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~ Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell ~

I wrote this about 2 months after my dad’s stroke.

This is what it was like in those early days.


On Friday March 2, 2012, my new normal began.

At around 6:30 am, my sister called to tell me that my dad had a stroke. Barely awake, I bolted upright trying to digest the information coming through the phone, “… happened at 3 am… emergency room… leaving soon…”

M and I rushed to the hospital. Seeing dad in bed, connected to an IV, the left side of his face slack, my heart disintegrated. His wife was a mess.

The rest of the day was a blur of doctors, tests, endless questions and few answers. A CT scan revealed a bleed to more than a quarter of the right side of his brain, along with substantial swelling – a rare and severe hemorrhagic stroke. Though his left side was compromised, dad could still minimally move his left leg, but not his left arm. His right side was still very strong. He could answer questions correctly, or at least creatively. It was March 2nd. His stroke happened early in the morning, and it’s a leap year. When asked what the date was, he answered February 30th… not that far off, all things considered.

His deterioration that first day was slow and steady. He slept for longer periods, was more difficult to wake. Then his answers to questions became more bizarre.

“Where are you?”

“North Korea.”

“Where are you?”

“Somewhere between heaven and hell.”

Was he confused? Trying to be funny? Ironic? We may never know.

Dad was born in North Korea, October 30, 1937.  He met my mother, a South Korean, and they fell in love. Her family did not approve. They gave her a choice. She chose dad. They married and, when my sister was 2, moved to Toronto, where I was born in 1967.

It’s hard to believe my parents were ever that in love. My memories of their marriage have always been of a tumultuous union, bickering and arguing with increasing intensity. Mom often went back to Korea to visit and stayed for longer stretches until one day, she never came back. With her absence beginning around age seven and completely AWOL by 14, my relationship with her is peripheral. Her excuses for making the choices she did, only distanced her more from my daily cares, but not without damage. It’s a toss-up which is greater, my resentment or my sadness.

Dad raised my sister and me. He’s the parent I identify with. He’s the one who was there for all the birthdays, Christmases, first menstrual periods, vacations, school assemblies, graduations, jobs, colds, relationships. He’s the one who dragged us onto golf courses, and taught us the perfect grip. The one who took all the pictures, hid the Easter eggs, brought home the pets, and picked me up at the police station when I got caught shoplifting in junior high. He did the best he could, and, some minor juvenile delinquency aside, he did a good job.

By early evening, dad was moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). On Saturday morning, he was very responsive and talkative. He commented to his male nurse that he had “a lovely baritone voice.” Turns out the nurse used to sing opera. I told him dad loved opera, and that he’d have to sing for him sometime. Then dad, not wanting to be upstaged, began singing an aria. It was a good morning.

He declined throughout the day and into Sunday morning when he had to be intubated (tube down throat to keep airway open), and moved to the Critical Care Unit (CRCU). This is apparently the highest level you can go in a Trauma Centre. After that, death.

I stayed overnight by myself that first night in CRCU. Around 2:30am, the nurse asked me to step out for 30 minutes while she repositioned dad, so I tried to nap on the waiting room chairs. Almost an hour went by, and I phoned to get access back in. Something happened. Dad’s blood pressure plummeted, and they needed to put a central line into an artery in his neck. I continued to listen to the nurse explain the procedure they were about to perform, but with my anxiety and exhaustion peaking, she sounded uncannily like Charlie Brown’s teacher (“Wuh wuh wah…”), and I didn’t retain a word.

A few minutes later, it was eerily quiet in the waiting room. Suddenly, the PA system crackled, signaling the beginning of an announcement. My heart stopped. Code Blue. Someone was crashing. Location? Not dad’s unit.

It was the longest night of my life.

At 74, dad’s remarkably healthy – regular check-ups, no hypertension, still works, and golfs every chance he gets. His own father lived until 87, so he comes from pretty good stock. Recently, dad had been complaining about sleepless nights. He was stressed about his business and financial issues. As long as I can remember, money’s been a source of worry, even when he had plenty of it (funny how money can do that). In the early hours of March 2nd, he had a bad headache and couldn’t sleep. His left side weakened and he fell down. His wife called an ambulance, and so began our new normal.

Eight weeks in, we’re all coping the best we can. Dad’s wife, my sister and I take shifts being by his bedside. M went through the illnesses and deaths of both his parents before we met. He believes that’s why we’re together now. He can help me get through this, and I’m his Karmic gift for taking such good care of his parents. Pretty deep thinking for a hot-wing-eating (with extra hot sauce on the side), sports-loving guy. M reminds me to laugh. Another good man in my life.

The cycle continues, and now it’s my turn to take care of dad. Seeing him so thin and frail, and completely dependent is absolute hell. Just a hint of what it must feel like for him. Was this the hell he was referring to that first day?

Dad’s prognosis is that he’ll need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. That’s if he survives. He’s had good and bad days. On his best day he sat in his wheelchair and danced with me, laughing the entire time. On his worst day he stopped breathing, which prompted a Code Blue. Mostly, he sleeps. With a brain bleed and swelling, this is how the body heals itself. It will take time for the swelling to ease and the body to reabsorb the blood, and even then the road to a meaningful life will be long. But I’m optimistic. Most people would have died within the first month from this type of stroke, so he’s already beaten those odds. Dad’s scrappy. He used to get into street fights in his younger days. He’s got the goods to tough this out.

And so, we wait. With patience. Grateful for his awakenings, and hopeful for more best days.


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