Missing My Father, in Five Stages.
Stage 1: Denial
He's not going to die. There's no way.
This was my first thought, watching his round shape squirm beneath hot white blankets on what resembled a dental chair made from blue vinyl. It was day one of my father’s chemotherapy treatment, and it took the nurse no less than five tries to get a working vein for the I.V. that was now protruding gawkishly from his left arm.
He had been out in a police car, responding to dangerous calls and bar fights, since the day I was conceived, and every night he returned home safely. If that hadn’t killed him yet, what possibly could?
I pondered this where I sat, in another blue dental chair, beside him. I was accustomed to the fact that my father consistently spat in the face of death, but had I become so arrogant as to think that he was invincible?
His head shone with beads of sweat that trickled into what little hair he had, which wrapped around the sides of his skull and badly needed to be trimmed. His pepper colored scruff was scratchy and his eyes, my eyes, were sunken in terribly. Not a glimmer of his jovial, boisterous self shone through in the eerie quiet of that hospital.
Suddenly, in that moment, I was teleported back to my toddler years. I found myself perched upon the bottom most step of our townhome in 1999, with a sinking panicked feeling rolling in my gut.
“Are you crying?” my mother laughed aloud.
"No,” I sniffed obstinately, and tried to conceal a quick motion to wipe my eyes.
“Daddy has to go,” she clarified. As if I didn’t know that.
I reached up, hanging my head sheepishly, and thrust something into his hands. He examined it in his pressed uniform and black polished shoes.
“Why are you giving me your lion?” he asked.
I shrugged and mumbled, “Don’t go.”
He chuckled and crouched down to meet my eyes.
“Are you worried about Daddy?” I could smell the Aquafresh on his breath.
“Is Lion going to protect Daddy in the police car?”
This time, I nodded.
“Nothing is going to happen, you know that right?” He lowered his voice tenderly. “Daddy has been doing this a long time.”
For the next decade, that lion followed him into his police car at the start of shift, and left with him at the end. When he wasn’t on duty, I would check to be sure that it traveled with him on the dash of his personal vehicle.`
As he sat in that blue vinyl chair, day after day, I watched my father’s movement die slowly so that by the fourth day he no longer squirmed uncomfortably; he simply shivered for the five hours that he remained there. I watched the nurse dig meth-like tracks so deep in his skin that he offered up his beloved right arm in the left’s stead, because at this point, he “didn’t even care anymore.” I watched him stare into nothingness until the chemically induced exhaustion hit, about forty five minutes into each session, and I wondered if I would have to drive home. His wide, blind-spot riddled Nissan Armada would be a terror through the narrow, harrowing streets of Baltimore City. I didn’t even have my license yet.
All I wanted in that moment was to be a lion for him. Even though he was surely not going to die, I still felt the need to protect him, to see him through.
Stage 2: Anger
My father’s ability to cause a scene usually came from a place of loyalty and justice. If someone was wronged, he would be the first at their aid, standing a little taller, brows furrowed, a vaguely ebonic but nonetheless effective verbal fury ready to erupt from his lips. It was a trait I admired him for, and often ended up in the principal’s office for imitating as a child.
At age seventeen, I found myself in the middle of an obvious spat between two neighboring dinner tables at an upscale steakhouse in downtown Baltimore. The mood lighting was warm, the white linens were pressed, the other diners were in slacks and high heels, and my father was standing, napkin on the ground, chair toppled over behind him, using phrases like “I’m not fucking with you, asshole,” in growling tones.
He was ‘not fucking with’ a gentleman in a tailored suit whom my mother claimed was looking at us funny.
I come from a half Asian, half European family, and the odd wondering stares that are inevitable when you look like neither your mother nor your father don’t bother me in the slightest. Often, I don’t even notice. But oh, do they agitate my mother.
And when my mother gets agitated, my father gets pissed.
Perhaps unwisely, the other gentleman in this moment decided to make some rough statement about my mother, and about my father’s weight.
“You want to take this outside, brother?” My father stepped forward intimidatingly. “‘Cause if you want to roll, we can roll.”
To note the size comparison, here: If my father was a hippopotamus, the other gentleman was perhaps a moderately sized weasel, and once my father began to move swiftly in his direction, this gentleman looked about three seconds away from shitting his designer pants.
The manager approached just as my father was taking off his size 5X suede vest, and he offered to remove the other gentleman from the premises, then comp our meals. This was agreeable to my father.
I sat back down, having tossed a feeble ‘fuck you’ at the gentleman’s enraged face. The cause of this commotion was, in a word, stupid, but the loyalty behind my father’s anger made me intensely proud to be this man’s daughter.
Stage 3: Bargaining
For as long as I can remember, I have not been the touchy-feely type. I do not express emotions. I audibly gag when witnessing any type of PDA. The only form of forced affectionate contact that I ever gave became the running family joke, and was dubbed the “Mavis Lean.”
After a blow out family fight, which happened often in our household, my father was usually sensitive enough to remind me that he didn’t hate me. As I trudged broodingly up the steps, feeling like a bird mistakenly born to a family of alligators, he would call up, “Hey.”
Knowing what was coming, my heart would quicken a little. I’d poke my head around the corner of the staircase, to look at him with one eye.
“Love you,” he’d say, one brow raised.
This, to me, was like tossing a pack of Smarties to a child that was never, ever allowed to consume sugar. But I’d never let on how much I enjoyed it.
“Luhyoutoo,” was my unintelligible response, and then I’d dash up the steps, embarrassed.
He’d grumble in a mocking tone, having not understood my slurred words, and return to watching Cops.
In retrospect, I kick myself every single day about this. I kick my pride and my ego and my insecurity square in the balls, because although I knew just how much that man meant to me at the time, I could not admit it even to myself. And today, I would trade anything that I have ever held dear just to tell him that I love him, that I loved him before everything changed, that I will always love him.
Stage 4: Depression
I always thought my father’s work ethic was bulletproof. Today I am certain that it was, because I have inherited this work ethic and his determination to keep going no matter what.
Sometimes this is useful. Other times it is utter bullshit.
Just after he was diagnosed with leukemia, my family went on a trip to Puerto Rico. The doctors advised strongly against it, but my father halted all testing, gave a solid “fuck you” to the notion of a pre-trip bone marrow tapping, and we promptly left.
He spent most of our time there sleeping, as my mother and sister crowded around him looking concerned. I left the hotel room for exploration often; I could not sit there and watch him die. However, one night at about two in the morning, he woke up hungry so we ventured out into the damp buggy island together, just the two of us, in search of food.
The air was thick with heat and exhaust, as rusty VW Bugs and sleek rental cars passed us where we plod along on the sidewalk. Reggaeton beats reverbated in my ribcage and women in soiled t-shirts and six inch heels eyed us questioningly as they click-clacked and smacked their gum. I looked up at my father, illuminated in the warm yellow light from the overhead street lamps, and for the first time since the day I presented him with that lion, the little girl that still dwelled within was afraid of losing her daddy.
He looked more tired than ever, his skin gaunt despite his exuberant size, and his eyes were glazed over. No longer did he perform his regular over-the-shoulder checks, to be sure no one was targeting or following us. No longer did he walk with his distinctive penguin waddle, the result of carrying such a large beach ball for a gut. No longer did he look like the man that I had hero worshipped since I could talk.
This man looked worn, beaten down, and unfathomably depressed.
This is understandable. The recent cancer-tastic news had to affect him at some point, and there under that urban tropical glow, his own mortality seemed to hit him with all the force of an anvil.
And despite how obviously difficult it had become for him to breathe, despite how sluggish his body moved along, as though he were wading through an ocean of Jello, despite my pleading that he stop for a moment to rest, he kept going. He did not stop. And god was it infuriating. It was bullshit. But it lifted him to a new level of respect in my mind.
Today, when I have days where I think that I can’t keep going, like the journey has to end here because I just can’t take any more, I think of my father and I keep walking. If cancer didn’t stop him, how can I let life stop me?
Stage 5: Acceptance
So, this is the next logical step. Acceptance must be reached when a loved one dies, so that life can resume as usual, so that peace can finally be found.
That is completely impossible here, and I’ll tell you why.
My father is not dead. He beat cancer in 2013 and is alive, and quite well.
Almost one year ago, at the age of 21, I moved out of my family’s home. To clarify, I did not join a community of drug dealers. I am not selling my body. I don’t hang around ‘hoodlums’. I have four jobs and maintain a GPA of 3.8-ish.
The result of this decision, however, is that my father has taken up a vow of silence against me. He is furious, and hurt, and confused, because as he puts it, “I left him” and my family behind.
In the months that have passed, I have attempted to visit him at the police department where he works, and where I used to work with him, multiple times. I send him texts regularly, with reminders of the time we spent together -- our favorite songs, for instance, or pictures of police cars from the cities I visit. I even went to see him and my family on my sister’s thirteenth birthday.
He turned me away at the door of my own home. He will not answer any of my texts. He will not meet with me at work.
Essentially, this is it. This tower of a man, my knight and my best friend, has made himself dead to me. But surely, my dilemma is clear. How can I grieve the loss of someone who is not truly gone? In my mind, I can still send that one text, show up one more time, do whatever it takes to bring him around because at the end of the day, I am still just a daughter who is lost in the world and needs the guidance of her father.
No one makes a fart joke quite like he does. No one calls me out with the precise amount of no-bullshittery that I need to make the right decision in a situation. No one else will blare the blackest possible hip hop with me on the highway at rush hour. And at three in the morning, when I wake up in tears, I can’t run to his bedroom to curl up on his floor because I just need him to be close so that I can fall back asleep.
I'm not sure how this is acceptance. It is easier to deny that he is gone from my life, than to move forward without him. All I know for sure is I miss him. Terribly.