TOBIN: I want to start by coming in hot...
KATHY: Don’t know what that means.
TOBIN: Ok. I want to know is there’s anything you have been meaning to tell me that you have been holding back on.
TOBIN: It’s going to bring us closer together.
KATHY: Ok there’s one thing. I love you. You are not the best at responding to emails.
TOBIN: I’m really bad at it.
KATHY: But you know what, I have a system. I start with email so it’s on the record. Then I go on slack to say “hey, MAYBE check that email.” And then I’ll text you b/c I see you on your phone a lot,. Get on the phone. and If that doesn’t work, I will stand up and yell “Tobin, I need an answer.”
TOBIN: Ok, fair enough. You’ve found a way to coral me. But you know what, I want to admit a thing, too. I don’t like that you’ve found a secret way to control my life!
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy.
VOX: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: so Kathy.
TOBIN: I want to tell you about my friend...his name is Jason.
TOBIN: If you were a real housewife, what would your tagline be when they introduce you?
JASON: This is the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked.
TOBIN: Jason’s in his early 30s..he’s a writer...he’s written for shows like Girls and Barry on HBO...he’s also a playwright.
TOBIN: Are you still thinking about it?
JASON: I don’t know, I’m freaking out.
TOBIN: He’s also just one of those people who has a great laugh…
KATHY: Love that!
TOBIN: Yeah, it’s a good laugh.
TOBIN: And I think his laugh...which is so open and expressive...tells you a lot about him. Because Jason is all of those things...he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks...he gets really animated if he’s passionate about something…Which is why I was so surprised when he told me about his relationship with his dad. Because with his dad, he’s like a different person. And the reason why... dates back to when Jason was a kid...back when his family lived in Korea...where his dad was a successful business owner...and he and Jason were almost inseparable.
JASON: My dad growing up was always my favorite person. He was an architect and had his own construction company in Korea...he would come home with a bag of ice cream and I would hear his footsteps and the rustling of the plastic bag as he was walking down the hall, and I would get so excited. And I would jump out of the couch and run towards the front door and grab his neck and swing around him. You know, he was my number one guy.
TOBIN: When Jason was in elementary school, his dad decided to move the family to the U.S. And that’s when Jason started to notice a change in his dad.
JASON: He, I think had been a little depressed because of immigrating and he became quieter, and it became very difficult to access him.
TOBIN: As time went on, he became even more removed. And, maybe the most noticeable difference...he started speaking less and less. Jason says that at a certain point, his dad stopped talking altogether.
JASON: And the guy who used to be the jovial successful businessman coming home with the bag of ice cream disappeared.
TOBIN: His dad is kind of a mystery to him now. Their relationship is completely different...and Jason has hard evidence to prove it.
JASON: You know how when you go into your phone and you click a person's contact information it shows you the last handful of calls that you've had with one another?
JASON: I did that once with my dad a couple of years ago and we had like nine phone calls in the past 3, 4 months and they were all under a minute long and I guarantee that most of those phone calls were spent with him asking about the weather in New York and me asking about his car.
TOBIN: So in a lot of ways, when Jason got a call from his dad about 3 years ago...it started out like any other...how’s the weather? How’s the car? But then, Jason’s dad dropped a bomb.
JASON: He said, “I’m having issues with my shin-jan, which is korean for kidney. And I was like wait a minute, what are you talking about? And then he clarified, “I have kidney failure. Only 10 percent of my kidney is working.
TOBIN: Suddenly, it’s not the usual talk. Jason starts asking question. Details begin to emerge...it turns out, his dad had to go on daily dialysis...he was having trouble walking...he had a rare blood type that made it harder to find a kidney donor. And maybe the most distressing detail of all...
JASON: He had been ill for quite some time. For the last year and a half, 2 years, and he had not said a single word.
TOBIN: Neither had Jason’s mom…his parents had been trying to handle everything on their own. And for a while, it had been an easy thing to keep from Jason. He was only home for a couple days here and there at the holidays -- and the symptoms of his dad’s disease hadn’t been bad enough to be visible.
TOBIN: But now things had gotten to a point where they couldn’t hide it anymore... and his parents don’t speak very much English...so they needed help managing the treatment. That’s when Jason’s dad finally made the call to his only son. Jason hangs up the phone and he’s just stunned. On top of not knowing about his father’s illness...he realizes he doesn’t know anything about kidney failure period. And so, he gets to studying. He starts learning about finding an organ donor...how transplant surgery works...and eventually, he calls up his own doctor and says “I want to get tested to see if I’m a match.” So he starts the long process...
JASON: ...getting bloodwork, filling out forms...
TOBIN: And urine tests ...
JASON: so you have to pee into this plastic container for 24 hours. So I remember having to carry the bags on the 2 train And thinking, “Oh wow, this is my life. I’m carrying around my own pee on the 2 train during rush hour.” And that is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done and I hope that no one notices.
TOBIN: To be fair, it probably wasn’t the most disgusting thing on that 2 train.
JASON: You’re probably right.
TOBIN: After months of waiting...he gets a call from his doctor who tells him...
JASON: That I am almost a perfect match to donate my kidney.
TOBIN: Suddenly everything was different. The situation went from “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I was a match”...to “Oh, I can save my father’s life.”
JASON: So I remember receiving this news and shaking. And I picked up my phone and called my dad, but my mom picked up. And I said “I’m a match. Mom, I’m a match. Dad’s gonna be fine.” And she started hysterically crying. And then she handed the phone to my dad, and he listened to the news and he got very very quiet, and then he said, “OK.”
TOBIN: Now, “OK” can mean a lot of things. OK, this is a lot of information to process. OK, great, I’m so grateful that you’re a match, give me your kidney. OK, what do we do now. But what Jason came to realize is that when his dad said “OK”...What he really meant was “No.” No way am I taking your kidney. And we’re not talking about him saying no one time.
JASON: The last year and a half of my life has been me trying to convince my dad to take my kidney. And it happens everywhere. We’ll be out eating ramen, and I’ll be like, “So, about the kidney daddy, what do you think?” We’ll be walking down the street and I say, “So you know that I could still give you my kidney right?” And at this point, it feels like I’m doing an ongoing bit. And always the answer is “no” And I never know why. And he won’t say.
TOBIN: Sometimes he sits his dad down...looks him in the eye...and really pleads his case that taking his kidney is the only option. He talks about a time when his dad came to see a performance of one of his plays...The next morning, at breakfast, Jason brought up the kidney…
JASON: And I said to him, don't you want to see more of my plays? Don’t you want to see my grandchildren? I want you to be there the day that I get married. I want to give you that.” And he took that in, and he kind of looked at me, and he nodded, and he didn’t say anything else.
TOBIN: Jason has spent years trying to make sense what seems like a backwards situation. Son offers kidney, dad says no. And top of it all, his mom refuses to take sides. It makes Jason feel like the real reason his dad says no -- the "something" everyone is refusing to talk about -- is really really bad. And he has a theory on what that real reason is.
JASON: The ongoing narrative in my head is since the day that I came out, I can’t do anything right, including donating an organ.
TOBIN: When did you come out to him?
JASON: There was never a press release but when I was a teenager watching a movie dubbed over in Korean. I think it was “Hot Shots” or some terrible movie. And there was a scene where Charlie Sheen was having sex in a limousine. And obviously the whole thing was shot to reveal and focus on the woman in the scene. And she was wearing this slinky dress and had this, in my imagination, she’s wearing white fur and is very sexy and has blonde hair. And I could only pay attention to Charlie Sheen. And I remember watching that and pointing that out to him and saying “Oh Charlie Sheen’s very handsome.”
JASON: And I think I was seven years old or something...
TOBIN: Jason remembers this as the moment both he and his dad realized he might be gay. And a couple years later when he was a teenager, Jason felt sure.
JASON: When I told myself and realized that I’m gay, I remember sitting in my car in St. Louis and hysterically crying and at the time I didn't know what I was crying about. But looking back, I think it’s that my dad always said I was his perfect son, and I knew in that moment that I was no longer his perfect son. And that was crushing to me.
TOBIN: He told his parents he thought he was attracted to boys. They did not take him seriously — They assumed it was a phase, so they refused to talk about it or they would change the subject if it came up...they basically took Jason’s gayness...
JASON: And then buried under the rug is almost too soft a term. They dug a hole in the ground to subterranean earth and shoved that information in there and refused to acknowledge it.
TOBIN: But when he went off to college, his identity became impossible to ignore. His sophomore year, he had a medical emergency and passed out. He woke up in a hospital bed, with his mom standing by his side. She had flown to New York. At first, he was relieved. And then, he was horrified.
JASON: I remember thinking, “Oh, this is bad.” And then we went back to my dorm and on my dorm there were just posters of all these men that I was in love with. And I remember she looked at the wall, and looked at me, and looked at the wall, and looked at me. And I think she realized then, “Oh, he’s not kidding. This is real.”
TOBIN: Jason felt like he had become so many things his parents did not want...gay instead of straight..a writer instead of a doctor or a lawyer...And all of it had been easy for his parents to just not think about. But he knew in that moment that his mother would go home and tell his dad what happened...what she had seen. From there, it felt like his father’s silence changed from a quirk into a sign of deep disapproval. Calls to the house became shorter, less frequent. He visited home less often. And thinking about all those years of silence...It adds up to one conclusion...
JASON: The fact that he has a lifeline that he won’t take. I wonder if that means that in his head that my kidney represents all the bad things he sees in his son. And he’s worried that by receiving it, he’ll become bad.
JASON: When I think about my dad, I think of a man who's lived his life in two parts. The first part as a successful, gregarious, lively businessman and father in Korea, and then the second part as a struggling, quiet, sick immigrant in the US. And in my mind, I feel very much responsible for that second part.
TOBIN: You blame yourself for the second part?
JASON: I do.
TOBIN: Can I just ask, and I know this is a loaded question but, I mean hearing you talk about how you blame yourself for this second part of his life where he’s been sick...is there a part of you that feels like that giving him a kidney, essentially saving his life, is your way of atoning for this second part of his life that you blame yourself for?
JASON: Yeah, I do. I think there’s a part of me that thinks…my dad made tremendous sacrifices for me so that I could have a life that I have, and now that he’s older and I am the adult, it is time for me to make the same kinds of sacrifices.
TOBIN: Have you thought about losing your dad?
JASON: Yeah, I have. I’ve thought a lot about losing my dad.
TOBIN: I guess... I’m just curious have you ever been honest with him that you blame yourself for the second part of his life?
JASON: No, I've never told him that.
TOBIN: Do you think you would want to?
JASON: I do. I think so. I mean I’m scared shitless, but yeah, I think so.
TOBIN: Jason is running out of chances to tell his dad all of the things he wants to say. So, he’s decided to go to St. Louis to lay it all out on the line…Oh, and I’ll be there, too.
JASON: To me I’m like, “Is he really coming? LIke, what's going on?”
TOBIN: Yeah, everything is booked. Can I just say it? It’s totally gay. Meet me in St. Louis.
JASON: OK, I’ll meet you in St. Louis.
KATHY: Hey Nancy listeners...so this story with Jason and his dad...it reminds me of this thing we talk a lot about on the show...how queer people don’t just come out once and then everything’s fixed. Figuring out who you are is a journey...and along the way, there are a lot of conversations that can be difficult to have…
TOBIN: Totally. Conversations that are sometimes about big things or sometimes they’re about dumb little things that you just can’t bring yourself to say.
KATHY: So that’s why we’re launching a little project called “I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You…” Do you have something you’ve been meaning to tell someone in your life?
TOBIN: Maybe you’ve been exploring your identity and you’ve switched letters in the LGBT acronym...or maybe it doesn’t have to do with your identity at all...maybe there’s a friendship you wish you could repair. Maybe there’s something you’ve always wanted to tell someone you love so that you can understand you better….Or you know, maybe you broke up with someone on their birthday and totally regretted it because they’re doing awesome now.
KATHY: This sounds personal Tobin.
TOBIN: It’s hypothetical! Anyway, if you’ve got something to share, we want to hear from you. We’re going to be collecting stories to share on the show and on our website. And bonus: you can share anonymously.
KATHY: Go to nancypodcast.org/tell to share you story.
TOBIN: It’s the morning of, you know, the big talk, and I meet up with Jason outside in the parking lot of his parents’ home. I called him the night before to see how he was feeling about everything… he said he felt like throwing up.
TOBIN: Oh, and just because it surprises people sometimes... I’m already recording. It’s like from the jump, we’re spying on you, you know?
JASON: [LAUGHS] Ok great.
TOBIN: But today he looks upbeat. His parents live in a suburb just outside of St. Louis...they have a modest apartment in this sprawling complex. It’s the kind that looks like someone hit copy paste on like 20 of the same building.
JASON’S MOM: Welcome!
TOBIN: His mom meets us at the door. I brought a box of chocolates because you do not show up to a Korean household without a gift.
TOBIN: Hello, this is for you.
JASON’S MOM: Oh thank you!!
TOBIN: Jason’s mom is the epitome of a good host. After making us all tea, she gives us a tour of the apartment...there’s the living room with two couches and a tv, the kitchen and dining room area...and in a small hallway leading to the bedrooms...
JASON'S MOM: [KOREAN]
JASON: So this is supposed to be a laundry room, but this is where he has all his boxes and boxes of solution.
TOBIN: Solution that gets pumped through his dad’s kidneys every single night. It’s stored in boxes stacked like legos from floor to ceiling. We walk into the master bedroom and it is also piled high with medical equipment.
JASON: There are solutions and antiseptics in one corner. An emergency kit in the other corner. A shelf full of tubes and other medical devices. And a machine that’s about the size of a medium sized printer that functions as his kidney.
TOBIN: There’s also a bed and pictures on the wall...but it strikes me that no matter how much you try to make a place feel like home, as soon as you fill it with medical equipment like this...it starts to feel like a hospital. And as long as Jason’s dad keeps refusing his son, this is their reality. Eventually we’re joined by the man himself. Jason’s dad is shorter than Jason, balding, wearing sweats. He moves slowly as we head into the other bedroom...the one that doesn’t have any medical equipment. Jason and his parents sit down on the carpeted floor….cross-legged in a circle. It feels simple and honest. Like maybe they’re ready to finally face each other.
TOBIN: Um…alright, I’ll let you…
TOBIN: Go for it.
JASON: [KOREAN] So what do you remember from when you were born in Korea and lived there?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Like what?
JASON: [KOREAN] Like any memory. [PAUSE] Like…do you have any happy memories?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say here?
TOBIN: Jason is getting nowhere. So he decides to change tactics.
JASON: [KOREAN] So when you first moved here…. How was it for you, dad?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] It was a lot harder than living in Korea. When I was in Korea, I didn’t struggle. The business was going well, so. I didn’t have any big struggles. But it was hard after I came to America.
JASON: [KOREAN] So dad, when we moved… why did we move?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] We originally didn’t really have plans to move out of the country. But when you came to the US on a trip, and went to school, You told me that you liked school in America better, and wanted to go to school in America.
JASON: I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember articulating any sort of desires outside of food or ice cream back when I was 8, 9 years old. But apparently that’s what I said - that’s what I said.
TOBIN: And that planted the seed of coming here.
JASON: Yeah, I think so.
TOBIN: So Jason’s dad sent Jason and his mom ahead while he stayed back and sold the business.
JASON: [KOREAN] Even though you didn’t want to come?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Well more so than not wanting to come or not… when I thought about it, I felt that only if we all lived together in America, our family would be happier and more comfortable. So I just came.
JASON: [KOREAN] after we moved here, and after I went to Craig Elementary School, and middle school, and when I was about in high school, what did you… think I would be?
JASON’S MOM: [KOREAN] I was worried.
JASON: [LAUGHS] [KOREAN] What did you worry about mom?
JASON’S MOM: [KOREAN]
TOBIN: Jason’s mom says that as a kid, he wanted to be a doctor. But then when he got to middle school, he changed his mind. He wanted to be a writer...and Jason’s mom had a lot of feelings about it.
JASON’S MOM: [KOREAN] You made that decision. But I thought…. If you became a writer, you wouldn’t make too much money, right? So I was worried about that. I wanted you to have a more reliable job.
TOBIN: And she was pretty insistent on that...until...Jason’s dad intervened.
JASON’S MOM: [KOREAN] So then your dad told me, everyone needs to do what they love, that’s how you don’t end up changing jobs mid life or something like that. He said if you love something, you’ll work harder. He said the number one reason he moved to the States is so that we can let Jason do what he loves doing. So if Jason wants to do what he loves, we just need to believe in that! So from that point on, when you called, you know, I used to say to you a lot, we believe in you. I’m Sorry…
JASON: So I asked her how, and why, she changed her mind and she said it was because of… my dad….and I didn’t know that.
JASON: [KOREAN] Mom where are you going?
JASON’S MOM: [KOREAN] I’m going to get tissues, sorry.
JASON: She’s like I’ll get you some tissues…
TOBIN: As Jason sits across from his dad, silently wiping away tears...it feels like something has cracked open. There was so much he hadn’t considered about what his dad had been thinking and feeling over the years. What else had he been wrong about?
TOBIN: So he starts bringing up his memories — the ones that felt so monumental in how he understood his relationship to his father. There was the time he had pointed out that Charlie Sheen was attractive...when he thought for sure his dad had started to be disappointed in him.
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Oh you would ask questions about things like that but I didn’t really know a lot about American actors.
TOBIN: He asked about the time his mom and gone to his dorm room and seen all the posters of hot guys. Wasn’t that the moment when his dad knew for sure his son was gay?
JASON: [KOREAN] Did she talk to you about it?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] No.
JASON: She didn’t tell him...anything, really.
TOBIN: So if it wasn’t disappointment...if it wasn’t disapproval...then why had they stopped communicating?
JASON’S DAD [KOREAN] When you first went to college, after being together for high school, when you got to New York, because you were in New York, I would always be waiting for you to call.
JASON: [KOREAN] So how did that feel? When I didn’t call very often?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] I mean… I just waited...Thinking, oh, his phone must not be working So I waited, I mean, there wasn’t anything I could do…so I just waited.
TOBIN: It’s at this point that Jason realizes he has something to admit himself. It’s true, his calls home were less frequent. But it wasn’t because of bad cell phone service.
JASON: [KOREAN] So back then, I….
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Yeah.
JASON:[KOREAN] I wanted to call.
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Yeah.
JASON: [KOREAN] After I got to New York…I wanted to make new friends, and… drink alcohol, and… I… wanted to date men, so, I was scared, dad. To call. Because I thought if I called you, you might be sad… or disappointed…. So I was a little afraid.
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Hmm… I never felt that way. I never felt like, disappointed or anything like that. I didn’t, and… I just always wanted you to do what you think is right, and not do what you think is not right. And I wanted you to always work hard and be better than others because second place is not first place. Whatever you decide, try hard, always be better than others…
TOBIN: At this point, there was only one question left to ask...the hardest question.
JASON: [KOREAN] So dad… in the scenario that I gave you. The scenario where you take my kidney and have the surgery. What are you most afraid of?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Well… it’s what I was saying…
JASON: [KOREAN] But what are you afraid of the most?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Most afraid of?
JASON: [KOREAN] Yeah. Talk into the mic.
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] I’m most afraid of you having some kind of issues later on.
JASON: That I would have issues later on
JASON: [KOREAN] I thought maybe because I had a boyfriend you thought my kidney would be bad, would be dirty-
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] (No I don’t feel that way. I don’t.)
JASON: [KOREAN] (But dad-)
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN]
JASON: [KOREAN] People who donate – kidneys.
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] Uh uh.
JASON: [KOREAN] Do you know that most of them….are healthy...After they donate…they’re healthy? Do you know that?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] There are a lot of people who donate their kidneys and…. Have no issues. But, still, having two kidneys versus one…. There’s a difference. There might be other… problems because of that. So there are examples like that, too, it’s not nonexistent. Because you get affected – because your body will weaken. Like you know how when my kidney functions declined, my whole body’s functions declined as well.
JASON: [KOREAN] But why was it so difficult? To tell me that.
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] It can’t not be… difficult. You wanted to give it to me and I didn’t want to, I mean. That was difficult.
JASON: [KOREAN] You’re still sick. And… if I could do something about fact that you’re sick… it would be better. So what do you I should do about this?
JASON’S DAD: [KOREAN] You can’t… do anything about. and… I’m not going to change the mind I’ve already made up, I’m going to stay like this. My kidney is bad, so I’m sick. I… understand that. I accept that. My kidney is bad, so I’m sick. Eh.. if I live a long time, it would be good for you, and good for your mother. But that’s just fate, how we’ll live. And whether I’ll live a long time on dialysis, we don’t know that. It’s just like that. We just don’t know. So… I must deal with being sick, for a little bit. So, just like this.
TOBIN: His dad’s head began to droop. He was getting tired, and it felt like this was the place to end the conversation…
JASON: [KOREAN] (Dad, please get better and live a long time. I love you.)
TOBIN: Eventually, we got up and stretched our legs...made our way to the kitchen. Jason’s mom boiled water for more tea. The mood turned lighter...his dad even laughed a little.
TOBIN: It hadn’t been the conversation Jason planned for. He hadn’t expected his entire understanding of his father to fall apart...and then be put back together as a kinder image than before. It made his dad’s refusal of the kidney all the more difficult to accept...but somehow easier to understand.
JASON: Hello, Tobin?
TOBIN: Oh, ok, yeah!
TOBIN: A couple weeks later, I checked in on Jason to see how he felt after talking with his dad.
JASON: I think I felt very relieved actually. And I was actually on a little bit of a high for a couple of days because we ended up talking about stuff during that interview that my dad in real life has never said before. and with the kidney stuff it felt like even though he gave me an answer that I didn't want to hear, I was relieved to have any answer. But on the other hand I feel so burdened and watching him physically deteriorate as I live on the the...the incredible grace really of his sacrifice. Is tough to take for me.
TOBIN: Is there any part of you that sees that now and is like “Oh of course of course it was about protecting me.”
JASON: There is. After he said it I thought oh yes this is the ultimate sacrifice is making sure that I stay healthy and making sure that your family is OK before yourself.
TOBIN: What do you think it was that sort of made you overlook that as an option.
JASON: I think that when people stop communicating your mind goes at first 20 miles an hour and then 50 miles an hour. And then eventually a hundred and a thousand miles an hour. And for me in the years where I wasn’t really opening up to my dad and he wasn't really opening up to me. My mind was racing as fast as possible.
TOBIN: I mean is there still a part of you that thinks you can convince him to take your kidney.
JASON: Yeah the selfish part. Now that we've finally arrived at a place where he said the things that I want to hear and I have been more open with him I'm thinking Oh man our life can really begin now. Our relationship as two grown adults can start today...because I want to hear everything he has to say.
TOBIN: One more thing. Recently, there was a change in his father’s health.
NURSE: Hi Jason, this is the kidney transplant office.
TOBIN: A couple months after we talked in St. Louis, Jason got a voice message from the hospital about his dad...Jason manages his father’s care now, so he was the first one they called with the news...
NURSE: Uh we are trying to call your father in for a kidney transplant.
TOBIN: A donor had appeared...a they were a match...
NURSE: So I need you to call me back right away...
TOBIN: Because of confidentiality rules, the family couldn’t know who the donor was -- but Jason’s dad said yes.
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: Jason’s dad and mom were translated by Seonjae Kim, and voiced by James Saito and Theodora Kuslan. Special thanks also to Jeff Spurgeon and James Kim.
TOBIN: Alright, it’s credits time.
TOBIN: Matt Collette!
TONIN: Jenny Lawton
KATHY: Sound Designer...
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Executive Producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.