Some days my heart just hurts. I'm not sure it is a bad hurt. It can be a good hurt.
But it hurts.
I took my father to a birthday celebration last spring. The party was in honor of a man I’d interviewed. He was 100 years old.
It was at the Armenian church my father's sister attends and the one his mother once belonged to. Whenever my father goes to this church, which is not often, he sees people from his past, the old neighborhood, someone who knew his brother, someone who takes him back in time.
I'd wanted my father to meet this man since I met him three years ago. This little man, this centenarian, one of the few living survivors of the Armenian Genocide during World War I. He could be my grandfather. He could be my father's father.
I never knew my father's father. He died before I was born. My father does not talk much about him but I’ve seen him choke up at his memories.
I remember one time he was sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter his father wrote to him when he was in medical school. He told my father how proud he was of him. My father began to cry. He cried for his father, this immigrant who lost his entire family to the genocide when he was just a teen, who came to America, who built a successful business, who raised his family and who died too young from a heart attack after collapsing on the floor of his shoe repair business.
My father never assimilated into the Armenian culture, the Orthodox religion, the way his parents and two siblings did. As so many from the old neighborhood did. He did not marry an Armenian. The church has never been a favorite place.
And yet, my father enjoyed himself at this little centenarian’s party. I could tell. Even though — maybe because — being here brings back memories.
His best man at his wedding was one table over in the vast banquet hall. They only see each other at times like this. So rare. But my father lit up as they spoke, however briefly. And he enjoyed chatting with people at our table — people we did not know, but people who share similar family pasts.
We spoke of food, of cooking ethnic dishes like kibbie, pilaf, dolma. My father wanted to know where to find this bread his mother used to buy.
"No, it's hard," he'd tell them when they said it was the soft style lawash in most stores. "That's not the same thing," he kept insisting until they remembered the hard bread, too.
I watched my father as he told the woman to my right how he got his name. How, as a little child, he always wanted to be called by his father's name, which was Onnig, though he went by the American version, John. So when my father, whose given name was Nourhan, enrolled in kindergarten and the teacher asked his name, his mother said: “His name is John.”
I watched as my father’s eyes welled up as told this woman the story. And my heart hurt a little.
After dinner, one after another, people got up to honor this little centenarian, this representative and reminder of so much persecution but also of survival and hope. His daughter. His grandson. Close family friends. Three priests. They called him a patriarch, a role model.
Many spoke in the native language. I watched as my father listened.
I watched as he crossed himself and participated in reciting the Lord's Prayer in this language, a language I never learned and one he rarely speaks.
But here the language is breathed. It's celebrated, this beautiful and sometimes lyrical language that can sound short and staccato and then romantic with soft consonants and rolling r’s.
It's the language of his parents. It reminds him of his childhood, I am sure. Of his mother. Of his father.
I think as a child he was embarrassed at times by the language, as children of immigrants often were.
"Did you understand that?" I'd ask more than once.
"Most of it," he'd say.
I've seen my father cry more times than I've seen my mother cry. Outside, my father is rational, stoic.
But I know better.
I watched my father smile when the choir director sang and again when the centenarian spoke to the crowd. This old man, who lives on his own, slowly ambled up to the podium only taking someone's hand as he stepped up to the platform. He choked up as he recalled his life, his family's struggles, and then he called his daughter, now in her 70s, the one who watches out for him, "my guardian angel." We all choked up. I wondered if my father thought of me.
I'm close to my father but we do not verbalize much tenderness. We've been through a lot in recent years with my mother getting sick, and then getting better. Now my father is struggling with his own health problems. I know he thinks about this.
At one point in the evening, I saw him catch his reflection in a long mirror on the wall. He held the gaze for a moment as he raised his hand to stroke his jaw. And I wondered what he was thinking. My father is not vain. But I know he sees his age.
"Don't look," I wanted to tell him, as if to shield him from reality.
I imagine, in this place, some of his past was washing over him and in an instant maybe he was contemplating his life, his age, how he feels, how he looks, no longer how he sees himself inside.
"Don't look," I wanted to say.
My heart hurt a little.
(I wrote this more than two years ago. Things have changed a bit but it's still how I think of my dad. I love old photos and love this one of my dad. Happy Father's Day.)
I was crouched down hooking up lines on my dad’s home hemodialysis machine to make a batch of solution for his next day’s therapy, a nearly four-hour process I have been assisting him with every other day for more than two years.
The thing is, he usually does that particular part himself. I’m usually — or “should be” — home or socializing or doing something “fun.”
I mean, isn’t that what most people are doing? Spending their Friday nights dressed up, looking fashionable, or at least relaxing with friends or family.
Not doing this.
So I was feeling a little sorry for myself, because let’s face it, the past two months have been unusually challenging.
My father broke his hip in mid-November, which had me running back and forth between checking on my mom and visiting him during his nearly three weeks in the hospital. When he came home, he couldn’t be alone or take the stairs in their two-story house so I have essentially moved in with him in the condo where he does his dialysis. I’ve helped with everything from pulling on and off these outrageously tight orthopedic socks morning and night to grocery shopping and drug store runs.
Just about the time we felt my dad was okay to be alone overnight, my mother, who’d been staying in their home with the animals, suddenly was feeling sick. On New Year’s Day I took her to the local ER. It wasn’t terribly clear what her problem was, other than signs of infection and a pain that moved around in her abdomen from one day to the next.
A week later my mother had both her gall bladder and appendix removed. For the next two weeks, she had one thing or another — from an incision that wouldn’t heal properly to chest pains that resulted in one test after another to ensure it was due to heartburn and not her heart.
It was nearly three weeks before she was discharged, so weak now she too could not be home alone.
So here we are, three of us, in my dad’s dialysis condo, me pulling socks on and off, helping my mother with her medications while encouraging her to do what’s necessary to regain her strength. Oh, yes, and now running to their home daily to retrieve mail, feed and water three indoor cats plus several she’s given refuge to outdoors. There is the dog, too, now also at the condo so I can let her out morning and night.
Somehow in the midst of this, I actually find time to do my work but not much else.
So there I was on a Friday night, not in the latest fashions or hairstyle but in the same uniform of jeans and a dark shirt, hair in a ponytail. Far from sitting in some trendy restaurant, I was sitting on my heels hooking up surgical tubing.
And then it hit me.
Sure, this kind of sucks. But I am doing something terribly significant. And not saying no to it or avoiding it.
I looked at myself as someone else might and thought, Wow. She’s awesome.
Here I was putting all these people I imagined were doing what I thought I should be doing — living the good life, looking like some image in a magazine — on a kind of pedestal.
Not that my family is living the good life right now. It is what it is. But I’m doing what I need to do, putting that first.
And in that, I realized I’m the one I should be putting on that pedestal. Along with so many others who do what is necessary rather than what is fun.