If your parents die but you’re over 18, are you still considered an orphan? Who will be there to pick up the pieces when you’re an only child and family is spread from coast to coast, or more accurately, around the globe?
In some form or another, death began the life I know. For my mother it came in the form of multiple miscarriages, a stillborn daughter, and IVF treatments that failed to succeed. For my biological mother, the answers become more complicated. Death of a childhood, happy or not, death of the life she knew before a stick came back positive or results of a blood test were what every teenager never wants to hear.
Yja yja’s death came in the late 80s. I’m still unsure as to the cause. My father rarely mentions her. I remember taking him to the airport, nestled in the backseat of our big, black sedan and sucking the yogurt coating from some type of fruit. If memory serves, I became hysterical after he boarded the plane and it was time for us to say our goodbyes. I howled as Mummy escorted me from the cabin. Yja Yja wouldn’t be coming for birthdays or Christmas, then a few days away, and my father was getting ready to bury her as I had my pet rock. Would I have to do the same for him?
Turns out, I will. One day. I almost did last year. It was a Sunday. One minute I was at my spa, texting with my best friend. It was a odd conversation, one that was typical us… something about candle flavours, Destiny’s Child, karaoke, and co-singing Survivor after a drunken night in whatever town would be unfortunate enough to have us. And then I got The Call.
The Call. You know the one. It’s the kind that renders you utterly livid, pissed off at the world, stunned, crushed, emotionally shattered, and physically unable to move. Part of you dies in a way. Regardless of the outcome, you have two lives now: one from ‘before’ and now the one born in the moment everything changed.
Phone calls are suddenly instant sources of fear. I wait for my mother, an aunt, some relative I hardly know, to tell me that’s it. Your dad passed away. One down, one more to go. It doesn’t come, at least not that night. Instead it’s more waiting. More wondering. I secure my baptismal cross around my neck. I wore it five months earlier throughout the viewing, funeral, and burial of a close family friend; I didn’t expect to have it on again, not this soon. I never even considered the next time I wore it, it would be for my father.
Icarus is scared. He runs around my bedroom, hides when I try to hold him. He feels my agitation, unfamiliar with the sounds I made, unsure how to react. Eventually I give up, inhale a few Ambien. I remember briefly thinking that it’ll be a fucking relief if I don’t wake up.
I do. My iPhone reads 1:41am. Monday. My close friend studying abroad in Switzerland is up and has just received my messages. I don’t remember what’s said.
I wake again around 5:00am. Despite the heavy dose of Ambien, I can’t sleep. I wonder if my body is trying to subconsciously tell me that he’s already dead.
My mother calls at some point that morning. No change. I’m sent on a wild goose chase for insurance information. The hospital claims he had the wrong card. We argue. Eventually it stops. I’m alone again.
M calls as I’m numbly leaving a bank. I’m on autopilot. I can’t recall how I got there, unsure how I’ve not killed someone during the drive. He’s sick. I don’t particularly care. I need him now; need his advice; need someone who can prevent me from losing my fucking mind.
I tell him what I know, which isn’t a whole lot. I don’t cry too much, at least not at first… it isn’t until I’m almost home that I realize I have no idea how I’ll be able to say goodbye. Then I start crying all over again.
Nine months have passed since that day. My father did make it home on a frigid day in December. I didn’t recognize him when I went to the airport. Weeks of travel have taken my voice and his is weak and barely audible. By some miracle, I’m close enough that he’s able to grab my hand as I fly past an old man in a wheelchair.
He tears up when he sees me. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve seeing my dad cry. We don’t say anything, but his grip is stronger than I expect given the wheelchair, his frail frame, and sunken eyes. His once jet black hair is cropped close to his head and a red pillow advising the public that he is a critically ill cardiac patient is on prominent display. I smile, go through the motions. I am happy. Happy he’s here, happy he’s alive… yet the one thought I can’t shake, the one that haunts me still is, How the hell did this happen?
Nine months later and there have been other surgeries. Minor in comparison. Mild complications all things considered. But next week is the big one. Next week is when he’s going in for a new team of doctors to repair his heart, his aorta, the surrounding arteries that sustained near-fatal damage. He tells me he’s ready, he wants to get it over so he can get back to his life. It’s what all of us —my dad, my mum, and I, hope he’ll get.
And still, despite excellent care, Dr. The-Best-of-the-Best, I can’t help but wonder if we already got our so-called miracle. The truth is my dad died in November. He was brought back by the skill of an outstanding cardiac team, the grace of god, fate, or whatever the hell is out there. Ultimately, he was one of the microscopic, virtually non-existent percentage of people who survive the same aortic aneurysm that nearly robbed us of these few extra months.
I wouldn’t say I fear death. Not in the true sense. In many ways, I’ve become more comfortable with it than most. At the same time, he’s my dad. Despite the clichés, the contrived, hollow, pithy, fucked up things people say, it does not feel natural to lose a parent. This is a person who’s given me everything all he can. I am who am because of the person he is, the determination he had to make this life in America, better than the one his parents had back in the old country.
For entirely selfish reasons, I need him here. I will never stop needing his advice, his help, his earthly presence simply because for whatever our ups and downs, the complications in our relationships, I don’t know how to breathe without knowing that if I need him, he’s only a phone call or a plane ride away…
As a little girl, I remember watching Full House or one of those shows. One (or all three?) of the guys ended up in jail and they only got one phone call. So if television, film, all things pop culture is to be believed, you get one phone call. Dad got his one phone call last year. He’s always been the type to learn from mistakes, so my inner child, that little girl in the white Easter dress clutching her father’s hand on the way to church is going to play that card now.
Dad already got his one phone call. He doesn’t get to use it again next week… unless the news is good.