My Father’s Untold Story
When I saw my brother’s number on my cellphone, I had a moment of hesitation. He and I had not spoken in years. Four to be exact. But I knew that his unexpected call meant something was going on, so finally, I picked up.
“Flora, dad got admitted to the hospital. He fell down on the sidewalk.”
I had not spoken to my father for even longer than my brother. At least a decade, maybe more. If my brother had stopped there, I would have gratefully thanked him for keeping me informed and hung up. But there was more.
“It’s a brain tumor. He might not have much longer to live.”
Let’s pause here. This is the moment where I am supposed to say when I heard the news, I was overwhelmed by sadness and distress at the idea of losing my father to cancer.
But I was not. I stood there completely emotionless.
My brother went on to gently pressure me into visiting my father in the hospital, stressing how much he would appreciate seeing me. “I’ll think about it,” I responded evasively.
A Daughter Without a Father
I grew up without a father. Or, should I say, without positive father figure. Following my parents’ intensely chaotic and overly legalized divorce, I was caught into a shared custody arrangement whereby I was ordered by the Court to visit my father every second weekend. I hated every minute of it. For eight years.
All those years, my father was too depressed, angry and self-absorbed to have any notion of parenting. I was treated like cattle: transported from one place to another, sheltered and fed, but abandoned in unfamiliar environments without any other stimulation than a television.
On my fourteenth birthday, I finally had legal capacity to decide whether to continue the visits. And I never visited my father again.
When I hung up the phone, there was only one thought on my mind: my father’s life was coming full circle, and since I had never been a significant part of his life, his death was none of my business. So for me, the matter was closed.
Well, not really. It took about two weeks for guilt to rear its head. It didn’t take me long to give in to it, so I decided to pay my father a quick visit. And as I expected, the visit sucked.
There was never a room big enough to fit in my father’s ego, and a hospital room certainly wasn’t going to fit the bill. As soon as I walked in the room, my father tried his good old tricks, blurting out irrelevant stories and stupid puns in an attempt to dominate the conversation. No genuine discussion happened that day. Actually, I don’t remember having a chance to say anything.
I walked out of there promising myself never to return.
But life has its mysterious ways. Little did I know that the events that would unfold in the following weeks would completely change my relationship with my father. And heal a lifetime of resentment.
A Change of Narrative
According to narrative psychology, the way we make up stories about different aspects of our life says a lot about who we are. In fact, the act of picking and choosing the facts that make up the memories and the narratives of our lives – about ourselves and about others – end up shaping our identities in a powerful way.
Indeed, when we recall a specific memory, we pick and choose a sequence of events that makes sense to us, i.e., that is coherent with the feelings associated with the event. For instance, if you recall the wonderful trip that you took to Berlin, your story will probably ignore the little inconveniences that happened along the way and rather focus on the best moments. The same is true if the trip was a complete disaster: you will likely not remember the nice tour guide or the beautiful sunset, only the unpleasant moments.
It is easy to understand why our memories are selective: perfect memory would lead to complete information overload. But the fact that our memory is structured around emotion has far reaching consequences because we end up shaping our identities around those narratives (I had a good/bad father/mother, I had a privileged/underprivileged childhood, I was a victim of racism/discrimination, etc.), however based on a partial selection of facts. The danger is that we can base our entire life on selective memories that represent a rather distorted version of what really happened.
I had my first experience with this powerful concept in my father’s hospital room.
About a month after my first visit, and having gotten over my initial anger and disappointment, I came back. And what I saw this time was completely different.
The man I found lying in bed this time was fragile and vulnerable. My father was clearly in pain and had occasional brain seizures caused by his tumor. He had become so weak that his cancer treatments had been terminated. So the battle was over. By that time, he should have been transferred to the palliative care unit, but there were no beds available at the time. Stuck in an administrative no man’s land, the man I saw that day was scared and lonely.
A few phone calls and a meeting with my boss later, I had moved to Montreal and set up a remote office in my father’s hospital room. I was going to sit by his bedside for as long as needed. “No one deserves to die in these circumstances,” I told myself. Not even a bad father.
Being confined to a small room for long hours was the best thing that happened to both of us. And honestly, probably even better for me, than for him.
As the weeks went by, my father’s condition got worse. And the weaker he was, the less of a father he was to me. And this is where the transformation happened: in my eyes, my father was becoming what he had always been, just a man. Not the strong and responsible role model I had always wanted. But a man nonetheless, with strengths and weaknesses, and worthy of love.
The moment my father stopped being a role model in my eyes, he also stopped being a failure. My expectations of him vanished. I was finally able to interact with my father, not as a judgmental daughter, but as an equal.
Then, over the five long weeks I sat by his bedside, my narrative about him started to change. All those years, I had been judging him based on our relationship – a painful one. But that was unfair. Yes, my father parented poorly, but I realized that there was more to him than being a father. I started being curious about the other aspects of his life: who he was as a son, a brother, a partner, a student, an immigrant, a husband, an intellectual. By acknowledging the other facets of his life, my narrative of him became much richer. I began to uncover a complex story of war, dream-chasing, hard choices, uncertainty, adversity and grief.
My father came from a poor, but educated family in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Having a gift for mathematics, he earned one of the sought-after Colombo Plan scholarships to study in Canada. He arrived in Montreal in 1967 with $200 in traveller’s checks, and barely any French. He got through his first winter despite absolute poverty, and went on to complete an engineering degree. It is only after a decade of immigration battles and unstable employment that he finally obtained his permanent residence. Only then could he start making plans for the future.
As I was piecing my father’s life together, I realized that I had been missing a huge part of his story. What struck me the most is that he had been a successful immigrant and that for about 10 years, he fought hard to integrate himself, prove his worth and earn the right to stay in Canada. He might not have been the best caretaker, but he had been a fighter. And I could no longer ignore that I was the direct consequence of his sacrifices, courage and determination. That realization had a profound effect on me.
The reframing of my father’s story, which is still ongoing, has taught me an important lesson: to be more curious about people, and less judgmental. It is easy to judge people based on a handful of facts. It’s much harder to make the generous assumption that our relationship with them is only a small act within a much longer play.
Today, I hold two narratives about my father: one where he is a failure, and one where he is an imperfect human being who at times succeeded, and at times failed. Only I can decide which narrative I want to live with.