Dad and I had two periods of intense bonding—in 1994 when he helped me translate every single word of my homework night after night, and in 2017-2018 when he came home after his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and I, along with my mom, became his primary caretaker. Immigration and cancer have similarly humbling qualities—they break you down and remold you into someone else, often to the point where you forget who you were in the first. Dad got to experience this metamorphoses twice. The difference between the October 1994 dad and the January 2018 dad is massive and I fight to cling to the 1994 version. Dad was tireless, dad could do anything. Dad slept little and accomplished a lot. That’s why watching him deteriorate so drastically in front of my eyes has been so gut wrenching. This was a thoughtful, selfless man. I would like to share one particular story that, for me, so perfectly illustrates the man my father was before he grew exhausted and emaciated by both the disease and the treatment.
Anyone who knows me knows what agony 7th grade was. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have friends, and the world outside our overpriced apartment on East 13th street off of Ave R in Brooklyn may as well have been Mars to my 12-year-old self. I cried before school, at school, and after school. Homework filled me with panic and dread. Dad, doing odd jobs at an ice truck company back then, worked long and late hours, and only at 9pm would we buckle down with dictionaries to translate words like “photosynthesis” to help me complete the homework assignments I had blindly copied off the blackboard and into my foreign three-ring binder. He stayed up as late as it took for me to feel remotely comfortable coming back to school in the morning. But it wasn’t until one particular incident that I had my very first realization of just how dedicated my father truly was. As if moving across the world for us wasn’t evidence enough, that is.
My English class was hell for me: a bunch of twelve-year olds with minimal English skills at best were expected to read short stories by Jack London and answer questions in class. The mere idea filled me with anxiety. It was such a relief to find out that the teacher could let us borrow the book for the night in order to let her confused students go over any particular story at home. Oh my G-d, I could take the thing home and go through the stories with my dad to be remotely prepared in class for once! So that’s what I did. Mrs. Neyman let me sign a copy out. Score! But dad didn’t get home until roughly 8pm that night; by 11pm I was beat. We barely made a dent in the book and I had to return it in the morning. I was a mess—full on hysterics of a petrified fresh-off-the-boat pre-teen. I was never going to learn English, I would get terrible grades and fail at everything, inevitably. Of course now, my thirty-five-year-old self realizes now that I could’ve just continued signing out the book night after night. Surely Mrs. Neyman would’ve understood. We also could’ve made a run to a local grocery story boasting of its 5c a copy service and photocopied the whole damn thing. But neither one of us was thinking clearly that late at night. So dad sent my wet face to bed and promised he’d think of something. “What can you possibly do?!” I cried. I slept fitfully, an insomniac from an early age, and when I woke up in the middle of the night and crawled back into the kitchen where we were studying, what I saw made me cry all over again but for a different reason: there was my dad, hand copying the entire Jack London story in question (something about spoiled eggs) at three in the morning. He sat there and handwrote the whole thing so that come morning, I could return the book but have the comfort of knowing that I had the story at home and we could continue going over it the next evening. The feeling of guilt and gratitude are still overwhelming and I tear up every single time I even think of the incident. I hope I said thank you at the time, but I don’t remember now, to be honest. “I love yous” and “Thank yous” never come naturally to me in Russian. If I haven’t, thank you, dad. What you did that night for me speaks volumes of the man and the father you were and will forever remain in my memory: selfless, tireless, sleepless problem-solver. There aren’t many like you. There isn’t a person you met who won’t miss you.