I’ve always had a hard time talking about my father, and this time was no exception. I decided to revisit his death with some family members.
I only have a handful of good memories with my dad. (pause)
There was the time we drew self portraits for each other, both pictures looking like they were drawn by a six year old.
There was the time we went all the way to our backyard for a camping trip, though I wasn’t allowed to actually stay in the tent overnight.
And, this one.. Is a little more general… I remember that… if I asked nicely, he would give me whatever spare change he had jingling around in his pockets.
He had a pair of glasses in a style that, today, would probably be considered retro; he wore flannels before they became quintessential Seattle outerwear, and his favorite thing to eat were Oreos.
[Music ends + pause]
He passed away when I was just 16.
This is True Stories in Sound. I’m Leona Vaughn.
My dad grew up in Washington state, but when he struck a business deal with some partners in Seoul, he temporarily moved to Korea, where he met my mom in 1984. My mom says their eyes locked as she was entering through the same revolving door he was exiting, and it wasn’t long before he was back inside and asking if he could buy her coffee, which ended up turning into dinner.
Neither of them could really understand the other because of the language barrier, but he liked her enough to propose a week later, and she liked him enough to say yes.
I asked him to – you know, how old? Then he said, “I am 100 years old.” But he
wasn’t looks old really so I do not tell anyone, either my relatives or friend, you
know, they thinking just maybe a little bit older man not, like, much older, so –
How much older was he than you?
Oh, he’s like 36 years older.
She was 26 years old at the time. He was 62.
Yeah, of course everybody thinking I’m the – when I go somewhere then they think I’m the daughter. I’m the daughter, right? But my husband, he’d always say, “No, she’s my wife!”
My mom makes her life in Korea before meeting my dad sound pretty great honestly. She didn’t have a serious job, and went from living off of her parents to living off her older sister, who was working as an accountant in Seoul. So when my mom got engaged, married, and immigrated to the U.S. she did it for the same reason she does most things – including having me – because she thought it’d be fun.
But it’s my dad who’s always been the mystery. Given the age gap between him and my mom, it’s no surprise he had an entire life before they met. So I reached out to my half-sister, Kathleen Burns. She’s one of my three half-siblings, and she’s 10 years older than my mom. I haven’t spoken to her since the funeral seven years ago, and we’ve never really talked about my dad until now.
We’ve never really talked about anything, actually. She didn’t live close by when I was growing up, and what do you say to a sibling when there’s a gap of 50 years between the two of you?
(tape of the beginning of our conversation)
She told me more about his relationship with her mother, and how they were more like roommates who were always a little annoyed with each other than they were a couple. And as a parent… Well, he spent most of his time alone in front of the TV.
He was just this rigid, aloof, distant, emotionally vacant, unavailable person.
One time I tried to hold his hand. And he shook it loose.
Honestly, this was a little surprising to hear, because he would always give me and my mom hugs and kisses, and when I was really little, we’d spend evenings in the family room arguing over the remote, but we were all together. I guess this is a memory too, even if it’s vague; these small gestures of affection are part of my portrait of him.
Kathleen has a theory about his emotional unavailability: like me, he lost a parent when he was in high school, though I only learned about this now. It’s an experience I didn’t expect my father and I would share.
I’ve noticed that the good memories I have with my dad, the tender ones, the moments of kindness and closeness, are all from the same time period. When I was very young, elementary school age. Perhaps it’s natural then, that the more recent ones, from the last years of his life, and from my adolescence, overshadow those moments.
Because, if I’m honest, what I remember most vividly about my father are the fights. Heated arguments that now seem silly and would start over nothing.
Let me explain.
This is a typical afternoon. I’d come home from school and let him know I was home.
He’d ask me, “have you eaten?” And then, before I could even answer, he ’d ask, “are you home?” and then he’d ask me, “have you eaten?”
And we’d cycle through these questions a few more times. Have you eaten? Are you home? Have you eaten? Are you home, until I’d get fed up and start screaming, so then he’d start screaming… And then we’d retreat to our corners of the house in an uneasy silence, until a quarter of an hour or so later… I’d hear his voice…
Have you eaten?
At a certain point in the evening, he’d add a new question to the cycle: Are you in bed yet?
This was every day. Every hour. One time, our fighting got so bad I locked myself in the bathroom and called my mom, crying and begging for her to come home, all while my dad was yelling at me through the door to get to bed.
What I didn’t know… What we didn’t know… was that he had developed dementia – specifically Alzheimer’s disease.
That doesn’t surprise me that your – that’s what you remember the most because it was so intense. You know, that’s, that was your whole life. Come home and there’s this old man who doesn’t remember anything. And it’s not like you’re Other kids, dad.
Actually, I didn’t notice he has some dementia. But, until the end of his life, I can see he’s kind of – he can remember long term memory but short term memory is to just a little bit…
But, he does take care of himself. He could cook for himself, he could take a shower.
Which is why my mom, who was always working and wasn’t home much, and why I, who had no understanding of mental diseases at the time, thought he just wasn’t paying close enough attention.
But oddly, Kathleen told me that the dementia actually made him a nicer person.
The nicer part was how he interacted with you and your mom. Going backwards, the week before he died, when she came over and she walked into the hospital room. He looked up at her and beamed and smiled, and said, “Hi!” Because he recognized her and was so glad to see her.
During the last month of his life, we moved him into a nursing home and I distinctly remember how quiet our house was.
He always smiling, you know, even – I don’t know, that’s why I don’t feel, I don’t, I never felt he is kind of sick man.
He always telling me, “Oh, when can I come home?” I’d say, “Yeah, I’ll take you home soon,” you know?
So what about you? So, do you, do you have any… Anything is a shame? Because I know when he picked you up, you said, “Oh, that’s not my father.”
You told me. “Leona, what do you think?” “Yeah, everybody asking, ‘Is that your grandpa?’” And you said yes.
That’s not how I remember it. I do remember getting bullied in elementary school over how old my dad was. There was even one time when one of my friends’ parents came to pick them up from a playdate and said as they were leaving something along the lines of, “that’s not her dad, it has to be her grandpa.” So, my memory is really of people telling me who this person is supposed to be to me.
But to answer my mom’s question, I do feel ashamed. Not of my dad, but of my behavior towards him during the last years of his life. I’ll always wonder what our relationship could have been like if I had just been more patient or if I had just a little more time to grow up. I spent so much of my childhood being angry, and so much of my adult life feeling guilty for being angry. And this is probably just one of those rare times in life where no one was really in the wrong, but that doesn’t stop me from placing a lot of the blame on myself.
My mom, for her part, has no regrets. There’s only one thing she would change if she could.
Sometimes, I wish he was much younger, then we can live longer. That’s all I wished for.
Because even at his age, his passing came as a surprise. To her, to me.
So then that’s, really the last time I don’t expecting that so soon. You know, you know that evening was good. We talking, and laughing, and “Have a good night.” Next day was okay. He smiled me, then pretty soon, you know, I could feel it right away, you know, something – something wrong, right? So, that’s life.