In some dreams my dad is a corpse who can talk, his skin dark and sagging, and the family has one more chance to get his last rites right. In other dreams, he comes back to life to reclaim some precious, mundane moments with us. Once, after waking up, I made a note: “From now on, this is the only place he’s available to me, in dreams.”
Three years ago my dad died of liver cancer, and I’ve wondered at times if we did not grieve correctly.
I got to see a man who saw his own weakness, and learned to show he loved us. He set aside his old anger and vices, surprising us with the kind of human moments you can have in real life.
The grief, I found, comes in random bursts. It’s when you’re alone, brushing your teeth. Or when you see a news story on blood pressure, and picture that minute when his organs all conspired to stop doing their job.
His death left two impressions. The first was personal, the poignancy I felt because disease and dying had so transformed our dad. The second was as far from personal as could be. It was an abstract kind of mourning at the universe, of feeling a micro injustice because life shouldn’t end at age 59.
Dad’s transformation came after he learned about the cancer. It made him do a remarkable thing.
In the years that remained to him, he became the dad we dreamed of. Gone was the stereotype of stoic Asian fathers. He told us he loved us. He laughed. He figured out how to text (“Happy new year!”). He attended our games, and he joked that he had so much time ahead of him, don’t worry.
This was remarkable because I used to push him away. For a lot of the period when our two lives overlapped, Dad and I were not close. He had a temper, and out of it came the fights with my mom that perforated our childhoods with so much frequency and force.
That’s not how things ended. We got a few years with a changed dad, defying Tolstoy to be happy in our own, unique way. He became good-humored, mild, and caring. Other children idolize a superdad until he turns out to be ordinary; I was grateful to finally get the ordinary.
But when Dad died, I found myself feeling at times like an outsider, observing the grief. This is how a loss can feel at once personal, as well as clinical.
If the correct way to mourn is to miss him and believe he left too soon, we did that. But I did not quite feel the emptiness that I assume burrows into you when a vital part of your daily life goes missing. Or if I did, it was more like a philosophical injury.
It was not that I now had to suffer his absence. It was that I saw the unfairness in the suffering of someone else; he deserved more time, to see his son graduate and to enjoy grandchildren. If only it weren’t so permanent. At least, in the face of death, you get license to be illogical.
It was irrational to think the universe had cheated him. It was irrational to resent those who said they’d fought cancer and won, because he didn’t.
I will keep dreaming about my dad, and my dreams won’t come true. But there’s something else available to me instead: what I will remember.
I got to see a man who saw his own weakness, and learned to show he loved us. Dad didn’t need to make a grand gesture. He set aside his old anger and vices, surprising us with the kind of human moments you can have in real life.
How many of us can achieve such a reversal? We don’t get cinematic epiphanies in the mortal world. It’s hard enough for people to confront their own frailties, and we should appreciate it when they do.
Behavioral psychologists talk of the “peak-end rule,” of the tendency to judge an event based on how we felt at the peak and at the end, in place of a comprehensive memory. I thank my dad because, for the event that was his life, he turned around and gave us what we wanted and what we would remember at the end, a loving dad.
Lien Hoang is a journalist and Sacramento native living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at twitter.com/lienh.