My Father’s Face

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One of my clearest childhood memories is of my father washing his face. Forty-five years later, I would be washing him.

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One of my clearest childhood memories is of my father washing his face. He did so in a most particular way, with a vigor and thoroughness that made me feel somehow cleaner for simply having watched him. In the mornings, while he got ready for the workday, I’d sit on the toilet seat brushing my teeth as he went through the various stages of his ablutions. This was in the early nineteen-seventies, when we lived in a low-end red brick rental complex near the Sound in New Rochelle. Our second-floor apartment was a small two-bedroom with a living-dining area and a worn galley kitchen. It had one cramped bathroom, its dulled chrome fixtures speckled with rust and the tiles coming loose in spots, but even my mother wasn’t fretting too much. We were just a couple of years landed in the country, and this was as suitable a place as any. My kid sister and I loved the playground and grassy field that the apartment overlooked—you could check who was out there and sprint down in a breath—and my mother appreciated the southeast-facing windows, as drafty as they were, for the brightness they let in. My father was settling into his first doctoring position, as a staff psychiatrist at the Bronx V.A. hospital, and although extra money was scarce, our family was moving up in the world.

My father would turn on the taps until the water ran warm and then liberally splash himself as he bent over the basin, sprays of water dotting me. Like seemingly all Korean men back then, he wore a ribbed tank top beneath his dress shirts, and the shoulder straps would get a little damp as he wet his face and ears and neck. He built up a load of soapy lather and got to work, roughly polishing the sides of his nose and his cheeks in a circular motion and radiating outward to his ears, using his index fingers and thumbs to scrape the nooks and whorls. Making a rake of his fingers, he scoured behind his ears, then shifted to the back of his neck, tilting his head slightly to each side to bare it for forceful soaping. Next, he rotated the bar of Ivory in his hands to replenish the lather, which he needed for cleaning the rest of his face—his eyelids and his temples and his angling, broad forehead, unwrinkled then, going foamy and white. Sometimes he liked to frighten me by turning quickly and opening his eyes wide and flaring his lips, this snowy beast, and then smile when I began to whimper, and although my heart detonated each time, I liked it, too, for the way it was him and not him and him again, in the span of a gasp.

He’d wash away the suds with great handfuls of water, dousing himself while briskly rubbing his skin once more, and you would wonder why he didn’t just take a shower instead. Maybe it was because he was a refugee during the war and grew up in the harsh times afterward, but bathing every day was a habit neither he nor my mother had yet developed. I can imagine them both waiting in line for their brief turn at a cold-water spigot, poised to clean themselves as swiftly and as fully as they could.

On the weekends, I often showered with my father, and he showed me how to rub tiny dark rolls of grime from my forearms and from the scallops of my heels, and then scrubbed my shampooed scalp so hard it would tingle long afterward. My favorite part was when he dried my hair, his method not to blot and rub, as you normally would, but to hold each end of the smallish towel and whip the middle back and forth against my head to flick away the dampness. No plush bath towels for us.

Forty-five years later, I would be washing him, Parkinson’s having rendered his body stiff and frail, his mind loitering elsewhere. With both hands he held the shower bar as I sponged his flanks and hosed him off with the sprayer. I washed his face, too, but with my hands, if more gently than he probably wanted. I tried not to get soap in his eyes. When he was dying, I was far away and couldn’t get to him in time. The hospital morgue staff let me see him. He lay on a gurney with a sheet drawn up to his chin. There was his mouth, in a slight pinch. His sunken cheeks. His forehead was cold wood against my lips. He smelled sterile, almost clean. It wasn’t him. ♦

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