A Letter To My Father
Today I listened to a sophisticated writer speak about the problems of labeling the five stages of grief. She lost her mother on Christmas Day. I also read another writer’s open letter to his dead best friend. He lost her three years ago. The first writer talked about how writing can be therapeutic to the grieving process and some parts of the second writer’s letter struck such a chord within me. I thought of you. I realized how little I thought of you in the past month. I also realized that I will probably think and remember you progressively less as the time passes. So I am writing this now, lest what remaining memory I have of you fade or distort.
Right after you passed away, I nagged myself for a month to record all my experiences and feelings surrounding your death. I wanted to never forget you and your last days, just as I would have wanted you to never forget me and my last days. I didn’t want you to feel like you were being slowly erased because I did not want to be slowly erased following my death. To be forgotten is what I imagined would be anyone’s fear in dying. I wanted to remember you because I wanted to be remembered. I finally sat down and wrote something that I don’t want to read now.
Sorry for making it about me.
I remember becoming so afraid of death in the last year of your life when your death became very likely. I would often lie in my bed at night under a humming florescent light, close my eyes tight and wonder what it would be like to die. The vast emptiness of the dark was enough to accelerate my heart beat and make me blast my eyes open, panting. I became irrationally fearful of being shot or getting hit by a car. I avoided driving and checked left, right, and left whenever crossing any street.
Sorry for making it about me.
When you were slowly waning, I kept making myself imagine your pain. I thought that it could somehow lessen your feelings of loneliness that I guessed that you must feel. I got this idea from mom, who reminded me continuously that, ultimately, there was nothing she could do for you and that should you leave, you would leave alone. Hearing our champion mother sound fatalistically defeated scared me and made me feel so sad for you. I felt responsible to try to imagine your physical pain paired with the hopelessness and loneliness I guessed that you felt during that time. I engaged in this ritualistic behavior in spite of the fact that, to be sympathized and pitied was the precise thing you did not want from anyone. I am in a way used to purposefully conjuring up sad thoughts and feel guilty about using you as simply another way to self-pity. Now that I think about it, I guess I was doing exactly the opposite of what you wanted.
Sorry for making it about me.
You tried so hard to hide any hint of weakness. I still wish you could have been more fickle and let yourself be coddled and consoled. You were so prideful and hardheaded. It still boggles my mind that you yet again kicked Benny out of the house when mom secretly flew him out to see you, knowing it would be his last time with you. Even in your weakest of states, you could be so unreasonable, so hard to bend. You drove us mad and we both loved and hated you for your unyielding nature.
There are a couple scenes that I replay in my mind that still churn my stomach, heat up my chest, and choke up my throat. I feel conflicted as to whether I should try to forget these scenes or not, for both of our sakes. In a way, these sensations prove to me that my memory of you is still raw and real. I want to remember them often so I can keep you close and unburied in the past. But I also do not like to think of you in a way you would not have wanted to be remembered. As I write this, I am realizing that I want to remember you strong and sturdy, as you were for at least 49 years of your life. Still, I want to record those memories of you that stir me now. They feel the most immediate and close to me. I hope to be able to bring them up when I wish, for whatever reason in the future, to remember you the way I remember you now.
I think about you at your last faculty meeting, that you couldn’t possibly make up another excuse to miss, where you appeared emaciated, and after which you were forced to retire. All that effort of dodging doubtful questions and looks from your misery-leeching colleagues, for what? I picture you being called to an office, where someone higher in the ranks patronizingly tells you to take a leave of absence. I see you cooly accepting the offer, tersely thanking the offeror, and trying your best to briskly leave the room. It makes me want to go back in time to protect you, my unbreakable father, from all the murmuring outsiders with a sword and shield. I know it’s not their fault. No one means to take others’ sufferings lightly, but I hate knowing that they made you feel exposed and vulnerable.
I think of the last day that I saw you alive. It was your birthday and I brought you an ice cream cake titled “Strawberry Fallen in Love.” Mom told me to bring home an ice cream cake because you were constantly asking for cold things to consume. Something to ease the burning sensation you described you felt inside. I bought the smallest and cheapest cake because I knew you were hardly eating at that point. You forcefully stuffed a few spoonfuls down your mouth, tried to make a joke, and talked to me about law school. I still feel guilty about not buying you a bigger cake. I should have bought you the best and most expensive cake there was. I shouldn’t have rolled my eyes when you talked to me about school. It was the last time that I saw you. You were weak and gentle and I was a bitch. I only later learned that you had not spoken for days, and that you gathered your last remaining strength to be a delight when I came to see you for your birthday. Whenever I am being a sad drunk, I tell people that I was a mean daughter to you. Since entering my teens, I had always been passively aggressive towards you. Never outright disobedient, but snide in comments, disapproving in looks, and disengaged in gestures. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
But we had good times too. I don’t regret spending your last year with you. In a way, it’s really God’s blessing that He allowed us to spend that time together after 8 years of living apart. We were often clumsy in expressing, communicating, and being father and daughter, but we did have some meaningful exchanges that I truly cherish. The most poignant memory that comes to mind is of sitting with you on the couch at night watching a Chinese movie on OCN while chatting about your philosophy of life. I think you said that nothing in life really matters all that much and that I shouldn’t take life so seriously. I still struggle with this, but I’m lucky to have known you long enough to be able to hear you in my head repeating your mantra to me. Thank you for that. Thank you for telling mom the next morning that we had an insightful conversation. I was happy to know that you felt the same way that I did.
There are more good memories from that year. I started self-indulgently wailing when I didn’t get a test score that I wanted. You roared at me for being so faithless and easily swayed. This incident is so emblematic of you – admonishing me with your tough love, instead of lifting me with soothing words. I also remember arriving in Korea and finding out that you were at the hospital from an emergency admission. I slept nonstop in your hospital room. When I appeared to be asleep, you, yourself a tired soul, covered me with a blanket and petted my head over and over. You helped me rehearse an interview for a job. You invited me to lie between you and mom under your electric blankets to warm my cold hands and feet. You encouraged me and mom to go bathe or shop even though that meant that you would be left alone in an empty house to prepare your own meals. Okay, maybe that’s not such a great memory after all.
I felt and still feel many things when I thought and think about you and your death. It’s hard to put them into tangible words. Anger, love, frustration, sadness, and reminiscence all seem both extreme and insufficient to describe my mixed feelings. Remembering you is more like a droning continuum of grogginess and an underlying unease that is spiked with bouts of more extreme feelings that most closely resemble the words listed above. It’s messy.
But what I can put down into words is this — I miss you. I cried so hard when I went to go see you for the last time before I left for the States. Your stone has an engraved message that mom thinks you meant to leave to me, her, and Benny. It’s the message from your last sermon about inner peace. I am glad to know that I will always have your voice with me to remind me of the importance of serenity. But still, I wish what I had was more than an inference from memories to produce a “He would have said…” I know you would be proud of me regardless of who I became. But still, I wish you were here to observe my slow yet steady growth. Still, I wish you could come to Benny’s graduation, walk me down the aisle, babysit our kids, and buy them miniature golf clubs like you so wished.
It’s too bad, but I know it’s okay.
Your daughter always,
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The best thing about being a young adult right now is that you, more than any previous generation, have the freedom and the resources to create your own religion. So, let’s get started.
The apartment you lived in your first year out of school, the walk-up with a view of the street.
I wanted to quit my job. I hated my boss.
His eyes widened, he became angry, and backed off of me. I told him he could leave now. Now. He said “With you being a good Christian girl, and me studying to be a priest, I think it’s important we not tell anyone what we did.”