I remember the scene so vividly in my mind. I was sitting in the break room with my sexy black stilettos on drinking a can of Coke Zero at 9:10 in the morning. Yes, I know that no one should make a breakfast out of carbonated beverages, but as I taught two advanced writing classes by that time in the morning back in those days, I needed a little pick me up around that time.
So there I was, sitting at the break table, sipping away on my drink and marking the first round of assignments from my many writing classes. And then my phone started ringing (my silver bug-like phone) in the fancy cell phone pocket of my new (ridiculously expensive) purse from a recent trip to Tokyo. God I loved that purse.
I had been having a few problems with my realtor, and I suspected it was her calling. I didn’t want to deal with her shrill voice and petty issues, so I refocused my eyes on my marking and kept on going. But after the prolonged buzzing – much longer than usual – my phone started up again, and I felt a strange need to pick up the phone.
The dull voice – the dull lifeless voice of my seventeen year old sister on the phone:
‘Dad’s dead. Dad’s dead.’
What are you supposed to do when you hear those words? Time is supposed to stop. The coffee cup you are holding in your hand is supposed to swan dive in slow motion and come crashing to the ground. In the movies that’s always a symbol for the brokenness of the moment. You are supposed to collapse or wail or be caught in mid collapse. But it wasn’t like that. There was nothing but silence. A big empty gaping silence that I later learned was death.
And then chaos.
Everyone started running up and down the stairs – cross-Pacific phone calls-managers running to the nearest travel agent to beg a seat for me on a plane that night – Mr. Lee rushing out of a highly important meeting looking ashen to escort me home – a suitcase packed carelessly with whatever garments I could find –and all the while this chaos held back the void.
I do not know how I got on a plane that day and got myself across the Pacific. I do not know. Cross-ocean-20-hour travel is trying in the best of times, and when you are in a state of extreme shock, it’s bewildering. I sat for hour upon endless hour, not eating or drinking, not sleeping or watching movies, not reading or looking at magazines. I just sat and willed myself to get there. I did almost get escorted away by security in Vancouver after I broke down when a particularly nasty customs officer questioned me mercilessly about my reasons for entering my own country, but that’s another story.
There is a certain horror to losing your father which I’ll discuss in my next post. There was nothing to indicate he was about to die. Nothing at all. He was in the hospital for a routine surgery which had complications, but he was improving and was told on that same morning that he would be released from hospital after the Easter holiday. The whole time though, there was a massive blood clot forming, a massive clot the dr. missed despite him being in the hospital for an entire week after the operation (it was later observed while reviewing his file). He simply went out for a walk in his ward after the family left for Easter dinner, collapsed in a chair, and died. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely for our small hometown, his Code Blue responders were one of my high school friends and our neighbour whom he had known for 20 years. There’s a strange comfort knowing that the people who tried to revive your father actually knew and cared about him.
The first year after he died, I bought some flowers, made a memorial to him in my house, and cried myself to sleep. The second year, I was invited to a Passover Seder here in Seoul, and I dragged myself out of the house, raised my glass, and affirmed L’Chaim with the others. Life does go on despite our best attempts to stop it. This year, I’ve been wondering what to do – how to honour him this year. I’ve abandoned all the physical elements of that day. I quickly bought a new phone – every time it rang my heart leapt in horror. I feel sick if I drink Coke Zero, my stilettos sit abandoned on the shelf, and I can’t look at that gorgeous purse without wondering if seconds later my world will shatter again. But the memories remain as those things I turn to for comfort – even hideous images I hold tightly too – like his stiff body or the design we chose for his tombstone. Somehow they are comforting because they are little bit of him. So I decided this year to write a small series about him. Blog about the tragedy, but also blog about how it changed me, made my vision of my life clearer, made me appreciate my family, friends, history, and hometown so much more. So this is my tribute to my father and to those who have survived him.
And this is my last gift to my father before we buried him. The eulogy which formed in my head during the 20 hours of cross-Pacific travel:
This is the wrong speech.
There were supposed to be others before this one. Our father was supposed to make speeches at my sister’s graduations, at our weddings, the baptisms of his grandchildren, on his 50th wedding anniversary.
This is the wrong speech.
But, the world has been turned upside down, and here we are…
Our father was above all else, a good father.
I feel like I should tell you some incredible stories about what our father did for us, but the truth is, he was a daily constant presence in our lives. So many fathers are absent in some way from their children’s lives, but our father was always present.
Our father had no concept of ‘me time’. I never heard the words ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse for not attending some recital, awards ceremony or graduation. Because the truth was, he attended almost every single event. I think he honestly enjoyed spending time with us, even when what we wanted to do was of no interest to him.
He read almost the entire Nancy Drew original series of about 100 books to me by the time I was 7. He had absolutely no talent for reading out loud-he had the most monotonous voice ever, but he did it to please me, sometimes reading for hours at a time.
And then there were the baseball games, hockey games, moving in and out of houses, from one university to another, the woodworking class we took together, the swimming class he took with G because he wanted to learn how to swim if he ever needed to save me. The hours we spent at J’s farm. The car rides to and from high school and the summer we worked at W’s together. He was my t-ball coach, my brownie leader when my mum was pregnant, my Sunday School helper.
He took me to my first concert, and we stood in the pouring rain because he knew that music was important to me.
He was a constant, stable, reliable, and loving presence in my life, even when I was far away. He was so involved in my life and never questioned if he should be using some of that time for himself.
And he is still so present in everything. He helped build our home, the shed, the deck, my grandparent’s deck, half of the furniture in our house. He spent hours making gifts for neighbours, friends, my sister’s friends…the last thing he made for me were two small jewellery dishes he gave to my boyfriend and I which means that his presence is still in Seoul.
And there was always a history to what he made. He knew where the wood was from. He knew what tree it came from and that tree always had meaning for him, because land, geography, was important to him. Because he loved where he came from and was proud of where he came from.
And he tried so hard as a husband…I remember one time coming back from J’s farm – maybe he was in trouble with mum or something, I don’t know. And he stopped the car on the side of the road, and jumped out and waded into weeds on the side of the road which were up to his waist. I was like ‘what are you doing in the weeds?’ And he said, “picking flowers for mum”. And he came back with a beautiful bouquet of flowers – they were weeds, but they were beautiful and he had seen them and immediately thought of mum.
I don’t remember many of the large presents he gave us, but he was constantly trying to find small things which would make us happy. Those little things are the ones you remember.
Jacques Derrida, the 20th century philosopher, was asked to write many eulogies and essays for famous people, and these were compiled in a book which translated into English, is called, Each Time Unique, The End of the World. That’s what this loss is. A bomb blast that has broken so much-the end of a world.
But I also try to remember that Dad died on Easter. And sometimes I hate that fact, and sometimes I remember about resurrection. I remember that nothing is shattered-only broken. And we can still pick up the pieces and make things anew. His body has become a new life and we will put our broken pieces back together and life will go on.
The thing I’m going to miss most about my dad’s body are his hands. His hands that had dirt so ingrained in them that they would never come clean. You could wash them for hours and they would still look the same because those hands testified to a life of hard work and dedication and pride in what he did.
And when God gives him a new body in heaven, I hope He doesn’t change those hands, because that’s how I will recognize him, and they symbolize all that was good about him.
See Part 2
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