the news didn’t affect me: “Don’t worry, I’m fine”.

They didn’t think much of my behavior; this was normal for me. As they left to a support group, my facade evaporated as the realization set in: “My dad is dying.” Crouched over and wailing in agony, I spilled my emotions onto the table with no one listening. I couldn’t cry in front of my parents anymore, too scared by our distance to let them witness my vulnerability. Family meals were mandatory, but any mention of the topic threatened to induce my tears. So, I shifted the dynamic- our daily ritual turned into a meal without connection.

Soon after, I started working with kids through tutoring and a science camp. My students initially annoyed me with their antics, but they quickly grew on me. I was astounded at how easily they showed affection- squealing with joy when I read a book aloud, or holding my hand when they were nervous. I loved the feeling of affecting someone’s growth and experiences, and they weren’t even my kids! Returning home, I felt cherished and content, but continued my normal routine of ignoring my parents.

Over time, those children helped me understand what I couldn’t myself: I had changed for the worse. Why couldn’t I express my feelings? I wasn’t the only one dealing with hardships: my parents were suffering so much more, and didn’t receive the effusive affection that my students showed me. I yearned for childhood, to cling to my parents again, but instead I pushed them away.

My love for mom and dad never left, but it took the endearment of other’s children to make me realize they deserved to know. I had denied them the affection, honesty and gratitude that came so easily as a child. During one of our meals, I came clean and told them my true feelings: scared, worried, but most of all ashamed of my attitude. My parents weren’t mad; they knew that I’d somehow changed and were relieved to talk openly with me. For the first time in months, I wasn’t walking on eggshells anymore.

From that day onward, the discomfort I once felt with my parents vanished as we communicated openly with each other. No more avoidance- I spend as much time as possible with them whether it’s going on beach day trips or simply chatting on the porch, because I know these moments won’t last forever. Instead of tiptoeing around the sensitive subject, we have conversations about my dad’s well-being, and have emerged a stronger family.

Now, we eat dinner together- no phones, no computers. Just us. As we set the dishes on the table, my dad asks me “What’d you do today?” And I answer him, a longer answer than he could have ever hoped for.

Tori Wang