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Airport Reunions


Emily Villanueva

"WE have to go pick up your dad now, Em. Put your jacket on.”

Groggy, I opened my eyes and saw my mother standing over me. It was late; her movements were quick and truncated. I realized it was that time again to drive to Lindbergh Field. My father was returning after a long-term deployment in Okinawa.

Strapped in my car seat, I counted the streetlights as they zoomed by. Silent and vigilant, I was my mother’s accomplice— she despised driving in the dark. It made her nervous. She only really did it when we had to pick up my father at the airport, making those rare, nighttime excursions always thrilling. Every time we arrived at the airport, we would rush through the terminals looking for a dapper man in a naval uniform. Upon reuniting, he would lift my mom in his arms like in that iconic scene from An Officer and A Gentleman. Then, like a ladle, he’d scoop me up and say, “Did ya miss me, cutie pie?” I always fell into a deep sleep during the drive home, finally safe now that he was back.

The oldest memory I have of my father is more of a feeling than an actual memory. It’s that feeling of being comforted by reality after a bad dream, or being consoled by hopeful fantasy when life becomes nightmarish. It’s solid, unwavering words like refuge and roots. One time when I was five, my family went to Chuck E. Cheese; we went often. While my brother bounced toward the ball pit, I waited in line for the Whack-a-Mole, my favorite game, even though my childish arms could barely lift the cylindrical foam hammer. I wasn’t standing there for very long when a boy cut in front of me. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned and shoved me to the ground, sneering like a classic bully as I stared at him, stunned. I probably would’ve stayed on the ground if my dad hadn’t swooped in like an avenging angel and yelled at the kid as appropriately as a grown man can at a young boy. The boy ran away crying, and my father stormed out, his confused clan trailing behind him. I left feeling unsettled— partially embarrassed, mostly proud, and completely in awe of my own personal protector.

My father died from lung cancer right after my first tooth fell out. I would say that we lost him, but the older I get the more I think he lost us. He will never see how I, his eldest, share the same teardrop-shaped eyes and pigeon-toed gait that made him look boyishly cute and me just…boyish. How his son, who lives and breathes music, couldn’t have a more drastically different personality than his father’s. How his youngest, who entered the world only three months before he left it, looks nothing like either parent, an alien child planted in the womb of a soon-to-be-widow.


People live on in the dusty artifacts they leave behind. My mother kept the few possessions we inherited from my father in a big, black leather trunk edged in gold tacks. It looks like a recovered treasure chest, and that’s how I saw it for the longest time— what kind of forbidden loot did it contain? Did it hold my father’s secrets?  Who was he, really? I was convinced that the trunk held the answers. Sometimes in the summertime when my mother was away at work, I would tiptoe up our carpeted stairs, past the creaky floor spot in front of her television, and into her closet where the trunk was nestled under a stack of quilts. Armed with an array of devices— bent paper clips, kiddie screwdrivers, the keys to old diaries— I tried to jimmy the lock to no avail. If I could just get it open, I thought, I know I’d find something profound. Videotapes or audio recordings or a handwritten letter specifically addressed to me. When I finally saw its contents, I was a bit underwhelmed: a class ring, an officer’s uniform, a folded American flag. Some paperwork, a few pictures. Pieces to a puzzle that I have yet to solve.

He wasn’t even a smoker. The doctors said that my father probably contracted lung cancer from inhaling the asbestos in the bottom of the guided missile cruisers where he spent most of his time. He attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis and was pretty popular. There, he boxed competitively, played tennis, and made lots of friends. One of six siblings, he was gregarious and passionate. She likes to tell the story of how he saved her from a family wedding: him, on his motorcycle, and her, surrounded by cousins who never would’ve seen her with a guy like that. He rode up and asked her to come with him. She got on his bike and off they sped.

His vivacity was coupled with a mercurial temperament.

“He had one of the worst tempers,” she recalls, sounding exhausted.

“He had a problem with authority… very rebellious, which you’re not supposed to be in the military. You’re supposed to be cooperative. He was so stubborn. And he got into trouble for that.”


Cancer tends to bring out the worst in people— the constant nausea and fatigue often magnify preexisting faults. For my father, it was his wrath. Once, I came home from school to a tennis ball-sized hole in the wall of the hallway. Intrigued but frightened, I ignored it. Years later I found out that he had punched that hole in the wall in a fit of outrage at God or whatever existential force had given him cancer at 33 years old.

“It’s not fair,” he would say, in either a whisper or a roar.
“I won’t even get to see them grow up. It’s not fair.”

A few months before that, I had shuffled into the family room where my parents sat on the couch, waiting to give us the “news.” Ironically, that news wasn’t of my father’s sickness. They never really officially sat us down to tell us that. We just came to understand it as it happened. We rarely asked questions, afraid of what the answers might be.

I looked at my brother as we both stood in front of them. We were less than a year apart and shared a twin-like ability to communicate without words. Reading his eyes, he didn’t know either. My mother clutched her stomach.

“I’m pregnant,” she said, gently, smiling.
“You’re having a baby?” I asked.
“Yes, there’s going to be another person in the family very soon! Baby makes five!” exclaimed my father. They looked at each other. I wondered what they were saying with their eyes.

Tufts of his hair fell out while my mane grew longer and longer. His skin became sallow and his formerly athletic body collapsed inwards, gaunt and weak. It was difficult to reconcile his transformation, especially when family members scolded me for being too rough, afraid that I would bruise him when I pounced on his back for a piggyback ride. All of my friends’ concerns seemed obnoxiously superficial. Who cared if tonight’s homework assignment was difficult— you never studied anyways, and at least you had a dad who could help you with it. I seethed inside. Just like my father, I could feel myself becoming unrecognizable.

As his chemotherapy treatments became more frequent, the antiseptic halls of Scripps Hospital became my strange second home. I figured out how to fall asleep on uncomfortable lobby chairs and which cafeteria food was the easiest to stomach. I observed other families in the waiting room pass strained smiles, silent exchanges of encouragement and sympathy. I realized that the men with the white coats and stethoscopes had a very hard job, and that most of them had no idea how to interact with kids. I became accustomed to their pitying glances, and constructed two emotional veils that seemed to put them at ease—naïve ignorance and quiet strength. I spent as much time in the hospital as I did in the classroom, but in the hospital I was learning so much more.

Also, I was afraid that the baby would come out sick too. I knew that cancer wasn’t contagious, but my pregnant mother had spent so much time exposed to it that I still had my doubts. When she was finally born, I was relieved to see that the only thing my father and my new baby sister had in common was their shiny, bald heads.  


Coronado was overcast the day my father called for a family get-together. His entire side of the family—his parents and all five of his brothers and sisters with their families—came to Tidelands Park. They spilled out of their cars and gathered near the shore. All he wanted was for them to take some final pictures of our family for posterity.

But the attention of this farewell photoshoot quickly drifted away from him. Already winded, he sat on a bench with me on his lap. As he called out to his brothers and sisters, they ignored him. They were preoccupied with their own families. Nobody paid attention to my father; maybe they just needed a break from it all. Maybe they already considered him gone.

His quick, shallow breaths pierced the back of my neck like a bull about to charge.  He carried me to the car and we both got in, slamming the side door shut.  He began to sob. I wanted so badly to stop him from hurting, to defend him the way he had defended me at Chuck E. Cheese’s, but I didn’t know how. They’d missed the entire point of why he had planned that reunion: to say goodbye. 

I never actually got to say goodbye. When he died, I was sleeping soundly in my bed. After the cancer spread to his liver, the doctors advised us to take him home, so we moved back into his childhood home with his parents. Everyone darted in and out of his room, except for my mom, who never left his side. And then, on July 24, 1997, I woke up to an unnerving silence. Descending the stairs, I saw my grandparents sitting at the dinner table and plopped down next to them.
“Where’s dad?” I asked.

I don’t know why I asked; it was a dumb question since he would’ve been in the same place he was every day.

My grandmother, head drooped like a dry sunflower, looked up. Her eyes had a glimmer of something I’d never seen before: despair. She gazed right through me.
“He’s gone.”

And then I blacked out. Not literally, but everything that happened between those two words and his funeral has completely left me. The realization of his death must have been stunning, like a blow to the heart and head. At six years old, I was just starting to understand the concept of permanence, but still couldn’t imagine never seeing him laugh or speak ever again. A body without a soul. The finality of it all was overwhelming.

His mother grieved loudly at the burial. On her knees, she wailed and clawed clumps of grass out of the ground.  My aunt went up to her and hugged her from behind.

“Mom, you still have us. There’s still five of us left.” This made her bawl even harder. My aunt pulled away. When there was no more grass to unearth, my grandmother pulled at her hair. My mother, a quiet griever, kept her distance and held us tight. When she could no longer bear it, we left.


The door swung open and we examined the room. It was grimy and had that distinctly musty smell that I had grown accustomed to after a month of hopping around hotels. My mother went to go get some food and brought back a couple of Styrofoam containers filled with lukewarm minestrone soup. Settling on top of the bed, she switched on the TV just in time to watch one of her favorite shows, My So-Called Life. The characters, happy and dancing, flickered on the screen.  

Our little clan had no mailing address. Long ago, we had moved out of the one-story house in Mira Mesa where we had lived as a family of four, and we had stopped staying at my grandparents’ house too. We were staying in motels temporarily, shedding attachments, both material and emotional, as we shuffled around. 

It was exciting at the time. We were adventurers, vagabonds, nomads, relishing in the uncertainty of it all. My favorite place was a Hawaiian-themed hotel in Mission Valley because I loved how you could see the tiny oasis in the main lobby from the glass elevator.  
“Look at the waterfall, mom! Look! Are we in Hawaii?”

I was always the one to pepper her with annoying questions at the most inconvenient times, testing her patience, making her weary. Occasionally she’d snap at me, surprising me since my mother had always been gentle, timid, and intensely reserved, the complete opposite of my father. But things had changed, and she took on a quiet strength and resiliency that I came to realize was there all along.

After a couple of weeks, we moved into an apartment complex in Chula Vista. Teal carpet, white furniture, and oddly angled walls made it look the inside of a dollhouse. It also had a serious infestation problem, and I couldn’t walk around without stepping on some new bug trap. Plus, the raucous people below us had crazy parties almost every night; I used to fall asleep to the thump of the bass booming from their speakers. The superintendent did nothing, even though the building’s hallways were littered with broken glass and cigarette butts. A fight even broke out once, a fight so big the cops had to come. That night we all slept in my mother’s bed. For almost a year we rented that apartment, and then decided to shop for a real home.

We gathered around the mahogany table in the family room of our new house. Dinner was Chinese takeout on paper plates with plastic utensils; nobody wanted to unpack yet. It had been a little over a year since my father died, and everything had shifted: where he used to sit sat my mother, and where my mother used to sit, sat my mother’s mother, who had also experienced loss: a fatal car crash killed her mother and four of her seven siblings when she was an infant. She left her own life to live with us for five years and became the closest thing to a paternal figure that I’ve ever known.

The year my father died will forever be a “before-and-after” marker in my life, a life that suddenly became short and fragile. If a person, a hot-tempered but fundamentally good and kind-hearted person, could just fade away like that, could that happen to me? Or worse, my mom? Having only one parent is like having only one kidney left—you can still survive, but you’re much more vulnerable. Losing someone is not a static event; its effects come into focus every year, during every monumental moment when you realize that something is missing. Losing him made me lose part of the person that I would’ve or could’ve become.

But as I crawled under the table in our empty house and sat there, the same place where my brother and I would hide whenever we felt scared or sad, I felt neither scared nor sad. It was a nice place to call home.

There’s a short story by neuroscientist David Eagleman where the afterlife is split into two stages: the first, a gigantic, airport terminal-like waiting room, and the second, heaven. A person can’t pass from the first stage to the second stage until his or her name is said for the last time. That final utterance is a sign of their expiring earthly relevance. It’s also their ticket into heaven. This does not bode well for famous figures, immortalized in museums and films and doomed to an eternity in the waiting room. The average, insignificant human being is luckier: it’s guaranteed that they will be forgotten, eventually. It is a bittersweet event though, since their glorious graduation to heaven usually coincides with the passing of their last loved one.

Sometimes that’s how life feels; I’m still a little kid, driving toward the airport, counting the streetlights as they zoom by, waiting to meet up with him.

In the end, we just miss each other.k letter