No amount of deep breathing, self-calming hypnosis, or repeated meditation on the phrase “Everything’s going to be fine” could absorb the blow of finding my father lying on a hospital bed unconscious and unrecognizable—face distorted, limbs swollen, skin jaundiced, basic bodily functions managed by machines, their ominous beeps and hisses the only signs of life behind the bed curtain.
I was 22 and fresh out of college when he got sick. I lived with my mother in Houston, and my father worked overseas in Jordan. They met up in Toronto for what was supposed to be a short vacation and a friend’s wedding. It was there that my father—58 at the time—found out he had an inflamed appendix.
He went into St. Michael’s Hospital on the first of July. On July 7th, his appendix ruptured. Three days later, the infectious fluids had spread to his bloodstream and he was put into a sedated coma while being pumped full of antibiotics. His liver and kidneys shut down. He couldn’t breathe on his own.
When I first stepped into the Intensive Care Unit at St. Michael’s, I stared at the weirdly bloated body of my father, which was covered by a mess of tubes and medical tape. I gasped and began to sob. It was late July, and though I’d known for weeks that he was sick, I didn’t expect this.
My mother had been staying with a family she’d met at the wedding. She was set up in the guest bedroom, and I slept next to her bed on the floor, on a foam mattress that barely fit between the door and the desk against the opposite wall. At night when I stared at the ceiling, my mother would speak to me from above the cold metal bed frame. Mostly, she would tell me to pray. She was, and is, a devout Christian, but I had stopped going to church seven months earlier. My father was never religious, and we’d become closer when I left the church. Finally, we were able to share our repressed skepticism with someone else in the family.
Having no intention to, I told my mother I would pray. Eventually I did—sort of. They weren’t really prayers, but states of wishful thinking. My father was sick. I wanted him to get better. Why did God have to be involved?
The house was about 12 miles from the hospital. Every morning my mother and I would walk a few somber blocks from the house to a bus stop. There, the bus took us to a subway station through what became a familiar blur of suburbia. After two train rides (south, then east), we rode an escalator up to ground level and walked into the heart of Toronto’s lively downtown, past store window displays and restaurants at Eaton Centre, past Massey Hall where an upcoming Iggy and the Stooges show was announced in black capital letters on a wall sign, down the sidewalk lined with smokers in hospital gowns leaning on the metal posts where their plastic bags of intravenous fluid hung. Just before the corner, on the right, were the entrance steps to St. Michael’s.
The two of us spent most of our time in the ICU waiting room, especially in the first days of my visit when my father was still comatose. I’d make coffee or read or watch television to distract myself. My mother had befriended a few of the waiting room regulars, and they comforted each other by complaining. One woman’s husband had been admitted for a pancreas infection, but his condition had worsened and now he had breathing problems; another woman whose husband had contracted a fever from a dirty IV line said that the nurse tried to hide this from her.
Sometimes I would join the conversation out of obligation. It felt wrong to admit a good day, a day when our patient was improving. But when that wasn’t the case, it eased their minds to get together and talk shit about the hospital staff. And to grieve.
In Houston, my mother attended an evangelical Vietnamese church with a congregation of hundreds. The pastor was famous in the international community of Vietnamese Christians. When news of my father’s illness broke out, the pastor contacted some Vietnamese churches in Toronto and asked them to pray for him. I learned about this when some of their members began to visit the hospital.
My mother was grateful. Having other Christians around was a comfort to her. On one of my first days in the hospital, we were visited by two women, one the wife of a pastor who’d visited the Houston church. In front of them, my mother asked me, “Have you started going back to church?”
I looked away. “No,” I replied. She already knew that.
The presence of these women made me uneasy. I sensed that they were on a mission to convert my father. In their eyes, their intentions were pure, but I hated the fact that they were taking advantage of a man barely conscious, unable to speak and defend his own views. It reminded me of a turning point in the course of abandoning my childhood faith.
The previous summer, I had volunteered to help out at my church’s annual Vacation Bible School. VBS is a week-long program for kids, centered on a theme—that year it was sports—and the weekend before VBS is usually spent planning games and sticking paper decorations onto walls. I was assigned to help the class of third and fourth graders under a primary teacher I’ll call Miss Nguyen. She worked as a kindergarten teacher and managed the church’s nursery on the weekends.
There comes a crucial day in every week of VBS when the teachers simultaneously push their students to make a commitment to “accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.” I was in the classroom with Miss Nguyen when she posed a question to the third and fourth graders: “Who here has already accepted Jesus into their heart? Who here is on God’s team?”
All but two kids raised their hands. Then she asked everyone to put their hands down, and began the day’s lesson. Later during activity time, she whisked those two kids aside and told them the watered-down basics of the gospel: Jesus loves you, heaven, etc. Then she asked them, eyes bulging in expectation, “Do you want to accept Jesus into your heart?” while furiously nodding her head yes. She asked it in a way one might ask, “Who wants candy?” The kids didn’t say no.
When class was over, Miss Nguyen announced to the church that two students had accepted Christ. Everyone applauded. “Praise God!” they cheered.
I couldn’t believe it. How could this make anyone feel good? Who could truly believe it pleases God to see eight-year-olds pressured into saying things they don’t mean? By the end of the year, I’d completely stopped attending services.
I wanted to be respectful to the two women praying over my father at the hospital—and to all the subsequent visitors from the network of Vietnamese Christians in Toronto. But my father was barely alive when they began showing up, leaning over his bed with their Bibles, coaxing him to accept Jesus. He was easy prey.
Before his appendix infection, my father was one of the healthiest people I knew. Diagnosed with high blood pressure, he kept a strict, lean diet. He played tennis often, and made it a point to take a long walk every day. Now he was a 58-year-old baby.
When he began waking up, he could barely lift his arms. They just shook in place. He couldn’t speak because of the breathing tube in his throat, so he’d been communicating with us through frustrated hand gestures and head motions.
Once, when my mother and I were sitting bedside, he made some kind of circular hand motion to us. “Do you want to turn over?” I asked him. He shook his head no. Then the nurse came over. “You want to walk around, Mr. Do?” He nodded his head vigorously.
He couldn’t sit up, and he was asking to walk.
We tried another method of communication, holding a clipboard with the alphabet in front of him, trying to get him to point to letters and spell out words. He’d manage one letter before retiring his trembling hands to his lap, or trying to grab the clipboard away from us.
Still, it was progress from not too long before, when he’d been comatose for more than three weeks and hadn’t moved at all.
One morning, as my mother and I were getting ready to go to the hospital, she let out a sigh and, looking into the distance, started speaking to me. “You know,” she said, “Sometimes I can’t help but wonder… you stopped going to church about six months ago, and now your father is sick. I wonder if those are connected.” She still wasn’t looking at me, but I stared right at her, my eyes wide with disbelief.
“Are you kidding me?” I yelled, following up with at least a half-dozen versions of “You can’t possibly be serious about what you just said.”
Her eyes finally met mine. “I didn’t say it was true,” she replied, “but I just can’t help but wonder if you were still going to church…”
“That’s crazy.” I cut her off, practically panting at that point. “That’s not how dad got sick.”
I didn’t say another word to her that morning. I didn’t want to be around her. I didn’t want to be in Toronto. I didn’t want to be spending the last part of my summer shuttling back and forth from a hospital every day, away from my friends, away from home. On the way to the hospital, we were silent.
Six days later, a church member left a note for us with the waiting room staff. It was in Vietnamese so I couldn’t read it, but my mother said that someone had stopped by my father’s bed, and reported that he had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. She phoned my brother, who told members of the church in Houston. They said the angels in heaven were rejoicing.
Days after my father started waking up, he fell unconscious again. He had stomach ulcers—a common occurrence in patients who are bedridden for long periods of time. The colostomy tube that collected his stool was filled with blood, both fresh red gushes and black chunks of old scars.
When the bleeding got out of hand, a swarm of doctors blocked me from approaching the hospital bed and led me out of the ICU, into the waiting room. I began to cry uncontrollably, picturing my father’s funeral and writing his eulogy in my head. My mother began to cry as well, and suddenly we were holding each other in tears. A nurse took notice and quickly seized me by the arm, ushering us out of the waiting room and into the Quiet Room.
The Quiet Room was a room designated for grieving family members, strategically isolated next to the Soiled Linens closet so the only person to hear us wailing would be the janitor. The floor was salmon-colored linoleum with a fake marble pattern like a giant Magic Eye puzzle. The walls were tinged a similar tan-mauve and the furniture was a dirty, faded navy. It was too cold.
The worst thing about the Quiet Room was that it wasn’t quiet. As soon as my mother and I sat down, we were barraged by various hospital staffers armed with trite condolences. They seemed to be waiting in line to enter the room as soon as someone else left; the head nurse, the hospital chaplain, two surgeons, and a social worker all passed through, robbing us of any private time.
The worst was the head nurse, a big lady with a booming voice, sweet as hell but totally nonsensical. “Just remember, never stop loving,” she repeated to us matter-of-factly. Then she took our hands and started loudly praying about God knowing more than we do and us being helpless to His divine plan. I wish she could’ve felt my eye-rolling through her palm, which was holding mine.
The hospital chaplain kept trying to steer the conversation toward financial issues. “I know finances are the last thing on your mind right now,” she said to my mother with breathy tenderness, “but you should remember to find out from your husband’s company how the hospital expenses will be distributed between you and his insurance. Oh, I know this is such a tough time for you right now, but God will carry you through it if you just trust in Him!”
By the end of that evening, I was exhausted beyond sadness. I left the Quiet Room without crying. I was able to think, my father is going to die, and not feel a painful swelling in my chest.
I left Toronto on a Saturday in late August, about a month after I’d flown there. My mother and I had decided that I should go home and start looking for a job, move on with life. Other family members would make plans to fly up soon.
My father was unconscious when I left his ICU room for the last time. I imagine that if he’d been awake, I would’ve been a blubbering mess, telling him “Goodbye,” and “I love you,” and “Thank you for being a cool dad,” and “Please stay alive” through sobs. Instead, I just stared at his quiet, bloated body. He’d received thirteen units of transfused blood to make up for what he’d lost.
The major malfunctions in my father’s body subsided as soon as I left. The doctors were able to stop the stomach bleeding for good. Once that was under control, the antibiotics finally took hold, ridding his body of infection, and he began to heal steadily. My mother has never mentioned anything about the timing of my departure and his recovery.
When my brother went to Toronto, he reported that our father could now write—though the letters were wobbly and poorly constructed. His first written words were “boring every day.”
After the infections in his body completely cleared, he was discharged from St. Michael’s. It was October, two and a half months after he was admitted. He was still weak and had to wear a large bandage around his stomach because it had been cut open for so long. He stayed with my mother and the gracious host family until he was physically well enough to travel on a plane.
They flew back to Houston later that month. He had lost 40 pounds, some kidney function, and most of his hair. What was still on his head had turned white. Several members of my family came to the airport to see him, and my nephews were visibly frightened by his appearance. He was going to turn 59 soon, but he looked 80, as if he were his own father.
He couldn’t remember much about his time in the hospital, but after hearing from others about how bad it got—at one point the doctors said he had a 10% chance of surviving—he said he believed that God saved his life at St. Michael’s. In Houston, he volunteered to give a speech at the family’s church, thanking the congregation for their thoughts and prayers, and expressing gratitude for the strangers that took time out of their daily lives to visit and care for him. My friends from the church told me that the speech was inspiring.
He began to go to church regularly, but by the end of the year he stopped. The sermons were too long, he said, and he didn’t agree with the pastor on a lot of issues. Instead, on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., he would turn the television to Fox 26 and watch a sermon broadcast from Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in Houston. He liked Joel Osteen’s direct, feel-good messages. My mother wasn’t thrilled about it, and it certainly wasn’t my thing either. But that was never our choice to make.