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Personal columns

Previously published by The News-Press

"The blue Pontiac LeMans stayed parked for weeks because Dad had never taken lessons and was afraid to drive it."

"Dad often said he could not fathom how anyone couldn't make something of themselves in America."

"He became more and more trapped."

"Every turn is a laborious discovery of trial and error."

"His job was done. He selflessly triumphed."

Peace to you, Dad, at journey’s end

Published in The News-Press on 11/23/14


My father took another shallow breath as I stroked his face.


This time, it was his last.


Yuen Ding Chan died Nov. 17 in Joanne’s House at Hope Hospice in Bonita Springs, having struggled with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases for a decade.


We, in turn, struggled to understand how a man who had lifted his family from poverty through determination and hard work could be struck so cruelly.


And yet, we were all blessed. Dad went gently after a week at Hope Hospice, surrounded by those who gave his life meaning: his wife, Soo, me, his son-in-law, Randy, his granddaughter, Regan, and other close friends.


Some of you have heard me tell his tale: Dad was born March 3, 1933, in Southern China, in the small village of Leung Doi, in the city of Dol San.


The family endured famine, drought, Japanese occupation and Communist domination. Dad wasn’t able to attend school until he was 11 because the family couldn’t afford to pay the teacher with rice, as was customary. Though just a child himself, he was needed to care for his two younger siblings as well as the family’s most prized possession, the ox. 


Dad made his way to Hong Kong in 1951, working and sleeping at a laundry while attending night school at the Hong Kong Technical College.


He married Mom, whom he had loved for years, and doted on me, his only child. In 1967, the three of us immigrated to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, sponsored by Dad’s eldest sister, Wai Yok Yee, and her husband, Ah Fong Yee, who became a lifelong friend.


Dad went to night school to learn English, and often would painstakingly look up one word after another in the dictionary. He worked as a mechanical draftsman at Sargent and Lundy, Pioneer and Fluor Daniel, and was dubbed “Charlie” by his colleagues. He became well versed in power plants before retiring in 1997, having never missed a day of work.


Dad insisted the family scrimp to pay back debts and to build up security, eventually buying a two-unit building and a car. The blue Pontiac LeMans stayed parked for weeks because Dad had never taken lessons and was afraid to drive it. The first time out, he went through three red lights, as the policeman pointed out.


Dad dutifully continued to take responsibility for his siblings, supporting his brother through college, sponsoring his sister to America, and funding a rice processing machine for his nephews in China. 


A swimmer, tinkerer and gardener, Dad loved scouring garage sales for gadgets and tools—because Mom always had another chore for him to do. 


In 1973, the three of us became U.S. citizens. Dad often said he could not fathom how anyone couldn’t make something of themselves in America, with resolve, initiative and sweat.


A gentleman and a gentle man, Dad rarely raised his voice and almost always had a smile. His proudest achievements were gaining self-sufficiency financially, and my success.


He beamed when I became the first in the family to graduate from college in 1981, when he walked me down the aisle to wed Randy in 1982, when he became grandfather to Regan in 1987, and when he was an honored guest at his step-grandson Aaron’s wedding to Ann in 2004.


In 2001, Mom and Dad moved from Chicago to Bellevue, WA, to be with us. They delighted in their hilltop home, nurturing a lush flower and vegetable garden. They were active in the Chinese Alliance and Blessing Fellowship churches, and Dad was baptized in 2003.


About that time, he started slipping. He was distracted and forgetful—odd little things, like losing words, losing clothes. He stopped cooking after he put an electric pot on a gas burner and nearly set the kitchen afire. We told him he needed to stop driving and he did. He was diagnosed with the onset of Alzheimer’s.


When I got this terrific opportunity to join The News-Press in 2010, we debated long and hard before deciding they should come with us. My husband insisted on one house for the four of us so he wouldn’t have to manage two homes. In hindsight, he might have changed his mind. In hindsight, I have great guilt about the move.


Because after that, Dad declined, rapidly. How much was caused by the relocation, we’ll never know.


His balance, speech and cognitive ability faltered. He couldn’t figure out how to get into a car. He would awaken but not show signs of life for hours. He had extreme constipation and urination accidents. Eating became a chore—especially after his dentures broke.


There was a moment of reckoning when we were reviewing legal documents and realized that Dad couldn’t sign his name—heartbreaking for a man who had prided himself on his lovely cursive and calligraphy.


He became more and more trapped. He would gesture and gape like a fish, but the thoughts couldn’t make the journey from brain to mouth. He shuffled with a walker, but got stuck and then lost his balance. It became rare for me to wheedle recognition from him.


Multiple times we thought the end was near. He’d be nearly comatose, then resume humming the next day. Mom had wanted him to make it to 80. Hitting 81 this spring was a bonus.


Alzheimer’s is an ugly disease, one that gets only a pittance for research compared to other diseases. It’s estimated that 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, which strikes about 1 in 8 of those 65 and older. Cost for care is about $200 billion a year. And the unpaid toll is tremendous: some 15 million of us are caring for someone with dementia.


In Southwest Florida, it’s estimated that 30,000 people suffer from Alzheimer’s, among the highest per capita due to our demographics.


The journey is painful, frustrating, exhausting. Despite all the experts, every turn is a laborious discovery of trial and error, from adapting the bathroom to navigating the health care system.


But we were fortunate in many ways. First, Dad maintained his gentleness, unlike some victims who are turned mean. Secondly, my parents paid handsomely for Medicare supplemental insurance, unlike others who may suffer more from the financial burden. And thirdly, we devised a support structure that split out the duties, unlike some who do not have such a network.


Mom, now nearly 79, was the primary caretaker, spoon-feeding him; popping up at night every time he coughed; changing his bedding and clothing continuously. She devoted herself to ensuring Dad felt comfortable, loved, safe, heard. He’s not lost, she would say. He’s in there somewhere.


My husband, Randy, handled the bureaucracy and finances, managing and chasing down medical records, ensuring the right pills be ordered and administered in the correct quantity on time.


Hope HealthCare Services provided great support, as did Mom’s friends from church, especially family friend Yeen, who dedicated herself to Dad and Mom.


As for me: I was on Dad watch Sunday afternoons while Mom attended church, and I played the interpreter and peacemaker when tensions ran high. 


Surrounded by love, constant attention and all manner of Chinese food, Dad was the happiest person in the house for four and half years.


On Nov. 10, Dad was moved to Hope Hospice. Despite the warm staff and surroundings, the vigil was excruciating. We watched and waited, anticipated and dreaded, our own breaths mirroring his as his strong heart fought to stay with us.  We told him we loved him. We sang to him, recalled memories, and joked about his tinker skills being in high demand in heaven.


Most importantly, we encouraged him to let go; his job was done. He selflessly triumphed, as a husband, father, grandfather, friend. We were all better because of him.


Peace to you, Dad.

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