I’m going to be an hour late to my father’s funeral.
My sister Suzanne is sitting behind the wheel of her Porsche SUV weaving through cars on Georgia 400, the road that connects Atlanta’s wealthy northern suburbs to the city. Whenever traffic grinds to a halt, which is often, she lavishes mascara on her eyebrows or smears on red lippie, simultaneously spilling expletives at fellow drivers. At times her hostility seems directed at the universe.
“Jesus,” she says. “How is this happening?”
I’m leaning against the window in the back seat, which Suzanne, seven years my senior, uses as a repository for yoga mats, dumbbells, bags of cat litter, twelve-packs of Diet Coke, and, on this day, a stack of white wicker baskets she’d bought simply because they were on sale. My British husband, Ben, who’d flown in from our home in London the night before, looks back from the front passenger seat and asks for some water. A selection of sparkling or still, lime flavored or lemon, rests beneath my feet.
I try to breathe amid the clutter and the honking and the gnawing anxiety about seeing so many of my dad’s relatives, most of whom I haven’t spent time with since I was a kid. Their Facebook profiles prominently feature quotes like, “God is good and so is the Second Amendment,” and, “If you don’t believe in the right to bear arms, shut up and be a good little victim.” One of them recently posted a meme of President Barack Obama’s face along with the words: “Does this ass make my car look big?”
As a kid I’d fall silent around them, embarrassed by my slight lisp and high-pitched voice, and I tried my hardest to hold my wrists straight, afraid of what the persistent bend and flop might signal. None of my dad’s relatives—who call on their “prayer warriors” in times of crisis and who take Fox News as doctrine—have met my husband. They may not even know I have one. The last they heard, I’d boarded a plane for Harvard, which my dad called “one of those liberal schools up north” and never came back. When theysee me for the first time after all these years—with a man by my side, to boot—they’ll no doubt think I clawed out of the rubble of Sodom to parade my sin right in front of my dead daddy.
I scroll through an article on my phone that says good funerals should help families begin to heal. If punctuality or stress levels are any measure, we’re off to a terrible start.
From its outskirts, Atlanta looks like a city rising from giant heads of broccoli. As we grind southward, the endless pine trees and kudzu along the interstate blend into a wall of green, and in the blur I picture the last call I’d had with my dad a few weeks ago. He’d suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes over the past five years. The restricted blood flow had starved his brain of oxygen, pulling him deeper into dementia. He’d recently been hospitalized, at the age of eighty-one, after punching my mother in the face twice and telling police that she’d been poisoning him. Mom told me that when the sun went down his mind slipped further off the edge. He’d buzz the nurses to tell them they were bitches and whores.
I phoned when it was still light out across the ocean in Atlanta. He had a hazy recollection of who I was.
“Where are you?” he asked, his voice wheezy, his speech slow, and the long vowels of his southern drawl as familiar as ever. “Boston?”
I reminded him that I was no longer a college student, and that I’d lived in London for nine years.
“How is the Queen today?” he asked, not in a joking way, but brimming with the childish curiosity and glee of someone who really
wanted to know. “Are y’all on a first name basis?”
I didn’t have time to share the less glamorous reality: I haven’t worked full-time in three years and spend most of my free time blogging about the Eurovision Song Contest, an all- consuming hobby that has left me with £100 in the bank, £55 of which I need to pay for my next therapy session. I feel like a professional failure who hasn’t reached my potential and I’m not sure how to pull myself out of the morass. He told his nurse I was having tea with Her Majesty and hung up the phone.
My father’s mind and heart had repeatedly failed him. It seems appropriate that this main artery into the city is choking as well.
Eventually we make it to the funeral home in Jonesboro, fifteen miles south of Atlanta, and just a few towns over from where we grew up. Jonesboro and the surrounding area are the real-world inspiration for the mythical Tara—the plantation in Gone with the Wind
where Scarlett O’Hara lived with her family and their many slaves. Five minutes down the road, at the Patrick R. Cleburne Confederate Cemetery, locals still stab the ground with the red-and-blue Dixie flag—that odious symbol of white supremacy that my father found so beautiful that he would hang it outside our house.
Suzanne and I throw open the white doors of the funeral home. In her shrill voice, she shouts, “We’re here!” Ben, wary of the sound and the fury likely to shoot from my mother, trails a few paces behind, prudently using us as a shield. We walk briskly through the building, which follows the mortuary blueprint: generic burgundy carpet with golden trellis motif, antique yellow walls with watercolor paintings of nature, cherry-stained wood furniture everywhere. It’s meant to feel like a home, but it reminds me of a hospital — the halls are so wide you could wheel in several stretchers side by side. My cousin Eloise waves as we rush past. She has three children, from three men of different races. It gives me hope that she’s more open-minded than the other relatives on Dad’s side.
We turn left into the viewing room. My father’s corpse rests in a casket blocked from view by the “Asian rodeo”—Suzanne’s phrase for our Vietnamese aunts and uncles and their partners. My mother left Saigon in 1973, in the final years of the Vietnam War, and her brother and three of her sisters followed over the subsequent decades. They’d had children and some of their children had had children, and they spread across Georgia—from Dacula in the north and farther down south toward Dublin—opening nail salons, beauty parlors, and bridal stores. No matter how far they’d had to drive, they’d all managed to arrive at the funeral home on time.
My uncle Bao breezes past us on his way to the chapel for the delayed service, turning with a laugh that sounds like a warning.
“Your mom, she gonna kill you.”
As if on cue, the mob disperses like a school of fish. Their parting reveals my mother, dressed in a black pantsuit that matches her freshly dyed, jet-black hair. She turns away from my father’s casket, its head panel open and its foot panel draped in an American flag. Her lips are tense and pushed forward and her mouth isn’t fully closed, like a rottweiler caught mid-chew. By the time we reach her at the casket, the whites of her eyes have swollen to the size of Ping-Pong balls.
“Where the hell you been?” she asks.
My mother’s name is Tuyết—pronounced tweet
. In Vietnamese that means “snow,” an apt description given that she freezes people out over the slightest of slights. (Once, when I’d tipped a waitress 20 percent of the bill, Mom told me she hadn’t raised me to be wasteful. She wouldn’t speak to me for a week). She’s petite, with a flat, fat nose that looks like a chicken’s foot—the two outer talons give it shape; the central talon marks the bridge between her prominent nostrils. She’s in her midsixties but looks at least ten years younger. There’s a liver spot above her right cheekbone. It always looks larger when she’s angry.
Over the past week, she’d looked as pale as I’d ever seen her. She’d kept a round-the- clock vigil at the hospice, holding my father’s large, freckled hand, at times crawling into his bed to whisper, “Daddy, I love you.” She’s not quite five feet tall, but for five years she had single- handedly bathed, fed, and cared for Dad, a man who stood six foot four in his prime. Theirs was a love story I never saw with full clarity until the past week, when her devotion and sorrow pushed from my mind the more troubled memories of my childhood. In the end, Mom had become his entire world, keeping him fed and clean even when he no longer seemed to care. She’d earned her redemption. Now my sister and I were ruining the closing act.
“We got stuck in traffic,” Suzanne says, ignoring that we’d been up several hours early and could have easily made it on time, even if the tires of every car in Atlanta had been dipped in molasses and left to dry on asphalt. The truth was that grief had us in a chokehold and we’d forgotten what time we were supposed to leave my sister’s house, affording ourselves just fifteen minutes for what is an hour-long journey.
Suzanne’s sluggishness was understandable. She’d spent months carting my parents to and from the hospital. She’d attended medical appointments to help break down English medical terms that my mother couldn’t grasp: vascular dementia, intravenous feeding, distention of the belly, motility of the bowels, antipsychotics to relieve delirium.
On top of that, she’d recently ended a troubled seventeen-year relationship with someone my mother referred to simply as “Ugly Old Man.” He was in his sixties and had a billion-dollar business, flew on private jets, and liked to fish in the Caribbean and sleep with women who weren’t my sister. Observing from a distance, it always seemed that their relationship was based largely on him being rich and my sister being hot, something my mom had latched on to. “You don’t love him—you love the houses, the boat,” she’d commented recently. Whatever the reality, Suzanne wasn’t grieving one man that day but two.
I wasn’t guiltless in our late arrival myself. I’d spent the morning at the kitchen table editing and writing blog posts. I got lost, as I so often do, in a cloud of Eurotrash pop. The clubby rhythms and digital clangs helped distract me from my guilt—of having largely missed my father’s long descent into illness while I traveled around Europe interviewing wedding singers and reality show contestants. I hadn’t attended any medical appointments or carted anyone anywhere.
Copyright © 2023 by William Lee Adams. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.