One Wish: A Novel? A Baby? A Father’s Life?
Vanessa Hua on Magical Thinking and the Power of a Wishbone
After drying out on the kitchen counter, the wishbone no longer looked like it had originated inside a rotisserie chicken. Dun and brittle, it resembled a desiccated twig, ready to combust.
My husband and I each grabbed onto an end. We both knew that I was cheating. My fingers were high up on the prong, so that I could break off the longer half and get my wish. In that split second before it cracked apart, before I raised my end high in the air, time stopped. Which wish?
A book? I’d left my dream job at my hometown newspaper to go after the only thing I wanted more: to write a book. Though my professors in graduate school had praised my book and several agents wanted to represent me, it couldn’t find a home.
A baby? My husband and I didn’t start trying to conceive until my last year in school. Naïve, I was convinced it would only take a month or two. Our excitement gave way to unease to panic and to disappointment. After a year, I plunged into the slog of fertility treatments, poked and prodded in acupuncture sessions and in pelvic exams, choked down bitter Chinese herbal brews, and injected myself with drugs that left me bloated and moody.
To restore my father’s health? In the early 1960s, my parents had come to America on science and engineering fellowships. Like many immigrants, they believed with hard work, persistence, and determination, you could achieve your every goal. After my parents married, the snow heaped outside their apartment inspired my father to teach himself how to cross-country ski. Once, after a heavy storm, he glided off the front stoop and down the street. Ever adventurous, he learned how to sail on the windy expanse of Lake Michigan.
Parkinson’s hobbled his steps and sank him into a gloom. For years he denied having the disease to himself and to his family. He chewed gum to hide his tremors and put his hand in his jacket pocket to conceal the lack of arm-swing. He didn’t want anyone to know about his condition and didn’t want their pity. Not friends, not family. Not strangers. “I can’t let them know,” he said. “If they knew, maybe they might try to harm me.”
I’d researched everything I could about possible treatments and diets to restore his vigor and improve his mobility, but more and more after his retirement, he was becoming housebound.
I gripped the wishbone, my throat gone dry. I held my husband’s gaze. A silly game, and yet he understood the seriousness of my intent.
Wishbones help strengthen the bird’s skeleton, allowing it to take flight. The tradition of snapping the wishbone—started by the Etruscans, adopted by the Romans and later on, the English—carried on to the present day. A superstition with no bearing on reality. And yet each time I was presented with the choice of a wish, I agonized and bargained. If I got pregnant or if my book was published, wouldn’t my father be ecstatic?
He always encouraged me even if on many occasions I alarmed him, not with youthful rebellion but with my ambitions—when I reported from dodgy neighborhoods or when I traveled alone through Panama to file news features. When ZYZZYVA printed an excerpt of my novel-in-progress, he bought a two-year subscription because he thought the magazine was going to publish the rest serially.
His love had given me the confidence to go after every dream—and for that reason, shouldn’t I wish for his health, first and always? But—the book. But—the baby. While I was trying to get pregnant and my novel was getting shopped around, I had to drive more than an hour each way to the fertility clinic in a posh coastal town. Stuck behind idling semi trucks spewing smelly exhaust, I’d surreptitiously check my email to discover another round of rejections by editors. Every few days, I broke out in hives from the stress, my eyes swelling shut, my cheeks and lips lumpy as if collagen fillers had gone awry. My body itching as if I’d tumbled into a patch of poison oak. Even when I wasn’t thinking about my future, my worries smoldered like a tire fire.
Making a wish should have been a respite, a chance to ask the universe for the frivolous. Instead, I was adding to my torment by forcing myself to choose what came first in my heart and in my identity. If the fates granted one of these wishes, it felt I wouldn’t get the others. I had to pick one. Filial daughter? Loving wife and mother? Debut author?
In writing fiction, we often ask, “What’s at stake?” Put another way, what does the character want? Scene by scene, what is the axis around which your world spins, the filter that colors your vision? Your desire defines you, so much that it feels like a life-and-death matter. As in, if I don’t publish a book, I’ll die. If I don’t have a baby, I’ll die. If my father dies, I can’t live without him.
Every time I retrieved a penny from the ground, blew away a stray eyelash, tossed a coin into a fountain, or extinguished my birthday candles, I treated it as a chance to send out my dearest hopes—an agnostic’s prayer—out into the world.
That day in the kitchen, I turned my wishes into a single word: bookbabydad. For a moment I might have everything I wanted. I was cheating, but I also knew it didn’t matter. Wishing wouldn’t determine what came true. Diligence might bring me closer to my first book, while advances in medicine might help us conceive and also heal my father. Beyond all that we had to give ourselves up to luck—luck that I could not control.
In time, I gave birth to twin boys: my firstborn, quick to laugh and quick to cry, attune to the people around him, and his brother, who arrived 26 minutes later, who blazed with curiosity and determination, methodical as an engineer, seeing every task to its end. My father adored the twins from the start—first tentatively, then fiercely—jiggling them in his lap and offering them his finger.
In time, my debut collection of short stories won the Willow Books Literature Award and will be published this September. In time, Ballantine acquired my two novels.
But not in time for my father, who fell and hit his head on the tile floor at home. Because brains of the elderly are less plump than in the young, and the blood vessels more fragile, they’re vulnerable to injury. The trauma was not a single rupture, like an aneurysm, that could be stanched with surgery or medication, but in many places, the pressure of pooling blood begetting more pressure. He passed away three days later, long before he could read my book’s dedication to him and my mother.
Half a year after his death, my husband, our twins, and I moved in with my mother. Designed by my father and set into the oak-studded hillside, my childhood home is full of light. I find reminders of him everywhere: the blooming cherry trees he planted along the driveway, his rugged sailing jacket hanging in the front closet, and his eyeglasses in the glove compartment of the car we inherited.
All the wishes I make now won’t bring him back. And yet, each day, I still do.