You know how the K-drama goes. Girl becomes estranged from dad, they lose contact for several years, girl hears through the grapevine that he’s in hospital and ends up calling every hospital in Sydney until she tracks him down.
When my dad left my family for good, I always thought (and secretly hoped) that we would naturally reconnect one day. Sure, the last conversation we had was an argument-turned-assault-charge and any remnant of a relationship appeared unsalvageable, but I never abandoned the fantasy of some sort of reconciliation somewhere down the line.
It wasn’t until my aunty’s funeral a few months ago that the possibility of seeing my dad after all these years suddenly became real. My anxious mind went into overdrive and went through every imaginable scenario, bar one.
He didn’t turn up. Typical, I thought. He’s probably drunk or had better things to do than to pay his respects to his dead sister-in-law. Turns out my uncle had invited him to the funeral but he was in hospital with cancer and didn’t want to be found. Cue the dramatic K-pop song.
Instinctively, I called every hospital in Sydney until someone could tell me anything. Long story short, morsels of information and a hunch led me to Concord Hospital where he was sitting in the waiting room of the cancer ward with a lady I didn't know.
Our eyes met and what ensued was a confrontation that ticked all the K-drama boxes: tears, yelling, an encounter with his new partner and an hysterical daughter refusing to leave (kitted out in an appropriately theatrical fluffy oversized coat). Eventually and begrudgingly, he let me come into the oncologist appointment with him. It was there we first learned it was Stage 4 cancer and beyond the point of operation. The cancer was so advanced that even if chemo was successful, he would only have several months to two years tops. Tears gushed uncontrollably down my face and suddenly this stranger became my father again.
I wish I could say we were able to hug it out and laugh about the whole thing, but it’s been no walk in the park. In fact, it’s been a lot of sitting in awkward silence in the hospital.
Whether it was pride, guilt or genuine protestation, my dad persistently rejected my offers to support him with chemo and any other hospital-related tasks. Unfortunately for him, I take after my father’s stubbornness and so I insisted until he didn’t refuse. Given that he speaks little English and can’t work anymore, I felt compelled to help as much as I could. Several well-intentioned friends advised against doing so, fearing he would ask me for money or hurt me again, but seeing this once healthy and stocky man wilt into a shell of his former self made the decision a no-brainer.
I still wrestled with a lot of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (all while my therapist was overseas), not to mention navigating my dad’s new partner (who happened to be not so new after all) and contemplating what sort of relationship I wanted with him and/or her. All at once, I felt everything I had worked on in therapy was unravelling, so I decided to focus on his health for now and worry about the rest later. In other words, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.
I wish I could say we were able to hug it out and laugh about the whole thing, but it’s been no walk in the park. In fact, it’s been a lot of sitting in awkward silence in the hospital. In between a soundtrack of incessant beeping and curtains being drawn, we clumsily force small talk, awkwardly switching between just two topics — what we’d been up to during the past several years and any updates on his condition. I would accompany him to every appointment, help fill out the paperwork and translate everything into Korean for him, including the fun fact that you can still have sex while doing chemo (you just have to wear a condom in case any chemotherapy drugs are transmitted through bodily fluids).
In the span of one month, I became semi-fluent in cancer speak, learned the best parking times at Concord Hospital and memorised the roles and rosters of each specialist and nurse involved in my dad’s treatment. Every day, I went from feeling overwhelmed, wanting to hit pause on everything, to feeling ecstatic to be spending time with my dad, albeit under complicated circumstances — to feeling defeated and wishing, for a brief moment, that I’d studied medicine like my parents had wanted. Every day was suddenly an unknown territory which brought with it unpredictable emotions and uncomfortable conversations.
It wasn’t until my dad had to be rushed into emergency a few weeks ago that we finally addressed the elephant in the cold hospital room. Perhaps he thought he was on his deathbed and was trying to clear his conscience or perhaps he was cozying up to me to ask me for money again (so my cynical side thought). Whatever it was compelled him to sit up in bed and ask if I had any questions for him. Boy, did I ever. I asked if the reason he never took an interest in me was because I was a girl and he always wanted a son. Definitely not, he assured me. He explained that he had wanted a happy family but because he and mum didn’t get along, he turned to alcohol and other women. I knew I was getting the PG, PR-approved version but I didn’t care. This was the most we’d ever talked in one sitting and I wasn’t going to ruin my Disney-worthy moment.
In the span of two months, I've learned more about my dad than I did in 30 years. I learned that his favourite show is Squid Game, that he likes to use sloth gifs in texts (a serendipitous discovery as I am an avid collector of sloth socks) and that he had often thought about me during our time apart. But while his cancer has forced open and expedited a lot of conversations, I know I will never know everything about him — something particularly hard for a nosy journalist to accept.
I don't know if my dad will be around for Season 2 of Squid Game, or if he’ll ever be well enough to have a drink with me (which is on my bucket list), but I do know and have learned that blood is thicker than water, particularly when you have cancer.