When I receive a text message from my sister, I usually don't read it right away. That's because it's probably about our 84-year-old dad. And I know it's not usually good.
In the past few years, my dad's mental and physical health has been deteriorating. He suffers from dementia, and his body is aging rapidly. My sister tells me he spends most of the day sleeping.
And when he's awake, we don't always understand what he's saying. He says he's looking for his bike that he parked in front of a temple in Cambodia. He thinks our mom is his first wife, who died from malaria decades ago. He walks around his neighborhood in California at night looking for his cows.
He grew up in rural Cambodia, went through a rite of passage there by dedicating his early adult years to being a Buddhist monk, experienced the loss of his first wife and worked in labor camps for four years under the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime and survived before he learned English in his mid-50s in order to fill out all the necessary paperwork to get his family to America.
Once in the U.S., he still worked hard. He earned $20 a night cleaning coffee shops and restaurants in San Francisco during their closing hours. He attended community college in an unfamiliar language and with classmates much, much younger than him. He never complained. He'd come home tired, listen to Cambodian music on his small boombox and write essays about his family.
He has always been supportive of our goals and dreams. He took me to every basketball game and practice in high school. He taught me how to drive. He bought books for me, drove me to work on time, lent me money when I was dead broke in college. He never doubted me or made me feel bad when I messed up.
In the Cambodian culture, you're taught to never leave your family. But he was my top supporter when that was exactly what I didn't want to do and attend college two hours away. And when I wanted to really move far, far away, he told relatives about how he did the same thing when he was a young man in Cambodia and traveled to nearby countries to work on roads for just a few dollars at a time.
I served as an English teacher in the Peace Corps a few years ago, in Azerbaijan, and my dad was the one who thought it was one of the best decisions I could make as a human being. He said he did that, too, in rural Cambodia.
When I was overseas, I began hearing about his deteriorating health. He was in an out of the hospital. Eventually, he was diagnosed with dementia. I almost left the Peace Corps early just to be close to him, but my family told me to stay.
When I returned to America after more than two years away, I noticed my dad wasn't himself. He was still great, still sweet, still funny. But his eyes had soften, his walk had slowed, his mind had weakened. His memory began to fade.
Dementia is a horrible, ugly disease. And what I've tried to take away from this experience is to not let it define who we truly are and what we've been through.