But they never call me. Near the end of my first year teaching in Korea, I had just signed a contract for my dream teaching job—a high school for students gifted in foreign languages—that would keep me in Korea another two years, when the e-mail notification for my internet phone line popped up with a message from my parents. During my year teaching English to elementary and middle school kids at an after-school academy called a hagwon, we'd fallen into a comfortable pattern where I'd call them on my Sunday mornings (their Saturday evenings with the time difference) to chat about life from 7,000 miles away. Yet, here was a message on Tuesday morning—one hour before my daily taekwondo lesson.
I had just fixed breakfast—instant apple cinnamon Quaker oatmeal that I'd scrounged up at Costco, a luxury in a country that feasts on rice and bean-paste soup with a spicy pickled cabbage dish called kimchi for nearly every meal. Why did they call on a Tuesday?
I clicked play and the worry in my mom's voice rang out over the tinny laptop speakers. “Honey, it's your mother. We don't want to worry you, but you should call us back right away. Dad's tests came back from the doctor.”
I tried to remember what we'd talked about this weekend. Mom had mentioned a doctor appointment, but it had seemed routine. Nothing out of the ordinary. Dad always goes to doctors for his diabetes and hypertension. Why that tone? The one she'd used to tell me my grandmother died.
In my head, I counted back the hours. Tuesday morning at 9:30 in Korea meant that it was 8:30 Monday evening in D.C. I hooked up my computer's microphone and dialed.
My sister answered. “Hello?” Even she sounded less energetic and more distant than usual.
“What's up? You sound weird.”
“I don't even get a 'hello' now?” She tried to pass it off like a joke. She was still a little angry with me at having moved halfway across the planet for her senior year of high school.
“Mom called. She sounded weird, too. What's going on over there?”
Sarah paused, unable to respond. “Maybe you should talk to Mom. Let me get her.” Listening to her fumble for words was a shock. She always has a snappy comeback. Always.
My oatmeal had congealed into a lukewarm lump. I didn't care. I wasn't hungry.
“Hello, dear.” Mom's voice still had that tone.
“What is it? You guys are really starting to worry me. Is Dad okay?”
“He's fine.” She had to swallow. “I told you this weekend that he was going to his doctor. Well, we didn't want to worry you, but it was not his normal doctor.”
“What do you mean? Tell me, Mom. Spit it out.”
“He went to an oncologist for testing. He has something called multiple myeloma. But don't worry. There's a lot of hope. There are so many treatments these days and the outcome is usually—”
“Wait, Mom. Did you just say Dad has cancer?”
“Yes, but the treatments these days—” She went on to tell me a lot of things about multiple myeloma that I did not hear. My father had cancer. And I was 7,000 miles away in a country that ate kimchi for breakfast. I had never felt so alone and so helpless in my life. I spoke to my father that morning, too, but I can't remember what he said either. I was thinking about the fact that I had just signed on to be away from my family for another two years and wouldn't even get a chance to visit them between the jobs. After I got off the phone with my parents, I canceled my taekwondo lesson, crawled back into bed, and forgot about the dried, cold oatmeal and the multiple myeloma and slept.
Two years later, having finished my employment contract with the foreign language high school and returned home to Maryland, I can finally talk about it. I still have trouble with the c-word, but I can say my father is in remission. I can joke with him a little about the fact that he can't use public swimming pools anymore because the risk of infection is too great. I ask him about the plans he's made for when it recurs in five years or so.
But I wasn't there when he lost 40 lbs and all his hair. His doctors wouldn't let me visit him while he was undergoing the bone marrow therapy because I was coming from a foreign country. I was half a world away when my family faced the biggest crisis they ever have because they all told me it was okay, and that I should take the job I wanted because it was such a great opportunity, and that there wasn't really anything I could do to help while he was in the hospital anyways because my brother didn't have a job right now and the economy was bad, so he could do what was needed. I wasn't there and my body rebelled, tore my guts to pieces, and put me in a Korean hospital a year ago. The doctors call it “ulcerative colitis,” but I know the truth. It's a physical manifestation of the guilt of not being there.
Every single day, I miss kimchi and taekwondo and the adventures I had in my husband's homeland. Was it the easy way out? My brother thinks it was. He resents me for not being there. For falling in love and getting married while our father almost died. My sister's anger at me for leaving in the first place grew more bitter. We remain distant compared to the inseparability we once had.
My dad is the only one that understands and approves.
“Cancer changed me,” he said last weekend while we were sailing on the boat he bought earlier this year. “All for the better. I would never have bought this boat, for example. A dream I've had for years—it just never would have happened. I was far too caught up in worrying about the future to realize that the present is what matters.” I look away, so he can't see the tears forming in my eyes. “I'm so glad you were off in Korea, having adventures, writing about them, sending us pictures.”
He doesn't say he was happy I didn't see him frail and weak like his other children did. He doesn't say that my getting married in Korea in January gave him something to get better for. He doesn't need to.
I know not being there was my way of being there for my father. But not being there was the hardest thing I've ever done.
I'm here, now, though. And now, sometimes for no reason at all, my father calls me to chat. And I don't have to wonder why he's calling on a Tuesday morning.