Life’s beauty is defined by its imperfections: Lessons from my dad and cancer.

February 10th. I’ll never forget.

I went to work like any other Tuesday morning, then I got a text from my mom as I was sitting in front of my laptop. It was about 8:50 am.

She texted me.. (In Korean)
“Remember how I told you your dad had a doctor check up today… “
Texted her back…(in English)
“Ya .. are you sure you guys don’t want me to come and help translate?”
(In Korean)
“Well… Don’t freak out. Please stay calm. He has cancer. He needs surgery. They are going to remove a foot of his colon today.”
     My heart dropped and my stomach twisted and hurt like someone put an invisible knife through my chest and my stomach. I felt dizzy and I felt cold. Before I knew it I was uncontrollably sobbing in my office, (and I would normally never ever cry at work) and with a quick text to my boss “gotta go, tell you later” I got in my car, and started driving to my parents… But then a few minutes into it, realized I couldn’t stop my tears, turned around, and headed to my apartment. I needed at least a few minutes to be alone and process and get my shit together. 15 minutes later I cried so hard that I threw up.
     It almost felt good to let all my emotions hit me, the confusion, the denial, the fear. I couldn’t believe this was real. I thought if I cried harder maybe I will wake myself up from a terrible dream. But I didn’t.
     My dad’s surgery was soon. I decided that I need to be the strong one. Ever since I was young, I had a very unique set of experiences that made me extremely strong and independent. Sometimes I like it. That day, I had no other choice.
     I looked at myself in the mirror and saw how swollen my eyes were. I didn’t want my parents to see me like this. I wanted to be there for them to lean on. I put some concealer on to hide my deep sadness and grabbed my keys and left. I stopped by the store on the way; I wanted to buy him a gift- anything that would put a smile on his face. Thankfully, it was right before Valentine’s Day, so there were a lot of cute silly gifts, like this giant stuffed gorilla with a kissy face. It made me smile for a bit so I knew it would certainly make my dad smile, so I grabbed it.
     As I approached the counter to pay, the cashier smiled and he asked me, “Is this for your boyfriend?” And I looked at him and responded without skipping a beat, “no it’s for my dad, and I love him so much.” It was amazing how much fuck I didn’t give about how weird that must have sounded to a stranger but I didn’t care. I got in my car and started to tear up again wondering how many Valentines my dad and I have left together.
     When I got to my parents’ place, I re-dabbled some make up on under my eyes to hide that I had been a mess, and walked up to their door. My dad and my mom greeted me as they always do; with so much excitement that I get a little overwhelmed every time. I remember 2 days before that day when I got in a car accident (yes.. Turns out this was rather a rough week) my parents sounded so scared and worried. This is how much they love me; their own pain doesn’t hurt them, but the thought of the possibility of me being in any pain does.
     They knew how startled I was and how devastated I was to find out about my dad this way; and they tried even harder to cheer me up. This silly man, I thought; he had this big surgery ahead of him in a few hours and he was worried about how I was feeling.
     It wasn’t just that he was diagnosed with … cancer. But the thought of him having gone to the doctor alone when he found out (he didn’t even tell my mom till a few days before the surgery because he didn’t want her to worry), going to all the follow ups, hearing that they will have to cut a foot of his organ, hearing and assessing all the scary possible complications and outcomes, alone, broke my heart.
     We got to the hospital, and we waited a while. There was this tense feeling around the waiting room. We waited a long while actually. So we just started to talk about random things. We even giggled a little. In this moment of despair, we all felt a random ray of happiness- that we are all together as a family, bonding through a tough time. We haven’t just hung out like this in a long time, without me checking my emails every 3 minutes, with out my mom going off about how I’m too busy and my dad reading something. We were all present, together. It was not the best form of a reminder, but a reminder nevertheless that there is no moment like now.
     This short moment of giggles quickly faded as we were called in. He had a long list of questions he had to answer for the doctor. At that moment, I realized how much I didn’t know about my dad. I didn’t know exactly how tall he was or how much he weighed. I didn’t know his mom passed away due to high blood pressure (he is my step dad since I was 11 and have never met most of them). I didn’t know that he was a teenager once and smoked cigarettes in his younger years. I knew his birthday but I haven’t really thought about the fact that he is 67… Almost 70 years old. Wow when did my dad get so old.
     We waited a few hours again after this examination, until they finally carried him away into the surgery room. Until the very last minute he left, he was cracking jokes and smiling. That’s my dad. And I was proud of him. He is so brave.
     Long 2 hours of surgery later, I learned another thing about my dad that I didn’t know before. That he could be in a LOT of pain. He has an extremely high pain tolerance and I have never seen him flinch with anything. Once the tv got knocked over and hit his head when we were moving and he was bleeding from his head. I freaked out but he was trying to reassure me he was fine and didn’t even act like it hurt him.
     But that day he made these inevitable painful groans after the surgery as his anesthetic wore off. It was one of the most difficult things I had to witness.
     Yet every time the nurse came around, he treated them with kindness and tried to make jokes in his broken English that made everyone laugh. He told me he was actually happy because we got to spend so much time together and that I got to hang out with him the whole day on a work day. I realized that maybe, although not related my blood, I had inherited his ability to see the positive in every dark situation, as I’ve called him dad for over 15 years now. That made me smile.
     Thankfully a few months later, he is still doing  somewhat better. I pray for him every day. We think he got lucky and they caught it at a pretty early stage. Although we don’t know when the cancer can come back, he is able to walk and eat fairly normal; although he gets tired more easily than he used to, he can carry on a normal life for the most part for now. It is still too early to celebrate, but I am glad that he is recovering well. And I am so thankful for them just being in my life.
     In Korea, we have something called the “parents day” [Uh-buh-yee-nal] – kind of like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but together on the same day. It’s May 8th of each year. My parents are currently visiting Korea so I didn’t get to spend it with them but I have been thinking about them a lot. I finally got myself to reflect on this whole experience a few months later; although this has been an emotional reflecting, it has forced me to think about what I can learn from this situation.
     You see, it’s not just the mere sum of euphoric moments that defines happiness, but rather the contrast of a wide spectrum of feelings and emotions as humans, love and sadness, hope and despair, laughter and tears, that makes life truly beautiful. If we were happy all the time, we wouldn’t know the real colors of this life. Because there are dark days, the bright days are brighter and more appreciated. And every moment, every experience, there is a blessing and lesson behind it.
     The negative experiences help shape who we are and push us to define who we are. My negative experiences throughout my life have taught  me that these moments are never permanent, and neither are the bursts of joyful moments. The impermanence of these fleeting moments, whether good or bad, helps me detach from getting hyper focused on one shade of emotion and letting that take over me.
     What I gain through all meaningful experiences is a unique perspective that no one can take away from me. Sure, in theory it would be nice to never go through tough times, and definitely never see your dad get sick, but instead of being forever sad about what happened that was out of my control, I try to see what wisdom this life event is offering. Without these experiences, in fact, I wouldn’t be … me. I’ve also acquired the ability to connect and be compassionate to those who have overcome similar or even varying shapes of struggles.
     And lastly, I realized just how amazing my parents are. I hope to be half the parent that they were to me one day and show them the selfless and unconditional love as they have to me. I hope that I can teach my kids to smile and see the light in every situation. I hope that I can teach them the courage to be strong and never compromise being kind no matter what situation life brings.
Happy belated “parents day,” mom and dad. I love you and very very thankful for you.
Oh but yeah, fuck cancer.

Mom trying to make me laugh while we wait at the hospital.  

Thank you dad for being a survivor. Love you always.