Wednesday, August 8, 2012


My father-in-law passed away this weekend. And it still seems so surreal to say that. He slipped away quickly and peacefully, opting to stop treatment on Wednesday knowing that it would be a terminal decision. We thought we would have at least a couple of weeks more, as we spoke to him on Thursday, excitedly telling him about our plans for Vietnam, our random weekend away to the crazy insanely fascinating city of Ho Chi Minh. He laughed and he sounded so so good, so alive. And because of time changes and switched off phones, we didn't find out immediately after it happened. I am not sure exactly what we were doing when it happened, but I know we were at a cooking class. My sweet incredible husband that knows my soul signed us up for cooking classes.

I have an insane obsession with learning how to cook, I am fascinated by the strange ingredients and new colorful spices, I am in awe as I hungrily try to absorb all this new information and techniques, as the sights and sounds blow my mind. I love the ritual and repetition of preparing for a meal, it is one of my favorite parts next to having a meal that has been carefully put together for hours to be enjoyed. I love the chopping and peeling, the picking and the measuring, even if I hate touching raw meat or the aromatics...I have thing about my hands getting dirty and smelling for hours. Weird, I know. But it is all just magic to me, it is something I do to find myself, and something I do that relaxes me and makes my heart dance.

And here we were, in a strange but so culturally rich city. A foreign place where the accents and the language were so different from anything we knew, wholeheartedly throwing ourselves into it all. Learning the different herbs they grew and how they complemented each dish, rolling a spring roll in rice paper instead of flour, following the chef on a wet market tour as we shopped for ingredients. Trying to take it all in, the exotic strange fruits and vegetables, the insides of different animals as no part is wasted, and how it is used and prepared in their country. So in awe but creeped out by the different sea creatures swimming around in buckets, wriggling around and bringing fresh to a whole new level as they butcher it right there. Live soft shell crabs, prawns the size of my hand, baby water lotus roots, fuzzy pig ears, banana blossoms and so many new things we didn't even have names for. We had our minds blown and the biggest hugest smiles on our faces, laughing because it was all so crazy and so fascinating at the same time. Laughing as my father-in-law drew his last breaths and passed. I know in my heart of hearts that this guilt is unfounded, that this is what he would have wished for us. For us to be exactly where we were. For us to be doing this. For us to be laughing together and pushing the limits of comfort zone and really living it out loud.

And so, as we returned to the hotel, we weren't prepared for this. I wasn't prepared for this.

We were wifi-less, for some strange reason the better hotels always make you pay for wifi but the three star hotels will just give it to you for free so we were only connected in certain places. I had briefly logged on that morning, a quick update sharing our amazing experience in the city so far; how we had rocked out in our room after an incredible breakfast buffet, so excited for the day ahead and just so thankful for everything. It was just supposed to be a quick stop, just to freshen up and cool down, the humidity kicking our asses and the need for a clean bathroom. I almost didn't check my messages, but then we had just a little bit more time. And when I logged onto facebook, the first message that came through was a family friend saying "Peace be with Joe".

I think I stopped breathing, my heart started beating too quickly as I scrolled down and read all the frantic messages of my mother-in-law, my sister in law, and hospice trying to reach us, finally just putting it on my wall. Begging us to call as soon as possible. And I knew, my heart knew what had happened, and I looked over to Mr K, the biggest smile on his face, so high and so proud from our fun morning, so relaxed and so excited to venture out to explore a different part of the city.

We were only supposed to stop for a couple of minutes, to drop off recipes, to pick up a bottle of water, this was just a pit stop.

And I knew, I knew and I didn't know how to tell him his life was about to change forever. I didn't know how to ease the blow, I didn't know how to make this better. And so I said, honey, I think something might have might want to check your messages.

And there it was, shaky hands and pounding hearts, his mom on voice mail telling him his dad just passed away 45 minutes ago. Telling him she loved him and he passed away peacefully. Asking for answers as next-of-kin and all the formalities in a broken voice transcribed into words that doesn't make sense because Google Talk can't really read grief.

I rubbed his back and hugged him as I went into fix-it mode, I went into take-care-of-him mode. To prioritize and plan and to find out answers to the sixteen hundred questions we had. What do we do? Do we leave Vietnam? Do we fly from Malaysia or do we just get tickets to fly out straight to Peoria? Do we stay? What would dad do? What would dad want us to do? What do we do? How did he die? I don't understand, what the hell just happened? Did he just slowly fall asleep or was it sudden and painful? Did he know? Was he at peace?

I knew he needed to talk to my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law. He needed the troops, his troops. It's a small troop but it is his troop. And we joke so often on this, about why we need to have more than two kids, and why we came back to Malaysia to be a part of this troop, so that when the shit hits the fan, we can always always mobilize troop. Our troop literally has multiplied tenfold just by moving across continents.

It is our reinforcement, the invisible hands that come over before a party and go to work making sure there is enough ice or that the caterers are set up, that the invisible lint is picked up and that the maids are organized and working on a project, the invisible safety net that fills the gap, the strength of cousins and aunts and brothers and uncles in a crisis, the people that just magically take care of the things you don't even know yet needs to be taken care of and it all just gets done without you even knowing, the love and pride that pushes you forward or the roaring cheering as you celebrate a win. The security and the assurance of the people that know you, the people that have your back no matter what, the people that remind you when everything is falling apart that they are standing strong and holding it all together so you don't have to because they have this. Our troops, we needed our troops....there are just things that your troop can do for you that no one else can.

He needed his people. And I couldn't undo this but I could get him his people. And in the meantime, I could mobilize mine. Ours. This was our troop now because they had welcomed him as one of their own. I would mobilize my side of the family and they would keep us afloat until we found his.

We talked phone cards, and Skype, Viber and What's App, but his family wasn't online and we couldn't call because our stupid roaming phones couldn't find a signal. We had never activated that option, knowing that we would always have our phones off in a foreign country. Technology is awesome and there are far too many better options of staying connected. It was a back-up back-up we always meant to do and something that was always on our pre-travel to-do list of things, but there was always just so many things more exciting then waiting at the phone company.

I think we subconsciously figured we would problem-solve if we were ever in a crazy situation. It is half the fun of traveling, the unexpected and the crazy. We had traveled enough to have had the most bizzare shit happen and we trusted each other and our instincts, our little bag of experiences, things we had learned along the way that we could put together and frequently relied on. We were a team, and together we knew we would always figure it out. It is a life long learning process, this amassing of knowledge and experiences, something we thrive on and enjoy, and whatever this situation that came up, would just be part of the adventure.

But this time, I just didn't care. I didn't want the cheapest, most effective, make sense solution. I wanted immediate relief for him, I wanted his troops for him now and I wanted to just fix it and make it all okay. I knew that our time was running short, it was way past midnight in the States, everyone had been waiting to hear from us but they were probably close to calling it a night, exhausted from a long, long, painful day.

We could always try to get some more Skype credit to call later, or find the closest store with a phone card, and all the other many roundabout ways for doing this cheaper but I reassured him that if there was ever a situation that justified an international hotel phone call home, this would be it. And I knew he was relieved, because I think that when a crisis happens, the adrenaline that pumps through you primes you for a fight. It is so much more easier to focus on one thing, to prioritize and say this is where we need to put our energy into and this is just fluff.

I knew that he needed me to stay calm, to stay rational, and keep my shit together. In that moment, in these moments, he just needed me to help him prioritize, to take control of the situation, to figure it all out, to figure out the best solution and to anticipate the worst because his thoughts and feelings were just so scrambled. He was just so confused. What the fuck just happened? We just talked to him, we just talked to him a couple of days ago and we were just supposed to stop at the hotel for a couple minutes and we just talked to him. How is he dead?

I dialed the numbers for him, letting it ring then quietly slipping the phone back to him. Holding his hand, as if I could transfer some of my strength to him, as if by doing that I could take some of his pain away and transfer it back to me and it would protect him. My sister-in-law picked up, her voice racked with hours of crying and he said, hey it's me, sorry we're calling so late, we're still in Vietnam and our phones aren't really working. Would you like to call us back on Skype?

And those moments, those moments in between hanging up and waiting for her to call back. Palms sweaty, mind firing a hundred questions at once, making a mental list, wanting to make sense. Wanting to make sure to ask all the questions we needed answers to, wanting to just please let this all make sense.

She said, "hey Joe, dad is gone."

And we sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Her finding strength from deep within to reassure him again and again that he didn't suffer, that it was peaceful. Saying the words out loud of what you knew but just needed to hear. That he was so incredibly ready, that he had been holding on for everyone to get home to say goodbye...and everyone made it. That just quietly and slowly and quickly, he slipped away over the weekend. It is so dad, and so him to do that. And that somewhere he is having the time of his life, completely cancer-free, and drug-free, and blood transfusion-free, and pain-free. But that he was gone and she is so so sorry.

I cradled my husband as he fell apart and felt my heart break into too many pieces as he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed into my chest, as I held him and stroked his hair. Rubbed his back and reminding him that it was going to be okay, you are going to be okay, it's okay, I'm here. I got you, I got you, I got you.

I let him cry till the hiccups came, and when they did, I just held him even tighter, reminding him to breathe, reminding him that it was okay to hurt this much, that it was okay to fall apart, that I was strong enough to hold us together and hold him until he could feel the solid ground again.

I let him cry and I wanted him to cry, so afraid that he would keep it all in, he usually does when he is scared or unsure until I talk it out with him, I help him find his words and help him process. So scared he would retreat to a place where I couldn't find him, and so scared that he would try to do this alone. My favorite introvert, my yin to my yang, and where I normally need to talk it out until it makes sense, he prefers to internally process it, figure it out and find ground before he's willing to come for help. It is part of what makes our relationship so special, our opposites. He teaches me to slow down, and I teach him to verbalize. But this time reassuring him that he didn't need to find the words, reassuring him that it was okay, that he didn't need to keep his shit together, that he didn't need to protect me and that I loved him, I loved him in the hard times and in the good. That I was strong enough, reassuring that these are the moments where I will pull and I will fight and I will find the light for us and that together, together we would make it through this.

Then we worked on calling his brother. His brother who had just said goodbye to his dad that morning, his brother who was on a cross-continental flight somewhere preparing to go back to work where he was stationed in China while the kids finished out the rest of their summer with mom. His brother who still didn't know, and his brother that my sister-in-law was desperately trying to contact, getting his assistant to call him again and again until he picked up. Until his plane landed.

His brother that was his rock, his only and older brother who had always taken the lead when they were young, the one that guided themselves through the turbulent years of divorce and step-marriage and all the madness and always made sure to take care and protect Mr K. Mr K who was so much younger, so much more innocent. His brother that grew up too fast so Mr K didn't have to. And when his brother finally got the news and they finally reached each other, Mr K was so much more at peace. His brother, as he told him in their own language that it was going to be okay. As he formulated a plan and what they were going to do and what needed to be done. As he helped Mr K make sense of it all, and I have never been so humbled or valued so much witnessing the troop at work.

And then, he felt so much more better. Finally releasing the breath we had held for the last couple of hours navigating through the shock and the devastation. He found a smile again, knowing fully where his dad was and where his head was when he passed. Being comforted immensely that after two years of so much treatment, and so much pain, that his dad was finally home-free. So incredibly thankful for the weeks they spent together this summer, the special time they had together, just the both of them, that they treasured so much. Knowing and acknowleging that his dad was so proud of him and that he was so incredibly loved.

We talked of their adventures together, the summers he had with his dad, of exploring museums and of old leather bound books, of first editions and travelling, of the things that his dad cultivated and instilled in him, of the things that we would honor in our lives.

We laughed at the memory of being quarantined in the hospital, both his ear drums blown from an infection, literally screaming at each other hoping to be heard. Of how much better and so much more him he looked and acted the second time I came back that summer. How he had changed from the quiet tired man at the hospital the start of the summer to this lively quarantined man the end of summer. How he laughed and made jokes and even asked for the elusive BK mushroom swiss burger we were happy to hunt down for him, a surprise after all the chemo and transfusions had made him lose his voracious appetite. We knew that appetite and had seen the difference, noticing how skinny his legs had become as his muscles began to break down. How much older he had looked. How the last two years had really taken a toll on him.

We noticed that he had barely gone through three days before he needed another bag of platelets. Another blood transfusion. Sometimes even two to three.

We talked about what a special experience it was for our parents to finally meet, something we had looked forward to for a long time and grateful that it happened. Where our personalities and certain traits had come from and this sacred relationship of trusting and having faith that my parents would take care of Mr K the way they would take care of me in America.

My favorite story, of when we went to go get that burger late that night and they didn't make it anymore so we stopped at Steak and Shake and bought a pirated version of it. When we finally got back, he had fallen asleep and so we were just going to leave it for him and quietly go home. Because he hadn't slept much, restlessly waking up every couple of hours because he was so anemic and it was hard to breathe. The nurse ran after us stopping us and telling us how he had been waiting, how he had been nodding off and nodding off and refused to let them switch off the lights until the nurses promised promised promised him that they would wake him up when we came back.

Because he just wanted to say goodbye and he wanted more time. He just wanted more time, and so we woke him up. And he was him. He was humorous and cheeky, he was alive and laughing, he was asking for pictures and wanting to know so much about our adventures that we couldn't share enough. How he was so amused when we were taking photos of ourselves in the room and he could see himself on the flip camera and how he laughed. How he ate the whole burger, even the leftover mushroom bits and drank his pop. He was proudly introducing us to all the nurses, his son and daughter-in-law that lived in Malaysia, and how he had another son and daughter-in-law that also lived in China and his precious precious grandkids. He was alive and even quarantined in the hospital, he was the same man I met when I first started dating Mr K. The one that wholeheartedly welcomed me into the family and the one that was always in my corner, hawaiian punch in hand.

People always talk about how people know when they are dying and I think even then, he knew. He knew it would be the last time. I know that in some sense, we knew too, it was just hard to acknowledge because it is always too soon. They always talk about how they have this burst of energy, a burst of great days, parts where they are them again and there he was.

And as we left, we told him we love him. We promised him that we would be good to each other. We promised him that we would be happy and that we would go live out our adventure and take him on it. We promised pictures, because that was the first thing he always wanted to see. His eyes would light up as we explained and he would soak in all the different images, so delighted that we were happy and getting to experience so much, imagining himself there maybe and savoring them again and again. He loved the different cultures, he loved seeing new things and the exoticness of it, of exploring, and I remember whispering to Mr K a crazy thought I had after he died but that one that I believed with with all my heart.

He was finally able to go on our adventures and in China with the kids. The doctor had restricted travelling many many months ago, it was much too risky with his compromised immunity what more with the either of his sons at least a good 15 hour flight away of recirculated air. He was crushed he wouldn't be at the wedding, and Mr K was crushed because he always imagined him there. And secretly, I think we both secretly held on to the hope that it might happen. It seemed so silly to say out loud but we finally got to bring him to our side of the world, to Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh city, just like we would bring him everywhere else he dreamed to see because he would always be with us. But the best part was that he wouldn't be too sick, I could just see him smiling and taking it all in. I have no idea why, but this thought carried and comforted me the most.

Then my husband surprised me just like he always does. He said, we need to do this. We need to suck it up and do this right and we need to honor him and this is something he would want us to do. He wouldn't want us in the hotel room crying and being sad, he would want us to go out and visit and see how the other half of the world lives. He would want us to get all up in there and learn about this city and visit the museums. He would definitely want us to visit the museums. And so we did, we went to the Reunification Palace and soaked it all up in his honor. We visited the sites, and bargained at the local night market, we got lost in Chinatown and we stopped to eat an egg roll from the streetcart vendor, we went to the obscure places and we hung out with the heart of the locals, smiling back, hands waving and mimicking as they proudly welcomed us into their little shack, honored that we chose to eat there verses the commercialized corner, where the jaded and the hardened vendors were ready to suck every penny out of us. Speaking no English, we just hung out. We did what we knew to honor him, what we knew would make him happy.

I think so many times we want to hide our grief, we want to deny it, just suck it all in and pretend it is not happening. We want to rush through the seasons even as we both know that this hurting, this anger, this helplessness, this season in our life and this feeling through the feelings is healthy.

But yet it is so incredibly difficult at the same time. I want to fast forward through this stage, this stage where my husband is so heartbroken. This stage where my husband realizes that all he has left is memories. This stage where we feel cheated that he died too young. This stage where the grief overwhelms him so suddenly out of nowhere, something random, and all I can do is rush to hold him and wipe away the tears. I want this season to be over because it is so painful. I want to fix it, I want to make it better but I know I just have to ride this wave of grief with him because I can't make it disappear. I just have to be here, we just have to be here, and we just have to hold on and ride out this season of our lives.

We are reminded that the best way to honor him is to do what he would want us to do. He would want us to be okay. To really be okay and not just denying or functioning or falling apart in the middle of everything, he would want us to go through the process because he would hate that we were unhappy. I know a lot of times, he protected us from knowing just how bad things were, masking it with humor because he didn't want us to worry. So this is how it works, this is how the ebb and flow of life functions. And so we are grieving, we are feeling through our feelings, we are holding on to each other and we holding on to the promise that we will see him again because we don't want him to worry about us. We want to ride through this and we want him to be proud of us.

His last wishes was to have his body donated to medical science and we are so proud of his decision and relieved that he got his last wishes fulfilled. It might take up to two years before they cremate him, but that is not who he is anymore. It is just a body, a body that could do a lot of help to someone else. No flowers or gifts from friends, just a donation to the blood bank, in gratitude of all the life-saving blood and platelets he received that helped us have just a little bit more time to build more memories.

And when he is finally cremated, we will spread his ashes at his final resting place, a place he loved so much and had so many fond memories of. We will come and make this special trip together, spreading his ashes in unity because that is what he would have wanted us to do. He would have wanted the troop there.

But most of all, we will honor him. We will remember him and we will tell our children about their awesome grandpa. We will tell our son about the tradition, about how he will share a name with different generations of amazing men, we will put more than just a picture to his name. We will tell them about what he was like, his humor and his love for his family, his giving and thoughtful heart, his spirit and the essence of who he was. We will share with them the adventures he took his sons on and they will pass this on to their sons. We will miss him on our wedding day and it will feel like a part of our heart is missing, but we will pray that he gets to see it all happen, that he gets to take lots of pictures.

We will live our lives fully, remembering to savor the adventures because that would have been what he would have reminded us to do. And when we are scared or in culture shock, we will dig deep and remember how amazingly lucky we are, that not many get to experience this and it is a privilege. That this was one of his dreams. We will hold him in our hearts and we will do this for him. We will love each other and support each other, we will stand by each other and we will be good to each other. This is how he would want to be remembered and this is how we will honor his memory.

We love you dad and we miss you so much already.

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."
~John 14:27