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The Last Immigration: Finding a Way Through Life Without Parents / SF Chronicle Magazine

My dad is in the hospital for a blood infection. The doctors don't know yet what has caused it. His fever has spiked for 10 days, even after a dose of antibiotics. He has grown weak and can only manage to mumble on the phone, when I call long distance to make sure he is OK. Although my mother tells me he is in a great deal of abdominal pain, that he shakes with a fever and cannot eat, it is my dad's incoherence on the phone that frightens me, tells me he is sick.


My dad is 64 years old. The last time he had a health scare was 22 years ago, when I was 10, and my parents, two brothers and I had traveled to Orlando to visit Disney World. Then, too, he had complained of abdominal pain. Over the days, it became so severe he couldn't get out of bed. I remember being angry that we were in Orlando, steps away from Mickey Mouse, yet stuck in some gaudy hotel. I sulked about the swimming pool, sulked as I watched endless hours of TV. In my adolescent heart, I was convinced he wasn't sick. I even told my two brothers so in secret.


Then he began foaming at the mouth. It was in the middle of the night. My mother woke us, weeping, hysterical, because she needed my older brother or me to call for an ambulance. The little English she knew wouldn't come out of her lips, not when her husband's face was covered in spit. It was raining, a tropical storm in humid Orlando. The ambulance came and took my father away. They were in such a rush they left my mother behind. She told my older brother to watch over my younger brother and me. Then she locked the hotel room and went off into the night, into the rain, dressed in a sari and flip-flops. She had to ask a man on a bicycle, who was taking shelter under a tree, how to get to the hospital. Then she walked there by herself. She found my father recovering from an emergency operation. His appendix had burst and poison had spread throughout his body. He had been close to death.


Now that he is 64 that is what's on my mind: he is close to death. When my mother called to say he had been admitted into the hospital and was being given intravenous antibiotics, I had to sit down. I thought, this is what I have been waiting for, this is the call I have been fearing ... for how long?


A year, two years, five? At what moment did I go from being the adolescent who knew with all her heart that her parents were invincible, immortal, all powerful to becoming the adult child who has accepted her parents' weaknesses, their decline and soon, their demise?


My dad's physician informs me that his blood infection has been caused by gallstones. She says when his body is less inflamed, she will remove his gallbladder. She assures me my dad will soon recover and leave the hospital. Even as she tells me this, I hear my dad's painfilled mumbling and think of what I've always considered to be the beginning of his life.


In 1972, when I was 6 months old, my dad was alone at the Bombay airport. He had just received a visa to come to America. He was an engineer and so became one of the thousands of professionals America was wooing here at a time when the country wasn't producing many of its own. He was 32, younger than I am now, with a young wife and two children back in Hyderabad, along with two aged parents, five siblings, a family home and everything he had ever known.


He was traveling to a place called Minnesota in December. He was wearing a short-sleeved, button-down shirt, not knowing anything about snow and minus-degree weather. In his trouser pocket, folded into his passport, were bills that amounted to $5. When the boarding call was announced, he stood and made his way to the line. Then he hesitated and stepped out. He walked backward, away from the terminal, the airline ticket folding in his grip. He had decided to return to Hyderabad.


The impulse that overtook him and got him onto that flight to the United States, a hurtling journey into the void of the unknown, is the same impulse, I imagine, that overtook my mom in Orlando, when she closed the hotel door behind her and went unsheltered into the stormy night, convinced she would find her way.


And it is also the impulse I try to dredge up every time I imagine a future without my parents. Still, I am overcome with a chilling sense of being abandoned. Of having to fend for myself. I once more become the child of 10 who watched her parents depart into the night in strange Orlando. What they left behind were three kids, age 11, 10, and 6. How could we make it on our own? How could we go on without them?


Yet this immigration is one we must all undertake, moving from the land of having parents to the land of being parentless. Though I shrink away from such a journey now, I know when the boarding call is announced, I will have to stand up and take my place in line.