You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy, when skies are grey
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
I used to play Charlie’s Angels when I was a kid—the Farrah, not the Drew version. Always as either Jill or Kelly (never Sabrina), I could spend hours on assignments spying on bad guys, picking locks with bobby pins and eavesdropping on conversations, all while dad finished his last few holes of golf. We usually picked up Swiss Chalet afterwards and washed it down with a Coke, when there was only the one kind.
I was most definitely “daddy’s girl.” Even before my brain could remember remembering, there I am in photos, sitting on dad’s lap or glued to his side, beaming for the camera. Whether it was golfing, dancing, watching Carol Burnett or Hockey Night in Canada, dad and I were almost always within arm’s reach, he carrying me up to bed, when I couldn’t stay awake any longer.
My older sister always seemed like the older sister—responsible, practical and far less theatrical. She’s never seemed as needy as me, even as kids. She was all good grades and honour role to my play acting and make-believe. No wonder I was drawn to performance and the arts, and she marketing and business. In recent years she’s relished the fact that, upon first meeting, some people don’t know which one of us is older. I acknowledge that the last few years may have aged my face more than hers. I chalk it up to thinner, more sun-sensitive skin, which I used to attribute to mom. Now, I realize how much I look like dad.
My relationship with mom was different. Though I do have fond memories of the two of us in the kitchen during my grade school lunch breaks, eating egg salad sandwiches or Campbell’s soup, her presence in my life was thin at best. With her visits back to her homeland, Korea, becoming more frequent and longer in length, I gravitated even more to dad. I didn’t know why mom spent so much time away from us (when you’re a kid, do the reasons why marriages breakdown even matter?), but by the time she left for good when I was 14, I had almost entirely distanced myself from her.
Dad’s getting agitated. He’s pulling J’s hand away from his neck. The severe hemorrhagic stroke (March 2nd, 2012), caused complete paralysis on dad’s left side and damaged his brain, but not his feisty spirit. These days it’s hard to get through a physiotherapy session without him complaining about tingling and itchiness (common sensations following a stroke), and physically trying to stop J (his physiotherapist) from doing his job. At 77, this spirit, this fighter instinct is the reason why dad’s here, when many of his doctors doubted a meaningful recovery, his ever being able to awaken or talk or get out of bed or eat or drink or laugh or stand or walk his daughter down the aisle and dance at her wedding.
It’s fair to say my teen years were a bit rebellious. By junior high school, I had already been caught drinking, smoking cigarettes, smoking pot and shoplifting. Feeling entitled to experiment (after all, my mother abandoned me!), I became the cliché, angsty teenager, complete with skin-tight jeans, lumber jacket, black eyeliner and attitude up the whazoo. Dad would have been in his early forties then, single, raising two girls on his own. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, I had some friends being raised by single moms, but my sister and I were the only ones I knew whose dad stayed to pick up the pieces.
I’d like to think part of my youthful delinquency was directly related to the same curiosity that compelled the 5-year-old me to put a paper airplane in the flame of a candle and drop it on the carpet, or spray Easy Off on our coffee table, or leave our apartment alone and walk across the street to the mall. For some reason I wasn’t afraid to try things, or veer towards an unknown path.
Following my drunken and dopey junior-high haze, while most of my friends went to one of two local-area high schools, I auditioned for and was accepted into the dance program at an arts high school—a bus ride, a subway stop and a 20-minute walk away. With my sister away at university, it was just me and dad for a few years, and though he was mostly supportive of my artistic leanings, he still thought university was in my near future. But when I graduated in grade 12, after being accepted into a full-time dance school, instead of continuing to grade 13, he realized I was in this dance thing for the long haul. In my 20-year performance career, I don’t think dad’s ever missed a home-town performance of mine. And as I transitioned from performing to writing, directing and teaching, though he’s worried about my financial security, he’s always been proud and supportive of his little girl.
Dad’s on his feet. The Standing Frame is an intimidating contraption. A big padded thing with a foot plate and bars, it helps dad stand by aligning and securing his feet, knees, hips and waist in place. J sits in front coaxing dad’s knees to straighten, while I stand behind on the plinth (physiotherapy table), holding up dad’s upper body. I’m sweating. It’s a lot of work for all of us. Since dad’s stroke 2 years ago, he’s worked with several top-notch neurological physiotherapists. After more than eight months in hospital and rehabilitation, we were lucky to bring him home where he lives with his wife. With help from daily Personal Support Workers (PSWs) and the three ladies in his life, dad is very well cared for.
The long-term physical goals are straightforward—get dad strong enough to transfer easily in and out of the wheelchair, bed and a car; support himself on the toilet; stand and walk. In the meantime, we rely on our PSWs, disposable briefs, Wheel-Trans and each other.
The short-term goal is only four months away. On June 21st, 2014, dad and I will dance at my wedding.
It took me 42 years, but I finally met my forever person in 2009. M proposed a few months after dad’s stroke, on his late parents’ wedding anniversary. It was his idea to get married this year, while dad’s doing well, knowing how important it is for dad to be a part of our day and, hopefully, remember it somewhere in his finicky brain.
Why did it take me so long to find M? Truth is, somewhere along the way, that fearless and bold kid in me grew up and became complacent. I got used to coasting with the same life, falling for same type of guy, convinced I was content with just okay, and afraid to take a chance with something else, someone else.
Then M came along and he was different, and I was different because I bypassed my usual lame judgments and patterns, and saw beyond his t-shirts with logos, and penchant for pizza and wings once a week. I saw a good man. One of the two best men I know.
Though M and I wanted children of our own, time was not on our side. At ages 42 and 48 when we met, kids just weren’t in the cards for us. I often wonder what our kid would have looked like, been like, and I desperately hope to know him or her someday, in another life. Until then, M reminds me that I have a 53-year old kid in him. Not quite the same, but I’ll take it.
It’s curious the way my life has unfolded. Why did I gravitate towards dance? Why didn’t I have kids? Why did I meet M when I did, a man who had already been through the illnesses and deaths of both parents?
Everything I’ve done, all the experiences and skills I’ve acquired, even not having kids, have somehow prepared me for the new normal that began in the early morning hours of March 2nd, 2012. They’ve given me a physical strength and body awareness to help with dad’s physiotherapy, a flexible schedule to accommodate his appointments and rehabilitative programs, and research medications and therapies, and a husband who understands and supports me through all of it. I also have more time to just be with dad—a coffee and a treat at Tim Horton’s, a chat on a sunny afternoon—to get to know more about this man who’s been through a certain kind of hell, yet remains an exceptionally gracious and gentle man.
You can hear a pin drop. Except for a few sniffles and spontaneous “ahs,” it’s just me and dad alone on the quiet dance floor. Despite our best efforts, we didn’t reach our goal of getting dad to stand on his own for the wedding. Annoying but common blips, like urinary tract infections, may stall his rehabilitation at times, but he also has significant jumps in both cognitive clarity and physical strength, jumps that seem more significant to those of us closest to him, especially when any progress can sometimes feel painfully slow.
The 45 wedding guests are standing close to us. Our musician strums the guitar and begins singing You are my Sunshine. I chose this song because Dad and I sing it in music therapy together, plus M’s sister and mom used to sing it to his nephew when he was a baby, so it means something to both families. It’s a good song. More sniffles fill the room. I take dad’s hand and dance around him, while he stays seated in his wheelchair. He says something that only I can hear, and I lean in close.
“Okay, come on,” he says.
“What do you mean? I ask
“Okay, help me up, I want to get up,” he insists.
“Oh daddy, that’s okay. Why don’t you just kick your legs around, show us how strong they are.”
He vigorously kicks his stronger right leg then his affected left leg, which he can now move a little, along with his left arm and hand. It’s been just over two years since his stroke. From feeding tubes, tracheostomy and coma, to toasting his baby daughter and her husband on their wedding night, dad’s been a total rock star. Looking like a million bucks in his black suit and custom-dyed blue tie, I can’t help but think about all the naysayers along the way who doubted his recovery, those who only saw his limitations and chose to maintain a barely functional baseline, those who thought a heavily-medicated life was the same as living, vs. those who saw dad’s potential, understood the incredible neuroplasticity of the brain, and worked (and continue to work), their asses off to get him out of his wheelchair.
How could we possibly settle for anything less than that?
My patience and compassion are challenged almost daily, and the stuff that really matters is so much clearer. Dad’s quality of life drives every decision we make as a family about his treatment and rehabilitation. Was this a good day for him, for us? That’s all that really matters.
On my wedding day, dad and my sister accompanied me down the aisle, he in his wheelchair, she pushing from behind. As we rounded the corner, I saw all the loving faces of my friends and family looking my way, faces that mean something to me, faces of people who somehow manage to cushion the impact, keep me upright and remind me that laughing feels so fucking good! I instantly welled up, squeezed dad’s hand a little tighter, took a deep breath and kept moving forward towards M.
It was a good day.