Father-in-law offers many lessons, but can I learn them?

By June 17, 2011

Marion is on vacation. This column first ran in September 2002.

I wonder if there are certain things I just can’t learn. I’m not talking about nuclear physics, which I know I can’t learn, or tying flies, which doesn’t interest me. I’m talking about genuine life skills, things I truly want to learn.

Let me tell you about my father-in-law, Laoh Yeh. He is 81 years old and his emphysema is very bad. Although he smoked for part of his life, the doctors say his illness comes primarily from years as a grill cook.

Emphysema sucks the energy right out of you. Last weekend in San Francisco I watched as he stumbled from the breakfast table to his couch (five feet) and lay down, exhausted.

“It’s like running a race all the time,” he explained. “You’re huffing and puffing as if you’ve gone five miles. I’m a fighter, Marion, but I have to tell you the truth. I’m getting tired.”

He lost ground this summer. In July I wrote, “despite the oxygen tube, he still looks robust.” Two months later, that’s no longer true.

His forearms were always strong, but they’re splotchy now, with reddened areas the shape of crushed cherries, probably from the drugs. He eyes recede into the drug-induced puffiness of his face, and inoperable cataracts are stealing his sight.

His hands still remind me of his mother’s. I met her 24 years ago, just before I married Bob and just after she had moved here from China. She was very gray and very old, but her hands were like puppies, warm and smooth and eager to touch. Laoh Yeh has those hands now, and when I visit, he takes my cooler hand and hangs on to it way past greeting length.

Sometimes we sit together, with him holding my hand, and the contact always gets him talking.

“I’m the luckiest man alive, Marion. Can you believe my grandchildren? Every one of them a good kid.”

They all carry a piece of his heart.

While he pauses to catch his breath, I think of everything he has lost this year. He went from using oxygen occasionally, to wearing the nose tube all the time. He had to quit his Monday mah jong group that met for 50 years. He couldn’t attend weddings, baby parties, or the Lew Family Association dinner anymore. He no longer accompanies his wife when she teaches tai chi in the park.

This summer he barely managed an occasional meal out with the family, at the closest restaurant, with his daughter dropping him off right next to the door. Now he only leaves home for doctor’s appointments, in a wheelchair, and I’m angry that doctors don’t come to the house.

Like anyone, he has his crabby moments, but his apologies follow as quickly as the splash after a dive. In the middle of such prolonged suffering, I don’t know how he does it.

A month ago my husband reported, “Dad dressed himself today. He said that made him happy.” Bob look bewildered as he tried to imagine feeling that way.

“And he went for a ride on the stair lift. Up and down the staircase, twice. He said it made him happy. He thanked me again for installing that thing.”

My husband located the stair lift after a long search on the Internet. He bought it, installed it, and tinkered with it on repeated visits until he got it just right. The stair lift has become another one of the sweet mementos that fill Laoh Yeh’s house like the smell of Chinese noodles. I think he rides it to feel the love.

I’ve got a few more years to try, but I wonder if I can ever acquire Laoh Yeh’s pleasure in small things despite the pain. Oh, sure I can appreciate a sunset or a flower when I’m lying on the beach after a great day of kayaking.

But when I’m in pain, I think about my pain. When I feel better, I think about how much better I feel. And when I’ve been feeling fine for a while, I go back to my regular life, quickly forgetting how good that life is.

Laoh Yeh is grateful for everything. A meal. A phone call. A visit. He’s a radiant presence in our family, the hearth in the center of the room. We draw closer.

His birthday party this week was a sad and tender experience. With skin as pale and thin as filo dough, Laoh Yeh sat at the table passing out little red envelopes. Although they’re traditional at Chinese New Year, Laoh Yeh is dispensing them early. We all understand his haste.

He eats. He talks. He takes the hand of his littlest grandchild. His body hurts and disappoints him, but he flicks away the bad stuff like lint on his pajama.

I don’t know if I can learn to do that. But without his example, I wouldn’t even know to try.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column is published Sundays.

Marion Franck

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