At the beginning of second semester last year, I was practicing for the state speech tournament, handling tons of homework and getting five hours of sleep a night. The last thing I needed was more stress.
Yet around March, my father started having mild chest pains. Then a couple weeks later he had to be hospitalized when the pain got worse. My life went crazy that same day when my mother pulled me out of academic decathlon practice without any explanation and sped to the hospital. As she drove, my mother had an intense look on her face and there was a frightening silence in the car. I knew my dad’s chest pains were something serious. Still, I comforted myself by thinking that my mother was overreacting again. She once thought she had skin cancer because she had a tiny spot on her nose.
When we reached the hospital in Panorama City, the nurses in the emergency room informed us that my dad had been transferred to another hospital on Sunset Boulevard for a more thorough examination. My heart started pounding.
After we arrived at the white building on Sunset, we followed the red signs and arrows that directed us to a waiting room. It was quiet as I followed my mother through the serpentine hallway. I felt as if bad news would be waiting around every corner. The waiting room was a small, quiet, carpeted room with rows of sofas, chairs and two computers that teach family members about the procedures their loved ones are going through. I stared at my dirty tennis shoes, trying to find a white spot. No one talked. The warm stuffy air lessened the anxiety I had felt in the beginning. As the hours passed, my patience began to wear thin. My rear end began to hurt. My stomach began to growl and the hour hand on my watch began to crawl toward 9. Finally, I decided to break the silence.
"I am qualified to compete on the state level for speech this year, Mom. It’s in Concord," I announced to her in Chinese. Concord is in Northern California.
"Oh. How much will it be this time?" she asked back in Chinese, narrowing her eyes and wrinkling her brow. "Concord is very far and probably unsafe."
"Around $200 if we can get cheap hotels," I replied.
"I don’t know, daughter, I really don’t know," she said. "Don’t think about that right now. You should sleep."
The room was quiet again.Finally after five hours of waiting, a doctor with grayish hair came and asked for my mother. He started explaining my father’s condition to her. But as he saw me translating everything for her, the doctor realized that she didn’t speak English, so he started telling me. But I got confused by the medical terminology. The only thing I understood was that something in my dad’s heart was bleeding and the bypasses from a previous surgery were blocked. I knew that was bad. Frustrated, the doctor sketched a heart on his notepad with a red pen to clarify it for me and my mother. He drew some tubes around the heart, colored them, and I started explaining to my mother very slowly. After 15 minutes my mother eventually understood what was wrong with my dad. One of the valves in his heart was bleeding heavily and needed to be replaced very soon because he was in danger of dying. Her eyes and cheeks turned red, and she began to sob. I was stunned. Her crying scared me, and I wanted to cry, too. But I knew that I could not break down because I was the one translating and comforting my mother. I knew that I would have to be the adult in the family. I calmly told the doctor that my mother was OK, and guided my mother back to the parking lot so we could go home and get some sleep.
At school, I tried to act like I was fine
The next day, I rode on the school bus, looking as normal as I could so no one would think that the always-happy-and-optimistic Quing was actually worried. I didn’t even share this news with my closest friends. It’s one thing to talk about clothes or school with my friends, but my dad’s possibly dying was too private.
I could not concentrate at all that day. I took law notes that meant nothing to me. I wandered from one class to another like a phantom. Every time I forced a smile, I felt as if my face was injected with Botox. I felt ashamed when I told my English teacher, Mr. Mullarkey, that I did not finish his essay because of what had happened to my dad. Even though he understood and excused me from it, I was determined not to let anything prevent me from getting good grades.
I stayed up until midnight that day making up all my homework, alone in the house with Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew. While I was trying to concentrate on the papers in front of me, I pictured my mother worrying in the empty waiting room. The doctors said she didn’t have to wait, since the surgery would not take place until a week later, but she told them that she needed to be there to feel secure. I offered to wait with her, but she insisted that I would study better if I stayed at home. As I munched on the crusts of the Hot Pockets, I wondered if my dad and mom had eaten.
When I woke up in the morning, I found a note from my mother saying she would pick me up after school so I could be there in case the doctors needed me to translate. The days went on like this for two weeks. My mother would pick me up with a gloomy expression on her face and tell me that my dad was getting sicker. I would wait inside the Burger King across from the Kaiser hospital with a cup of coffee, poring over my chemistry book or law homework, while my mother stayed with my dad. When my mother needed to run an errand, I would stay with my dad in his 6-by-6 room that reminded me of a closet full of screens and tubes. My dad had multicolored wires attached to his body for observation.
I talked to the surgeons and nurses about my dad’s condition every day. The doctors did not show the least bit of sympathy and used all sorts of medical jargon that just flew over my head. I would then translate for my mother with great difficulty and an English-to-Chinese medical dictionary. I had to fill out all the registration and medical forms. I even had to fill out a form that asked who would determine what to do in case of an unexpected, life-threatening emergency during the surgery. When I explained to my mother what this was about, she said that I should put my name down since I understood what was going on. Even though I was as confused about the process as she was, I was the one who would determine my dad’s fate.
This freaked me out. I was afraid of making a mistake. Oddly, at the same time I felt powerful and in charge. However, that feeling did not last long since the responsibilities were so overwhelming. The process of filling out papers, translating, and making decisions even as petty as whether my dad should wear socks at night was nerve-racking enough, without my mother drowning me with questions.
"Daughter, why are the nurses giving him injections? They can’t do that!"
"Daughter, what’s that word the doctor used? I need to look it up."
"Daughter, what’s a life preserver?"
Every time the surgeons talked to me, my mother would ask "daughter this" and "daughter that" for five hours. I felt as if I were an unprepared student being attacked by an aggressive teacher because I didn’t know what was going on half the time. My Chinese was only good enough for everyday conversation, not for translating complicated medical terms and making life-or-death decisions.
During those weeks, I spent more hours at Burger King and the hospital than I did in my own room. I knew that the three-person couch by the door of the waiting room was the most comfortable for lying down. I knew the restroom on the third floor by the elevator was the cleanest. I even created my own short cuts around the building.
On those two weekends during my dad’s hospital stay, my mother allowed me to stay home alone. I did not do any homework like I had promised myself I would. Instead, I imagined my life without my dad, and my mother having to assemble bicycles for minimum wage because we would need money. I would miss the way my dad blamed his chest pains on my mom’s cooking. I would have to quit the academic decathlon team that I am co-captain of and watch others receive the gold medals I deserved, and I would have to work at a greasy restaurant to support my family. I would have to quit speech and debate because my mother would not be able to drive me to tournaments. I would have to leave the Law and Government Magnet at Monroe High School so I could attend Sylmar High, which is two minutes from my house. That way instead of spending three-and-a-half hours a day on the bus, I’d have more time for work.
Worse yet, I might have to move back to China because my mother might not be able to support our living here. I would not be able to participate in all the extracurricular activities that I loved because Chinese schools do not have them. I would lose all my friends here. I could not stand the thought of leaving, yet a scarier thought entered my mind.
If my dad could become terminally ill overnight, why couldn’t my mother? What would happen if she became ill? I began to envision myself being emancipated before a judge at the age of 16.
I wanted to go through my dad’s desk to learn how many assets we have, but I couldn’t remember where the key was. I planned to live by myself during high school in our house, using the money that my dad left behind. I knew that all these things were impossible nonsense, but I needed to feel that I would be able to handle this and go on with my life. When I was planning, I felt organized and in control. I was less scared about my dad dying because 90 percent of my brain was concentrating on the planning. I didn’t want to worry so I continued with my crazy thoughts: when I got to college, I would sell this house and live on campus. Then all of a sudden I thought about what would happen to my grandparents. I began to plan how I could move back to China to continue my education while taking care of my grandparents since they’re getting older. There were so many things racing through my mind. I felt alone and hopeless.
My dad was OK, but things changed
Fortunately all my worrying and searching for our family’s assets were unnecessary. My dad’s surgery was successful. After a few weeks of recovery he came home and was soon back at work. Everything seemed to be drifting back to normal. But things were different. Pink and orange pills replaced the family pictures on my dad’s nightstand. All of our dinners became meat- and oil-free because of my dad’s special diet. None of my friends could call after 8:30 p.m. and I couldn’t make one sound after 9 because my dad needed the rest. My mother couldn’t take me anywhere on the weekends because my dad always needed company. I couldn’t even go to the debate camp that I had received full scholarship for because my mother didn’t want to worry about me and my dad.
My dad’s health crisis is over, but its effects have lingered. After seeing my dad lying in the hospital with tubes sticking out of him and my mother breaking down, I certainly appreciate them both more. I realized that my parents are just regular human beings and not all-powerful, as I thought they were. That thought alarmed me because I felt the pressure of growing up too fast.
This experience matured me. I take things more seriously now. I try harder at school because I know I will have to take care of my family in the future and a good education can help me with that. I stopped the endless instant messaging my mother dislikes because I want her to be happy. I even learned to cook for my dad when my mother was not home. But my cooking was not good, so I’ve stopped that. But just because I feel the need to be mature now doesn’t mean I feel ready to be an adult. Right now, I just want to be a regular high school kid who stresses over homework and what’s for dinner tonight, well, at least for two more years.