Read Time: Approximately a 19 Minute Read
I wasn’t sure who the Australian man was talking to.
“Do you think your father will be waiting for you?”
He repeated the question a few times as I sat staring at him. It took me another few minutes to notice he was holding my hand. And then another minute to notice I had started crying.
The flight started its descent into New Delhi. I grimaced, partially because I was unsure how he had received permission to hold my hand and partially because I was in a confused fog with a dry mouth.
“I just don’t know. I don’t even know what I just told you. It doesn’t even seem real to me. I don’t think I’ll see him. I doubt he checks his email.”
I babbled and continued staring at him react to me.
“Not sure. I doubt he checks email.” I said again.
The Australian man was seated next to me on our flight from Bangalore to New Delhi. I had a 12-hour layover in New Delhi before continuing onwards to the States. The thought of seeing my father again had thrown me into a profound disconnect. No matter how hard I tried, I could’t remember what I was saying as I was saying it. I didn’t expect my father to greet me at the New Delhi domestic airport. A father/daughter reunion in a foreign country all due to a canceled Air France flight and a hastily written DOS-prompt email with 12 hours notice was just too “only in the movies.”
I wasn’t thinking about the experience. Long ago I had put the idea of seeing my father again so far out of the realm of possibility. As a child, I would sit on our pebble porch and watch one sunset after another, just waiting for my father to return. Those were the slowest and saddest sunsets I have ever witnessed. When I needed glasses at age 10, my mother said I had weakened my eyes because I cried constantly for my father. I suspect it’s because of years of this unfulfilled longing that I didn’t feel the anticipation that others might have at the idea of maybe seeing my father again.
I wasn’t wondering what he looked like or what he will say to me. Truthfully, I wasn’t so interested in seeing him. I had been in India for three weeks and had made no effort to reach out. The only reason I sent him an email the night before was because I was unexpectedly going to be in New Delhi for 12 hours. Air France had canceled my afternoon flight from Bangalore to New Delhi, putting me on an early morning flight from Bangalore to New Delhi. I had 12 hours to kill.
This was my thought process:
- I’m going to be bored for 12 hours in Delhi. What should I do?
- Who do I know in Delhi?
- Hmmm… don’t I have a father somewhere in India?
- Hmmm… don’t I have his email address somewhere?
- Hmmmm…. let me try and email him.
Since I didn’t have access to email in Bangalore, I called my sister in the States. I told her where she could find our father’s email address and how to log-into my DOS-prompt email. This was 1999. DOS-prompt email was the furtherest we had come. I then dictated an email to my sister and asked her to send it. She was as disconnected as I was because I don’t remember her questioning what I was doing. She sent the email, we talked about my flight changes, and we hung up. The next morning I got on a plane to New Delhi, not knowing if my father would be waiting on the other side.
A few weeks before that, in the States, I tripped over my mother who had passed out on the stairs. Sprawled across the carpeted steps, she was naked except for her white cotton Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear. Orange bottles and pills were scattered like toys in a children’s playroom. I was rushing down the stairs on my way to school and, tripping over my mother, went flying. It was my senior year in college and I was 20 years old. I saw carpet and pills and orange everywhere around me as I stumbled over my mother’s attempted suicide. I rushed her to the hospital and the next day, a New Year’s and birthday card from my father arrived from India.
My father had a peculiar habit of finding our current address and sending mail. Sometimes he sent packages. One November on Diwali, the Indian New Year, a telegram in an orange envelope arrived. Printed on tissue thin paper and 1/3 the size of a standard sheet of paper, it read: HAPPY DIWALI. LOVE, DADDY. I read the message through the see-through clear envelope window in two seconds. Four words received from him in as many as twice the years.
The medley of birthday and greeting cards which followed us as we moved from house- to-house were made by blind people in India. Once in a while, in his distinguished handwriting, my father would write that blind people made the art featured on the front of the card. The art was usually a delicate dried ginkgo biloba leaf which had been skillfully painted over. The leaf rarely crumbled in transit, weathering the distance from India with little difficulty. I didn’t know much about my father but I knew he supported the blind in India.
Another time at yet another address, a mystery box with gifts from India appeared on the porch. Full of orange silk skirts, bright red and purple Indian cloth and flashy Indian jewelry, the package had no note. We assumed my father was the mystery benefactor. It was a treat to get real Indian clothes from India as they were rare or expensive in the U.S. in the 80’s. My father had sent silk skirts that were for girls much older and taller than me. I paraded about in oversized marigold colored silk pretending to be a new character from a Charles Dickens novel – an orphan in New Delhi with a silent benefactor that gifted me precious silk.
This is how I grew to define my father as an absent and rather shitty benefactor who supported the blind, only sent rare Indian silk dresses, and only remembered birthdays and New Years.
The card I received the day after my mother tried to take her life was also made by the blind. My father had hastily included his email address. In my shock and concern over my mother’s well-being, I threw it into the top drawer of my desk next to random screws and doorknob pieces, and started planning to take my mother to a clinic in India. That’s what I was doing in India. I had flown my mother to a wellness clinic in Bangalore and, after staying with her for three weeks, was returning back to the States to finish my last semester of college. My routing was Bangalore-New Delhi – Paris – USA. And the night before I was to leave Bangalore, Air France re-booked me on an early morning flight to New Delhi, leaving me 12 hours to kill.
Here’s the email I sent to my father.
“Hello. This is your daughter. My name is Geeta. I will be in the Delhi domestic airport tomorrow, my flight is supposed to arrive at 10am. Air France. I am leaving in the evening for Paris.”
“I really hope your father is waiting for you,” the Australian man told me as we walked off the plane.
I had recovered enough by this point to smile and hug the kind man.
“Thanks,” I said. “Although I don’t think he checks email that often.”
Delhi’s domestic airport was grey and gritty. The grimy floors were murky, the speakers were scratchy, the air was cloudy with pollution. I walked out with my bag towards the taxi stand, lightly scanning the small baggage claim area for a man who could be my father. People were dotted along the railing, their eyes trained on arriving passengers. A woman with a child on her hip, young men in slacks who were likely professional drivers, and entire families were in that airport. A grey-haired man in grey pants whose face was hidden behind a huge bouquet of red roses was eagerly scanning the crowd of arriving passengers. This was pre-911 and passengers collected their bags steps from the area where loved ones waited. It wasn’t more than a stone’s throw between me and this man who had grey hair. Grey pants, grey jacket, grey hair.
Here’s my thought process:
- Could that be him?
- No – doesn’t my father have jet black hair?
- This guy is holding roses, it’s not your father.
- Where’s the taxi stand? I better get moving.
- My story with my father has come to an end years ago anyhow.
- What if the man all in grey is my father?
But the man in grey pants and a grey jacket with grey hair holding a bouquet of roses covering his face had moved his eyes past me. Ok so it wasn’t him. I walked towards the taxi stand. The man in grey didn’t turn around to watch where I was going.
- Even if it is him, if he doesn’t recognize me then there is no loss. Why mess with fate?
My feet hit the curb between the airport and street. I hailed for a taxi.
- What if it is him?
- No, I can’t. I can’t just walk out on him.
I turned around and memories hit me. Memories filled me. Memories of cotton candy, of the window I used to stare out of for years hoping he would return, of that porch I sat on while I watched the saddest and slowest sunsets of my life.
I tapped the man in grey on his shoulder.
It was awkward. I don’t know how many reunions are teary eyed but this wasn’t. He hadn’t recognized me and I hadn’t recognized him. You grow apart, you miss out on each others’ lives. It wasn’t just my life that he missed out on but I missed out on his. I had missed watching him laugh, watching his everyday behaviors. I remained perplexed how his hair was no longer black. (Had it always been grey?) In all that I missed, I had missed watching my father age. Somehow I had forgotten to acknowledge that he, too, had gotten older.
He whisked me into a big car with a driver .
- Is he rich?
- Does he drive his family around in this car?
We drove to the stow-away lockers on the other side of the airport. I watched through the window as my father ran in, returning with an oversized and ratty beige leather suitcase.
I sat in the car, not really knowing what to say. We went straight to his friends house. Everyone in that house that afternoon knew who I was but I didn’t know who they were. We sat down on the marble floor and my father insisted I open the suitcase.
We covered those marble floors with fresh water pearls from South India, lapis from Nepal and Afghanistan, earrings from Mombasa, and strings of rubies from Tanzania. I slid two pairs of delicate, small, and slim gold bangles meant for little girls around my grown-up fingers. My father had purchased those bangles for my sister and I when we were much smaller. I was drowning in gifts and unable to put this puzzle together. For how long had he been collecting these gifts and carrying them around? I later learned these were gifts my father had been collecting for 15 years in the hopes he would see me and my sister again.
I had wandered into my New Delhi orphanage fairytale – the Charles Dickens orphan surrounded with jewels and magic and finally meeting her benefactor.
12 hours with my father in Delhi passed slowly and quickly, like swimming through thick grey fog. I was swimming and unsure, confident but traumatized. We spoke about Monica Lewinski. This gave me hope and in my mind I drew conclusions.
- If he was following Monica Lewinski, he was following American current events.
- This meant he was thinking of America.
- If he was thinking of America, was he maybe thinking of me?
I never told my father the reason I was in India was because my mother had tried committing suicide. I told him I had been traveling through on vacation with friends and was going back to graduate from college.
My father told me that even though he’s an athiest, he had been praying to be reunited with his daughters. And that he had recently visited a temple whose legend is that whatever you pray for at this temple will come true. And he had cried and prayed at this temple to see his children again. He also told me that he rarely checks email yet something prompted him to check email the night I sent him an email. He could have easily missed my email but he didn’t. He was in Chandigarh – a city 5 hours north of Delhi-when he received my email. My father grabbed the suitcase of gifts, immediately boarded an overnight bus and arrived at the Delhi airport at 6am. He then waited for 5 hours to meet me. He was waiting as I was flying to Delhi, sitting next to the Australian man, in a fog.
This is why I refuse to believe that I reunited with my father only due to a canceled Air France flight and DOS-prompt email. There was an air of something larger that brought us together that day.
I used to spend hours wondering about my father.
I used to think:
- I guess I’m just that forgettable. He must have forgotten me.
I would also think about how he used to chug Diet Coke. I would wonder if he wonders what I’m eating every day and if I’m growing. If he even thought of us. For children, it’s relatively simple and uncomplicated. ‘Either you’re here or not. And if you’re not, then come back.’
There’s that feeling, that disconnect, a little bit like you’re walking down the street and you cross paths with somebody who looks vaguely familiar. You’ve come across them in the past but you just can’t place it. You just stand there tongue-tied, a little awkward, especially if they’re cute, and you’re just not really sure. You’re flirting with this memory, you’re on the edge, it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t quite find it. That was the feeling for me sitting on the plane with the Australian man, being overwhelmed by my father in grey handing me a bouquet of red roses, sitting with him amongst all the gifts he had collected for us.
All the pieces are there but just not aligning. It’s all a grey fog: my heart, soul, scientific spirit. You look down the length of your body and backwards to the timeline of your life and though you’re not sure, there is some clarity after a long time.