Published On September 12, 2016
The subway and then the bus took me east to the hospital, through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, to say what I know we should have said to each other years ago. Decades ago. He wouldn’t respond—he couldn’t—but at least I would have said it out loud.
“Stay With Me” played on my Pandora station. Fitting. I was headed there to plead that he stay. That he open his eyes and understand me.
My father and I had a long, rocky relationship, and in the past year he had suffered a major stroke. It rendered him speechless and unable to swallow or move the left side of his body. Because of the abnormal way his heart pumps blood—a separate condition—the doctors didn’t think that things were going to get better. The latest complication was pneumonia. If I was going to say anything, now was the time.
He was awake when I entered the room. I hadn’t seen him open his eyes since he was transferred back to the hospital with a fever of 101 a few days ago. Now his gaze was locked on something.
I cautiously stepped closer to him. When I spoke, he looked up at me.
I said hello in Mandarin. I held his hand. I wanted to see if he would squeeze it back when I asked him to. His strength had diminished. We went through our usual routine—I asked him to move his fingers, feet and toes—and the pistons began to fire, as the machine that was his nervous system seemed to warm up.
With puffy eyes and a red nose, I began my speech. I apologized, and said I knew we hadn’t gotten along for many years, and that there was a lot we had not said to each other. I started to cry and his face became red, and he shook. He was crying too. I felt bad, and then realized he had understood me, that he was acknowledging our difficult past. That it had hurt him too. I stopped crying and I told him it was okay. It was time to focus on his hands and his movement right now.
I remember the screaming and the crashing of plates from my childhood, all too many nights. I longed for my mother to leave him. I remember his betrayal and his verbal abuse. After the divorce, we erased all physical traces of him from the house. But his daring, his cooking and what I knew of his culture—they lingered in my psyche and in my heart.
Of course I had regrets about the years that followed. I could have spent more time with him, I could have done a better job documenting his journey from Hong Kong and Shanghai to America. I never learned enough of his native Mandarin to converse with him in his language.
Other attempts to confront the past, and all the hurt, had failed. As we shook, after my speech, I wondered if his tears and mine might be some way forward.
It has been a year since then, a year of watching my once commanding and independent father struggle, helpless, in his body’s rebellion. I have learned to see that he is just a man, flawed and broken, in many more ways than before. I see that I have an opportunity to talk to him, to share my life with him. One day, he may talk back. I now speak for him at his therapy appointments. I celebrate his progress, including the day he was able to say hao, or “good,” in Mandarin.
Some people have asked why I would do this. The answer, I now realize, is simple. Because I see that he has not given up. He is certainly not the man he was before, and he may not be able to do the things he did before—including cook or walk. Perhaps it is this transformation into someone else, someone we both are discovering, that will finally allow us both to be free of the past.
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