Interlude Chapter: Confessions on my Father
On December 22, 2010 at 3:30PM, I was certain that I had lost my Father forever. The date was scorched into my memory just as the date May 5, 1995 when I received my second kidney transplant.
With my hands trembling, I immediately hung up the phone after speaking with my Stepmom, and then picked it up again with rising and soured panic filling my mouth and then pouring out in my voice when I said to my supervisor: “I have to leave. My Father is in the hospital.”
I went to apologize to my co-worker that I had to leave, but he would not even let me speak. He just said calmly: “Just go.”
“What’s wrong?” one of the nurses asked me as I hurried to pick up my bag and run out.
My eyes immediately filled with tears. “My Dad’s in the hospital.”
Without waiting for her response, I ripped out from my workplace like a tornado to get to my Stepmother to pick her up so both of us could see my Father. Speeding to my Stepmom, the scenery around me was blurred and discombobulated. A million jagged jigsaw puzzle pieces of thoughts did a wild whirlwind in my head. Was my Father okay? What had happened? The only tiny piece of information I had was that my Father had not felt well for the last couple of weeks and that my Stepmom had finally forced him to go see a doctor. How could he be in the hospital? As much as the worry, anxiety, and adrenaline coursed through me, my mind could not help but selfishly repeat over and over in my head like a bad song that my Father could absolutely not be taken away from me because he was the only constant and solid-rock person that was there for me since my multitude of health challenges started at 7-months-old, including peritoneal dialysis, multiple procedures, blood transfusions, two life-saving kidney transplants from deceased donors, and the constant side effects from immunosuppressant medications. It was already sad and disheartening that I was given a Mother that had no motherly morsel of instinct or care in her for me, but life would just be too cruel and wrong to take away my Father. Losing my Father was not even a possibility in my life. He could not be taken away from me. He just could not.
I was the only one who had ever been physically sick in my family. My Father had always been the one that was healthy, the voice of reason and wisdom, and the light when I was consumed by the darkness when my worst enemy self reared its ugly head. He had always been like an invincible Superman with all the superpowers in the world who had molded and shaped me to the person I was and could be in the best way ever, but, more than that, my Dad was the cheerleader and wise sage in everyone’s life with his calm disposition and hearty laughter all mixed into one. My Dad was the man that everyone loved. Then, it suddenly dawned on me when my tires screeched to a stop as soon as I zipped into a parking spot that my Father was more than a Father. He was a man. I had never even considered or thought of him as just a man, and now as a hospitalized man that needed me. Now, I had to be strong and be there for him.
When I killed the engine to the car, my hands were white from clenching the steering wheel too tightly. I said aloud to only me with my eyes wet and raw: “Don’t take him away from me. Whatever you do, let it be me and not him.”
I pushed open the car door, and practically tumbled out as I raced to find my Stepmom and then go to the hospital. I bombarded my Stepmom with one grenade question after another.
“What happened? He was just going for a routine doctor appointment!”
In her soft-spoken accented voice, she said: “I don’t know. A doctor just called me saying that he was being brought in for an emergency procedure that has to do with his heart.”
“His heart? What’s wrong with his heart?”
My Stepmom shrugged her shoulders and said hoarsely and with her face as pale as a ghost: “I don’t know, Mary. I don’t know what is going on.”
My Stepmom was always a quiet, shy, tentative, and unassuming woman, but she was bordering on numb and catatonic when she climbed into my car and I drove us to the hospital. We tumbled out of the car together and rushed to the hospital entrance. The automatic doors opened for us, and the familiar scents of sterilization and lemon and lime floors attacked my nostrils. Flashes of my childhood came back to me, and I only had one wish right then and there that it was my Dad visiting me rather than me visiting him. Meanwhile, my Stepmom had transformed into nearly mute when I nearly bombarded the front desk reception area to find out where my Father was. The U.S.A. was not her Mother country, and I knew she felt awkward and scared in hospitals and with anything that had to do with healthcare, so I took charge by asking where my Father was and what was going on. We were directed to the Intensive Care Unit.
“ICU?” I asked incredulously. “He’s in ICU? Why is he in ICU?”
The receptionist said: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know.”
I always considered myself calm in hospitals and in the healthcare setting, but the role reversal of me somehow forced into outsider caregiver mode was unexpectedly turning me into a wrecked and anxiety-driven beast. The elevator could not come fast enough. We were shuffled around from one ICU station to another and finally directed to the waiting area where we still did not have a clue what had happened with my Father. We were just informed vaguely that my Father was undergoing a procedure for the heart and one of the surgeons would be out to speak with us.
My Stepmom and I nearly collapsed into the cushioned chairs. We were both silent and wringing out jackets like washcloths out of nerves about what the surgeon was going to tell us. As close and comfortable as I felt with my Stepmom and indefinitely over my biological mother, my Stepmom and I never talked that much with one another alone. My Father had always been the cheerful sticky glue that kept my Stepmom bonded with my sister and me. In that waiting area with the room overly stuffy bordering on suffocating, my Stepmom was silently stoic and I was a basketcase of angst.
I asked my Stepmom after fifteen minutes or so went by: “How are you doing? Are you okay?”
She only nodded slowly.
I babbled on, “I don’t understand what could have happened! Dad has always seemed so healthy!”
My Stepmom finally said quietly, “That is what you think and that is what your Dad wants you think. Parents do not tell everything to their children, and, yet, parents are just human beings, too.”
My eyes narrowed into sharp slits. “What do you mean? Was something going on with my Dad’s health that he wasn’t saying because he didn’t want to worry my sister or me?” I asked worriedly.
“No. I’m just saying that your Dad knows you more than you know him.”
I did not know what to say. Her words stung me. What could I possibly say? I pondered about what my Stepmom said, and if what she said was really true. Surely, she had to be wrong. I knew my Father.
I knew my Father was the kindest, gentlest, and most reliable and generous person in the world. Sitting in the waiting room, I remembered his inspirational Powerpoint presentations, emails, and cards that he forwarded and sent to me when I was consumed with the health hurdles that had come up in my life. My eyes began to fill with tears all over again when I recalled what he always said to me in his messages: “I would take on all your health problems, because life was not fair with letting all these health problems happen to you when you were and still are so young.”
In that waiting room, I closed my eyes and breathed in memories of my Father and his life stories that he told me while I was growing up to prove to myself that I really did know my Father and that he was going to be here with me now and many more years to come. My Father was born in Shanghai, China as the eldest male out of two younger brothers, an older sister, and two younger sisters. As the eldest male, my Father was identified with the role of sacrificing and giving to his younger siblings without question and thought. Everyone had always said that my Father was not a typical “Shanghai-Ren.” “Ren” meant person in Chinese. Instead, the stereotypical “Shanghai-Ren” was extremely physically appearance aware and calculating. Instead, my Father is naïve, unselfish, emotional, idealistic, and philosophical. As a result of this, my Father claimed that he has always felt like and been an “oddball”—and he was okay with this.
The one time my Father merely thought of himself was when he came to North America to make something. His ideals fit in with the “The American Dream” that as long as a person worked hard then he would and could make something or anything of himself. To this day, my Father does a “cluck-cluck” against Communist or Mainland China, but he beams proudly and with a dreamy gaze in his eyes when he claims that the U.S.A. had been good to him and to my sister and me. My Father still believes that U.S. is the most giving country and, because of that, they receive the most blame and little of the praise.
My Father shared with me of the rough days in Hong Kong when he was bullied and teased for being the “fat kid,” and then he told me the happy time stories of shooting marbles with his younger siblings, the warm and comforting taste of hot chestnuts on a rare occasion, and flying kites so high that they seemed to disappear into the sky. My Father shared his 20’s with me when he was admitted into McGill University as an undergraduate student. To make ends meet, he worked part-time washing dishes until his hands were wrinkled and gnarled and then was eventually promoted to part-time chef. I was almost certain that before the steamy and exotic world of REAL Chinese food rather than greasy Chinese-American food filled with MSG that he worked in a lumberjack company where he hurt his shoulder and lived on white Wonder Bread and peanut butter in a holed up rat hole of a room. He told me of times that he fell asleep at the cutting board when he was too exhausted to keep his eyes open with the juggling of studies and dividing out money wisely to his education and sending money back home to the siblings and parents that he had left behind.
My Father said that he was the oddball because while his roommates and friends had girlfriends, loneliness was his friend. This caused him to delve into his studies and academics even more. He told me that loneliness and the 20’s are the most “growing pains” of one’s life and that loneliness drove a person to a muddled and foggy kind of thinking —and that was what happened when my Father met my Mother. He was not thinking clearly and loneliness and emotions took over with one glance of my Mother’s long mane of dark hair, wide eyes infringed with long lashes, and pursed lips. According to my Father, love made us a bit blind and whole lot of stupid, but true love was reality, patience, work, generosity, and stay with a person more through the bad times than the good times that my Father gained and learned more so from his second marriage to my Stepmother.
At the age of 30, my Father became a full-time Professor of Molecular Biochemistry. Even as a child, one of my aunts said that he had a thing for worms and how they slithered. He thrived at work, but our home life was falling apart. My Father thought that money could solve problems. He bought my Mother a car and beautiful dresses to placate her. He then fled into his world of work to afford these for her but also to turn a blind eye to my Mother, her ways, and how she affected and brought our seemingly happy surface family down like a house of cards. My Mother’s madness and my Father’s absence and blindness were the demises of our seemingly surfaced family. All the riches in the world could not make my Mother happy and could not mend a broken marriage and household. I was sure that my Father knew this deep down inside, but sometimes it was easier to ignore than to see the reality of it all. In the midst of my Mother’s lunacy and struggle with her maternal instincts as well as the language barriers to deal with my chronic kidney failure and string of health problems, my Father struggled with balancing his work and tending to my sister who had her own logistical needs of being picked up from certain activities as well as dropped off as well as nurturing needs that fell to wayside as my health deteriorated until receiving my first kidney transplant. Our family only had to get very bad and disastrous before it even touched the iceberg of better. Oh, sure, I vaguely remembered the good times after I received my first kidney transplant. One of the happiest memories I had of my Dad, Mom, sister, and I was captured on camcorder when we all went to Disney World. The images of us roaming around together to saunter from “It’s a Small World!” to enveloping Mickey Mouse and Goofy were captured on film, but one vacation would not replace the frequent encounters of my Dad and Mom arguing behind closed doors when vacation ended and reality of everyday life began again.
My Father was the oddball again when he finally agreed to divorce my Mom. It was unheard of that Chinese married couples divorce and my Father confessed years later when I was a grown adult that he was not going to divorce my Mother until I was at least 18-years-old. He believed that he had to sacrifice his happiness and stay married to my Mother for the good of my sister and me. It was actually marriage counseling and a pastor that convinced my Father differently and made him realize that their marriage was a detriment to my sister and me. After the divorce, my Father was forced into the role of two parents in one to put food on our table, separate us when we argued over silly things or went into an all-out physical brawl, keep the house clean, and comfort my sister and me when we were upset and confused over the fact that everyone else seemed to have a mother and we did not. Yet, in spite of all the turmoil that occurred when my Mother left us and the enforcement of my Father to work harder than ever to financially and emotionally support my sister and me, I only had the most special, extraordinary, and beautiful memories of my Father. Those times with just my Dad in the house and my Mom gone were the happiest times of my life. There was my Father with his warm twinkle when he tucked me into bed. There was the time he brought me to the vast and open area to show me how to fly a kite. Watching the kite soar into the sky, I had never felt so free with my Father right there beside me. There were all those times when he held on to my hand and squeezed it so tight when I had to get another blood test, procedure, or go to another doctor’s appointment. I never wanted to let go of his hand. I never would let go.
It should have been more than enough to have one sane and loving parent, but in most cases than not, it was the mother who raised the children and not the father. I was jealous of my friends who had mothers greet them with a hug and healthy snacks upon returning home or to help them with homework. I was sad and confused from my fellow peers who chattered about their mothers and who had their mothers pick them up from school and attend Parent-Teacher Meetings. I was initially furious and livid with my Mother for leaving, which resulted in angry temper tantrums and bouts of me running away from home with my bright red suitcase. I still have no idea how my Father coped with my reckless and bold behavior as a child that did not let a couple health bumps in the road stop me from anything. It was strange to me that it was my Father around rather than the typical warm and loving mother. As a child, it never really seeped in to how different my family life was compared to everyone else. It was when I was a pre-teen with the raging hormones that my family life became magnified and I felt out of sorts and as though I was the biggest freak with my first kidney transplant failing and the need for a second kidney transplant along with my abnormal family situation. I did not have a mother to discuss my growing chest, monthly womanly visitations, and continuous daydreams about certain boys. However, I did have the most open-minded and kind-hearted Father in the world whose massive skills (in addition to his gourmet and home-cooked meals due to his part-time chef skills) were listening and giving me the biggest hugs in the world. I did not hesitate to tell him when my period first started. His response was strangely laidback and relaxed when he said: “Okay, I’ll go to the store to buy those sanitary napkins for you.” His response was unlike any Father, man, and especially Chinese man (most Chinese men were very reserved) that I ever imagined. I still do not know how he managed to choose the “right” one considering all the variety there was in tampons and maxi pads. I was not shy to divulge to my Dad about a guy that I was interested in, and my Dad listened with a secret smile and a sparkle in his eye. When it came to bra shopping, he had his older sister help me out. My Father was and still is the first person I turned to about my health, job woes and complaints, relationship questions, and fun financial adventures that pave the way in the 20’s to even 30’s. Whenever I had explosions and temper tantrums over my health, job, or complete randomness of events, I hid away into my room to bury myself from the world. Behind me would be my Father who chugged upstairs to knock on my door twice. He either perched himself sitting on the step leading to my room or was sprawled on my bed listening to me ramble and cry about anything and everything. If my Father was ever anxious, bitter, or uncomfortable over the bitter divorce or for being the lone male ranger in a household raising two daughters with multiple health and hormonal issues, he never showed it. My Father was the definition of strength and character. And, on the contrary, my Father seemed to more so enjoy it and value watching my sister and I grow up under his philosophical lectures, delicious and homemade cooking, and dreamer self.
My Father as an oddball taught me some of life’s greatest lessons. I learned from the pleasantly different upbringing from my Father that there was nothing wrong with being different and that everything happened for a reason. When I cried to my Father about causing the divorce and family problems from my unexpected and continuous health problems, he pointed out to me: “Your Mom and I had problems even before your sister and you were born, but if I had never met your Mom then you and your sister would not be here.” He went further on with a genuinely happy expression on his already round and friendly Buddha face: “More than that, if your Mom and I had never divorced then I would not be with your Stepmom.” It made me see that life worked in mysterious ways and random and often painful events managed to fall in place in the best and most beautiful of ways. Through my Father, I welcomed differences and not always taking the route that is expected of you, but taking the path that you desire and are curious to watch unfold before your eyes.
I opened my eyes and breathed out. I was in that horrific waiting room again with my Dad’s life in strangers’ hands. Next to me was my Stepmom in her closed, protective, and defensive mechanism shell. I wanted to say to her that I knew my Father. I knew him longer than she had. I knew him better than she did. What right did she have to say what she said to me that I did not know my Father? I opened my mouth to explain how well I did know my Father, but seeing my Stepmother’s small features pinched and tightened forced me to close my loud, big, and vocal mouth. I just continued wringing my jacket nervously in my hands. Now was not the time to prove or try to explain anything and think of myself. Now was the time I had to be here for my Stepmom. Now was not the time to talk, but just listen, observe, and be there in every way possible. These calm and selfless behaviors were what my Dad would have wanted. I cringed at the realization that I was already thinking of my Father in the past tense. For the rest of the hour until the surgeon beckoned my Stepmom and me, I did something that I never do—I kept quiet and wrapped up in my own fond memories of my Father.
The surgeon that called my Stepmom and me was a soft-spoken Indian gentleman with a heavy accent and deft hands that moved in fluid and Tai Chi motions when he explained in the corner of the brightly-lit corridor that he had to do an emergency stent procedure on my Father who had almost a 100% blockage of one of his major arteries and was on the verge of having a massive heart attack if my Stepmom had not forced him to and if he had not finally visited the doctor. This surgeon made a refrigerator-worthy sketch of the heart, its vital parts, and their functions for my Stepmom and me to ogle at while also digesting the news that the Grim Reaper had knocked on my Father’s door, but had managed to escape taking my Father away from us.
My Stepmom and I flooded the surgeon with questions of: “How did this happen?” and finally “Can we see him?”
“There is no specific reason as to why he had one of his major arteries blocked. But, going forward, it is all about him having less stress in his life, eating right, exercising, and a lifestyle change of taking on medications and meeting regularly with doctors. As for his recovery, he did great in the surgery and is recovering smoothly. He will be sent up to a room soon, and you can see him. Everything is fine. It is just a good thing that he finally saw the doctor and the doctor caught that the EKG was irregular and sent him to the emergency room immediately.”
My Stepmom and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and the tension between us was lifted. The pressured and pulverizing weight of worry and fear were replaced with disbelieved and gratuitous joy that my Father was not gone. He was still here. Here to spend the 2010 holidays with us. Here to ring in the 2011 New Year. Here for…I did not know how long. Dread reappeared and pulsed in me again. It was inevitable that there would come a time that my Father and the people I loved and cared about the most were no longer going to be here with me. It was even more inevitable that I had to make the most and treasure my entire family and all my friends right here and right now while they were physically here with me. Naturally, it took my Father’s near death experience to shed his greatest Fatherly lesson to date that death was quick to take, but left its everlasting imprint that before death intervened that we absolutely had to make the most of the short and borrowed time that each of us did have on this earth and with our loved ones. I finally understood death and life not through my own life and health experiences, but through the near death of my Father that I loved so much and could not imagine my life without.
About another hour later passed when my Stepmom and I were finally able to see my Father. I braced myself and tried to steady my usual emotional roller coaster self just before I entered his hospital room. We opened the curtain to reveal my Dad, who gave us a big and beaming grin.
“Hey! I got some more years added to my life all because of that doctor I saw today!” My Dad exclaimed.
I was speechless. There was my Dad in an actual hospital bed, but you would never guess that he almost had a major heart attack and a stent procedure to save his life because there was color back in his cheeks that he had not had in the past couple of weeks and he was grinning so hard that I thought his cheeks were going to pop. Perhaps the doctors had given him a hearty dose of medication to keep him alert and happy.
I paused, and said slowly: “How are you feeling, Dad?”
“Dao Lao Yeh,” My Stepmom just said simply and endearingly. “Dao Lao Yeh” was my Stepmom’s Chinese nickname for him, which translated into “Big Old Man.” It probably sounded like the ultimate insult when translated, but it was actually the sweetest and most personal nickname possible.
“I’m good! I got the royal treatment! Check out my food tray of goodies!” My Dad boomed.
I briefly could not help but wonder if my Dad was putting on a jovial act for my Stepmom and me so we did not worry about him, but my Dad looked genuinely upbeat and better than he had in the last couple of weeks and maybe even the last month or longer. He looked younger, perkier, and as though a heavy weight was lifted off of him. My Stepmom and Dad began to talk quickly in Chinese and then my Dad said that he wanted to drink some soup, but he could not sit up per doctor’s orders that he had to lie down for the next day or so. Without thinking twice, I tore open the plastic to a plastic spoon and began to spoon the hot liquid into his mouth. In between spoonfuls, my cell phone began to tinkle methodically to indicate that my sister was calling. My Dad’s heart had chosen impeccable timing to act up because it was the first time my sister was back in the U.S.A. and for the Christmas holidays since she had started a teaching contract in Hong Kong. My Stepmom briefly talked to my sister when the nurse came in to check on my Dad, and my Dad continued to joke with the nurse that he was being treated like a king.
I placed the spoon back in the bowl so my Dad could talk on the cell phone with my sister as soon as the nurse left. My Stepmom had her hands in her pockets and was rocking back and forth on her heels and then she began to pace back and forth in the tiny hospital room. All along, my eyes and attention were zoned in on my Father’s laughter and chatter with my sister on the phone.
Three days before Christmas 2010 and my Stepmom, sister, and I could have been numbed with sadness and shock over death taking my Father, but we were all here instead celebrating my Father’s life and the years that were added on to his life because of the timing of my Father finally going to the doctor and the doctor recognizing what had to be done right away. I quietly freeze framed this happy chaos in the hospital room in my mind and knowing my Father better than ever as the ultimate, selfless, and most wonderful person. With our roles reversed of him in that hospital bed and me sitting by his side, I understood that it was many more times difficult, helpless, and hopeless to see someone you loved in pain. I completely saw how one single moment could change so many lives and never, ever to take life experiences, our health, and the people we love for granted. I completely understood and knew now of my Father as a man and not just a parent or caregiver as he had played his entire life for me. I had never loved or understood my Father, life, and death as I did in that hospital room.
I closed my eyes again, treasuring my Father for the dreamer he was in coming to the U.S. to see the vastness, to work hard, and to make so much out of himself from the little that he had. I felt my Father’s warm hugs, unending wisdom, jewels of life stories and experiences, and philosophical ramblings and jokes. I chuckled when I thought of my Father and the boy that was in him when he munched on peanuts or let out a large belly laugh at something so small and simple. I was in awe by my Father’s selflessness, generosity, and ability to not complain in the midst of life’s greatest hurdles, and not even on December 22, 2010 that has gone down as the day he almost died. He underwent everything in life with a grace, a smile, a sparkle, a rare and fund oddball attitude, and a laughter that was rare and unseen in this day in age. With the mark of more years added to my Father’s life from that one day of December 22, 1020, I can only hope that I am the daughter, person, and woman that has made him as proud and happy and has perhaps brought something just a little bit extra as my Dad has always brought into my life just by simply being him.