Fresh coconut slices.
I held the bag in my hands. It was a bit of a nuisance; if the juice leaked from the bag, it would soak my journal, laptop, chargers, and travel pillow. My backpack was already cramped.
But Ba had insisted.
~ ~ ~
Before coming to the airport, Ba stood in the kitchen, holding a fresh coconut.
“We have fresh coconuts?!” I asked, a bit bewildered.
“It’s for you, កូន (daughter), drink the juice,” Ba grabbed a mini axe, the size of a butcher knife, then hacked away at the head of coconut. He flipped the coconut upside down and drained the clear coconut juice into a tall glass. He carved the pearly, white flesh out into thin slivers, and packed them into a ziploc.
“Drink.” He pointed to the glass. “For the plane ride.” He handed me the bag.
It was a short trip home, and I didn’t get to spend as much time with my parents as I had wanted. Actually, I spent the least time with Ba. It was the weekend before Father’s Day, and I was not able to stay another week to celebrate Father’s Day with him either.
Yet he continued to care for me, in the best way he knew how.
As the gates opened for boarding, I wrestled my tears into their glands and dragged my feet towards the jetway.
~ ~ ~
During the flight, I chewed the slices with my eyes closed. Then I opened my eyes and scribbled notes into my journal.
“Sinking my teeth into the crisp slivers, the meat is firm, yet juicy. The coconut’s gelatinous texture carries an earthy, clean flavor, with a hint of sweetness.”
I wanted to savor the sweetness from my parents and ingrain its taste into my memory.
~ ~ ~
Sitting on a bench, I realized I hadn’t called Ba yet. I quickly pulled out my phone to video call him.
“Ba, Happy Father’s Day,” I greeted.
“Ah, thank you,” Ba replied. When he smiled, his eyes smiled too. “Where are you?”
“Oh.. I’m outside of a frozen yogurt shop. It’s near the grocery store, if you remember, from your last visit.”
How come I’m here, not celebrating Father’s Day with my own father?
I turned my head to check if my dance students were not running too far off. They had just performed the previous night in NYC, and it was a rough road trip back. So I wanted to reward them for their hard work from the night before by bringing them out for dessert. In the corner of my eye, my students frolicked and cartwheeled on the grass, as if it were the most glorious day ever.
“Ba, enjoy your dinner okay? Tell everyone I said hello,” I waved goodbye.
How come these kids are not celebrating Father’s Day with their families?
From afar, I studied them individually. I tried to picture their parent’s faces.
Ahh… I only recalled their mother’s faces. Four out of five of my students didn’t have fathers.
Their fathers had abandoned them.
~ ~ ~
As we waited outside a candy store, I asked one of my students a question.
“How does it feel, to grow up without a father? Do you feel sad?”
She pursed her lips and shrugged.
“Because your family is your family?” I guessed.
She nodded, unable to articulate.
I took a deep breath. “But you know who is your One True Father, who will never leave you?”
“God,” she replied faithfully.
“Yup. He loves you unconditionally and created you with a purpose in mind. Even though you don’t have an earthly father, you have a Heavenly Father.”
She nodded enthusiastically, and ran inside to join the rest of the group.
~ ~ ~
Watching them giggle and play through the store window, my heart ached.
As much as I wanted to be back home, I realized how much I was needed here. My students will never know the taste of coconuts from their Ba. They will never know the sweetness from their father’s heart. They will be forever substituting it with refined sugar that could never nourish nor nurture like real fruit.
I’m not a father, nor a mother, nor could I ever live up to fulfilling those roles.
But for the time being, I will keep teaching…
and they will keep dancing.
“Wasn’t that the definition of home?
Not where you are from,
but where you are wanted?”
– Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone