by DCH Park
My dad died ten years ago. I still have his watch. It’s a heavy thing, gleaming and golden, with a raised square on the crystal over the date. It sits, quiet and weighty. A silent communion with ghosts.
I’m sure it still works, though I’ve never tried it. Never wanted to. I remember seeing him adjust it on his wrist years before he was injured by the strokes, before his long slide into shadow.
As he told it, on the morning of his first stroke, he woke up feeling odd. He wanted to go to the doctor but my mother objected. She told him to take some aspirin or a nap. When the next morning came and he was no better, they did go to the doctor but by that time, the damage was done.
Years later, long after they had both passed away, I told that story to my brother. To my surprise, he had heard the same story, but in his version our mother wanted to go to the doctor and our father had objected. I assume that he had gotten his story from our mother. Two versions of the same story but with the roles reversed. Since they were both long gone, there was no way to tell which one had been telling the truth. Maybe it didn’t matter.
In the final analysis, we judge by the feeling we have. Whether feeling leads to belief or belief leads to feeling is immaterial if it ends there. However, it rarely, if ever, does. Beliefs can be adopted from the people around us regardless of how we feel. Which path we follow has effects that continue to ripple out from the initial decision, like a stone thrown into a calm lake.
After his first stroke, dad began to give his life up a little bit at a time. He shuffled about with a cane at first. He laughed as I teased him to keep him working and walking. My mother and I would take him out for lunch or to be among people or just to get some air and sunshine, even though it took thirty minutes or more to get him dressed and out the door. I didn’t notice at first how trying the whole process was for him but it grew minutely more arduous over time. Eventually, he gave it up altogether.
He stopped wearing his watch after that first stroke. It was heavy and he didn’t have a reason to know the time. He always intended to put it back on after he got better but he never did. Instead, his hand withered into a claw. His whole left side became a remnant. A golden watch dial had little meaning, no matter how much it gleamed. Time was marked instead by his creeping descent into disability.
I am left to remember two fathers. I know they are both the same man, but they seem like different people. One is resigned to dying. The other is busy living. One is letting go of life by degrees and the other is remarkably robust. They hardly seem like the same man. Yet at the end of his slow fade, he held onto the final shreds of life with the same fierce tenacity that marked the living man.
I remember one time, when I was a young teenager, I asked him directly why he stayed with my mother. They seemed like a mismatched pair. He was calm and nurturing, if a bit exacting and proper. She seemed harsh and demanding. She literally yelled at him for days whenever they argued or something didn’t go as she’d expected it to. When she yelled, he would sit silently, close his eyes, and listen to it all, even if it went on for days.
He responded to my question without hesitation, as if he’d been thinking about it every day with no one to talk with. He said that she had an ability to do amazing things. Her energy and joy were incredible. He loved that about her. In fact, he had fallen in love with her because of it. This was a side of her that I had rarely seen. His voice shook with the intensity of his feeling.
But he also said that she was afraid. She couldn’t always reveal that energy and joy because of her fear and she most feared those closest to her. He hoped that one day she would feel comfortable and safe enough with him to share her energy and joy again, so they could both revel in it and dance together again. He cried. We held each other for a long time afterward.
Listening to him, I flashed on a memory from years before. I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. Both of my parents were doctors and we were living on the grounds of a sprawling hospital complex in a separate building for the doctors’ families. My parents had to drive a couple of miles to get to work.
One day, it snowed so hard that the hospital shut down early. My parents were stranded at work. They had to walk home. I remember eagerly watching for them through the window and how happy I was to see them tramping through the snow. They were walking with a neighbor of ours, apparently enjoying themselves. They were talking and laughing. My mother seemed animated.
For me, that helped to explain a lot. It explained the infinite patience he showed her and the countless moments he spent with her, listening to her rant. I don’t know what passed between them in their private moments, but in the end, he literally gave her power over his life. He gave her what she asked for.
When his time came, the doctor called from the hospital saying that we should get there immediately. I don’t think he realized that we were a continent away. I notified my brother and we got the next flight to New York. I hadn’t even known that dad was in the hospital. It happened that quickly. We had left him in a nursing home to get better so we could move him to the west coast to be with us. When we left, he was getting stronger, or so we thought.
We had barely gotten back from our initial trip when we got the call to return. We flew over night to get there and drove straight to the hospital from the airport. He looked shrunken and alone in the sterile room. Everything seemed unnaturally white and bright. He was silent except for his breathing. On top of the bedclothes, his hand was warm but stiff.
He had acute kidney failure. The nurse in the home had said that he’d stopped eating and drinking. “Come on, Dr. Lee,” she had said. “You’re a doctor. You know what’ll happen if you don’t drink.”
He’d looked at her and nodded.
He’d stopped trying to live. He had chosen to die. He had shared the last fifty years of his life with our mother. After she was gone, he had nothing to do, or so he thought. So he went about dying.
He had a clause in his living will against intravenous feeding, so none was provided. By the time we arrived at the hospital he was unconscious. We set up a vigil. We took turns alternating between sitting with him and trying to catch some sleep in the second bed. He was alone in a semi-private room so there was no one to distract us.
When my turn came, I was exhausted and laid down but sleep was impossible in that room, even after the flight. I don’t think either of us found the room very hospitable. After the first night we gave up trying to sleep.
I had one sided conversations or silently remembered with him for hours. Sometimes I sang to him. I remembered the way he used to sing Korean love songs when we were out driving. I was no more than ten or eleven years old. I had no idea what the words meant but they sounded sad. It made him feel happy to be able to share them. Afterwards, I always felt closer to him, like we shared something that only we knew.
Sometimes we would talk or argue on those drives but most of the time he sang or we listened to financial news radio or sat in silence. At such times, he would often raise his hand and slap me on the knee, once, twice, three times. It stung. He always had a big smile on his face. It was his way of saying, “Thank you for being here with me.”
I remembered those songs and knee slaps as I sat with him in the hospital. I said, “Thanks, dad. I know you’re tired. Thanks for everything. You can go now. It’s alright.”
He visibly relaxed. The talking and singing helped. He was comforted by our presence. But he didn’t die. After thirty-six hours at his bedside we were exhausted. We decided to go to their house to get a few hours of rest. The nurses promised to call us immediately if anything happened.
The drive to their house was no more than thirty minutes long. As we were pulling into the driveway, we got the call. He had passed. My brother hung up the phone.
“I guess he wanted to be alone,” I said.
“Yeah. It happens that way sometimes.”
“It’s funny. We come all this way and go through all this so he wouldn’t be alone and in the end, he waits for us to leave.”
“Some people want privacy.”
“Hm. I don’t feel sleepy now. I think I’m going to go the watch the sun rise over the water. Do you want to come?”
“No. I’m exhausted. I just want to sleep.”
“OK.” I restarted the engine and he got out. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”
I drove with the windows down and the heat up as the winter wind rushed past. Without thinking about it too much, I found myself at the easternmost parking lot of the little island that protected the big island from the ocean. The small island was little more than a large sand bar but it held a gorgeous beach. Surprisingly, the parking lot wasn’t deserted, though the inhabitants of the few cars were not in evidence.
A lighthouse was set back from the water. A sandy path snaked through the tall grass, connecting the lighthouse with the beach. Small patches of snow were scattered about on the leeward sides of dunes. A few intrepid gulls wheeled about in the rising sun, searching for scraps.
The ocean was choppy. I had never come to the beach with my dad in winter before, but he loved the water. He’d been a champion swimmer in high school. I remembered watching him swim at the beach. He’d go out in a straight line for about a mile. Then he’d turn and swim as far parallel to shore before turning again to swim back into shore. He’d walk the distance back to us from where he’d landed. A huge square. He used to make the lifeguards nervous.
I laughed at that, remembering the man. He didn’t solve problems, he dissected them. We would often spar with each other late into the night. It didn’t really matter what the debate was about. We debated on any topic that came up. We even argued about debate.
It was such an odd way to have quality father-son time. I challenged him on it. He explained his belief in Hegelian dialectics. He said that each side had a sacred duty to argue as forcefully as possible. If he was so forceful that he happened to steamroll over an opponent, that wasn’t his problem. It was his duty. It was his opponent’s duty to be even more forceful if he could be.
Arguing as forcefully as he could was his way of honoring his opponent. Arguing with him was like standing up in gale force winds. He debated with religious intensity. And he was always debating. He loved debate. But that meant that he also loved his opponent. To him, it was obvious that debate and love were bound up together. He loved fiercely. He debated fiercely, too.
He loved ballroom dance. He would escort my mom to the dance floor and together they would amaze everyone. They moved with a lightness and flow that carried them around the floor effortlessly. It wasn’t just that they moved so well, it was that they enjoyed it so much. I never saw her look happier than when they danced. I never saw him look more elegant and poised. It was as if they became magical incarnations of dance itself. But, of course, that all ended.
As his horizons shrank to the size of his bed, we expected each Christmas would be his last. Yet every year, he would go on to see another. He survived over eleven years that way. In the end, he survived my mom, which surprised us all at the time but perhaps it shouldn’t have. She took care of him but in a way, he was also supporting her. They both took ill one January with pneumonia. He survived and even put on weight. She did not. She never woke up. He accepted the news of her death in silence. He died less than two weeks after she did.
The wind had penetrated my coat and left me thoroughly chilled. I left the crashing waves behind and hurried back to the car. I looked at the sand and the hardy, salt-loving plants growing beside the wooden planks that defined the path. Looking up, I saw that the sun had risen a fair distance into the sky. It wasn’t red any longer. The stony lighthouse overlooking the parking lot stood, resolute and apparently unchanged.
I suddenly realized that being the older brother, I was now the “patriarch” of the family. It was a strange and unnatural feeling. It felt like a set of too-baggy clothes.
As I played with this, I climbed back into the car, turned the heat on high, and headed back to the house, the windows closed this time. I wanted to get some sleep before I turned to the tasks ahead.
© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.
”Dad’s Watch” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.