Searching for the Simple

You know you’re in a different country when you’re staring at the various buttons on a toilet trying to decipher how to flush it. It is disarming, at best, to see pictorial depictions of what it might look like if you hit the “BIDET” option. But here I am in a stall at the Tokyo-Narita airport, bent over the fanciest loo I’ve ever seen. How disappointed am I when, on the brink of giving up, I discover an old fashioned stainless steel handle behind the lid.

Right.

When confused and overwhelmed, look for the simple answer.

That’s how it’s been the last week as I helped my father and stepmother take the necessary steps to leave behind their life of 22 years in Hawaii and move back to Taiwan. It’s felt like an episode of the Amazing Race. (DISCLOSURE: I have never actually seen the show but get its general gist). Never mind the emotional extremes of dealing with my dad’s diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer. We suddenly had a car and condo to sell, financial matters to address, furniture to donate. And, did I mention Thanksgiving was tucked into the midst of these transactions?

By Monday morning, I was feeling confident. I had both of their medical records in hand, complete with slides from the hospital lab. We had an appointment set for the next day with an attorney who would be helping us set up a living trust. And we’d all had a good laugh over the questionnaire he’d asked us to fill out. If you haven’t done this with your parents yet, it’s a rather grim task. Grim to the point of ridiculous. The attorney wanted answers to a series of questions that read like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, only ALL the plotlines wind up with SOMEONE DEAD.

1) In the event that father and stepmother both die, who is to be trustee of their assets?

2) In the event that father, stepmother and named trustee die, who is the secondary trustee?

3) In the event that father, stepmother, named trustee and secondary trustee die, along with all of the next of kin and grandchildren, who is to handle the remaining assets?

I was sitting on my dad’s couch reading this survey out loud soliciting answers from him and my stepmom. By the time I got to that third question, we all burst out laughing, conjuring up the various horrific scenarios in which it would actually apply. (Family reunion rental home catches fire with all of us inside. Plane en route to a family reunion with all of us on board goes down. See what I mean??! Your family, if it has any sense of humor, would laugh too.)

What my dad and stepmom didn’t know was that within hours, my brother, nephew and husband were paying a surprise visit to Hawaii. John had proffered the idea last week within minutes after learning the gravity of my dad’s diagnosis. In the hours leading up to their arrival Tuesday, John and I were orchestrating the best way to maximize the effect. After touching down in Honolulu, my brother and nephew recorded a video from their hotel room making sad faces, saying how much they wished they could be here with us. They mentioned plans to Skype with my dad in the evening. Oscar worthy performances.

Moments later came the knock on the condo door, expressions of bewilderment on my dad and Helen’s faces, and the several seconds more they needed to grasp who they were seeing in their doorway. Helen collapsed into John’s arms, her face filling with tears. My dad broke into a laugh of pure joy, as he repeated, “Really? Really. Wow. Wow.” He has a great laugh, by the way. It’s loud and infectious and no holds barred, whether he’s in a McDonald’s or a five-star restaurant.

Some of the best advice I’ve received in this is to cherish the moments. Capture them digitally if possible. So Tuesday night, in line at a Waikiki restaurant where they hand-make udon noodles, I’m rolling video as my dad teaches his grandson the same silly hand-slapping games he taught me when I was a kid.

Wednesday, there is a final meeting midday with my parent’s financial advisor. Then, it’s my brother’s turn to work his magic. Michael’s a car salesman, the best I’ve ever seen. And he’d arranged to sell my Dad’s Corolla to the local Toyota dealership. Given our tight timeline, we needed to go as a group, so my dad, Helen, John, Michael and I all pile into their compact car. My nephew stays behind at the condo with an auntie who’d flown in from Taiwan in recent weeks to help.

The people at the dealership are very confused about our little gang. We pour out of my dad’s silver sedan and onto the sales floor. John and I set up camp at one table, proceeding to work on matters like canceling the condo’s electricity and internet services. Michael begins negotiating with a salesman and learns midway through the car had been in two accidents, something my parents had omitted in previous conversations with him.

I feel for my brother, as the fender-benders pop up in a database and his leverage slips away.

“Why didn’t you tell me about those when I asked?” my brother says in Taiwanese, exasperated.

“Oh, we thought you meant the crashes we hadn’t yet fixed,” protest Helen and my dad.

My brother still manages to get a great sale price for their car, double what my dad thought they’d be able to recoup selling to a friend. John calls for a taxi, and we all load up again to head to our next stop, the attorney’s office in downtown Waikiki.

We realize during this meeting with the attorney that my parents need to go to a bank to officially set up the living trust. And it’s already within an hour of closing time the day before Thanksgiving. We have a hard deadline because my dad, stepmom and I are leaving early Friday for Taiwan. John bolts downstairs only to learn the bank on the ground floor can’t make it happen in time. I get my parents’ financial advisor on the phone, who contacts a woman at their bank’s main branch. That woman agrees to stay late to help us finish this task.

I turn to the attorney and ask, “Where is that main branch?”

He points at the building across from his and says, “It’s right across the street.”

Could not have planned it more perfectly.

In fact, I know I didn’t.

See, I choose to believe in all those prayers being offered to my family by friends, co-workers, even Facebook strangers. I am re-affirmed each time, each step of the way, when elements of this process have sped along with remarkable efficiency. And even when we’ve hit snags, it’s been for good reason. There have been frustrating moments in which things just have not worked, but those roadblocks have proven valuable in ways we could not have anticipated.

I guess what I’m trying to say is…I think if you look for God, you might just see Him…everywhere. Not in a naïve, Pollyanna kind of way. Believe me, I’m a tv reporter. I’m about as skeptical and cynical as they come. And I know my dad’s mortality has me thinking and talking about what’s beyond this life.

But it does come down to a matter of perspective.

We can spend our time right now lamenting his cancer.

Or, we can sail the waters of Oahu on a friend’s Katamaran Thanksgiving day with Diamondhead in the distance, with my dad turning to my brother telling him how proud he is of him as a father, praising him for his courage in being a single dad and overcoming unthinkable challenges in his life. I can smile through my tears as I see my 6-year old nephew looking on, three generations of the Song family men aboard one vessel.

I explain to my nephew, “We’re just kinda sad because Grandpa’s very sick. And he’s going to be going away for a while.”

My nephew nods peacefully and says, “I know.”

Where is God? I’ve come to think He is wherever you seek Him.

It may be as simple as that.

;

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Ping Pong, Stage IV, and Taiwan

Smack. Smack. Smack.

LARGE GUFFAW.

Smack. Smack. Smack.

ANOTHER ROUND OF LAUGHTER.

That’s what it sounds like at the Makua Alii Senior Center as my dad sweats it up in a fierce match of ping pong. I know, I know. We’re totally playing to the stereotype here. I have images from Forrest Gump cycling through my head as I watch him whoop ass on some frail 87-year old Chinese dude.

It’s a pleasant hour of respite from the onslaught of crazy the last three days.

As with most life-altering events, my dad’s diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer was completely anti-climactic. His oncologist explained in the most nonchalant way how the mass removed from my dad’s abdomen last week was cancerous, how that meant the other mass near his spine is probably cancerous, and how chemo would probably be necessary in some form for the rest of his life.

It wasn’t until I made a follow-up call for clarification that his doctor broke out the Stage IV terminology and the curious 22-month benchmark. As in, half the people with my dad’s diagnosis live more than 22 months. Half, less. Stupidly, I was madly scribbling notes during this conversation so my dad learned the dire nature of his prognosis by reading it from my notebook.

I hung up the phone. He tilted his head, uttered,”Oh, I’m stage four.” Pursed his lips. Nodded. Looked down. Then stared off in the distance past the golf course his condo overlooks.

Arg.

Between the seemingly casual that-tumor-we-removed-was-cancerous appointment and the you-potentially-have-less-than-two-years-to-live conversation was a lunch at which my dad and stepmother decided the best option for them was to return to Taiwan immediately. It’s where they were both born and raised. It’s where the bulk of my stepmom’s family resides. And it’s where my dad has access to food he loves.

Food is REALLY important to him. Chinese food. A variety of it. An ample supply of it. An affordable way to consume it.

Returning to Taiwan is an idea they’d already been discussing for a month prior to my dad’s colon cancer recurrence. My stepmom’s lung cancer had proven taxing and it left her longing to be around family. With the double whammy of my dad’s situation, it seemed like a no-brainer. For them anyway. My heart was broken when they announced their plans to me a month ago. And it’s in shards at this moment thinking about my dad being so far away. Especially since that decision was finalized just hours before we fully understood the gravity of his prognosis.

After multiple conversations with wise friends and confidantes who’ve had experience with cancer, I know his happiness is vital. The likelihood of extending his life is vastly improved if he’s content with his environment. Of course, I offered my dad the option of coming to Oregon and allowing me to take care of him. I even called local facilities to research treatment possibilities. But my dad loathes the gray days of the Pacific Northwest. And wants his wife to be happy. What’s that saying? A happy wife is a happy life? He’s certainly ascribing to that notion.

So with their decision made, I plowed ahead with data gathering.

Invaluable tools: Skype and Google Translate.

They’re what I used to find the best hospital for cancer treatment in Kaohsiung, Taiwan (at the advice of a dear doctor friend who says academic teaching hospitals tend to have the best researching minds and better access to the newest clinical trials). Google Translate was instrumental in helping me find and correspond in Chinese with the hospital’s colon cancer team leader. And I used Skype to book an appointment over the phone with that very doctor for November 27th.

I also joined an online cancer forum to learn more about the disease, hired an attorney to begin the process of setting up a living trust for my parents and went to their hospital here in Honolulu to request a full copy of their medical records. Oh, and my dad and I made a stop at the Don Quixote – this weird multi-purpose supermarket that reminds me of places you’d find in Mexico or Beijing. He needed blank CDs.

See, he line dances at the senior center. He’s a big hit there, as you might imagine, with that big smile and being the only male willing to dance with a bunch of aging Chinese ladies. He’s intent on bringing the music he’s familiar with back to Taiwan, presumably so he can find another social group to cha-cha with. To the mild frustration of my stepmother, he’s more focused on doing internet searches for ping-pong clubs in Kaohsiung city than he is on determining the best oncologist for his extended care in Taiwan.

I can only smile.

He’s still up right now, using my Ipod headphones to review the playlist I created for him . He’s leaned back with his hands locked behind his head, shuffling his feet to the music as he visualizes the best dance moves. When he goes for his hour-long morning walk, he takes his ping-pong paddle with him, practicing his best chops and slices as he strolls the streets of Waikiki.

A little neurotic and silly but I’ve got to think these quirks are his best defense. His most potent weapons to kick cancer in the arse.

Kung-fu style n’all, naturally.

Cancer’s Hidden Gem

It’s the strangest thing, booking a flight to paradise knowing that you’re going there because your dad’s staring down colon cancer. At the airport in Portland, families fortunate enough to be taking Hawaiian vacations are already relaxed, adorned in tropical print, and wearing anticipatory smiles that tell of mai-tais, sunscreen and beaches in their future. I must have looked odd to them, flying solo with a furrowed brow to the West Coast’s playground across the Pacific. The cheery island music that greets me as I enter the bulkhead of the plane is off-melody to me because my ear isn’t tuned to hear it. Not now. Not in this circumstance.

48 hours later, I’m in the corner of his patient room at Straub Hospital in Honolulu, staring at palm trees and the lush hills, and wondering if this is the most amazing hospital view that exists. He’s napping. And I’m counting our blessings. One by precious one.

—————–

The cab ride from HNL International to his condo is a bit frantic. A project at work has me searching for a 4G signal to transfer an audio file back to KATU and begging the taxi driver to plug my laptop charger into the dash for extra juice. Figures that something I’d been working on for weeks would drop just as I touch down a couple time zones away.

When I arrive at my dad’s place I’m nervous about seeing my stepmom. She’s just finished her third round of chemo for lung cancer. A non-smoker, Helen was diagnosed as Stage 1 four months ago. Yes, my dad smoked until his first bout with the Big C six years ago. Yes, he only smoked outside on the balcony of their home. No, that measure was not enough to protect my stepmother from second-hand smoke. YO SMOKERS: CONSIDER THAT THE NEXT TIME YOU LIGHT UP.

Helen’s all of 85 pounds, so the chemicals intended to kill the cancer have done a number on her small frame. More than that, she’s now anxious and listless. Meaning, she jumps at sudden noises, and due to long bouts of insomnia that worsened during her treatment, she spends most of the day sitting with her eyes closed until the next sudden noise.

It sucks.

She explains to me that it’s the result of being indoors so much. She and my dad are super active – they play ping pong for hours at the Chinese Senior Center, they dance, they sing, they cook, they laugh. Physical fitness is a priority for them, and that social interaction feeds their souls. Neither of which Helen was able to engage in much the last several months.

My dad on the other hand is asymptomatic. He has a mass in his abdomen and another elsewhere on his colon. The one in his abdomen is operable; the other, located on a blood vessel is not. But he’s bubbly and goofy and looking like an Asian Jack Lalanne. The night I arrived, he showed me the V-sit he does to keep his abs taught. He does 100 push-ups a day. Dude’s a freakin’ specimen.

So, for obvious reasons, and with no other family in Hawaii to help, I understand why they needed me here. My dad’s not the type to ask for assistance unless he absolutely needs it. When he reached out a couple of weeks ago, and hinted that it “might be nice if I could come for his surgery,” I knew this situation had risen to a level that would benefit from my presence.

It’s not the easiest time to take off. Actually, it’s one of the worst times of the year as far as work goes. November’s a sweeps month. In TV-land, it’s when advertisers are paying particularly close attention to ratings, and ad rates are pinned largely on a station’s performance during such a month. I think that’s what it is anyhow – I try not to worry too much about the money side of what I do because I don’t want it corrupting the content. Sweeps months are all hands on deck situations, so my taking family medical leave during such a time is really uncomfortable for me. My Chinese guilt has me all worried what my co-workers are thinking. But my Chinese obligation of respecting my elders is overriding that guilt in this instance. As my brother would say, it’s complicated.

By Friday night, my dad’s out of surgery and it’s been a success. He’s awake, and talkative.

I use the opportunity to ask him questions about our family’s history. I’ve realized in recent years how little I know about my ancestry and its storied past. It includes, for my mom, her family fleeing communism aboard boats and amid gunfire because her dad, a former general and mayor of a province, was on the wrong side of the Chinese Civil war. And in my dad’s lineage, it includes what he called a “a series of twisted fate” hinged on timing. Mostly bad timing.

For example, he explained how his uncle, my grandfather’s youngest brother, was entrepreneurial with amazing ideas but always ahead of his time. How he opened a record store in Taichung around 1950 and sold only one or two records a day. It went under –shortly before record-players began being widely acquired by families in Taiwan. How that same great uncle of mine then decided to raise chickens, roughly a thousand of them. And within weeks of their being large enough to go to market, an epidemic wiped them all out, practically overnight. Then, it was onto pigs. Sixty of those. You know how this ends. Another disease kills off all the market-ready pigs in the span of a month. Not long after that, my dad explains, the Taiwanese government instilled an immunization program for livestock to prevent such devastation.

“It’s so ridiculous you can hardly believe it,” says my dad, shaking his head.

I laugh a lot during this conversation with him. I’m also taking video so I can always remember how he tells these stories.

It’s the little things that get me. As he describes the bakery my paternal grandfather opened in Taichung and expanded to include a grocery store then eventually a department store, I ask him where it was located. He says in Mandarin “near the intersection of Zhi Yo Lou and Chung Gong Lou.”

I check him: “Really dad? That’s what the streets were called?”

“Yes. That’s where it was,” he affirms.

It means the business was located at the intersection of Freedom and Success Roads.

He laughs too as I point this out, never having looked it at that way.

It’s a rich time. I’m incredibly grateful to my co-workers for picking up the slack in my absence. But I know I wouldn’t trade that conversation I had with my dad last night for any award-winning story, or breaking report. No pressing local news issue is going to beat tucking him into his hospital bed, and being here as he wakes up.

Cancer bites, yeah.

But it can nudge you closer to the ones you love.

Sitting up this morning, my dad told the nurse he feels great because of two reasons. One — (he holds his right index finger up) because the doctor has cleared him to eat solid food. Two — (two fingers up) (then he points at me) “because my daughter flew all the way here from Portland to take care of me.”

Doesn’t get any better than that.