Monday, June 16, 2008

A Father's Day post

I wrote this on January 19, 2007 on another blog. It was - to me - an emotional piece. Today, in celebration of Father's Day, and because I have a new home for my writing, I am going to re-post this. May everyone understand the importance of family in our lives.

Last night, Mr. Harold O'Malley died.

To those of you who don’t know, Mr. O’Malley is a fictional character. On a television show. He was played by a most wonderful actor named George Dzundza, and he played George O’Malley’s father on Grey’s Anatomy. He died on my television screen last night, and it was the saddest thing I have ever watched. Why does his death, his on-screen death, affect me so much?

My father had a heart attack at 2:30 am on November 1. Ironically, All Saints’ Day – also known as the day Filipinos remember the dead. Also ironically, on my side of the world, it was Halloween – also known as the day Americans celebrate spirits. I learned about it the next day, however, after the consternation of taking him to the hospital had gone and my family made sure he was stabilized before they could call me with good news, at least. I was in the middle of studying that night, when my mother called. She started out nicely, and then said to me, “Hazel, ang Papa mo…” ("Hazel, your Papa..."). She completely lost it. I kept my head. I told her to calm down, but she wouldn’t, and had to pass the telephone to my older sister. The news stunned me, but I kept a brave face throughout the conversation. I remember putting the telephone down, and looking at my hands. They were shaking. And then I cried.

The next day, I needed to be in school for an errand. I met two people that day, and to both I broke the news. I felt that it was unnecessary, considering that I was close to neither of them. But I did. I think it was because I needed an outlet of some kind. To vent. Not to rant. But to somehow tell them that I am sad today, nothing else. To be honest, nothing else mattered to me. I went through the day smiling at people and making conversation, but deep down inside, I was terrified. This persisted many weeks after. One time, I met with a faculty adviser about my plans to get a Ph.D. I had the most difficult time talking to her because I could not get my father out of my head. In fact, the first time I broke the news two years ago about earning a scholarship to UMass, he hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, “Baka gusto mo na rin mag-Ph.D. Ituluy-tuloy mo na.” ("You might want to get a Ph.D. You might as well go all the way.") I broke down and wept in my adviser’s office. Professionalism be damned, I guess.

I kept in constant touch with my family, particularly my oldest sister who is a doctor. Thank heavens that she went through medical school, because now, more than ever, we need her. As much as doctors need to be objective, sometimes, we need a little more than just the facts from them. My sister gave my mother and siblings the truth about my father, but she also held their hands. One of my father’s cardiologists was a classmate of my sister from medical school, whom we’ve known for a long time. He, too, held our hands and faced the truth with us. I am so grateful for the extra emotion she put in it. It gives her and my father’s team of doctors, the opportunity to do right by us. They would have thought, this is Ivy’s father, and we should take care of him.

On December 5 at 7 pm, EST time, my father went into the OR for quintuple bypass surgery. I had a class that day, and the whole time, my mind was elsewhere. I went to Mass every day, prayed the rosary, begged for my father’s health, and would not sleep nor study. I kept looking at my cellphone for text messages. Then, finally, at 2 am the next day, my brother called me with good news. “You can go to sleep now,” he said to me.

My father, thank God, is doing fine. He is walking, talking, and eating alright, even though he gets cranky whenever he could not eat the same food as he did before. Which was why on Christmas’ Noche Buena, everyone back home pared down the food on the table and ate food that he would have eaten. It was a gesture of solidarity with him, and I found it very touching. My mother tells me that he now goes out into our garden every day, looking at the flowers and orchids my mother tends to. She said he loves looking at them. I imagine my father, after his life flashed before him during the weeks leading to surgery, stopping to smell the roses now that he has been given a second chance. Even I would have kissed the grass and smelt the roses.

The worst part about the experience has been not living with it. I was here, in the US, alone and lonely and worried to freaking hell and I could not do a thing about my father except to talk to him on the telephone and pray for him. I have read the Grey's Anatomy message boards in the hours after that episode aired, and the writer’s blog… It is amazing, that blog. The whole episode is dedicated to the writer's father, who died under similar circumstances years ago. Everything, down to the fart joke in the middle of surgery, happened to her many years ago. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring, simply because it told me that I am not alone in feeling the pain. And the blog entry unleashed a torrent of comments from fans who have all experienced a death in the family in some form or another. And while the comments about the pain were numerous, I felt a different kind of pain that was never brought up. To me, worse than the thought of your father dying back home, is the pain of not being there. The pain is not shared; it is simply bottled up inside, and you end up crying on your pillow at night. It is the worst kind of pain, to not be there and actually SEE your father fight, and SEE your mother fight for him, and SEE your siblings fight for him. My father’s recovery was as much a testament to my family’s determination as it was a testament to the expertise of his doctors. My mother and brothers and sisters were by his side the whole time, and I... am here. I am not there. While I do not discount the power of my prayers and my comforting words which traveled through telephone lines, I am still not there. For a child to not be at her parent’s side is the worst kind of feeling. My obligation has been to my family and I failed that. I wished like hell that I went back home, but I couldn’t. My family has been understanding through it all, but I beat myself up about it. Because in the end, when all is said and done, I still was not there.

Watching the O’Malleys go through the excruciating pain of a impending family death made me relive my own excruciating pain. The “What if I was there?” question loomed in my head as I watched George obsess about his father’s condition. For weeks, anger lit up the internet forums as people criticized George for acting like a jerk. I wrote back, “What he is feeling is understandable. I certainly felt the whole world on my shoulders at the prospect of a sick parent. I know the feeling. I KNOW.” And then, after Mr. O’Malley had surgery for his esophageal cancer and his family was coming in his room to visit him, George’s reaction to seeing his father all scarred with tubes coming out of his body was similar to my reaction when my brother emailed me pictures of my father in his hospital bed. He looked so WEAK. It was the most depressing thing to see my father like that when I know him as a strong man who gave me piggyback rides, fixed the tires on our cars, and carried heavy things. I felt so sad for him. George’s reaction, clinging on to Meredith’s arm and repeating over and over again “He’s my Dad”, was the same as mine. He’s my Dad, he’s my Dad. My Dad, with the tubes and the scars and the bruises. He’s my Dad.

Before the surgery, George and his dad were playing cards, and Mr. O’Malley confessed to lying about running over his pet dog. He apologized. George realized what he was trying to do, and told him not to act as if he was dying. When the realization hit him that his father is never going to wake up, George, while giving his sleeping father a shave, confessed to another childhood sin that he lied about. “I lied to you; and you thought I never lied.” He said sorry, just like that time when his father said he was sorry about running over the dog. I remember the day my father came home from the hospital following his heart attack and before bypass surgery. He told me on the telephone that he loved me and was so proud of me for being where I am, and I broke down. Again. On the telephone. If you had seen Babel, and saw Brad Pitt sobbing on the telephone while his son was talking on the other line, that was pretty much how I was. My father cooed at me, and told me everything was fine, but I kept right on sobbing. “I love you!” I kept saying over and over again. You never really know when you need to say it, and I said it.

The scene where the doctors were advising the O’Malley family of the option of keeping the father on life support or not was very sad. The brothers and the mother all deferred to George’s opinion, whether he thinks it is time to “let him go”. I can only imagine that, when the time comes, it will be my physician sister who will also make that choice. She was there when my father was rushed to the hospital the first time, and was there during his surgery, and was there during his recovery and checkups. She will know. And I will count on her to know. She will be the rock of the family, and I am just grateful that she is there.

My tears flowed non-stop when Mr. O’Malley was finally unplugged from the life support system. I had seen a family member die, and the sad repercussions that followed it. My brother and his wife lost a baby a few years ago, and I thought that was the saddest thing to happen to our family. To see my brother, my big, strong brother, crying and railing against the hospital staff after my nephew died, was just heart-rending. It is something I do not want to experience again, and the fact that my father was on the verge of it – it was just too much. And so I watched that scene play out and relive my worst fears and I just cried again.

In the end, Cristina had the best words to say about it to George. “There’s a club. A Dead Dad’s Club, and you can’t be in it until you’re in it. They can try and understand, they can sympathize, but until you feel that loss … My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to join the club.” George, appreciating her saying that, but also feeling sad as hell, tells her “I don’t know how to exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t.” And Cristina, her face betraying her uncharacteristic empathy and sadness, said “Yeah, that never really changes.”

I dread that moment. And I never will imagine how I can exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t. But until I join the club, I can feel at least happy in the thought that my father is many many miles away, sitting on a chair at home in the middle of my mother’s garden, writing away on a crossword puzzle. He is my Dad, and that is how I will always remember him.

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