Written by Lauren Harrity

Photos by Lauren Harrity

A young woman finally learns to turn weakness into inner strength

My father saw weakness in many forms. Expressing fear or dependence on anyone was interpreted as weakness to him. For the 20 years that I knew him, I only heard him say he loved me a handful of times because he didn't want anyone to know he had a weakness for his daughter. He did not tolerate crying or complaining and his motto was “just get on with it.”

I was 6 when my parents divorced and my father moved 10 miles away to Garden Grove. The summer before my 10th birthday my father drove me to the beach on one of his rare visitation days. After a silent 30-minute drive I climbed out of his 1990 Nissan hatchback and as I closed the door, I cut my thumb on the rusty edge. When the dark, red blood began to pump out from the slice in my finger, I panicked and began to sob. My father quickly walked over to me and said “Haud yer weesht,” meaning be quiet in the Scots Gaelic he sometime spoke - evidence of the childhood he spent in Scotland before moving to California as an adult. I immediately silenced myself and looked at my reflection in his sunglasses. “Get your stuff and come on,” he said as he began to walk toward the water across the hot sand. I wrapped part of my towel around my finger and quickly followed behind him. My father was never one to nurse anyone's afflictions, and he never expected anyone to nurse him.

As I approached the end of high school, I was consumed with spending time with my friends, dating and planning my move to college. Everything screeched to a halt when my older sister called me crying one evening. She was with our dad in the hospital. As it turned out, he had been suffering in silence from chest pains for a while until he had finally called my sister and asked her to drive him to the hospital. At 56, he had suffered a mild heart attack and would need to undergo bypass surgery.

I felt a mix of emotions as I drove to the hospital ....

I felt a mix of emotions as I drove to the hospital to be with my sister while our father was in surgery. After my father moved away, I saw him less and less as I got older. I never felt the emotional connection to him that I knew I should, but as I thought about losing him for good, a panic began to build in my throat. When I arrived at the hospital, my older sister was sitting solemnly in the dimly lit waiting room. Sounding tired and distant, she said that according to the doctor, Dad was still in surgery, but things were looking good. After a pause she grabbed a piece of paper off the blue plastic waiting room chair next to her and handed it to me. It was a list: withdraw money from the checking account, call Mercury Mortuary and request cremation services, and call cousin Charlie in Scotland. They were my father's instructions in case he would not make it out of surgery. “I can't do this,” she said to me quietly, avoiding eye contact, “I need to go home.” She walked out of the waiting room, the doors swooshing behind her. I sat heavily in the chair my sister had been occupying and tried to think of other things while I waited for the surgeon.

After my father emerged from surgery, he agreed to stay in the hospital to recover, and I tried going back to enjoying my senior year of high school. After a week, I received a call from him. “Your sister isn't answering her phone and I need someone to come get me. These doctors are trying to kill me.”

When I picked him up he could barely move. He gasped for breath with every step and barked at me to avoid potholes on the road. He told me that everything the doctors did made him worse and that he was convinced he could take better care of himself at home. I tried to reason with him, but my 18-year-old logic was unconvincing.

I spent the next several weeks going back and forth from my apartment to his, helping him clean, putting on his shoes, and getting him something to eat. He was frustrated that he wasn't able to help himself, and he took his frustration out on me by complaining that I wasn't cooking his food correctly or that I was taking too long to put on his shoes.

I felt overwhelmed and there was no one to help me. My mother and father couldn't be in the same room together for almost 15 years, my sister wouldn't even speak to me about our dad anymore, and the other relations lived thousands of miles away in Scotland.

The responsibility became too much for me. I just wanted to enjoy a carefree summer before college, like my friends. I began to pull away from my father, making up excuses not to see him and ignoring his calls.

One night while out celebrating my friend's 18th birthday, I received several calls from the hospital where my father had surgery. I stepped outside into the dark alley where my car was parked and called the hospital. They told me that my father had suffered a heart attack and I should get to the hospital as soon as possible. Panic choked me again as I ran to my car. It felt like hours before I got to the hospital, though it was probably only 20 minutes. I walked into the cold, sterile air of the emergency room and the nurse immediately took me back to my father's doctor. The room was lined with curtains hiding the beds and the lights were turned down so I could barely see in front of me.

The room was lined with curtains hiding the beds and the lights were turned down so I could barely see in front of me.

The doctor's voice was soft as he explained to me that they did everything they could, but my father had died at age 58. The doctor took me to the bed where my father laid. His eyes were closed as if he were just sleeping, but there was no warmth, no breath and no life left in him.

The next day I went back to his apartment in Garden Grove to begin packing up his things and making the final arrangements. As I sat in his tiny one-bedroom apartment surrounded by his old records, I began to cry. I had never felt so alone. I began to feel the way my sister must have felt that night at the hospital when she walked out the door and away from this burden.

I couldn't do it by myself any longer so I called my mom and sent texts to my best friend, expecting no response but an excuse like the ones I gave my father too many times. Instead, my mother answered after one ring and told me she would be there as fast as she could. My best friend responded that she and her brother would be right over to help me move my father's things. It was then that I realized that there is no shame in feeling weak and needing help. No one can do everything all alone: not me, and not even my father. From that moment on I have reveled in my weakness and used it to become stronger.