originally posted on Facebook
In reading folks' stories about the support, and sometimes absence, of their fathers, I can't help but to also celebrate the complexity of the roles associated with the term 'father' and 'dad' in my own life. I realize that the number of friends I have on Facebook who knew and met my dad is an increasingly smaller proportion and for that, I'm inclined to share what little, yet vivid, memories I cherished with him.
If your eyes manage to look away from the itchiest cotton candy dress I've ever worn and my sumangot-smize in this photo, you'll notice, above the hairclip I often wore to sleep, my dad. Upon first glance you might not quickly tell by his suave demeanor, but he'd already been experiencing early signs of health problems. What became normal in my primary years were hazardous evening drives into the wrong lanes because later stages of cataract concealed most of his vision; sleepless nights that quickly became early mornings to coughing storms resulting from a history of excessive smoking/drinking (my dad went cold turkey sober the day my sister was born); and ultimately, dad's livelihood of devotion to raising a family that would outlive him. The symptoms of his condition eventually evolved into frequent radiation treatments at Straub Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. Lolo and Lola would look out for us back on Guam while mom and dad flew out for these trips. He was getting treated for thyroid cancer. Like the stubborness I credit to my dad, a small part of me remains triggered whenever I talk about, or even see the merciless word, cancer. I don't hate too many things, but I do hate cancer.
But even while living with it, my dad remained the fearless, relentless, yet well-humored warrior he always was. You can also read that as: (1) he hated taking his medication, (2) every day (for around 2+ months) at St. Luke's hospital* in the Philippines he would wake up and say he's feeling better (he wasn't), then proceed to ask if that was the day he was finally getting discharged. Oh, and (3) at 77 years old with a not-so-sexy traecheotomy tube, he was still charming the lady nurses without trying. 😏 He was the father of 11 kids, my sister and I being the third and youngest batch. Yup. You read right. And if you're following the math, you'll realize I grew up as an auntie to nieces/nephews twice my age who, among peers and teachers, called my dad 'grandpa'. If you're confused by reading that, imagine processing familial relations as a 6 year old. Fast forward in time to 2001-2003. By the age of 12, ate (older sis) and I were replacing dad's puss and sweat-soaked gauze pads, pouring Ensure into his feeding tube, cleaning out a catheter bag, using a suction tube to clear out the blood and saliva from his traech tube, and communicating with him via pen and spiral notebooks.
It was on those regular visits to Hawaii that my dad and mom talked about wanting to move there from Guam. Mom, ate, and I did. Dad never made it. I had just turned 13 when he passed away at 77 years old in November of 2003. Being young and naive back then, I realized later that I never had the chance to ask how my dad immigrated to the US and also later found out that he was also healing from the trauma of seeing his own parents killed. My dad's passing inevitably marked a pivotal time in my family.
Like all families who've experienced pain, suffering, and hurt, we learn and continue to heal and overcome. The period of time leading up to his passing meant seeing my mom lose a business she started as a recent immigrant; it meant digging ourselves out of medical debt; it meant packing up our lives into three suitcases and starting over with no course of action in Hawaii; it meant survival was the plan and the back up plan, even if it meant not having a home. My mom juggled several jobs to raise two daughters and simultaneously care for her hemiparetic father. By the age of 16, my sister and I were wheeling lolo around the malls, changing his diapers, feeding him ensure, treating his body sores with ointment, and we learned the fireperson's carry trick to shift his half-numb, half-alive body from wheelchair to bed.
In a way, caring for both dad and lolo, while barely seeing mom during my adolescent years, made me feel like I matured faster and gained a motivated, aspirational outlook on life. In the course of my quarter-century life, people have told me that I'm 'too happy' or that I'm extreeeemely positive. This is partly due to the fact that I've spent countless days of my life in mourning. I've learned to be grateful for each day I wake up alive and to celebrate the people on this journey with me. Our complex, non-nuclear, alternative family is what continues to thread the fabric of my identity. I feel fathered by the circumstances I was in and the people within them. The term father and mother carries interchangeable weight and I ultimately take away the power of resilience, strength, love, and legacy that I hope to extend to generations after my own. <3
If you've read this far, I welcome you further into my world through a small window of my family's story.
* I could talk even more in depth about my dad's last months on our 'extended' vacation to the Philippines, but that may be an entirely longer post, or even series of small stories, altogether.