Pop, When Will You Listen?

The Next Family

By: Sheana Ochoa

Yesterday afternoon, I received a call from my brother saying that my dad had a heart attack.  This happened two months ago as well, and it ended up not being an attack, but a blockage, for which stints had to be applied in his arteries.  Although the first thing I wanted to do was make the three-hour trip back to the central valley (from which I just arrived that morning to retrieve my son after returning from my honeymoon), I called the hospital instead.  My dad was lucid and talking.  I learned we had to wait for the test results to see if it was indeed a heart attack this time.  This morning, I’m worried.  They’re still running tests, but I’m worried because here it’s gone and happened again.  It shouldn’t have if he were following his doctor’s advice.

This is the thing: my father doesn’t listen.  The running joke is that he has selective hearing and I do think his hearing has diminished with age (he’ll be 69 next month), but he can hear well enough. When I was a young girl I loved to listen to him.  It was fascinating the way he weaved stories together.  He would start on one topic such as something a friend said to him or something he saw on the street and weave it into a philosophical web that somehow spoke to what I was presently going through or thinking.  Just when his monologue turned an obscure, seemingly irrelevant corner, my dad would return to the initial impetus of the story, like a good raconteur, and conclude with his main point, which was now imbued with the weight of metaphor, didactics, and well-placed curse words such as “And just between you and me, I told the pendejo, ‘chinga tu madre,’ with all due respect to your mother, mija.”

Even if I could transcribe one of his stories, like any oratory, you really have to hear it for yourself to get the dynamics.  One thing I notice he does is meander into philosophy, quotes (often misquotes) from literature, and most importantly, he relates his message, very briefly, to something his listener is actually going through at the moment.  This keeps a captive audience as he continues to pontificate.

As an adult I still enjoy Pop’s gift of gab, but in any healthy relationship, it’s important to have two-way conversations.  In this way my dad is a lot like U.S. foreign policy: he monopolizes the conversation so insidiously, acknowledging your part in the discussion just enough to make you think he’s listening to you and taking what you say into account only in order to placate you enough to proceed with his own agenda.

As a result, I’ve learned to be very direct.  It’s the only thing that gets through to him.  You can’t get his attention with your insight on his topic and expect the conversation to become a mutual exchange. You simply have to say, “Pop, you’re not listening to me!” And then he’ll let me talk until he forgets he’s supposed to be listening and begin another soliloquy.

My dad has never worked for anybody but himself.  He was a painting contractor, which allowed him to be his own boss (and by default he didn’t have to listen to anyone else or be told what to do). I used to love to go bid jobs with him. Sales are all about feeling you can trust the person and my dad had a way of garnering that trust.  Who would say no to a father who brought his four-year-old daughter with him to work? Problem was that since he worked for himself, he never had to do things entirely by the letter.  He cut corners, didn’t pay his taxes, and of course this all caught up with him –although with absolutely no retirement, there isn’t much the IRS can do to him now.

My dad has always played by his own rules, and I admired that about him, but now with this second cardiac scare, his ineptitude at listening is turning into a tragic flaw.  All five of us kids came to his bedside when he was hospitalized in April.  I had become engaged and it was a temporary distraction for all of us.  When I was alone with my dad I told him about my then-fiancé’s father: “He had the same thing happen to him and the doctors told him he had to change his diet or he would die and he didn’t change his diet and died two years later.”  Again, I didn’t expect my dad to listen to this advice, not even after his doctor gave him the same directive, but then post-surgery my dad told me he kept thinking about Jordan’s dad and knew he had to make a lifestyle change.  I was thrilled.  He had listened to me!

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon. My brother told me my dad was still eating high fat content foods.  The test results show that his cholesterol level is off the charts. It isn’t surprising he’s back in the ER.  I know how difficult it is to change your lifestyle due to illness. But this is life and death and I’m not ready to lose my father; Noah needs his grandfather. My dad has so much to live for, especially his reunited love affair with his art.  And of course, there are his stories, the endless labyrinthine stories that bedazzle us all, even though we’re loathe to admit it.  Last time I touched my father, he walked me down the aisle and handed me off to my husband.  Next time I want to hold hands and have him show me his latest paintings, his garden, and tell me how willing he is to listen in order to save his life.

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