You know how sometimes all this fucked up shit happens in your life and you don’t want to write about it because you’re afraid you’ll tempt the fates into shitting on you even more, and then life shows you what REAL tragedy looks like so you don’t get it mixed up with the mild, pussy shit you have been whining about, and then shit kind of winds down and you know you ought to write something but you don’t know where to start?
Christmas went by in a flash this year. It was my first holiday season in L.A. in 14 years and I have to say, with the sun shining every day, it didn’t matter how many lawn montages of light-up Jesus babies and snowmen and deer I jogged past — it just didn’t feel like Christmas. I especially loved the inflatable Santa Clauses, which would inevitably wind up prone by morning, looking for all the world like drunkards who’ve had too much malt liquor to crawl past the grass before passing out cold.
An explainer: My dad has congestive heart failure. During one of his hospital stays in the fall, he had a heart attack. I don’t know which came first, but I know that he now has a tendency to retain water, including in his lungs, which makes it difficult for him to breathe and makes his heart work harder. It’s a vicious cycle, one which sometimes has to end with a trip to the emergency room and the administering of an IV drip with the diuretic furosemide. Whereas we kind of needed to reduce the amount of salt in his diet (and ours, since we all eat together), we now have to eliminate salt completely.
Before we brought him home from the hospital, a man probably young enough to be my reason-for-dropping-out-of-high-school son came to the house with an oxygen concentrator and a scripted lesson on how to fill the travel tank, how much oxygen we have in the large tank in case of a power outage, and weekly cleaning tasks for us. I felt sobered then, just as I do now every time its deafening beep signals that the machine has been turned on for the evening. The thing is about the size of R2D2, but it thrums and hisses like Darth Vader. A 50-foot tube lets him move around the small footprint of our house (though he’s not allowed to be near an open flame, like the stove, for 20 minutes after using it), and a clear cannula tucked behind his ears with prongs for his nostrils delivers a steady 2-liter flow of oxygen into his weakened system.
It was scary at first, having that thing around. But now I’m comforted by its sound; it has allowed my father to sleep more soundly than he has in years without having to take nitroglycerin sublingual pills for angina.
Sometimes I hear him coughing and I wonder, is that a normal cough or is that fluid in his lungs? I see him nodding off as he watches his soap operas and I have to resist the temptation to stick a finger under his nostrils and ask him if he’s doing okay. When I change the water in his vaporizer before I go to bed, I think, who’s going to do that for him when I move out? He doesn’t want me to worry, but I can’t help myself.
One thing the hospital drama revealed to me was how lonely I am here. I mean, I have close friends in town, but not in the suburb I live in; many of my best friends are clear across the country, and there’s nobody within 15 mins of me that I would feel comfortable calling and saying, Hey, I’m tired of being in the hospital. Can we go get a quick dinner and not talk about anything serious?
So I decided to prioritize moving out, finally. I realized that if I don’t make a life for myself here, my whole life will be sacrificed in the service of taking care of my parents. Isolating myself in the suburb I grew up in is not at all what I thought I would be doing, and it’s not what my parents want for me. It took me about six weeks, but I found an apartment I can afford that is close enough to my parents’ house that I can come over without having to fight too much traffic but close enough to the city that I can see friends without having to block out four hours. I move in at the beginning of next month.
When I read that article in the NYTimes about Asians taking care of their parents, I wanted to know, why do they do it? I mean, I know it’s the right thing to do, but I have a hard time articulating why. I think it has to do with a total lack of boundaries, and an empathic osmosis that ensures that their pain is my pain and vice versa. It’s much easier to resist that exchange when you are 3,000 miles away. (If you’re looking for great reading, the short stories in Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap provide pitch perfect examples of Thai parent-child relationships. Totally gutted me.)
The honeymoon phase with L.A. is over. As this winter’s drought dessicates the air, I wake up with a stuffed, irritated nose and open the window to gaze at that familiar, woolen blanket of morning smog. The driving wears me down: those first and last fifteen miles from home are the slowest as I pass the landmarks I’ve ticked off mentally since I was a child — the diamond-shaped California Driving School sign, the Quiet Cannon golf course, the Puente Hills car dealerships with flashing LED displays that spill sugary white light onto the road through the night. It isn’t home yet.
But neither is New York. I miss it. More specifically, I miss the kind of carefree life I had there. But that life doesn’t, can’t exist for me anymore.
I’m trying to focus on the things that make me excited about living in California. The garlic bulbs I planted in December are starting to sprout, and we found one last guava hanging on a front branch of the tree which should be ready in a few weeks. I jog outdoors five times a week because health matters to me more than ever. I hope things will be better when I am living on my own. I want to make this work.
As I was reminded recently, Buddhism teaches people to meditate on their own deaths, and to remember that the only thing you take with you from this life are the good deeds you have done.
I’m taking that to heart. But I’m also trying to remember to put my oxygen mask on before assisting others.