My dreams are never that mysterious. There’s one where I forget to get dressed before work, one where I look up from the backseat in a speeding car and no one’s at the wheel. But last night I was drafting a haiku—dream-counting syllables on my fingers as I walked under a gray-blue sky toward my son. Preston looked back, disappeared in a doorway. I was about to call out—Wait!—but blinked awake. I scribbled on a Post-It, breathless, in the dark: My son welcomes me / into the house of the dead— / first we sip bone broth.
Sometimes I worry I’ll outlive him, our daredevil who climbs and leaps like a lemur, who’s already broken his arm falling from the monkey bars. There are parents who lose a child and keep going—but how? I’d caught myself wondering, inviting bad luck, my mind wandering as we scarfed down soup dumplings at Shanghai Inn. We made a dinner of steaming xiao long bao full of pork and broth balanced in flat-bottomed spoons, nibbled carefully as they cool, then finished off with a slurp. Watching Preston—as he worked on another dumpling, as he and Lillian sang a song in Chinese about hens and chicks—my heart hurt. I was doing the math, crazy but true: six years old, already a third of the way (How can this be?) to leaving for college.
Bone broth wasn’t on the menu. That was soup Po made. I can still hear her saying what you do is buy pork bones at Hong Kong Supermarket, you rinse them and salt them and boil them for hours. Then slice in big hunks of radish. Preston can’t get enough soup, just like Lillian. As a toddler he’d wolf it down with his plastic spoon, chin glistening, in Po’s kitchen. Laughter punctuated her sentences, chatting with her grandson in Mandarin: her language, comfortable as the blue and gray sweater she’d put on in early November, then wear around the house until spring—unlike the English I had to use to tell Preston that Po went to heaven. We can’t visit her.
Preston answers matter-of-factly as the young waitress peppers him with questions. She pats his shoulder, delighted by his Mandarin. Now she waves another waitress over—You have to hear this—and asks more questions. The hostess peeks around the corner; a cook hovers near so he can hear. I feel proud, then embarrassed, when the owner pulls up a chair. He asks a question of his own, then starts to sing—I know this song without actually knowing it—about hens and chicks. A song he taught his daughter because his grandmother taught him. Preston joins in to sing it again and I’m unnoticed, unneeded, left with the gift a father wants and doesn’t. I’d close my eyes to hear them better beneath the restaurant din, but more than anything I need to see him: my son laughing, sweating, singing; mouth full, eyes bright.
In our dream band, on contrabass sarrusophone:
Matthew Thorburn’s latest book is The Grace of Distance, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. His book Dear Almost won the Lascaux Prize. He has new poems in Copper Nickel, Hotel Amerika, The Southern Review, and The Best American Poetry 2020. He lives in New Jersey.