Heart and soul

Off the Beat

This summer, I watched my dad become irritable and cantankerous, snapping at my mom and me over small issues as he quickly ran out of energy.

There were days when he yelled at me over the phone and I worried that he might never return to normal, and the frequent bouts of coughing brought on by a neverending infection didn’t help to reassure me.

My father’s health problems don’t exactly come as a surprise to my family: He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2002, and since then, the quality of his health has run the gamut of possibilities.

At the time of his heart attack and subsequent diagnosis, I was in second grade and couldn’t fully register the implications of a “lifelong illness.” That summer, my sister and I were sent away on a camping trip with family friends, and by the time I came back, things seemed to have returned to normal — the lump on my dad’s chest from an implanted defibrillator notwithstanding.

I think my ignorance of the severity of my dad’s illness was a remnant of a childhood blindness to my parents’ mortality. Growing up, we depend so much on our parents that we come to believe that they are invincible, and the thought of existing without them just doesn’t quite compute. Even when my father had to stop playing tennis early or when I raced so far ahead on a backpacking trip that I had to wait an hour for him to catch up, I just chalked that up to my own strength and stubbornness.

Ten good years passed before the next health scare, and coincidentally, it also happened during a summer at a time when I was in Oregon, 400 miles away from home and too removed from the situation to fully acknowledge its seriousness until I returned home a few weeks later. The nitty-gritty details of “ventricular tachycardia” and “arrhythmias” didn’t — and still don’t — completely make sense to me, a nonpremed major who took my last biology class in high school. But the new developments on the home front — cardiac ablations, a new low-sodium diet, more medication that meant my dad couldn’t go in the sunlight without long sleeves — weren’t the kinds of things I could sweep under the emotional rug.

When my dad attends his regular support group meetings for people with heart conditions, he’ll bring back stories of fellow attendees who are on the heart transplant list, facing the agony of not knowing if and when they’ll get a donor heart. Sometimes, I worry that it’ll be him on the transplant list, waiting with uncertainty, because after all, if his condition could worsen once, what’s to stop it from deteriorating further? His cardiomyopathy is idiopathic: The doctors still don’t know what caused it, a fact that doesn’t jive with my own distaste for the unknown.

I wouldn’t call myself a stranger to death and absence: My paternal grandfather died when I was in elementary school, my paternal grandmother died in high school, and I never knew my mother’s parents.

At the same time, dealing with death and mortality has never been my one of my strong suits. In high school, struggling with anxiety and an eating disorder, I would occasionally consider suicide, but the fear of no longer existing was, and still is, more perilous than my own real-life demons.

I’m not sure how to quantify how far away from death my dad is, but it’s a question that continues to gnaw at me. No matter the answer I arrive at, it feels self-absorbed in one way or another. Is it selfish to wax poetic about how I’ve learned to understand my parents’ mortality when I have friends whose parents have died? Sometimes I wonder if I’m overdramatizing the situation in order to compensate for my trivialization of it for 10 years of my life. At the same time, though, if I do minimize the seriousness of my father’s illness, I am simultaneously dismissing all of the baggage he carries from this mysterious cardiomyopathy — all the pain, the fatigue, the limitations.

On a recent day in August, I perched on the windowsill of a hospital room, eating takeout as my dad tried to gross my sister and me out with the blood pumping out of his postsurgery wound. His poor health this summer stemmed from the side effects of amiodarone, a medication he had been taking. With a thyroid ravaged by the amiodarone, he’d opted to remove it entirely, and months of frustration were replaced by a simple operation and the promise of a return to a healthier state than he’d been in in years.

My father’s own mortality no longer looms so near, but I am continually coming to terms with the knowledge that one day he and my mother will no longer be here — that one day, we will all no longer be here. My comprehension of death has always resembled the knowledge gained from a class taken out of obligation: You can regurgitate information during an exam, and you aren’t disputing the facts, but you never bother to understand the significance of what lies underneath the surface.

Although I’ve long been aware that my parents aren’t actually immortal, in the technical sense of things, I think I’ve spent 10 years failing to acknowledge it in any meaningful way. In a sense, I have never really grown out of my childhood dependence on my parents, and my ignorance of my father’s illness serves only to help me avoid the inevitable. But although I’m not sure I’ll ever be prepared for my parents’ death, I think acknowledging mortality grounds us in reality, because if we don’t accept the unknown in all its vast, incomprehensible glory, we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate our own humanity.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected.

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