Yesterday, January 17, my father turned 80. I haven't talked to my father since 2010, the year my mother died, but I think enough time has now passed—twelve years—for me to tell a story that I haven't told to anyone but those closest to me. It's the story of why I no longer talk to my dad, and why I'm just waiting for him to disappear from this earth. Caveat: this story involves some people close to me, and out of respect for their privacy, I'm going to be vague about who they are. Should they read this recounting, they'll know right away whom I'm talking about, but hopefully, no one else will. I should also note that, in telling this story, I'll be revealing a very unsavory side of myself, and if you come away thinking I'm just a father-hating piece of shit who should learn to forgive, well, I won't blame you for having that opinion. Just keep in mind the Let the one without sin cast the first stone maxim. Judge me if you must, but be honest about your own shortcomings, hangups, and character flaws when you do.
Mom died of glioblastoma multiforme, a.k.a. GBM, the most common and most aggressive type of brain cancer, on January 6, 2010, in an ICU berth at Walter Reed Medical Center. The doctor declared her time of death as 8:03 a.m. I won't go over the immediate aftermath of her death; you can visit my first Kevin's Walk blog and learn a lot there. All of us survivors were dealing, each in his own way, with Mom's passing. My brothers had jobs to get back to; I eventually wanted to find work again after lingering at home for more than a year.
The parents had been renovating the house when I returned to the homestead with a knee injury in late 2008; I helped out a bit with renovation, and I also cooked meals for the Korean contractors and their Latino crew. Renovation finished right around the time Mom got diagnosed with brain cancer in April of 2009; I elected to stay with Mom as a caregiver. She'd initially had misgivings about my attempted cross-country walk, but she changed her tune once she was diagnosed with cancer; she suddenly wanted me to be out on the trail and not minding her. She may have felt guilty about my abandoning my walk plans for her sake, but she had to know that there was no way I'd abandon her. I'd like to think she was ultimately glad I was there, even if I didn't turn out to be the greatest caregiver.
Being one of Mom's caregivers had its difficulties, but one of the greatest annoyances, during Mom's illness, was Dad himself.
There were so many moments, while Mom was sick and dying, when I would end the day by yelling at my father for his many stupidities and other transgressions. From Day One of this crisis, Dad had basically checked out mentally, unable to deal with the frightening reality of Mom's cancer, unable to shoulder the burden of care for Mom in any way involving decision-making. Give Dad a specific task, like poring over Mom's medical records and looking for errors, and he was fine. He could take care of bathing Mom as she deteriorated, change her diapers as she became incontinent—these were all concrete things Dad could do well enough, and if I'm honest, I have to admit I'm thankful he at least bore those burdens. But give Dad a problem like What should Mom's future course of treatment be?—and he suddenly drew a blank, shriveled up, and left the big decisions to me. Dad wasn't the one doing research on GBM; he wasn't the one looking at the odds or figuring out Mom's diet (I did all the cooking). The big decisions were left up to me; as the head of the family, Dad had abdicated the throne. Without Mom herself to provide him with wisdom and a moral backbone, Dad had to rely on me, the Mom-proxy. He lacked basic common sense, and when he wasn't engaging in reality-avoidance, he'd go full-on with reality-distortion. People would call and ask how Mom was doing, and Dad would cheerfully reply, "Oh, she's fine," as if she were cancer-free. When we initially learned about the mass in Mom's head, I asked Dad how big it was. "Smaller than a golf ball," he told me, and I freaked out. Later on, when I asked him again, he said the tumor was "bigger tha a walnut." So which was it? It's like saying something is bigger than a fly but smaller than an elephant—you end up with no clue about the object's size. Dad was incapable of providing straight, accurate, truthful answers. This is what I had to deal with, day after day.
So I was often angry and frustrated. I didn't handle it well when people with good intentions would come visit and spout stupid platitudes. This added to my stress. (Outwardly, I was polite to everyone.) Once, we even had a Korean minister I'd never seen before come to our house, pray loudly, then never be heard from again. Who the fuck called this guy over? Dad? Some other idiot? To this day, I don't know where that pastor came from. More: I got furious every time Dad did something boneheaded like forgetting to put Mom's special crash helmet on her head before letting her walk around. (Mom hated the helmet, but she had to wear it because, at one point, the surgeon had removed an infected "bone flap" from her skull and had never replaced it: there was just a crater of skin, unsupported by bone, and under the skin was Mom's brain. Had she ever tripped and fallen while not wearing her helmet, that could easily have been the end.)
So, while Mom slept at the end of each painful day, I spent a lot of time yelling at Dad for his dumb mistakes and for not being medically competent despite his supposed EMT training courtesy of the Maryland Air National Guard. Maybe this is what drove Dad to seek someone outside the family to pour his own troubles onto because he obviously couldn't confess anything to me, his eldest and angriest son. I tried to keep my anger in check around other people, but my brother David once texted me that he had grown sick of my "smartass" attitude. I blogged about Mom's progress as a way to relieve stress, but I didn't recount the things I really wanted to vent about—namely, Dad's various stupidities. In many ways, Dad was lost and unable to function without specific direction. As I said above, he was fine with concrete, menial tasks requiring little to no thought, but the moment someone had to make a decision, he showed his utter lack of backbone and left all that to yours truly.
As mentioned, Mom died in early January of 2010. I stayed at the house, depressed, not looking for work until months had passed. Dad had used three different insurance policies, mostly his military TriCare policy, to pay for Mom's million-dollar treatment. Otherwise, he was skating along on retirement checks from both Northwest Airlines and the military (he'd retired as an E-8, Senior Master Sergeant, never quite having made it to Chief).
Months went by, and Dad talked about going on a long trip in which he'd visit a series of friends, mainly people from our family's past—folks we had known from the old neighborhood back when we lived in Sequoyah, a community not far from our then-current house at 8525 Washington Avenue. Apparently, Dad's plans for his trip were becoming more concrete over time, and in July of 2010, seven months after Mom's death, Dad said he was going to go visit an old friend named Jeff (name changed) who now lived down in the Carolinas.
I can't remember how it happened, but I began to sense a shiftiness in Dad, and by the time Dad was ready to go on his trip, I was starting to smell a rat. When Dad drove off for his visit to Jeff, I sent an email of my own to Jeff, thanking him for hosting my father. Jeff wrote back, confused, and said he knew nothing of any visit from my dad; my email was the first he'd heard of it. Oh, I'm good. I had caught my father in a lie, so it was then a matter of trying to figure out where Dad was going.
By this point, I was losing what little respect I had for the man, and since I knew Dad wouldn't be smart enough to retool his AOL email account's password, I just dove into his account and started rifling through his correspondence. Sure enough: jackpot. Dad had been emailing with Suzanne (name changed, though she doesn't deserve it, the bitch), a woman from the old Sequoyah neighborhood. This correspondence had been going on for months and had started even while Mom was still alive. So, I surmised, Suzanne had been Dad's shoulder to cry on. I later heard from a cousin in Texas that he had seen Dad emailing someone while Dad and Mom were in Texas visiting the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; that someone was probably Suzanne. I also recalled walking in on Dad in his den in Virginia, between the January and July after Mom's death, and Dad would furtively flick off his computer screen when I entered. This was just something I quietly noted, and at the time, I hadn't quite put two and two together. I did know my dad would be too up-tight ever to be caught surfing porn; that would never have been the reason for his sneaky behavior.
So my guess was that Dad had lied about seeing Jeff and was instead on his way to see Suzanne. I knew from the emails I'd read that Dad had been developing a relationship with her. At a guess, this relationship had started even while Mom was alive. What I knew for sure was that Dad had lied to me and my two brothers for about seven months—from Mom's early-January death until Dad's supposed visit to Jeff in July. Now to track down Suzanne.
Finding Suzanne's address was easy enough: it was in the family Rolodex. I typed up and printed out a long, ranty, accusatory letter to Dad, and since he had taken the family van but left a spare van key, I pocketed the spare key and took the family's other car one July night, drove out to Suzanne's house, and sure enough, saw Dad's van sitting there.
I guess Dad thought he'd had it all figured out, the fucker. His sons were in the dark, and he could enjoy some playtime with the woman he was eager to get in the sack with now that my mother was dead and cast aside like garbage. It made a sick sort of sense: Dad, the empty shell, with no moral compass of his own, could never survive without someone else to provide the necessary spiritual ballast. I've long thought of people who needily depend on other people as weak; Dad confirmed my assessment of his weakness. Had the tables been turned, had Dad been the one with the cancer, I'm sure Mom would have stayed loyal to his memory and been able to survive on her own. Some people seek others out of need and weakness, a desire to fill an empty space, but true love comes from a position of strength, a desire to give and to share what one has. That was Mom. Although Mom and I had had our own problems and conflicts, I came to understand that about her: she was the type to give and give until she finally gave out. My selfish, cowardly bastard of a father was nothing like that. He was a vampire, a needer, someone who lived off the strength of others.
Using the spare van key, I dropped my nasty note off in Dad's van and left. I don't remember the note's specific contents anymore, but it was something along the lines of I'm onto you, asshole, and I know now what a worthless, cowardly piece of shit you are. You lied about meeting Jeff, and you're gonna get it the next time I see you.
Moon Landing Day: July 20, 2010. Dad's been absent a couple days by this point, and I'm out mowing the front and back yards. At one point, I take a break and go inside for a cool drink of lemonade. The phone rings. It's Dad. "That was... some note," he says, still unable to speak in a direct way. Dad has always had a habit of deflecting, of never confronting. When I was yelling at him while Mom was sick, he'd say stupid shit like, "It's good that you can express these feelings." Stuff like that, stuff that was utterly beside the point, stuff that made him sound like a condescending therapist who thinks he has the right to analyze my feelings. That was some note.
I screamed into the phone, probably something along the lines of Come home, you cowardly fuck! Dad lamely said something about needing to drive Suzanne somewhere, so he wouldn't be back for another couple days. I could tell he was petrified to meet me face to face, so he was in passive-aggressive mode, striking back by not doing something. I screamed some other shit I can no longer remember and hung up, feeling as if I were about to have a heart attack.
A few days later, a friend was over at my parents' house, commiserating with me. I remember cooking chicken Alfredo for the both of us; we ate in the basement, which had been nicely furnished for years with carpeting, furniture, a TV, and everything else needed to make it into an entertainment center. And while we were eating, heavy footsteps suddenly sounded from the stairs. I had been unloading onto my friend about my situation with Dad, and speak of the fucking Devil, who but Dad should appear! I could see the terror in Dad's face as he came down the steps, and I could feel my own face setting into a mask of fury as I said, "Well, look who's here." My friend diplomatically bowed out of the situation, hastening upstairs and out of the house. He later told me he regretted leaving, but I reassured him that he'd done the right thing: otherwise, police would have used him as a witness against me.
So there Dad was, his facial muscles going haywire with a mess of fear-induced tics. He stumblingly tried to explain himself, but I could sense he was yet again attempting to weasel out of whatever reckoning he knew was coming his way. I yelled more profanity at him, and then Dad made the mistake of trying to pull a trick from my childhood: he took his glasses off and said, "Do you want to take a swing at me?" When I was much younger, that trick worked: I would deflate because of course I couldn't hit my own father.
Not this time, though. I stomped over and belted him across the face. Later on, I'd realize this was a weak-ass hit, but it was enough to make Dad grunt, and as he toppled sideways and tried supporting himself on the couch, I hit him again and heard him actually mutter, "Didn't think you'd do it"—quite possibly the most truthful thing that bastard has ever uttered in his whole miserable, cocksucking life. While he was down, I punched him a third time in the back of the head and crammed his face into the couch's pillows, making him eat his shame and cowardice. But Dad was still mobile, and he sprung up and started to retreat up the basement stairs, muttering some shit about how this was his house. Later on, in retrospect, I thought to myself that I should have grabbed his ankles and yanked his lame ass back toward me, then pounded him until he was fucking bloody. But I didn't do that. I followed him up the stairs; he placed himself on one side of our dining-room table while I retreated to the kitchen.
Now, from what I heard later on, when I got bits and pieces of Dad's side of the story, Dad said he "feared for his life" at this point. But here's what really happened: I then yelled at Dad for a good two hours while he stood there like a fucking moron, occasionally trying to interrupt me as I harangued him about everything he had done wrong during Mom's sickness and after her death. I called him a liar, a coward, and an idiot. I'm pretty sure I used much worse language as well, but I can no longer remember what else I said. My harangue ended, and Dad eventually drove off. If he had truly been "fearing for his life," as he later claimed, he could have run out of the house screaming bloody murder and begging someone in the neighborhood to call 911. That didn't happen. "Feared for my life" is a load of shit, another of his many lies. Dad just stood there for two hours while I went after him verbally.
So that was an exciting day. The following day, sometime in the early afternoon, there was a sharp rap on our front door. I was alone in the house, and Alexandria's finest stood at the door. I let the officers in and was asked about the disturbance of the day before (an ex-policeman cousin later informed me one should never talk to the cops). Not one to hide anything, I told the truth, including the fact that I had hit my dad several times. That was enough to trigger the next phase of the officers' visit: my arrest. I was cuffed in my own living room, then led out to the squad car parked across the street. Before I was put into the car, I had to stand there and stew while the officers did some electronic paperwork. I don't know how many neighbors saw what was going on; certainly, none of them brought the matter up in the following months. Maybe no one saw me; I don't know.
The back of the squad car was made of a hard, slippery, flat plastic, and a clear-plastic divider separated me from the officers in the front seat. I was taken to the local police station, fingerprinted, photographed, grilled by the local magistrate (a tiny Korean woman; I recall being tempted to speak with her in Korean); she muttered something about how my situation was a "Jerry Springer" scenario, which goes to show (1) my case wasn't unique, and (2) she was pretty callous about the whole thing. I was given a 72-hour restraining order and a court date in October, I think. With that, I was driven back home. Dad was long gone, probably licking his wounds with Suzanne.
I was fairly quiet on the ride back, but the officer who drove (one of the arresting officers) was friendly enough. Maybe a little too friendly; at one point, he started talking about people's ignorance of certain traffic laws and how that made him want to "smack [people] upside the head." He instantly realized his casual mention of violence was the wrong thing to say, given my situation. Still, I appreciated his tacit understanding that there were things that could drive us to violence, like a father who lied to his son while disrespecting his wife's memory. The officer dropped me at the house, and we even shook hands.
Yeah, now that I think about it, I remember two things Dad tried to say while I was yelling at him in our dining room: (1) he had lied because he wanted to protect his sons, who weren't ready to deal with this new relationship (which is utter bullshit: he lied to save his own skin), and (2) he had talked with a much-older acquaintance of ours who had found and fallen in love with his current Korean wife only two months after losing his previous wife. To Dad's twisted mind, that made it okay for him to do likewise: to toss aside Mom's memory and seek companionship without taking at least a year to mourn. Mourn? No, not Dad, a man who, like a brain-damaged puppy, never seems to learn from his mistakes, who bounces back all springy and happy and optimistic from even the worst events because he just isn't deep enough to know what true suffering is. Dad's default nature is a happy, goofy optimism. Most people would say this is a virtue, given life's slings and arrows; but I see it as a marker that Dad is stuck inside his own fantasy bubble and incapable of learning anything new. Dad's also unable to figure out morals for himself; he needs others to show him the correct way to think and act in fluid situations. Mom's sickness and death had left him utterly at sea, rudderless.
Let me fast-forward, after all this crap, through the months that followed. A week after my blowup, we three sons sat down with Dad in a public park to hash some things out in what would be our final family talk. Dad looked perfectly fine: no bruises or anything from his encounter with my fists. A female cousin expressed disappointment when I told her Dad was unscathed: "How hard did you hit him?" she asked. Nothing got resolved at the park meeting, but our conversation did get recorded, and I've pondered writing and releasing a transcript of it after Dad dies. Dad and I met in court in October; I was forced to say "I'm sorry for hitting my father" as a supposed expression of remorse. (I merely meant I was sorry for the trouble and stress the incident had caused my brothers and cousins; I felt no regret about hitting Dad, and I'd probably do it all again, given the chance, even today.) I was given the punishment of nearly a year of probation plus 19 weeks of domestic-violence seminars (which turned out to be utter bullshit). Dad and I later met at a McDonald's to talk over my getting a job and moving out, which I did in late 2010 (I went to Front Royal, Virginia, where things are quiet and peaceful); Dad gave me a gift of $7000 in fuck-off money to let me move, pay a few months' rent, and start building up my own cash reserve. With me gone, Dad had his house back, and he no longer needed to keep cowering with Suzanne. I remember Dad's face during the McDonald's meeting: once again, he had these uncontrollable tics, born out of fear, that caused him to clamp a hand over his mouth. I remember asking him certain pointed questions during that meeting—questions he refused to answer because, like all liars, he wanted to keep his secrets. I reminded him that, in one email of his that I'd seen, he'd written to a friend, "No secrets! Absolutely none!" Fucking hypocrite.
In late 2010, I moved out of 8525 Washington Avenue, got a job with ETS as a TOEFL essay rater (a job whose skills would prove useful much later on), then moved over, in 2011, to teaching at a hagweon-style tutoring center in Centreville, Virginia; I stayed at that job until 2013, then I moved back to Korea and began a job in Daegu. I taught at Daegu Catholic U. for a year before going back up to Seoul and working at Dongguk University for year, after which I got hired by the Golden Goose in 2015. I'm still at the Golden Goose, mainly because it pays well and allows me the time to go on long walks.
I go from angry memories of Dad, whose lying and cowardice and disrespect for my mother's memory have poisoned all my childhood recollections of seemingly happier times, to just thinking that I basically have no father. Some thing that claims to be my biological father still walks the earth, but that thing has no meaning for me. Most of the time, anyway. I try not to think about Dad much these days, but 2022 does signal his eightieth birthday, and that milestone triggered a raft of ugly memories.
It's thanks to Dad that I have little respect for weakness and cowardice when I encounter it. It's thanks to Dad that I despise my own weakness and cowardice whenever I fail to stand up and do something that ought to be done. I guess I owe Dad that much: his example helped me focus more sharply on certain values. As for forgiveness... maybe I'll forgive him when he's dead and gone. But not now. Dad, doubling down, got married to Suzanne two years after Mom's death; Suzanne has her own adult son and daughter, so Dad was able to leap from one family to another with ease. Superficial and stupid as he is, I'm sure he's yukking it up with his new wife and her kids, whom he doubtless sees as his kids now. How lucky for him that life has been kind enough to give him a soft landing: lose a wife, find a wife; lose three sons, find a new son and daughter. Because we don't live in a just universe, I'm sure my father is fine, smiling and laughing and lying to people about his actual personal situation.
I do know he tried, lamely, to send birthday cards to us three boys through my brother David, whose address Dad knows. This went on for a while, apparently. I might have respected Dad more had he gathered up his courage and, like a man, like a true head of a household, demanded that we all meet as a family and hash things out, but he doesn't have that sort of Korean steeliness in his character. He lacks the backbone. I don't think he sends cards to David anymore, and besides, I told David to just burn mine whenever they arrived. If Dad doesn't have the balls to take the first step and call a family meeting, well, I'm not going to beg for such a meeting myself. Dad will die sometime soon, I hope, and while I'd like to imagine him dying sad and alone, missing his sons and regretting his cowardice, I know he's going to die surrounded by his new family (that Suzanne is a lying piece of work, too, by the way—she and Dad were made for each other), perfectly happy, his biological sons as cast-aside and forgotten as his first wife.
Anyway, having written all this shit, and not having made myself look particularly good in the process, I can assure you that I'm at a point where I don't obsess over this issue anymore. Dad rarely enters my thoughts these days, and given that I don't communicate with Suzanne at all, I expect not to hear news of Dad's eventual death until long after he's in the ground. I'm debating whether I'd even bother to announce his passing on this blog. I do know that, when I find out he's gone, I'll raise a glass and toast the fact that a world without that man is a much better place. Much better, indeed.