Essay

Capsized: Excerpts from a short memoir of a life upturned

Ava Kato
By Ava Kato
Jan. 23, 2024

Maybe the path to healing is to build bridges and break down walls, instead of the other way around.

 

A ship in a bottle

I had a seemingly perfect childhood. I was raised a very much loved and spoiled only child. My dad had always been healthy. He kept up with his routine medical check-ups. For a couple of years before I moved away for college, I even convinced both him and my mom to adopt a mostly vegetarian diet.

One weekend in December while I was away at school, my dad fell ill. He spent a few nights in the hospital and showed signs of recovery. However, in the next couple of days, his condition took an abrupt turn for the absolute worse. My mom told me I should come home, and my heart sank.

The night before my flight home, I dreamed I was in an open field playing catch with my dad and one of my college friends.

The next morning, I woke up to a string of texts from my mom: “He’s not better or worse than yesterday … But it’s not looking good … Fly safe; see you soon.”

When I got off my first flight, I received another update: “He lost consciousness … We had to hook him onto the ventilator.”

I tried to reach my mom on FaceTime, but the spotty connection at my boarding gate prevented video connection from either side.

“You can talk. He can hear you,” an unfamiliar voice came through the other line. It was his doctor.

I took a deep breath and fought to hold back my tears. “It’s OK, Dad. I promise we’ll be OK,” I said into the phone.

Then I hung up and boarded my connecting flight. I knew I was saying goodbye, and it took all my strength and courage. I wonder if he knew, too.

Capsized

I left just a few days after my dad was cremated. “Go back to school,” my mom said. “Focus on your future. I’ll take care of things here.”

After several weeks, my mom’s promise to take care of herself and things back home had lapsed into demands for me to help her find the quickest, least messy and most painless way to end her life.

My mom told me multiple times that all she wanted was to be reunited with my dad. And that I was not a good enough reason to live. For her sake and mine, for as long as I could, I clung to the belief that she didn’t mean any of the things she’d told me. That she didn’t mean to hurt me. That she was just in pain.

But after a while, doubt began to creep in. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had meant the things she said. Maybe I truly didn’t matter, and she regretted spending so much time raising me instead of enjoying life with my dad. Maybe she was right that the only way for her to be happy again was if she wasn’t here with me.

Nearly two years after my dad passed away, I was getting ready to start medical school. Despite the tension in my relationship with my mom, I decided to go home that summer to see her and my grandma. My mom had converted my childhood bedroom into a storage space, so she and I shared her bedroom. A couple of nights after I had just arrived, she abruptly got off the bed and switched the light on.

“Let’s end it all tonight. You and me together, right now,” she said, holding a bottle of painkillers.

“I don’t have to leave you. Who cares about medical school? Who cares about your future? He’s not here anymore.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks, but I had no words. My mom said nothing more, and I pretended to fall back asleep.

The next morning, I rescheduled my return flight and packed my travel documents into my gym bag. When my mom dropped me off at the gym that afternoon, I kissed her on the cheek and told her that I’d see her later.

I was saying goodbye, and it took all my strength and courage. I wonder if she knew, too.

As soon as her car disappeared from view, I called a cab and headed straight for the airport. My chest tightened at the thought of never seeing her again. I felt dizzy from the anxiety and guilt. I closed my eyes and focused all my attention on the sound of raindrops all the way to the airport. When I turned off my phone right before takeoff, I imagined the worst-case scenario of leaving without saying goodbye.

Floating adrift

I went two whole years without speaking to my mom. I cut off all ties with everyone from my past. I deleted all my social media platforms. I changed my phone number and email address. I burned a lot of bridges and fell out with all my friends.

I withdrew my admission offer to medical school. I decided to work for a few years to support myself, save some money and clear my head. I managed to land a position in a laboratory at a small biotech startup. The company was later acquired by a pharmaceutical giant. Many of my colleagues lost their jobs, but I was offered a position to lead a different project in another department.

The contract stated that if I agreed to stay for at least five more years, I would be on track for promotion to a managerial role and obtain sponsorship for permanent residency. I was still planning on going to medical school then, so I was inclined to say no. Yet, even though I had saved some money and prepared my application packet for submission, the offer was difficult to turn down.

One morning, I went on a coffee run with the lead scientist from the disbanded project, who had worked with me closely, and asked her what she thought. She asked me if I truly wanted her honest opinion and then said,

“Have you ever thought about getting a Ph.D.? I think you would be a great fit.”

Instead of helping me narrow down my choices, she gave me a new alternative. Funnily enough, she was the third person to have suggested graduate school to me, so I took some time to seriously consider her advice.

I took an unpaid position in a research lab to gain some experience and used the money I had saved for medical school on my living expenses. I got accepted into graduate school that year.

Searched and rescued

I rediscovered my sense of purpose and self-worth in graduate school. I chose a Ph.D. adviser who turned out to be not only brilliant but also incredibly supportive. One day, while we were chatting over coffee, I opened up and shared my family history.

“That must be really difficult. I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. No one should,” he said.

My adviser’s nonjudgmental, even empathetic reaction had a tremendous impact on me, especially as he was also raised in an Asian household, where family values and respect for the elder are upheld without question or dispute.

Maybe the path to healing is to build bridges and break down walls, instead of the other way around, I thought.

At the end of my second year of graduate school, I started seeing a therapist. At our initial appointment, when she asked me about my family, I told her that my dad passed away, but it felt like I had lost both my parents simultaneously. I explained to her that I had recently made new friends, but I was scared that I would find some way to sabotage our friendship because of my trauma.

“I want to get better for them. And for me too, I guess,” I said.

She proceeded to tell me something that still helps me through my toughest times: “You have no control over the things that happened to you in the past. But you have the power to decide how much they define your future.”

Last year, I passed my Ph.D. candidacy exam with flying colors. Just a few months ago, I overcame my fear of public speaking and gave my first talk at a national conference, where my friends and adviser sat in the front row. They nodded and smiled all the way through my talk. When I finished, they were the ones who applauded first and the loudest.

Safely ashore

Over the years, my mom and I have made multiple attempts to mend our relationship and failed. Ever since she suggested that we commit suicide together, I refused to fly home to visit her. Whenever she came out to visit me, we ended up in a fight that led to me storming out of my apartment, spending the remainder of her visit at a friend’s house and not speaking to her for another six months.

Last summer, we had our first honest, heartfelt conversation in a long time that didn’t end in an explosive fight. “You left me, Mom,” I told her. “I know I was the one who ran away. And I know it was hard for you to lose Dad, but I lost him too, and I needed you. You chose not to be there for me. You left me.”

My mom is nearly a whole head shorter than me, but I felt small as I buried my head in her shoulder. She apologized for the hurtful things she had said and reassured me that she loved me. All the while, we both acknowledged that it doesn’t undo or erase the things that had happened in the past.

“Let’s start afresh,” I said. She gave me a long, tight hug, and for the first time in years, I didn’t flinch.

Epilogue

Just a year later, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The tumor fully distended her belly, making it appear as if she was at least seven months pregnant. When she started feeling full and breathless despite only eating a few bites of food, she finally decided to see a doctor.

“I really thought I was just getting fat,” she said, laughing, when she called me to break the news.

I bought a ticket home the next day so I could come to her first appointment with the oncologist. Her scans and the size of the tumor suggested that her disease was in a late stage. Her oncologist initially thought her tumor was inoperable and that we might have to start with chemotherapy, but he ordered a biopsy just to be sure.

That night, after dinner, I sat down with my mom to talk.

“I need to say something difficult,” I mumbled. “When you kept telling me that you don’t want to live anymore, I tried to imagine life without you to prepare myself. I’ve said goodbye to you so many times in my head. But that doesn’t make this any easier. I wanted to take the chance to say goodbye. I never got to with Dad, and it still haunts me to this day. I love you, Mom. I’m sorry that I left when you needed me. I hope I’m making you and Dad proud.”

The biopsy revealed that my mom had a very rare subtype of ovarian cancer. The size of her tumor turned out not to reflect the number of cancer cells. The day after her biopsy, the surgical oncologist resected my mom’s tumor, ovaries and some neighboring organs. The next morning, my mom was back on her feet. A couple of days after that, she was discharged from the hospital. She never ended up needing chemotherapy. It was nothing short of a miracle.

My story about grief, loss and heartbreak turned into one about strength, forgiveness and love.

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Ava Kato
Ava Kato

This is an abridged version of a longer story published under the pseudonym Ava Kato. The author is an ASBMB member who is now a graduate student in pharmacology at a university on the West Coast.

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