One of the oldest memories that I have of my father is when I was seven years old and living in Pusan, Korea. He is sitting on our brown paisley 80s sofa, his leg broken and in a cast. It’s slightly raised and resting on the coffee table. In his hand, as usual, is a cigarette.
It doesn’t matter that he can’t walk. He could sit there and do nothing for days, yet I would still do everything I could to get his love and approval.
That was in 1987. Between then and 1993 my father was in and out of my life. He was always away for his job in the military, and I was never quite sure what he did. I think it was something with inspecting helicopters.
There are scattered memories of him making scrambled eggs for breakfast or taking me to Blockbuster to rent VHS tapes. One of my fondest memories, which was the last happy one before my parent’s divorce in 1993, was when he bought me the soundtrack to "Aladdin" and we saw "Best of the Best 2" in the movie theater.
My father was away, as usual, when my mom sat my brother and I down to share the news of their divorce. When I look back at that moment, I realize that I wasn’t shocked at all. Despite being only 13 years old, I knew that their marriage wasn’t perfect, and that it wasn’t normal for a father to be gone for months on end while his wife raised two children alone.
I also knew that the constant arguments over his alcoholism didn’t equate to a happy marriage, and that one day, my mom was finally going to stand her ground and say, “No more.”
My mother recently told me that that she didn’t think much of his drinking when they first married because he could keep it under control. Plus, she was Korean, and she thought it was a normal American habit. But it became increasingly worse over time, and sometimes he would disappear for hours and days on end. He would either wind up passed out at a bar, or get picked up by the police and thrown in jail. Money that she had saved up from working would get drained from their checking account because of his addiction.
I always thought it was normal to see him with a beer can in his hand. He was never loud or angry when he drank. Instead, he became clumsy, his speech slurred and he would have a faraway, distant look in his eyes when he talked to you.
When I was younger, I imagined that he was a famous comedian because he always made us laugh when he drank. The moment that my mother said they were divorcing, the laughter stopped.
There were years when he would send a birthday or Christmas card, some years when he wouldn’t. Months, and then years, would go by without a phone call.
I felt anger, resentment and sadness, all at the same time. I dreamed at times that my father would show up on our doorstep to take me on a cross-country road trip, but then I would hear that he had been thrown in jail for drinking and driving, or he was jobless, living back in Oklahoma with his mom. Any hopes of being rescued from my sad life were all in my mind.
He did pay child support until I was of age, but there was no help for college. My mom and I took out school loans to cover the bills. I destroyed more than a few relationships because of my daddy issues. I had what I called an early life crisis. Sessions with a therapist later revealed that I was scared to be abandoned, like my father had done to my mom, and that I sabotaged relationships before they could be good because I learned that no good relationship lasts.
Then one day I received a call from his new wife, his third wife. She was a Jersey lady, very nice and talkative. They had met on the Internet and married, moved not too far from his mother, and he had officially retired. They had a nice home and four dogs and he had finally quit drinking because “she’d leave his ass if he ever became an alcoholic again.”
I actually liked this woman, and I was happy that he had finally settled down. I hadn’t heard from him in months, and hadn’t seen him in years, but she asked my brother and I to come visit them in Oklahoma. So we did.
We went for Thanksgiving, and we got the “I’m sorry” lecture. I told him about my boyfriend, and how we had been living together for five years. I was pretty sure that we were going to get married, and he kept asking about grandchildren. I kept saying “maybe." We sat in silence as I watched him smoke cigarettes on his back porch. We talked about our crazy dogs and how I would always be his little girl. Then I left and we talked every few weeks when his wife reminded him to call. Because of her, we started receiving cards every birthday and Christmas.
A year later, he called and said that he had prostate cancer. He thought it was from being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He was going in for CyberKnife radiation treatment at a nearby hospital in Tulsa. Despite never being close to him, I worried that it was going to spread and kill him before I had a chance to say goodbye. He went in for several successful treatments and was supposedly okay. I breathed a sigh of relief. Months went by again without a word.
A year after that I’m engaged, and I call to tell him and his wife that we’re getting married in Hawaii. I never knew if my dad was going to walk me down the aisle, and I didn’t know if I even wanted him to. I just thought that he should know. But they said that they would come, not only for the wedding, but to visit his wife’s son, who also lived in Hawaii.
In random phone calls leading up to the wedding, they constantly talked about how expensive plane flights were, and the high cost of the hotel. Then one day, his wife said that they had rented a Mustang convertible to drive around the island. Not once was there an offer to help pay for the wedding, and not once did I ask them to. But every day leading up to the wedding I secretly hoped he would call and say, “Hey, sweetie, since I’ve never been around to help before this, I really want to help with the most important day of your life.”
I had saved up two years worth of freelance writing gigs to pay for this big day, and luckily had a little help from my mother and soon-to-be-in laws. I had too much pride to ask, but still felt like he owed me something. I tried to be grateful that he was coming at all.
I watched his new wife post on Facebook about the wonderful gifts he was buying her, and how excited they are to go to Hawaii. They sent us a toaster oven from our registry.
Even more stressful than the wedding day is having my parents see each other for the first time in over 25 years.
I experienced every emotion imaginable the day before the wedding, and moments before we all met at the hotel bar to eat lunch. They were running late because the arteries in my dad's legs were clogged, and it took him a long time just to walk a few feet.
My dad’s wife talked a lot as usual, breaking the ice, and my parents had small talk that didn’t seem awkward at all. It was a pleasant lunch, but I still couldn’t shake this feeling of resentment toward him, that he was now giving years of love that I deserved to a new wife. That he was taking her grandchildren on trips that never existed in my childhood. That she had made him quit drinking when my mother and I couldn’t.
Yes, I was going to get married and be loved by a new man in my life, but that would never fill the empty space in my heart reserved for my father.
The day of the wedding went smoothly. I got my makeup and hair done professionally for the first time in my life, and my mother took pictures of me in my dress on the hotel balcony. When I walked downstairs to meet our guests in the lobby, I felt beautiful and loved, and it was amazing to see my father and mother standing within a few feet of each other. They both were wearing shades of green, and they had done that all on their own.
The wedding officiant had misunderstood our conversation the day before and was waiting in the lobby of the hotel next door. Our small party of thirteen had to walk around back and meet her and the photographer at the lagoon behind both hotels. We were already running late, so I walked as fast as I could while my wedding dress dragged through the sand. When we were halfway to the lagoon I turned around and noticed that my brother and father were missing. I was told that they went back to the hotel to get a wheelchair because my father couldn’t make the walk.
Everything was happening so fast for a day that had seemed to take forever to actually happen. We met the officiant and photographer by the shore, yet there was still no dad or brother. So we went ahead and started with the pictures because the photographer had another gig. Midway through taking the pictures, I saw my brother pushing my father in a wheelchair, in the distance.
When they finally arrived, my father looked at me with the “I’m sorry” eyes that I had been accustomed to seeing, but this time I knew that he meant it. He slowly stood up and walked me down the sandy aisle, his fragile legs shaking, trusting me to guide him as he held onto my arm for support. We both held back tears, and then he sat back down in the wheelchair to witness the rest of the ceremony.
In that very moment, my 32 years of anger and resentment were washed away by the waves on the Honolulu beach. Seeing my father so helpless, I was taken back to my earliest memory of him, sitting in that sofa with a broken leg.
He was helpless then, just as his old age and weak body had made him helpless now. I was just as weak, unable to express to him how I felt for so many years. But we had found strength together in this moment, a moment that I never thought would happen.
A few months later he called to say that he was cheering for my home team, the Baltimore Orioles, for the playoffs. We talked for only a few minutes, with two or three moments of awkward silence, and I ended the conversation by saying “I love you.” And I meant it.