An ode to my father
Sunday, June 18, 2017
I last spoke to my father 26 Father’s Days ago. He was content and happy – his two adult children who lived thousands of kilometers away had remembered to phone, and had chipped in for an unexpected present. The three hours’ time difference and the constraints of our culture’s traditional emotional reticence made for a slightly awkward phone call, but I remember being grateful and a bit amazed that with each long-distance chat, I was learning to build an adult relationship with my father.
Eight hours later I was woken up by a call to tell me to find my way home as soon as possible – my father was in the hospital and may not last the day. 24 hours later, I was begging the chief of staff to keep our father plugged in until my brother could make it to our father’s bedside for a final good-bye. And a day later, after my siblings and I had surrounded our father as his life support was disconnected, after we shared our favorite stories through sobs and even laughter, after we each snipped a lock of hair as a keepsake, our father still somehow hung on. The MRI showed that the brain hemorrhage had left just enough of the brain stem functional to keep him alive. There wasn’t any hope for recovery or even consciousness, and we were told to wait for the inevitable.
It took another 4 days for my father to contract pneumonia and finally slip away. The nurses broke protocol by allowing my brother and me to take turns sleeping in our father’s room – we couldn’t bear to leave him alone. Our sister visited during the day and kept our mother company at night. We finally left our father alone in his hospital room for a couple of hours to have a family dinner at home before my brother had to take a flight back to school. And then the dreaded phone call – our father had passed. There was no need, but we rushed back. I couldn’t help thinking that our father wanted to spare us the grief of witnessing his final breaths. I like to think that his final act was to try to protect us.
But there isn’t really any protecting from grief. It’s been 26 years and I’m still weeping as I type this. Our father was only 61 years old. He had a long hard life. He was born to a poor family who sold him to another when he was a child of only seven. He ran away from his “adopted” parents only to be told that he had to return because his birth parents needed the money to survive. He worked to support his new parents and sister, and then her children. He took a wife in his 30s, when he had finally saved up enough money to bring his arranged bride from overseas. My parents immigrated to a new country where they were considered illiterate and uneducated, intent on securing a better future for their young children.
My father didn’t live long enough to retire. He spent nearly his whole life having to toil hard. He didn’t live long enough to see his children marry. He would have adored his grandchildren. I remember in his last years, catching his longing looks at his friends with their grandchildren. When our kids were young, I told them stories about their Goong-goong. I didn’t want my father to end with me. But then our kids grew busy with their own lives, and the stories ended. Today at lunch I told my daughter a bit about my father’s last days. She’s 17 now and her response to the hub and me was: “You'd better not die on me!” Our son and his gf will join us for Father’s Day dinner. I am going to imagine my father at our table. I am going to imagine my Baba surrounded by love, enjoying my dishes, and beaming with pride.