It's hard to write about this. Mostly since like anything I get seriously affected by, it didn't happen to me. Therefore I feel like I'm stealing someone else's thunder when I mourn. Regardless, my father's massive heart attack last month in the Philippines in addition to emergency double bypass greatly influenced me. Here's how.
JP waltzed into my life, or, rather, we catapulted into his, a little over 20 years ago. I met him when I was 8, in California, after a l-o-n-g road trip in our little white Renault. Just me, mom and Linds. Mom was 28. Linds was about 4. I was a nervous, sweet, funny, cocky, uptight little 8 year old terrified of meeting a new man. Was I supposed to call him daddy? Would he leave? Did he drink? I remember thinking these things, at 8, as we drove through so many long states. I'd been born and raised on the east coast, never experiencing geography like this before. A lot of sun, in October. Something I'd only heard about when the teacher taught history: desert. A lot of sprawling land. Huge new changes. Would he like Lindsay and me? Did he love my mom? What would my new school be like? In California, a land far from Georgia and what I'd become accustomed to since the brutal divorce. At eight I had become conscious of things like change and court and moms losing 25 pounds in gut-wrenching custody battles. I'd grown cognizant of the fact that a lot could be decided from simple answers to complicated questions, like when (at 5)the judge asked me who I wanted to live with and I told him my mom tells me stories but I don't know where my dad goes. I remember shaking the magic 8 ball in the judge's office, but the answers couldn't come from a magic ball this time.
There were dinosaur fruit snacks on the countertop. A life-altering move, a new dad, a new state, a new, spacious condo overlooking a koi pond in Mountain View, California, and all I remember is the dinosaur fruit snacks. We were little girls. Already I found JP adorable. There were 2 boxes, neatly arranged on an otherwise pristine countertop in this long kitchen with complicated-looking appliances. I was mesmerized from the start. Didn't know where to look first. The koi pond? The balcony? The living room with the fascinating red fire place? I had never been in an adult's condo before. Never seen a bachelor pad. I'd never witnessed someone so in love with my mom. Someone so happy around her, so accommodating, so eager and generous. A complete stranger I felt immediately at ease around. His condo became a comfort. Our life started to feel complete, at once. In my eight year old mind I even remember thinking, this is too good to be true. Dads aren't like this.
Fast-forward 22 years. A little lifetime of skinned knees and dad patch-ups. Learning how to ride a bike on the California asphalt, JP running behind me like the wind, holding on tight. Linds whizzing in and out of my path, devilishly grinning. In her training wheels. He let go; I had the bravado and confidence to keep riding. Supertag, frisbee, expeditions, flying over the Bay Bridge. Paper-wrapped chicken at Tien Fu. Introductions to exotic, exquisite cuisines. Our little blonde heads being patted in Okinawa by the sweet Japanese. Yakitori festivals and cherry tree blossoms. Little buddhas. Millions of memories condensed into 22 short years. They flew by, like my long blonde hair soaring in the breeze on that exploratory bicycle ride. He held on and held on, so fatherly, so instantly dad-like, at 33, having never married, with no kids and no kid experiences. It felt uncanny. It felt perfect. It was a relief. Homecoming dances, junior and senior proms. The protectiveness of dad teaching me to dance with my high school crush. That Saturday morning in high school where he introduced me to Brubeck and started my lifelong love affair with jazz. Taking a running jump into Thompson Lake in the summer, and that first winter toboganning down camp's driveway. Hearing his screams and shouts and "hurray"s during my first cross country meet. I was so embarrassed, naturally, at 14. Today I'm beaming, celebrating a father's love. A stranger who became a father, literally overnight. The complexity of our situation faded away as he proved himself over 22 years. Tickle toes, robe nights, his sentimentality. That moment in the middle of You've Got Mail when you look to your right at the sound of a sniffle and of course there J is, tissues and tears and that "Oh, sweetie."
The memories flashed before my eyes in my groggy mind when mom came racing into my room at 7:33 am. "Shannon, J just called, he's having chest pains, Oh my God." Her panic, hysterics, my numbness. I couldn't feel my face. The tears wouldn't come. All I could think is "No. This can't happen. Not to him." And then I ran to my computer, cursing my stubbornness at still not having a smart phone. Logging on to Facebook, all I could think was, God spare him. If you please just spare him, I'll do anything. I'll move out. I'll get my life together. I'll get my dog fixed. I'll go to church and mean it. I'll tithe again. You can have me back, if you just spare him. I'll volunteer at the homeless shelter and change my name like I've been avoiding. I won't avoid LIFE anymore. I'll open up a soup kitchen. Whatever it takes. I am Yours. Just give me my dad in one piece.
When I posted that my father was experiencing chest pains this very moment in Manila while on a business trip, people came crawling out of the woodwork. Friends from high school I hadn't talked to in years but were mentored by J at one time, praying and sending love. Church friends and acquaintances where J is a devoted member of several ministries. People praying, sending good vibes and well wishes, asking what they could do and how they could help. No idea what to ask for or what to tell them. The casserole ministry springing into action as my mom flew over the world to get to her husband, just arriving as he was coming out of bypass surgery. One aunt springing to action here in Virginia kicking into gear the process of expediting a passport, hand-delivering scans of my dad's heart to the head cardiologist at UVA's personal home. One aunt literally dropping everything and catching the first flight to Manila, sending him off with kisses and hugs from home. Grandparents calling constantly to check in and show support as siblings just barely made it through. Linds and her husband in Florida feeling helpless as I was, launching a CaringBride site. Most of all, my Filipino guardian angel friend from work, where, bear in mind, I have only been for 5 months at this point, throwing herself and all of her Filipino contacts into action. Around 8 am I posted about the chest pains. Not 15 minutes later was Anne texting me for details, alerting me that her friend like a sister to her was on her way to hospital. The texting and calls and constant support from Anne continued until the very end, in fact, continues today, a month later. As I still process the whole of what happened, she took the time and the initiative to BE in the midst of my nightmare. Texting me the names of doctors on the other side of the world who just performed angioplasty on my dad. Giving me the phone number to his doctor and his room at Makati Medical Center in Manila. I didn't have time to pinch myself. But days later, rifling through each text, my body couldn't help but shake. The tears finally came. No longer was I in shock. This friend literally CARRIED me and my family through the biggest crisis of our life, world away from each other, as my dad was experiencing his heart attack, she had loved ones showing up at the hospital introducing themselves as family friends. The depth of the situation hits me at rare moments. In the shower I will recognize the sheer temporariness of this life and start weeping. As I'm getting ready for work I just drop and start praying. Like there's an earthquake happening. Or a storm warning. I can't get away from God anymore. I don't want to.
In this moment, it is impossible for me to feel as if God doesn't exist. Impossible to feel unloved and unblessed. Impossible to feel anything but gratitude for this formerly doubting Thomas. Joy, even. Impossible to feel depressed. "It's like God's rolling out the red carpet," my sister candidly stated. And that's the only expression for it. The only adequate way to describe this journey and the whole of what happened. It feels exciting now. To look back and watch the events unfolding, so cinematic. Mom racing over from the airport, lost luggage, as dad emerges from surgery stupor, just opening his eyes! Mom ten minutes away from hospital! Constant Facebook updates from aunt, right there, watching this all unfold like a film. To see the orchestrations of the divine. To brush my fingers over mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and page through Filipino cookbooks and wear gorgeous freshwater pearl earrings, gifts from their travels. But I will never forget the moment of realization: when I came to understand this life and its point, and my purpose, and what it all means.