Today marks what would be 66th year of my father’s life. He passed away at the young age of 51 due to complications from Lupus. This time of year is bitter sweet because you are excited for the holidays, but at the same time you miss not being able to share those times with loves one that you’ve lost. And although my father’s birthday is just a few days after Christmas, if you knew him, you knew he was adamant about receiving separate Birthday and Christmas gifts. To be honest I haven’t seen him more excited than to have had a special birthday adventure. This makes the memory of my father even more of a dichotomy. Although I recall the joyous times we had, the end of his life was a painful one, for both of us.
I can recall the Sunday morning I received the call from my older brother. He was always nonchalant, so I was surprised at how excited and disturbed he was. All I could make out was my father was in the hospital and needed surgery. For most this would seem like an alarm but for my siblings, my father and hospitals were synonymous. Some people even joked and called him the Bionic Man, due to his multiple surgeries…..2 hip replacements, 2 open heart surgeries, broken bones and a whole laundry list of hospitalizations and illnesses. I was used to seeing my father sick, but this seemed different. I got the nurses to connect a phone to my father’s room prior to the surgery. I was living in Portland, OR at the time so I was not there to monitor my father’s day to day activities. I remember he got sick earlier and I offered to have him come stay with me in Portland. He laughed at the idea because he was forever the independent being. The last thing he wanted was you to tell him what he couldn’t do, and what’s worse is you having sympathy for him. So I was shocked when I asked if he wanted me to come home and his reply was yes. I knew things were bad, but I wasn’t sure how bad until I reached LA.
My friend Latonya picked me up from the airport, her mother worked with my father, so she was more abreast of the situation than I was. She prepared me for what I was going to see, she said…..”you know your father is very sick.” I felt like a fool because I didn’t know how sick he was. We talked all the time, I would send letters home and we had a great relationship….so how could it get this bad without me being aware? As I walked in to my father’s room, I was shocked, he had his leg amputated to stop an infection that was spreading throughout his body. Cats, have 9 lives, but it seemed as if my father had 20, although hobbled and sick…..he never let it bother him or you. He always seemed to bounce back from whatever setback he had. But I saw this as one he may not be able to conquer.
I am my father’s child, and I jump right into things, just like he used to. I quickly got in touch with the doctors and tried to seek some sort of rehabilitation plan to get him out of the hospital and home. I was so focused on getting my father better and things back to normal, I didn’t realize what I was truly there for…….just to be with him. We butted heads….I’m not Juan Jr. for nothing, I am just as strong willed as my father was, and when you have two trains on a crash course the result is never a pretty one. I remember getting so upset because I wanted my father to focus on the task at hand…..getting better, eating to get stronger….I wanted him to focus on the here and now. I would continually get upset when he would recall old camp meetings he attended, his crazy friends he knew through the years and last but not least the musical groups he sang with through out his life time.
To me, this was wasted time, we had a job to handle, getting better so life can get back to normal. Little did I know, those dreams were what was keeping him alive. I had a routine I would spend the night at the hospital, make sure my father was taken care of in the morning. Then I would run home take a shower, and pick my grandmother or any other family member up take them to hospital to see my father and then drop them off at home and start the cycle over again. My only escape was the hour or so I spent at Redondo Beach prior to returning to the hospital. I would just sit in my favorite lifeguard shack and listen to the waves, watch the moon dance off of the water and just have that moment of peace. To me there is nothing like the beach at night to clear your head. I remember speaking with my grandmother about my father’s flawed thinking and what I thought was his not working hard enough to get home. He has always come home. My grandmother spoke to me in one of those maternal voices like only a grandmother could. “Lil Juan, your father is tired, he’s in pain, more pain than you can know. He’s prepared you kids for this.” At that moment I had a vision of my father, encumbered by his pain, his wounds and his illness. The vision was so real, I could somehow feel the pain my father was feeling…..it hurt me to the core. I let out the most guttural cry I have ever had. It took me months to realize, I was driving my father, not caring for him. I was a task master, making sure he did his physical therapy, took the right medicines so he could get better for ME, and the rest of the family. I disregarded his pain, his fatigue, the things that he had gone through. He needed to rest….and yet I was pushing him on, like an over exuberant Little League parent.
Once I finally understood I viewed things differently. I was there to make his last time on earth comfortable. I can recall the last weekend of his life. I was spending the night at the hospital, we were having one of our late night chess matches.(To this day, I have never beaten my father.) Although he was distracted he was still beating me, until he made a few crucial mistakes. I knew something was wrong but we kept on playing. I even got to the point where I called check. Being the person he is, he drew on some inner strength and came back and beat me. After that he was rushed to Kaiser Pemanente. I can recall looking at my father as he lay in pain towards the end.
Journal Entry Excerpt 8/8/97
I have finally come to grips with my father’s death. I know it sounds like giving up and that’s what I thought he was doing but I realize now that it is inevitable. Everything must come to an end. As I look at my father, I am reminded of a mighty warrior surveying the scars of years of battle. His shield has taken far too many spear jabs, his body has survived the rigors of war, but the clock is ticking. His sword has been chipped and rusted so many times…..even sharpening it would be a waste. He would rather stand and face impending peril than carry on and be a burden to others. Despite being handicapped and sick my father did more with the half of body that he had than some who are totally healthy do with theirs. I hope to live to be half of the man my father was.
My father was pronounced dead the next morning. I was ok with his passing because I knew my reasons for him to survive were selfish, I wanted him to get better for me. So I could have that person to call when things got rough, that spiritual inspiration I needed when I seemed lost and that home I knew I could always run to when all the chips were down. That had been taken from me. As the years pass by and we near the 15th year of my father’s death I struggle with remembering him and dealing with the painful memories too. Although I can’t call my father or enjoy his company…..his memory lives on in my dreams. Just as his dreams kept him alive and fighting, it keeps his memory alive in my heart. Our dreams unfortunately are not all enjoyable, there is the occasional dream that startles us from our slumber, but we must continue to dream. Along with joy there is pain, along with life there is death. But if you stop dreaming……you have in effect died. Although my father wasn’t the richest, most educated or accomplished man, he dared to dream. He never let his current situation affect his mental state. I need to get back on my grind and stop letting what’s in front of me affect my outlook. Just as my father did, I need to continue to dream.
“Once you find your shoulders dropping and your speech gets slow and hazy,
you better change your way of being before you find your brain’s got lazy.
You can build a better future when you join the winning team,
if you desire a bright tomorrow, you must build a brighter dream.
Dare to let your dreams reach beyond you, know that history holds more than it seems.
We are here alive today because our ancestors dared to dream.”
-Maya Angelou The Dreamer Common feat. Maya Angelou
So fly way home to Zion, fly away home……it was your time to rest, but I hope we we’ll look on each other’s face again…….that’s my dream.