Crying In My Car

It finally happened. In May of this year, after 34 combined years of service as a U.S. Marine and in the U.S Postal Service employee, my father retired! It almost snuck up on us, to be honest. He’d worked so hard for so long to get to this point, which always seemed an eternity away. But he made it. We made it. Free at last, free at last…

My mother, brother and I planned a surprise retirement party in secret that took place just a couple of weeks later. We invited tons of friends and family and hired a taquero like the good Mexicans that we are. For entertainment, we brought in an act that my dad had seen and loved at a family party long ago: a comedian and musical impersonator who takes on the likes of Vicente Fernandez, Juan Gabriel, Antonio Aguilar, Paquita la del Barrio and more. All you paisas out there are with me so far and would have gotten a kick out of it; the rest of you are probably lost as f*ck, and there really isn’t much I can say here to clear things up for you. Sorry, dude.

Dear ol’ dad was absolutely blindsided, totally believing the lie we told him about taking my mom out to dinner the night before Mother’s Day to avoid the crowds. The party was a success; the food was delicious, the company great and the entertainment was a huge hit. The entertainer apparently woke up with a terrible cold the morning of the party which could have been a disaster; however several shots of hard liquor supplied by my brother seemed to help the guy hit the high notes, which in all honesty probably made the Chente experience that much more authentic.

Señor Diaz dove into retired life, scheduling visits with friends and family, heading to a Dodger game in LA with my brother, even jet-setting off to Guadalajara with my aunt for a quick trip to see some extended family. It all seemed like sunshine and roses with one minor thorn in his side: he’d recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis. To make a long story short, my obstinate father convinced himself that certain digestive issues he’d suffered for years (you read that right: years) were a perfectly normal occurrence in the life of a perfectly healthy person. They weren’t, of course, and we unfortunately learned that in suffering through this condition for so long, my father had essentially gone years without properly absorbing much nutritional content from his food. It was time to seek treatment and make some major changes to his lifestyle; though begrudgingly, he made the adjustments.

Then a few weeks ago at 5:57AM as I was loading my gym bag into my car, I received a text message from my father that read, “Call me asap.” I dropped the gym bag on the floor and onto my foot as I dialed, toe now throbbing and stomach uneasy as the dial tone rang in my ear. I know my dad, and he wouldn’t ask me to call him early in the morning like this if it wasn’t urgent. I quickly learned that he’d been in the emergency room for hours waiting to be seen. He’d been suffering from pain in his abdomen for a couple of days and had reached the point where he couldn’t stand it anymore. 

I was relieved, to be honest. The more I probed into his symptoms, the more convinced I became that my father had appendicitis. Painful though it might be, it didn’t appear to be life-threatening. The doctor saw him, checked him out, sent him off for a CT scan, confirmed appendicitis, and scheduled a same-day surgery. His appendix was swollen but had not burst, so that was good news.

I sat with my mother in the waiting room and waited a couple of hours for my dad to get out of surgery. At one end of the room was a TV monitor displaying a list of patient ID numbers each color coded for status; one color meant the patient was in pre-op, another that he/she was in surgery; a different color meant the patient was in the post-op recovery area, another that he/she was being moved to a bed within the hospital. There were throngs of us packed into the same waiting area, each staring up at the screen with impatient eyes like DMV patrons waiting for our number to show up. My eyes were glued to the monitor when my mother touched my arm- my father’s surgeon had entered the room and wanted to speak with us.

Dr. Poon pulled us into the hallway and said the surgery had gone well. The appendix had been removed without much difficulty but the mass was in a difficult extraction spot, so he ended up having to excise both the mass and a chunk of the colon entirely. He kept on talking, explaining that since he’d cut open the abdomen instead of the originally planned and less invasive laparoscopy, the recovery would be more complicated. We’d know in a week what the pathology of the mass was; the results might further explain some of my dad’s recent digestive issues.

Wait - mass? What mass? I outwardly maintained my composure as I politely asked what mass he was talking about; in my head, the questioning went more like, “What the f*ck do you mean, ‘the mass?’ What mass? This mass and I have not been properly introduced. We aren’t bloody familiar, Dr. Poon!” My mom wasn’t as surprised; she knew there was a blockage in his colon. She knew because my dad had told her, but only very recently; he’d kept it to himself for some time. I made a mental note to slap the taste out of his mouth once he recovered.

I was upset, but I still felt optimistic in spite of my flash of anger. The surgeon had after all parted by letting us know that the type of blockage he found ends up being benign more often than not. It was more the shock of finding out the way I did, from a stranger in a white coat with my father recovering from surgery nearby. I have told my father once, twice, if not seventeen hundred times that he needs to be honest with us about his health. He does this every time though: he says he doesn’t want to worry my mother, brother and I, but ends up giving us a cardiac episode when we find out whatever he's been hiding inopportunely.

He was in post-op and still very groggy when a nurse came by to tell my mom and I that we could see him one at a time for ten minutes each. Mom went in first but Dad was still pretty out of it: he kept asking for his wife when she was there holding his hand all the while. In the meantime, I ran to my car to charge my dying phone.

I took the opportunity to contact two of my best friends to cancel my plans to visit them in LA the next day. One of them was going to ask me to reschedule anyway since his girlfriend had tickets to see the Anaheim Ducks playoff game. He apologized and said he felt especially bad since he’d be leaving to Europe for almost three weeks shortly thereafter, a fact he swore he’d mentioned previously and I was adamant he had not. I knew I had to stay with my dad, I mean: duh. Not even up for discussion. In my emotional state though, given that he was only home for the summer from law school and for so many other stupid reasons, all of this news made me spiral into an emo fit. I sobbed right there in my car and he listened patiently. I missed him and felt stupid for crying about that when my dad was in the hospital, then cried because my dad was in the hospital. This was hard. 

After getting some good tears out of the way, I pulled it together and made my way back inside. It was my turn to see my dad, and I felt my hands start to shake as I approached. Lying there tucked under a blanket, hooked to an IV and breathing tube, machines beeping and booping every few seconds in that sterile room with curtains separating beds from one another, my six-foot-tall father looked so pale, so small.

I came close to the bed in silence as he appeared to be asleep, then felt a hand digging its way out of the covers before closing its grip on my own. He squeezed hard as he writhed in pain and it felt like a stab in my chest. The nurse watching over him told me she’d asked for his pain level on a scale from one to ten and that he’d given her an eight. She said that kind of pain level more than warranted at least a mild painkiller, to which he replied, “Then never mind, my pain is a four.” He hates taking medication, even when he’s been sliced open.

I lightened up a little when he whispered in his Godfather voice that I needed to help him break out of this place; I smiled through glassy eyes and told him he’d need to take it easy for a few days, then outright laughed when he replied, “That’s ok. I’ll get your brother to get me out of here. He’ll help me.” And later on, he really did try to conspire with my brother to stage a jailbreak. If you know my dad, this isn’t much of a surprise.

Then I was reminded what it’s like to feel like all of the air has been sucked out of the room and ice water poured down your spine. He opened his eyes for a few brief moments and looked straight into mine and said, “I just wish I’d gotten to walk you down the aisle. I’m sad I won’t meet your babies, my grandchildren. Take care of your mom. You and your brother, please take care of her.”

Panic. Panic, panic everywhere. My brother walked in at that precise moment when I felt like my eyeballs had been doused in hydrochloric acid, and I’m convinced that his arrival was Jesus doing me a solid: “Oh boy, she’s about to lose it. Quick! Send in the brother NOW!” I walked down the long hallway back to the waiting room choking back sobs that threatened to strangle me. My mom and brother’s girlfriend made conversation, and I engaged but only vaguely remember doing so.

Before long, my father was admitted to a regular bed up on the fifth floor. A slew of family members came in spite of my dad’s request to keep visitors at bay. Hours passed and he became more lucid. My mom would spend the night with him, so my brother, his girlfriend and I say our goodbyes and left to grab a late-night bite to eat.

What no one knew was that I’d stolen away to my car again earlier in all the commotion, shortly after my dad lamented, fearing the worst of his condition, that he’d never get to see his firstborn child and only daughter as a bride. I sat there in my Altima coupe with the windows rolled up and cried my F*CKING face off. My chest heaved, my mascara ran, my breath became elusive. He’d hit me where it hurt. There I was, Miss Love-Will-Find-Me-When-Its-Meant-To, the girl who believes that love can’t be rushed and is best when it happens organically, suddenly reevaluating all of my life’s choices. It was silly, really. He was just groggy and would probably be JUST FINE. But what if he wasn’t? What if for once my insistence on positivity in the face of his worrying was misplaced? What if he really was sick and all the time I thought I had was suddenly stolen from me?

I spun out a little. I started to overanalyze every detail of my past relationships and asked myself if I would and should have been married by now if I’d done things differently. I thought maybe I should give an ex who keeps on contacting me a second chance, even though my heart isn’t really in it and never really was. Then I cursed that wretched, gushing heart for its insistence on loving a man who would not love me even when I told (and tell) it to quit that sh*t. I chastised myself for being so picky- maybe it wasn’t so bad if a guy used “your” when he meant “you’re,” and perhaps I should stop judging guys online so hard for their gym selfies. I resolved to give online dating a try for the umpteenth time; not a minute later, I saw that a self-proclaimed pansexual couple on a dating app had messaged me to compliment my exotic eyes and propose that we arrange a mutually pleasurable encounter. God has a sense of humor.

I fixed my face before heading back up to my dad’s room, no trace of a tear left as I joked with family about my dear dad’s stubbornness. With each day that passed, though my father was in pain and clearly stressing over the pending pathology of that stupid mass, things got a little easier. In typical fashion, he repeatedly questioned various health professionals on the possibility that his surgeon had removed the wrong organ; he kept sneaking down the hallway by himself even though he was on strict orders not to get up without assistance. He even got up and shaved when he wasn't supposed to, having to kneel down and take deep breaths between shave strokes to steady his dizziness. He could have fallen and knocked himself unconscious, but he'd sooner do that than go another day without a clean shaven face. His refusal to listen was maddening in the moment but of course made me laugh in spite of myself. I remember thinking that these were the types of behaviors that have always made my dad such a character, and how much I'd miss him if he weren't around to be a pain my ass.

You’ve all heard it before, you probably hear it every day. If someone isn’t telling you that life is short and unpredictable, then a Facebook post or some Instagram inspiration remind you to live life to the fullest and to carpe the sh*t out of each diem.  You’ve probably become desensitized to it by now, and I don’t really blame you. I’m still going to tell you though that it’s all true; life is precious, and I beg you not to wait to fully grasp that until your dad is saying his goodbyes, premature or not.

A few days later, I got another text from dad, this time with a much happier message. I stole away from the office I’m working at for the summer and practically ran to the parking garage, once again breaking down in my vehicle as soon as I’d shut the door. I cried harder this time, a cry that started way down in my stomach and exploded on my face in maniacal, tear-soaked laughter. By the grace of God, my daddy is going to be ok. His one-liners will continue to serve as writing material. He’ll proudly ask me to sign a copy of my first published book someday. He’ll continue to spend way too much money at the USC bookstore each time we head up to catch a game. He’ll walk me down the aisle someday, whenever that is, sporting a mixed expression of pride, joy and utter terror; he may or may not cry, but God knows I will sob. He’ll spoil my children rotten and feed them gummy worms and Cheetos even when I ask him not to, and he’ll love them in a way that he’s been waiting to do his whole life.

I recently told my dad that he is one of my greatest inspirations for writing, so now every time he does or says something ridiculous, he follows up with "Are you going to write about that? If so, please remember what my own dad used to say: 'No digas que soy terco, soy fino!' Hehe!" ("Don't say that I'm stubborn, I'm refined!")

So this one is for my padre fino, may he give me creative fodder for years to come.

 When my brother had surgery last year, my dad brought a stuffed Ninja Turtle to the hospital as a good luck charm because my brother loved the TMNT as a kid. When it was my dad's turn to go under the knife, my brother got him this little guy. Excuse me while I go sob.

When my brother had surgery last year, my dad brought a stuffed Ninja Turtle to the hospital as a good luck charm because my brother loved the TMNT as a kid. When it was my dad's turn to go under the knife, my brother got him this little guy. Excuse me while I go sob.

Bookishly yours,

Vanessa