Father’s Day Is Sometimes Complicated

The holiday has caused such confusion and questioning that for a long time it was easier to ignore it and its significance.

I never knew how to feel about Father’s Day. 

As a little girl, I probably was obligated to make a card for my father in school. As I grew older and sparred with him verbally, I chose not to celebrate Father’s Day. My father was not the “World’s Best Dad” or “No.1 Dad” — I knew this at a young age. Then as adult, I eventually understood that he knew he had made mistakes as a parent and father, and I had started to meet him for lunch or dinner and share my life with him.

My father was not the “World’s Best Dad” or “No.1 Dad” — I knew this at a young age.

Last year he had another stroke, and I became his caretaker.

And then Sunday was Father’s Day.

It had occurred to me to get him a card, or enlarge a photo that he indicated he liked, or do something to mark the occasion. After all, he is still alive, aware of his surroundings and continues to make progress during therapy.

But making the journey from Orange County to L.A. for his appointments (three or four a week, depending on his therapists’ and acupuncturist’s schedules) is not easy, and the physical and emotional strain is high.

I accompanied him to acupuncture Saturday, and the coward in me thought it might be best to not acknowledge the holiday. If I did, I knew I would start crying, and then I would surely upset him. While I have told him that we both made mistakes and that I would prefer to have him in my life, there are so many little things we have not said.

As it turned out, I was in the area after all on Sunday.

My compromise with myself was to stop in on him at the skilled nursing facility, say hello, ask him how he was doing and let him know I’d be back in two days to accompany him to speech therapy. I told him my visit would be brief because I was on my scooter and wanted to get home before traffic became too heavy and the day became night.

He raised his arm and moved his hand in a way to indicate he felt so-so on this day, and after a few more questions I said goodbye.

The stroke has changed him, especially physically, but even before that, he had been humbled by other strokes and age. He was no longer the commanding and frightening authority figure. He became a man who waned to communicate with his children, although he lacked the tools to do so.  

The stroke has changed him, especially physically, but even before that, he had been humbled by other strokes and age. He was no longer the commanding and frightening authority figure. He became a man who wanted to communicate with his children, although he lacked the tools to do so.

I am certain I am not the only one who feels ambivalence or confusion on this holiday. Even the president of the United States has complicated feelings towards a father he hardly knew. It brought me some comfort to read the article about the trove of letters written by Barack Obama, Sr., preserved, sitting in a box, awaiting the day his son is ready to read them.

My father goes to acupuncture

A family member graciously allows me to crash on his couch when I plan to visit my father.

It is an extremely convenient arrangement, given that his apartment is a block or so from a train stop, and perhaps more importantly, only a 15-minute walk (or quick Lyft ride) to the nursing facility where my dad is currently a resident.

After an initial stay at a skilled nursing facility in Rosemead, which is ridiculously far from Los Angeles — officially 18 miles from my former Koreatown apartment and about 30 minutes without traffic — we found a better and closer place in Highland Park, northeast of downtown L.A.

My father has made progress after a stroke in March, but it seems he has hit a wall after so many initial gains. His mobility on the right side has increased, but he cannot move the left side of his body without assistance. He has difficulty swallowing, and does not speak.

He was refusing to participate with the speech therapist, perhaps because it is still very difficult for him to swallow, but I’m not sure. After the electro stimulation on his throat during speech therapy at the hospital, he was a more willing participant, but he coughed a lot after trying different substances.

When he refused to participate in some aspects of physical therapy, that therapist could talk him into it.

Something is clearly going on inside that head of his, but since he cannot talk, we have no way of knowing what it is.

Acupuncture after a stroke seemed like a good idea, but because he was dealing with so many complications, we waited to make arrangements for scheduling an appointment.

We are hoping acupuncture will help stimulate his nerves and remind his brain and body what they should be doing. If it helps with movement, swallowing, and/or his mood, those are all pluses. I have wondered if he is depressed, given he is now confined to a room, his movement determined by others, and limited to answering yes or no questions.

Full disclosure: I have used acupuncture regularly, most recently for a complicated ankle sprain involving stretched nerves and loss of control of my toes, and the subsequent pain. I turned to it when migraines were dictating my life. My father turned to it for his maladies and introduced our family to it. He took me to an acpuncturist in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown when I tweaked my thumb while playing volleyball in high school.

Now it appears I am returning the favor.

I arrived at the nursing facility about 15 minutes before our scheduled departure.

He was dressed and ready to be moved to a wheelchair when I arrived.

The driver arrived a few minutes later, and I walked with him as he wheeled my father to the back parking lot where a small, white van was waiting.

I watched the driver open the van doors, unfold and pull out the ramp. Seatbelts attached to the wheelchair and acted as pulleys to get my father up the ramp and into the back of the van.

The wheelchair was secured, and then a seatbelt was pulled across my father’s chest. He seemed at ease and nodded to indicate he was aware we were going to acupuncture.

Once we got on the road, my father took in the scenery, looking mostly to his right, at a world he had not visited in seven months.

He seemed to enjoy the view, and being away from the nursing facility.

From the front seat, I asked if he was OK. He turned away from the window and looked at me briefly, then nodded. It was almost like I had interrupted him, and he went back to looking out the window.

He was alert the entire ride over and watched the nurse practitioner intently as she took his blood pressure and jotted the information down in his file. He responded to the acupuncturist, who is also his primary care physician.

The doctor, who I met for the first time that day, asked him to hold his left hand with his right. It apparently helps the brain remember and acknowledge the other side of the body. (This reminded me of my physical therapy treatments for my ankle.) She asked him, in Mandarin, to raise both arms up to his face. He complied as much as he could.

Before she began to insert needles, she massaged his face, shoulders and head. She was a bit rough for my taste, but he didn’t seem to mind. He looked calm, and comfortable.

She and I chatted, and she looked me over before saying she thought I looked like him.

Once the needles were in for a bit, my father began to snore. He slept almost the entire way back. I plan to see him again this week, and will schedule another visit. I want to get a better idea of how often he can make the trip. He did better than I anticipated — I thought he might have difficulties with traveling, but it was quite the opposite.

download_20151023_133548 My father, in the back of the van, on our way to his first acupuncture treatment.

A Stroke, and Both Our Worlds Are Changed

My father still has difficulty holding his head up, among a laundry list of other ailments. While he has made progress, it is his continued inability to swallow, and speak, that has me worried. But I also wonder if seven months after the stroke, he has tired of fighting.

In March, my father had another stroke.

Stubborn by nature, he had not checked in with his primary care doctor for almost a year leading up to the stroke and had not been taking his heart and high blood pressure medication regularly. He had some difficulty walking, and a fall from late 2013 still affected him. But he lived independently.

I remember the day, it was last year, when he told me his ex-wife passed away. I later learned it was around the time he stopped taking his medication. Apparently, he knew her when they were young, in Shanghai, and I think she was the love of his life.

He was calm and clear about how it happened, he showed no emotion, but talked in a soft tone. I almost cried, and wanted to embrace him, but hugging is not something my father and I did regularly. That may sound harsh and cold. And he was.

For most of my life, until I graduated from college and began working my way into a jounalism career, I did not speak with my father often. It was easier not to. Eventually, the rage and disappointment gave way to acceptance and forgiveness. There were occasional lunches and dinners before the stroke. But ours is still a complicated relationship.

Since March, I have debated if I should share what has been happening with him, and by extension, with me, and my past. And my family’s past. There is much we have not said to each other about a difficult upbringing that included frequent fights between my parents and a divorce after he left our home to live with another woman.

I know we wasted an enormous amount of time blaming and ignoring him. Of course, I understand I cannot change the past, but I am keenly aware of the hurt that lingers. I feel as if I have been keeping a secret, and now, I am letting some of you in on it.

Since March, I have debated if I should share what has been happening with him, and by extension, with me, and my past. And my family’s past. There is much we have not said to each other about a difficult upbringing that included frequent fights between my parents and a divorce after he left our home to live with another woman.

Writing is usually therapeutic, but it also means experiencing the hurt all over again. I have started and stopped various drafts about my experience with hospital and nursing facility staff; about researching different types of strokes, nursing homes and about recovery from a stroke; and possible places for him to receive electrical stimulation on his throat to help him swallow and possibly, speak again.

He has not uttered a word since March. It is ironic, given how much he yelled and enforced his will verbally when we were growing up.

My father is Chinese, hence my last name, which means “heart” and has a silent “H”; my mother is Mexican. They came to the U.S. in the late 60s, if I’m not mistaken, met in Los Angeles and married in the early 70s.

It was made clear to me by both parents that my gender meant there were certain things I could and could not do, despite having really good grades and being a pretty responsible kid. My father was stern and demanding, and he was the undisputed head of the household. Unlike many of my Latino friends’ fathers growing up, he cooked, often.

He also constantly tinkered with the old cars that sat in our driveway. I like driving through the city and enjoy road trips, probably because of the many Sundays we spent travelling to what seemed like distant cities in his 1963, banged up, white Chevy Impala.

I enjoy shopping for groceries in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown because we spent so much time dining and buying the proper ingredients for dinner there. I am independent and stubborn, like him. But he did not teach us his language, and I will likely forever be an outsider in that world. I do speak Spanish, quite well, and can still have a simple conversation in French.

All of this played in my head as there was a point after the stroke when the doctors did not think my father would make it. I decided to traverse the city to see him, and thought about the countless times we drove down Wilshire Boulevard.

I now lived walking distance from this major street. It was my route to the subway, and the first part of my journey to his bedside. I hopped on the subway from my Koreatown apartment and transferred to a bus that would take me from downtown L.A. to the hospital in Alhambra.

Driving there, without traffic, would take about 30 minutes.

But that was not a drive I wanted to make on my scooter.

I now lived walking distance from this major street. It was my route to the subway, and the first part of my journey to his bedside. I hopped on the subway from my Koreatown apartment and transferred to a bus that would take me from downtown L.A. to the hospital in Alhambra.

I felt I needed to tell him that I forgave him, and that I would help him if he wanted me to. I started writing a story on the bus, on my phone, and I remember passing one of his favorite restaurants at Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park.

By the time I got to the hospital, my nose was puffy and my eyes were red. My father opened his eyes when I called to him, and once the nurse left the room, I began to say what I wanted to say. He began to shake, and his face contorted, but I don’t think he made any noise. Tears began to stream down his face. He was crying.

I was relieved he could understand, but then I felt badly for upsetting him. I took him by the hand and told him it was OK, that there was still time, including time for him to teach me Mandarin. (I studied Mandarin for a semester and I barely passed. My pronunciation is apparently horrible. When I called my dad one day to tell him I was taking the class, I said something to him in Mandarin and he asked me to repeat it. After a few more attempts and he still couldn’t understand what I was saying, he said I should just tell him in English.) I also told him that it was up to him, and how much effort he was willing to put into his recovery.

The last week has been pretty difficult, for me and for him, as he had just returned from an 11-day hospital stay due to pneumonia. It’s likely his own saliva went down the wrong pipe and into his lungs. He was receiving great care at Glendale Adventist Hospital, and the speech therapist there was using electrical stimulation on his throat.

After some initial frustration, and a visit by me during a session with his therapist, my father began to swallow various types of liquids and gooey substances. He would need several months of this before we would see real progress, but because his pneumonia was on the mend and his lungs were clear, he was discharged back to the nursing facility.

I don’t have any real complaints about the care at the nursing facility, but unfortunately, they do not offer vital stimulation for his throat during speech therapy.

I’ve spent almost a week looking into how to make this happen for him off site. Insurance is never easy, but I was able to speak with a live person after several messages and being routed to various departments, and she will let me know how and if therapy away from the nursing facility will happen. (If you’re curious, this is the link for what I’m looking into).

My emotional state was already shaky, and I was looking forward to attending the first-ever Laguna Film Festival in Orange County. The first short documentary, called “Alzheimer’s: A Love Story,” broke my heart into even more pieces. The film opens with two men, one sitting in a wheelchair with a homemade birthday cake in his lap that the other man is holding. The man’s head droops forward as he sits in the wheelchair. The other man is trying to get him to sing or blow out the candle. We later learn the man in the wheelchair is in a special treatment facility for Alzheimer’s Disease and the other man is his partner of more than 40 years.

The man in the wheelchair immediately reminded me of my father.

My father still has difficulty holding his head up, among a laundry list of other ailments. A tube connects to his stomach from a machine that feeds him liquid nutrients. I was told early on that one of the most important things in recovery is a person’s ability to eat solid food again.

While he has made progress, it is his continued inability to swallow, and speak, that has me worried. He remains at a high risk for pneumonia because he still cannot swallow. I also wonder if seven months after the stroke, he has tired of fighting.

While he has made progress, it is his continued inability to swallow, and speak, that has me worried. He remains at a high risk for pneumonia because he still cannot swallow. I also wonder if seven months after the stroke, he has tired of fighting.

I can only wonder what thoughts are locked inside his head. While he can nod or blink his eyes for “yes,” and shake his head for “no,” he often refuses to answer. He will simply stare back when you ask him a question or look away. I have attempted to have him spell out words to me, but most of the time he has refused.

At the hospital, he did hold a pen and attempt to spell “yes,” but he lacks control. I was going to see if he could touch the screen on my tablet to spell during my last visit, but he was too tired to wake from his sleep. Apparently, he had been rather active the day before, and it was the same week he returned from the hospital.

Tomorrow my father has an acupuncture appointment, and electrical stimulation is now part of his physical therapy. That therapist will be using electrical stimulation on his shoulders and neck, to help him with head control, and by extension, possibly with swallowing. Cross your fingers.

The couple on the left in the photo are my godparents. My parents stand next to them, and my father is on the right.