On August 19, 2013, you had a stroke while walking down the stairs to your studio. When you finally hit the landing, head cracking against the floor, you had a seizure. A second seizure followed in the ER.
Mom called me at approximately 9:30 in the morning. I was at work. I took the first flight out I could manage, a red-eye that landed at 12:30 a.m. I walked through the sliding glass doors into the hospital at 1 in the morning, dragging my suitcase behind me. The suitcase wheels squeaked on the glossy linoleum, the sound echoing down the empty halls.
You always hated hospitals, and yet here you were, four floors up. I needed a pass code to get into your unit, the Neuro ICU.
I didn’t have a place to go, so for five days I stayed in your room during the day, curled up in a putrid orange-colored leather chair listening your machines beep and buzz. Sometimes an alarm went off. My heart always clenched when I heard it, even when I learned that it didn’t mean something was wrong. A monitor tracked your oxygen level and heartbeat. When the doctors did their morning rounds I would stay in the chair, watching them poke and prod you, and try not to come off as a ragged mess. I drank a lot of chamomile tea. I don’t think it helped.
The nurses found me a blanket and shampoo. I’d flown all the way here with a suitcase that barely had anything in it, just a T-shirt, pair of flip-flops, and a book. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, in case you’re curious. At night I slept in the ICU waiting room. Most of the time there were a few others there, too. People like me. There was a lot of crying in that room. People couldn’t keep it in.
You’d lost so much weight by the time I saw you again, on my next trip two weeks later, that I walked past your hospital room and kept walking. I didn’t recognize you. I know the nurse could see the shame on my face as I asked what room you were in, only to have her point right in front of me.
There wasn’t much change in your condition. I didn’t know if I would ever speak to you again. I thought it was the end.
On October 29, we spoke for the first time since the accident. I called the hospital and was routed around and hung up on twice before I made it to your room and you picked up. It surprised me how you sounded like you still. I don’t know why I expected you to sound like someone different. But your voice was the same as it had always been. The voice of my father.
Your voice is the only thing you kept.
I had to introduce myself to you. How does that work? A daughter introducing herself to her father. You said, “Oh, Ashley, yes. I think, yes, Ashley.” You were trying to place me. There was something there. Recognition from deep in your subconscious, muddled in all the brokenness inside your brain.
I had to explain my relationship to you. You didn’t know what a daughter was. I didn’t tell you that you aren’t my biological father. That seemed like too much at once. There would be time, I hoped, for that conversation, somewhere in the future or maybe never. We don’t have to ever talk about that, Dad. The summary is: You’re the only one who wanted the job.
You don’t remember anything of your life before October 29. You have no memories, save one of your uncle and one of your grandmother from when you were around five. You don’t know anything of our life together. You don’t remember me sitting with you in the hospital, kissing your cheek and wiping your face. Everything is gone, lost in the abyss of broken synapses and blood-filled crevices.
What does that mean, when someone forgets their existence? Does that mean you’re still my father? Can I still be your daughter if you don’t remember me?
We didn’t talk long. I could hear how tired you were. The last thing you said before goodbye was, “I don’t know who you are, but I feel somehow like I should tell you I love you. So, I love you, dear.”
I held it together until we hung up.
It’s taken me a while to figure out what I can do to help with your recovery—a recovery I’ll admit I didn’t think would happen. Then I realized. You may not remember anything, but I do. I can tell it to you, Dad. You may never remember, but you’ll know what things mean again.
What our stories mean. What our jokes mean. What happened to us when we were a family.
I’m going to tell you everything, Dad. The good, the bad, the beautiful and the heartbreaking.
The memories were your gift to me. The words will be my gift to you.