Lost for Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times Won't Last But Tough People Will

Danielle M. Wong

Buy From:
  • Amazon
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Indiebound
  • Amazon Canada
  • Bookshop

We are participants of Amazon Associates, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, and Indiebound affiliate programs and will earn commissions for qualifying purchases made through links on this page.

I will love the light for it shows me the way; yet I will love the darkness for it shows me the stars.
~Augustine “Og” Mandino

At the age of fifteen, I was a self-proclaimed expert at tying my father’s shoelaces. I bent over, employed the tried-and-true bunny-ear method, and got to work. When I stood up, his lips twitched in frustration before falling into a hard line. He pried his mouth open once again, trying to coax out the words. Still, they refused to come.

I gave him an encouraging nod and chewed on my tongue until it bled. The space between us was entirely devoid of sound, save for the occasional defeated groan. Eventually, he resorted to gesturing: little pats on his chest followed by a wave in my direction. I forced a smile—the kind where most of my face remains stationary.

“I love you, too, Dad,” I whispered, modulating my tone to camouflage the cry caught in my throat. A heavy silence settled on us then, filled with tacit sentiment and burgeoning grief.

Before this, my father had been a corporate sales trainer who taught presentation skills. He traveled across the world for work and competed in tennis tournaments on the weekends. “Life is good,” he would say, with a twinkle in his eye.

Everything changed during my sophomore year of high school. A sudden stroke—caused by a rare autoimmune disease—left my dad with severe physical and neurological deficits. In addition to sustaining frontal lobe damage, he was unable to move the right side of his body. But the most drastic debt, amidst so many others, was his loss of speech.

The stroke resulted in a disorder called aphasia, which impairs someone’s ability to communicate and understand language. The doctor’s prognosis was not lost on me that day. “A full recovery will be extremely difficult,” he said gravely.

I learned early on that aphasia does not affect intellect. It was like my father was a prisoner in his own body, unable to do and say exactly what he wanted. I could not even begin to imagine how debilitated and frustrated he felt.

The aphasia also caused my dad to say things he did not mean. He would sometimes cry in the middle of a funny movie and laugh when something tragic happened. I found myself succumbing to embarrassment whenever we were in public. My father would wield his cane like a weapon and shout incoherent yet harmless phrases at passersby. I knew that these actions were byproducts of his stroke, but they still upset me. I hated the stares and hushed comments, even though he did not notice.

One afternoon, I came home to find my dad watching an old video. It was footage of us playing tennis—whipping the ball back and forth while running around the court. What used to be such a simple pleasure was now impossible. I stared at us on the screen, enraptured by that bittersweet memory.

We watched in silence until I couldn’t hold in my grief any longer. Everything I had suppressed bubbled up to the surface. I found myself shaking, crying, and heaving while the video played in the background. My heart broke for us both and ached for what we could no longer do together.

His lips moved while he watched me cry. My dad clearly wanted to say something, but he was powerless. There we were—incapable of fixing each other’s worst problems. Although his movement was limited, he closed the gap between us and gave my hand a comforting squeeze. I looked up, struck by how the littlest thing could mean so much.

We were both lost for words for vastly different reasons. At any time, he could have another stroke. There was no guarantee—no promise of tomorrow. I felt overcome by fear, both for my family and for my father. Amidst so much uncertainty, was life truly worth living? That question hung over me, coloring formative experiences during my adolescence and clouding otherwise blissful days.

I finally found my answer. When my family took a weekend trip to Tahoe, my dad saw a group of people parasailing on the lake. He and I had gone a few times before his stroke, but years had passed since then.

“You and me!” he managed to say.

We floated high above the water, eyes fixed on the setting sun. Just after the sky put out its last flicker of pink, my dad looked at me with a familiar expression. “Life… good.”

It may have been his bright smile, or a rush of warm air, or the ripe burst of colors enveloping us. But in that precious moment, I understood exactly what he meant.

“Yes,” I whispered back. “It really is.”

I did not know then what I know now. I did not realize how tirelessly my father would work to recover what he lost, or that he would go on to regain a fair amount of his speech. I could not comprehend how much he would inspire me to move forward in the face of fear. I did not know I was about to lose him forever.

After an autoimmune flare-up landed my father in the hospital, he suffered another series of massive strokes. Over the course of one month, he would fall into a coma and ultimately pass away. It all happened so suddenly.

I still wish we could have had one last conversation. The biggest thing I continue hanging onto is something my dad said over the phone shortly before he died.

“Life is good.” Three simple words: a cliché in any other context. But he injected true meaning into the phrase by refusing to let his sickness overshadow the days he had left.

One evening toward the end of my father’s coma, I sat at his bedside until everyone else had left the room. Then I spoke softly into his ear. I told him how scared I was before asking the question that eclipsed every other: What if you never wake up? As soon as it departed my lips, I knew I already had the answer.

I gave his hand one last squeeze before leaving the hospital. On my way home, I paused to look up at the August night sky. A black expanse with scattered bits of brightness stared back at me. I let myself linger for a while, taking in the brilliant panorama.

How beautiful is it that we need darkness to see the stars?

— Danielle M. Wong —

Reprinted by permission of Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC 2022. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder, no portion of this publication may be reproduced without prior written consent. All rights reserved.

Listen to the Chicken Soup for the Soul Podcast