The last time I saw my father

I don’t come from a superstitious background, and certainly do not consider myself a psychic of any kind, but there were several moments in my life where I felt like I could see into the future. One of those instances was the last time I saw my father.

It was early 2003, the year that I graduated from high school, and my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was anything but stoic. Passionate, smart, and gregarious—that’s how I’ve always known him. He was what you would call “The life of the party.” But on that day at the airport in early 2003 (I forgot the month) when I went to say goodbye to him because he was going back to Vietnam for medical treatment, his face was forlorn, and I could sense a level of sadness in his eyes, I knew right then and there that it would be the last time that I would ever see him.

And I was right. He died several months after he left, in late April of 2003.

Now, as I write this 15 years later, in early January, during the month that he would’ve turned 77, I can’t help but feel angry. I’m angry because he told me a lie—that he would be back for my high school graduation. I’m angry that I foolishly believed he would get better. Little did I know that doctors gave him less than six months to live. (He was in the last stages of the cancer).

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Dad and me, when I was about 16

When he was alive, my dad was really good at promises—or rather, breaking them. It was something that truly irked me as a child and is still a pet peeve today. He’d tell me that he would do something for me, and later on, failed to follow through. Like the one time he told me that he would take me on an adventure in the city, only he didn’t have the proper accommodations lined up, so he gave up. Or the many times he said he would get me a gift, but he never did.

The one gift he did give me was love. I felt it in my very first memory. When I was about four years old, I became very ill. To this day, I’m not quite sure how I got so sick or what plagued me, but I do remember that he and my mom made the decision that saved my life—they took me to the hospital, where I stayed for almost two weeks, until I got better. It was during my time at the hospital where I remembered my father visiting me every single day (my mom was working all day), and each time he came he always brought soup. After all, soup is a healing agent, he believed. He also brought toys and candy, which made me very happy.

For all his caring acts aside, he was not a perfect man. He carried with him a history of alcoholism, prison time, infidelity, and the inability to hold down a job. Despite all of that, I didn’t held a grudge against him, because he was truly kind to everyone and committed to his community. He volunteered at our church frequently and always gave money to the less fortunate even though we were pretty poor ourselves.

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My father’s grave, circa 2009. What a bunch of grumps we are.

I came into the world to parents who were much older than average. My mom was nearing 40 and they already had two kids. Unlike the relationship he had with his sons, I felt like our relationship was different. My parents wanted a girl, and they got one. Thus, my father was never one to shy away from showing off his little girl. On his shoulder I went, and he’d swing me around our village as often as he pleased, which I’m certain is how I developed my fear of heights—being on his shoulder wasn’t as fun for me as it was for other kids. I was shy, timid, and scared. Mainly, I wanted to be left alone, to play by myself.

Not only that, he had a sense of humor that only exemplified his true comical nature. He was not afraid to play jokes on little kids. One of the jokes he always played on my cousins was calling them over to him with the promise of a “treat” and when they came, he would ask them to extend their hand, and when they did, he would let out an enormous (and often smelly) fart, which made them run to their moms and dads crying.

It sounds like a jerky thing to do, I know–we both knew it, but he and I always rolled over laughing. Deep down, I knew he would never do that to me, because I was his daughter.

I wish I knew more about his earlier life, but I don’t. I only know that he was the first child who survived out of the 15 or so siblings that his mom gave birth to. He had three older sisters who all died in infancy. Later on, he was married to my mom in an arrangement between their parents when he was in his late teens. I feel like his marriage with my mom is still something of a farce. He cheated on her with another woman and didn’t treat her very well when he was drunk, and I’m sure she was not an angel either, but they both learned to love each other over time.

Their love is the kind of strange love that I didn’t quite understand when I was younger. I don’t even know how I was conceived. They always told me it was a “miracle” from God.

It wasn’t until many years later, on the anniversary of his death, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom hold back some tears that I understood the fact that their marriage lasted not because they were madly in love at first, but because they fell in love in the later years. My mom eventually forgave my dad for cheating on her, but she never forgot. She was angry at him for a long time.

Now, when I think back at that time at the airport in 2003, the last time I saw my father, I become angry at myself, as much as my mom was angry with me for not showing any emotion following his death. I’m angry because I didn’t tell him that I love him, and I didn’t hug him. I’m angry because our last exchange was him telling me to do well in school, and that he would be there for my graduation, because that was the last lie he ever told, the last promise he broke. But I wondered if he truly believed that. I think he did.

My mom doesn’t quite understand why I didn’t fall apart and cry over his death. When he left, I knew he would be gone forever so I developed a numbing mechanism, if you will. I pushed all the sad thoughts away and told myself that it is what it is—I couldn’t do anything about it. I was still mad at him for not taking care of himself. After all, if he had gone to the doctor sooner, or smoked less, or did this and that, then he would still be alive for my high school and college graduations.

Still, I don’t want to degrade the dead. I want people to know that he was a good father to me, that he did what he could, and he contributed to society with what he had—his brain. One of his poems still hang around in a frame at my mom’s house, above the makeshift mantel that includes photos of both of my grandparents, all long gone by now. His memory still lives in me no matter what.

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