A Father’s Day post

It’s a few days early, but I really wanted to post something for Father’s Day. I didn’t want to do it on the day itself, in the hope that lots of people will be out celebrating the dads in their lives, rather than hunching over their computers reading my nonsensical little blog. I originally wrote this back in 2004. I’ve made a few minor edits, mostly to place it in the current day, but it’s still meaningful, and still a pretty accurate reflection of my thoughts and feelings about the topic at hand, which is my dad.

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I was once a big fan of the television show Six Feet Under – if you’re not familiar with it, Six Feet Under is an HBO drama about a family that owns and operates a funeral home. The show  is largely about how the living cope with the reality of death, so there was a certain macabre serendipity about the fact that my wife (then my fiancée) and I were watching that particular show when I learned of the death of my father.

It was the evening of July 7, 2003 when my brother called with the news. My father had been undergoing an angioplasty when he went into cardiac arrest and passed on. It has been, without a doubt, the most profound loss of my life. It was not entirely unexpected – my father had a brain aneurysm years ago, and his health was permanently affected by it. From then on I expected him to pass away earlier than he might have otherwise. It was shockingly painful nonetheless, and the passage of time has done little to blunt the pain. It’s clear, however, that the process of separating from my father did not start when he died. My mental and emotional states underwent a drastic shift when he first became seriously ill, of course. And in truth, separating from our parents is a process that we all go through, right?

When I was 5 years old my father came down with tuberculosis and was hospitalized for a number of days. I don’t remember how many, but it felt like 135,000 – I was very impatient for him to come home. One day I was playing in the driveway of our house when I saw a man walking in our direction. He looked, from a distance, remarkably like my father. It didn’t occur to me that when my father came home from the hospital it was unlikely that he would walk home by himself, I only knew that there he was, my dad! I leaped up, nearly foaming at the mouth with joy, and ran toward this unwitting imposter. He smiled very kindly as I came skidding to a halt and stared at him, dumbfounded. Being a kindergartener I felt no embarrassment, and stared, slackjawed and glassy-eyed, until my mother came and pulled me away. My father came home soon after, but oddly I don’t remember the real homecoming – what I remember is my surprised pleasure when I thought it was him, and my intense disappointment when I realized my error.

I flunked out of college my first year after high school, for a million reasons and for no reason at all. My father picked me up and drove me home, a trip that seemingly lasted for an eternity. He took me to lunch, where he told me how my college experience would impact our family’s finances, how it could affect my future, and – remarkably – that if I had learned anything about myself and what I might need to be happy, it was worth it to him, and that he’d do it again in a heartbeat. I like to think that if my children were in that situation I would make a similar effort to express anger and disappointment, but in the same moment express compassion, and hope, and love.

When the aneurysm happened my family’s world was turned upside down. This was a kind of separation that I had not suspected. I was in perhaps my most intense period of detachment from my family – I was fighting what felt like a losing battle with depression, I was angry at just about the entire world, and it had been a long time since I’d had any kind of real conversation with either of my parents. So the knowledge that my dad had lost the capacity for speech brought on a tidal wave of regret that has never truly receded. Over the following decade, as my father’s health fluctuated, I had to learn to bear my own feelings of guilt and remorse.

My wife and I are having our second child later this year, which is a source of immense joy, but it also provokes some sadness. In an ideal world I would become a father at the same time that my father becomes a grandfather, and the moments when I think about that are when it’s hardest to see the separation of death as anything other than horrid, painful, and cruel.

But the complexity of those feelings is leavened and balanced by other memories. I feel cherished and safe thinking about his patient response when, as a preschooler, I demanded to change my first name to his. I remember how despite the unceasing physical and emotional difficulties of his later life he would smile and break into laughter when I would first return home for a visit, no matter how long it had been since my last visit.  I feel gratitude at how he welcomed my wife-to-be when they first met. And I will never forget the overwhelming grief I felt at his funeral.

I believe there is a natural order to life. A parent surviving the death of children does not seem right – I would not wish that on anyone. I’d prefer to have my father around for another 40 years, but he did go before me, in the natural order. It feels right to struggle with that pain – it feels like an affirmation of his presence in my life.  Still, it is a struggle. I wish he was here. I wish I’d been a better son to him. I wish he could meet his grandchildren – they’re amazing, and they would have loved him. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you, and I miss you.

m.

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17 thoughts on “A Father’s Day post

  1. I loved your father. My favorite story about him (refreshed by mother) was when they brought my brother home from the hospital. Not the happiest time for me I’ve been told. “The baby! this..the baby! that”…so I was PISSED. I decided to teach everyone that a harsh lesson for forgetting me, by running away. But where would I go? What job could I get to support myself? I was only three. What else could I do? So I hid underneath the welcome mat of the front door. Can you beleive NO ONE KNEW I WAS GONE?!?! My uncle Steve knew. (Or “Big Daddy” as I and the culture called him) He knew how I felt…that being the only Korean girl in a sea of boys sucked! Then damn it, they brought home another one! Your dad called out to me expressing how I was the ONLY girl, making me all the more important when I clearly felt anything but…now what would he do?? He would be lost! Until that moment being the only girl was a curse. He pretended to cry, so of course I jumped out from underneath the welcome mat and assured him I had not left him. Present day, I am called the favorite Auntie to special little ones. I have special powers to see when the older sibling feels neglected and can find a way to make them realize how special they are. I know I get that gift from my “Big Daddy”. So Michael Jung the 2nd…don’t know if you know that technically, you are Michael Jung the 2nd…now that you are all grown up, I hope you take pride in your 1st name. My father was Michael Sang Ui Jung. I am so proud to say… You’re daddy and my daddy were brothers. I love and miss them both! I know that they love are proud of all of us.

    1. Sandy, I didn’t know that. How did I not know that?? I loved your dad too, he was always good to me, and I always felt welcome coming to your house – I always considered him more than just an uncle. And thanks for the story about you and my dad, I remember hearing that one years and years ago, but I’d forgotten it until now…

  2. Thanks for this, Mike. (A) Glad you didn’t lose that battle with depression, (B) I’m glad you had a dad who loved and supported you and whom you knew you loved, and (C) what a great piece of luck that you have been able to create your own family with someone you love. Our dads make us, for better or worse, as do our moms, and they stay with us even after they are gone. Have a terrific Father’s Day.

  3. Oh Mike. You’ve got me all verklepmt.This touched me so deeply. I’m having to start a prolonged separation from my dad, because he has Alzheimers. He’s not the same dad he was a few years ago – and as the pace of the disease progresses, I know we’ll lose him a little more as every month, every week, every day goes by. But in some ways, it has refined him down to his core – he doesn’t argue with my politics anymore, he just tells me I wrote a good column, and that he loves me.

    Your father sounds like he was an incredible man – just the story of how he reacted to your first year of college tells me that – and he has clearly raised a wonderful son, not to mention an upstanding cabana boy.

    I’m sure he’ll be there kvelling when Jung #2 is born. You’ll feel him, even if you can’t see him.

    1. Thank you Sarah, and thank you for sharing your story! I’m sorry to hear about your dad – it’s really hard when a catastrophic health issue becomes part of our families’ lives, isn’t it? But I’m glad he can still express his love for you.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this, Mike. It touched me deeply. You are a fine writer, and I’d buy any memoir you wrote.

  5. What a touching post, Mike. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m a brain aneurysm survivor. I am one of the luckiest people on earth, as I was diagnosed immediately and had very few side effects from my rupture, but on my journey, I’ve met many people with lasting deficits, and heard of far too many who died from the rupture itself. How fortunate that you had your Dad for another decade after the aneurysm, even if it profoundly affected his health.

    Like Sarah, my Dad has dementia and is a shadow of his former self. Nevertheless, I know I’m lucky to spend Father’s Day with him.

    Happy Father’s Day, Mike.

    1. Thanks Joanne. I’m glad you had such a full recovery, and I do feel fortunate that I got more time with my dad, despite his health problems. I think Sarah got it right – in some ways, it stripped our relationship down to its core. It’s not the way I would choose to have that happen, but yes, any and all of that time together is precious. Thanks for sharing your story with me.

  6. What a beautiful tribute, Mike. It’s so hard when a family member becomes ill. It destroys families, hopes and dreams and still, there is strength to be gathered. My sister has a debilitating chronic illness and there are days it is tough to move forward. But, we all must go on and LIVE.

    Your dad sounds incredible. What wonderful lessons he taught you with his generosity of spirit that you, in turn, will pass on to your children. My heart goes out to you and your family. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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