06/16/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2012

Father's Day: I Almost Lost My Dad -- And We Never Talk About It


I fumbled through my wallet, trying to make out the foreign currency in the dark cab. During our short vacation in Vietnam, I hadn't taken the time to figure out what the bills looked like. I had no idea how much I owed, but I did know that the ambulance couldn't have been more than 10 minutes ahead of me. I shoved a couple of dong at the cab driver and leapt out of the car, sprinting to the emergency room. When I got inside, I started asking everyone where I could find a nurse, but all I got were blank stares. Finally I found a nurse and spat out, "I'm here looking for...sick...ten minutes ago...tourist" Somehow even between the language barrier and my frantic panting, she figured out what I was saying. "Okay little girl, this way." At 17 years old, I was hardly a little girl, but there must have been something about me that night that made a woman half my size refer to me as a child. The nurse led me across some grass that divided some buildings. During my mad dash out of the cab I hadn't noticed all the people waiting outside of the hospital walls. There were families sleeping in tents, young women preparing meals and small children jumping rope. It was like a small village within the hospital gates.

As we crossed the patchy grass, I tried to figure out how I ended up there. A few hours ago we were in the Ben Thanh Market. We ordered pho, bought matching sunglasses and some "Good Morning Vietnam" t-shirts we knew we'd never wear. We stocked up on snacks and water for the hotel room, explored the busy streets of Ho Chi Mihn and even planned our trip to the War Remnants Museum for the following day. Operating rooms and heart attacks were not part of our vacation itinerary. He had always been healthy.

We reached a concrete room and the nurse opened it with a key, just wide enough so we could both slip inside. Before the door shut behind us three small Vietnamese women tried to squeeze in, only to be yelled and batted away by the nurse.

The empty 12ft by 12ft space was hotter than it was outside, if that was possible. The smell of bleach in the air was suffocating, and the bright fluorescent lighting made it hard to focus. Before my eyes could adjust, the nurse was shoving a document into my stomach, mimicking a signature motion with her hand. The 3-page document was entirely in Vietnamese. I reached for my travel book hoping it could help me with some translation, but the nurse just yelled "no time, no time" and handed me a pen. As I signed the bottom line, the nurse urgently pulled the clipboard away, smudging my signature. She disappeared into the operating room and left me standing alone, listening to the hum of the light.

I sat down on the only piece of furniture in the room and leaned back against the cool concrete. I looked out the window, only to find ten pairs of eyes starring back at me. My mind was racing. I had to find some way to stop thinking, I had to occupy myself. I opened my purse 4 times to make sure I still had our passports. I checked my wallet for cash. I tied my shoelaces. I untied my shoelaces. I attempted to do a French braid in my hair, which is laughable because I can barely do a regular braid. Then I heard the door open and a surgeon with a white mask motioned for me to come inside the operating room. I tried to ask if I should put on a mask but he just pushed me through the door. The operating room was simple and sterile, no fancy equipment, no big machinery. There were three surgeons hovered over the table, all in white masks. One of the surgeons said "heart not okay, we try something else, alright?" I looked down at the table, right into my Dads eyes. He looked so small and weak, not like the man that used to carry me on his shoulders. "Okay, do anything, do everything, just make sure he's okay." The surgeon shoved me out of the room and I returned to the bench. Tying and untying my shoelaces.

I spent the next week making trips between the hospital and the hotel and every day followed the same pattern. I would wake up early and find a cab. The cab driver would always say, "You go to Notre Dame Cathedral? Saigon Central Post office? Museum of Vietnamese History?" and every morning I would cut them off before they listed every Lonely Planet attraction and tell them I was going to the hospital. I tried my best to explain where it was, but still, every morning we would end up lost. When I finally got to the hospital, I sat next to my Dad's bed and talked to him, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the other patients in the emergency wing. My Dad asked me how I was and joked that he was craving a chocolate croissant. I smiled, noting in my head that his days of baked goods were long over. In the afternoon I spent hours on the phone talking to the insurance company, coordinating faxes and e-mails. I talked to my mum everyday, although their recent divorce made things complicated. At night, I returned to the hotel room, ordered room service but never ate it, and tried to force myself into a restless sleep.

About a week later he was discharged. Two days after that we were on a plane home. As soon as we got back and someone else could look after him, I disappeared. Not literally, of course, but mentality. I had no interest in talking about what happened. I didn't even want to look at the photos I took on the trip before he got sick. All they reminded me of was my former dad, the dad who coached my t-ball team, the dad who jumped in to save me when that huge wave swept me off the beach -- not this new dad I was beginning to know, the one that was fragile and far from eternal.

When I was little I used to think that my Dad was the biggest and most powerful person in the world. After he tucked me in at night, I made him promise that he would live forever. And he would, he would always promise. As I got older I realized that he wouldn't live forever, but that was an idea I pushed to the back of my mind. But that night in Vietnam, as a scared teenager, I realized the implications of that broken promise. Four years have passed, and my Dad and I still haven't talked about our time in Vietnam. I can't bring myself to look him in the eye and bring up about what could have happened that night.

That doesn't mean it's not on my mind. I live in constant fear that I am going to have to sign another document, go into another operating room and spend another 3 hours tying and untying my shoelaces. If the phone rings too late at night or too early in the morning, the first thing I think of is that concrete room.

When I go home to visit him, I ask if he has been exercising and going to the doctor regularly. He usually just shrugs off my questions. When we get to the topic of eating, his shrugs turn into defensive claims about how good he has been. I usually go through his pantry to see how he's really doing. More often than not, I find chocolate cake or pastry crumbs, and my own heart hurts all over again.