I always avoided family duties. Then my dad had a fall and everything changed
When my father doesn't answer the phone, I don't think anything of it. He's 75 years old and doesn't always want to talk.
This is what I tell myself when I call him and he doesn't answer one Wednesday afternoon in January earlier this year. I'm headed to San Francisco from Los Angeles for a weekend trip. It's sunny in California but in Ohio, where my dad lives, it's cold and snowy.
I try calling my dad again on Saturday. It's been three days since we last spoke. Again, no answer. Again, I shrug my shoulders. "He must be sleeping."
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Now it's Monday. Time to head home and still no word from my dad. I'm starting to shift in my seat. "That's weird," I say to myself. Thankfully, I don't have enough time to stew because he immediately calls me back.
But his voice isn't the voice I know. It's dry. Scratchy. Weak. It doesn't sound like him at all. He's calling me from the floor. He fell and has been on the floor for days. I immediately grab another phone and call my older sister Kristel. She's already in the car, on her way over. I hang up with her and continue talking with my dad. I don't want to hang up, because I don't know what state he's in. I don't know if he's hit his head, broken his hip or his bone. I don't know if he had a heart attack or a stroke. What I do know is I wish I wasn't so far away.
I'm on the phone the entire time. I hear my sister Kristel come into his apartment. I hear her call 911. I hear people take my dad away on a stretcher. He spends the next three days in the hospital and then is transferred to a rehabilitation center. The doctors don't know if he had a stroke or got up and got dizzy and passed out. The tests they run don't tell them anything because he was on the floor for too long. In between work calls, my sister is the one sitting next to Dad for hours in the hospital and googling the best rehabilitation facilities. She's always been the one on the frontlines of his care but it's becoming apparent that she's burning out.
For most of my life, I've avoided moments like these — moments where I have to take on any kind of family responsibility. I'm the youngest. My sister Kristel is 10 years older and has always been responsible.
Ever since she was in high school, Kristel has always had multiple jobs. As we grew up, she helped our parents sell our childhood home and helped my mom find the house she lives in now. Me? I studied abroad. I vacationed in faraway lands and chased my dream jobs all over the country. I was always too busy to come home. But when my dad falls, and is rushed to the hospital, and then to a rehabilitation center, I decide to buy a one-way plane ticket.
Now it's early February, and I'm walking into the rehabilitation center. "This place is quiet," I think to myself. It's a new building. There aren't a lot of people. It's both lovely and lonely. Thankfully, I'm following my sister Kristel. She seems to know her way around.
We walk down that long hallway, turn the corner and I see him. My dad is sitting in a sea of brand new blue carpeting, in the atrium of this dining room. The ceiling is tall. Light is streaming in. It's beautiful. But everyone who's here is sitting by themselves. Including my dad. He's almost unrecognizable. He's accompanied by a walker, is thin, and has really long hair.
I don't let this concern on my face show. Instead, I say, "Hi, dad." and immediately give him a kiss and hug. He doesn't really react. He doesn't smile. Or look surprised. He's not totally himself.
But I'm happy to see him. So I sit down, and immediately start one of our favorite ongoing conversations, "What are you eating?"
My father and I didn't have the best relationship.
Growing up, it felt like my mother loved me for the both of them. She cheered twice as loud at all of my volleyball games. Hugged me twice as hard when I made the honor roll. Told me I love you twice as much before I went to bed.
My father didn't do or say any of that stuff. He had a short temper. Often said "no." And was a rasin of emotions. Dry. Inaccessible. In high school, when I brought home all As he would say, "But you didn't do the dishes." I was a good kid, and everybody saw that I was. Except for him. For him, nothing was ever enough. And his never enoughness made me feel small. All the time.
And so to feel big, when he would yell at me I would yell back.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Dad." The next day, I'm rushing over to the rehabilitation center after spending hours cleaning his apartment.
He's finally leaving the rehab center and I want to make sure he can easily maneuver his apartment with his walker. So I spent all night cleaning and throwing out a lot of junk. I'm also rearranging some things, so the place doesn't mentally take him back to the fall or the days after. And I'm exhausted.
But my father's on a "no" kick. Let's have breakfast? No. Let's take a walk? No. Put on clean clothes? No. No. No. No.
Finally, I put my hand out, "Wanna try to go to the bathroom?" He replies with another adamant no. "Come on, let me help you stand up." I'm grabbing his hands and he's digging in his heels. It's aggravating and heartbreaking. I just got to Ohio and I already don't want to be here anymore.
I storm out of the hospital and jump on the highway. The airport is just a 30-minute ride through the cold Valentine's Day snow.
In the bathtub, I'm able to take a moment to myself. "I don't know why today was such a hard day," I say to myself. "Man, you really have to tell yourself that you're doing OK. You know, you really gotta be strong. Say you're doing a great job. Because no one is here to tell you that."
I swallow my tears.
The next day, when I see my father, I pull a razor out of the bag. His face lights up. It's the first joyful expression I've seen from him since I got to Ohio. We both go into the bathroom and walk up to the sink.
"You miss some hairs," I point out. "Oh, you cut yourself, too."
I've never shaved my father's face before. It's a specific kind of care. You have to be gentle. Close. And there has to be trust.
"And then you gotta smile," I joke with him. He doesn't laugh but he grumbles and then he smiles. He's letting me care for him in a way I never have before. I tell him, "Good job. Great face." That day, something between us shifts. I realize at that moment that our roles are reversing. And we're both allowing that to happen.
That night, I tell him he'll never be alone the way he was before.
For the next few weeks, we live together and work together. Every morning we wake up, have coffee, chant (because we're Buddhist), and I encourage him to write down daily goals. I take time off work and become his full-time caretaker. We do physical therapy exercises together, walk up and down the hallway of his apartment complex, and start seeing doctors. When he's grumpy or deeply unmotivated we push through and ride the wave of my energy and confidence that my father will resume his life again.
I never planned to move back to my hometown. When I arrived with a one-way ticket I thought I'd be there for a few weeks, a month at the most. I was expecting my father to "bounce back." So I could return to my life and he to his.
But then one of his doctors tells my sister and me that "he can't live alone anymore," and suggests he move in with one of us. We both look at each other. "Does he even want to do that?"
After dinner one night, my sister and I bring it up to my dad.
"Two big questions," I say to him. "Stay in Ohio? Or move to California? It's like choosing your own adventure." My dad thinks for a second and replies, "Based on my health, I don't think I can do either one."
My dad has lived in Ohio for the past 54 years. Ever since he left Singapore. And now at 75, we're asking him to put his whole life in storage and hop on a plane with me, his 31-year-old daughter. And trust me to take care of him. Something I've never done before. To be honest, I'm scared, too. I'd be giving up a part of my life as well. But I rather have us be scared together. I'd rather have him be completely safe — with me. After sitting in silence I say, "If I said you have to move to California and live with me, how would you feel about that?"
I'm pleasantly shocked by his answer: "Oh, great, but...," I don't even let him finish his but. It's done. In less than a month, my sister and I moved Dad out of his apartment. We pack his apartment up, put everything in storage, and buy him a plane ticket to Los Angeles.
People keep asking me, "Are you ready to take on this responsibility?" Or, "Do you know what you're getting into?" The answer is: He's my father. And I am his daughter. And no one is gonna love him as much as Kristel and I do. No one is gonna make sure that he eats his favorite foods, that he writes down his goals, that he starts to envision himself walking again.
But we will. I will.
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