Words Create Worlds

My dad passed away almost 3 months ago. On this Thanksgiving day, I am thankful for a brief moment to reflect on all that has happened. Below are the reflections that I shared about baba at his memorial service. 

September 2, 2017

Over the past week, I have been overwhelmed by a few different emotions. First, shock over how quickly life changes. One week ago, my dad was celebrating poh poh’s 91st birthday. The next day, he was sitting in these pews for church. Afterward, he went home, watched a little bit of TV, enjoyed some dinner, and went to bed. Then, he woke up early the next morning with chest pain, rolled over to find himself in an ambulance speeding toward the hospital while it was still well before sunrise, and then looked up toward my mom’s reassuring face moments before being rushed into an operating room for what a medical resident would later describe to me as a “salvage job.” I was shocked to hear my mom’s voicemail at 6:00 in the morning, letting me know that my dad was in the hospital with a serious condition, a moment that caused me to recall the voicemail I listened to over ten years earlier around this time of the year, when I learned that my brother’s cancer was terminal.

Second, a lot of grief, though this emotion is more difficult to describe right now. I find myself looking around, unable to grasp what happened. Driving from appointment to appointment, making arrangements and finalizing details. I find myself looking around my dad’s personal belongings, unable to recognize that he won’t need these things any longer. There are a few moments each day when I see past the immediate tasks at hand and catch a glimpse of the gravity of what has happened, and for a few moments I feel the fullness of grief’s blunt force.

But, the third, dominant, overwhelmingly pervasive emotion I feel right now is gratitude. There is so much to be thankful for. As painful as this week has been, the care that our friends and family have shown has been ten times greater. So many have offered to cook meals, watch our kids, open up a room, and just talk and listen. Some completely cleared their schedules so they could walk alongside us every single step of the way. Every phone call, flower delivery, meal, hug, email, text, and prayer has delivered the same message to us, that we are not alone, and this message continues to hold us, even in this moment. For me, these things help me to believe that God is near in the face of my unbelief. Thank you all for taking such good care of us.

I feel immense gratitude most of all for my dad. He was a great, honorable, kind, funny, gentle soul who loved my mom, my brother, me, and his two grandkids more than anything else in the world. We knew it because he showed it everyday. Everything he did, he did for our benefit. We ate first; he always ate last. I’m proud of my dad, proud to call him my father, and proud to own the responsibility of carrying his legacy forward.

My dad spent the entirety of his working life as a cashier – first at his sister’s grocery store, then at Richlen’s Mini Mart in the Central District. He worked long hours, sometimes under difficult circumstances, as he endured racist taunts from time to time. He did this for years and years. My dad measured his time at work in decades; by contrast, I still haven’t held the same job for more than six years.

Once, sitting around the dinner table, my bother and I executed a strategy to convince my parents to buy us a new video game console – a Sega Genesis. We started with bargaining and negotiating, and when that didn’t work we resorted to pleading and whining. Fed up, my dad finally asked me, “Do you think we grow money outside?” He asked some variation of this question throughout my child. “How much do you think we have in savings?” I turned to him and said, “I don’t know, at least a million dollars?” To this day, I don’t know how tight finances actually were or were not for my parents growing up, but I am so thankful that somehow my dad made it so that I never had to wonder. I believed in my heart of hearts that my mom and dad could provide everything I would ever want or need. For all I knew, our money did grow in the trees in the backyard, because I never felt like I needed any more.

The things he did did not come easily for him, but he was undaunted. While his formal education ended after high school, he was a lifelong learner. I first realized this about him when I was a young child. I learned some of my first words through a Richard Scarry word book, but when I lost interest in it, my dad actually took it on as his own. He kept it on his nightstand, and he studied and annotated that book like it was a graduate level textbook. I’m not terribly surprised to find that he continued this practice of learning new words all the way to the end of his life. As I looked through some of his things a couple of days ago, I found some loose paper with new vocabulary words written down. Among the words and definitions written neatly on a piece of paper inside his bible were: Brexit, ad blocker, lumbersexual, sharing economy, and selfie. He had an insatiable appetite to learn and grow, even if some of the words he learned were of questionable value.

The words that my dad did know often failed to reflect what was in his heart. He communicated care by asking me about my grades, by lecturing me to get a jacket before leaving the house, or reminding me of my ultimate goal of becoming an engineer or lawyer.  But beyond that, most of our time together was almost entirely silent — in part, because he was so often at work, and in part, because for long stretches of my childhood, we simply didn’t speak that much. I didn’t know how to communicate with him, and he didn’t really know how to communicate with me. At times, we didn’t “need” to talk, and still at other times, we didn’t know “how” to talk.

And then one day, in the aftermath of a particularly angry fight between me and my brother, my dad did something really weird as I fumed alone in my bedroom: he came up to my room, sat down, and talked to me. In his calm voice, he asked me about what happened, why I was so angry, how the situation could be resolved moving forward – questions that I had never heard from his mouth before. Now, I knew how my dad operated. He knew that I could probably be “reached” through the American parenting tactics he saw on TV. So, just like he had seen countless time on Growing Pains and Full House, he came to talk me through my feelings. Sometimes, when I was upset with my mom, these conversations veered toward mushiness, and he would say things like, “she just wants the best for you.” My dad was a mediator, a peacemaker, and in cases like this, an interpreter. He was intentional, often despite of his comfort levels – and mine.

These types of conversations were rare, but they continued into college. When I broke the news to my parents over the phone that I would not be majoring in engineering, that I had chosen to be an English and Comparative History of Ideas double major instead, my parents simply responded with, “Okay, we just want you to be happy.”

When I moved into my townhouse with my wife, and started work as a teacher, my dad said to me as I prepared to leave, “You know your mom and I are very proud of you.”

And then, for no reason at all, in my parent’s garage as I was leaving their house, my dad looked me square in the eye and said, “I love you.”

I know these things were not easily said. I know that it takes immense courage to speak new words, and I believe that my dad chose to speak these words because he implicitly understood that words create worlds.  But even though I recounted for you almost every instance of my dad saying something explicitly affectionate to me, I know those things have always been true. Those are thoughts and feelings he’s had toward me my entire life. I know that he was always proud of me, even when I got bad grades or acted up. I know that he always loved me and my brother, even when it was hard, even if that meant he had to put in another long workday at a job he didn’t particularly enjoy, even if that meant having to say something that felt really awkward, and even if that meant we ate our noodle soup lunch together in complete silence. He didn’t need to say it for me to already know, but at the same time, at some point, he needed to say it, and I admire him for the fact that he did.

Even when words failed my dad, eventually his big heart always shined through. About five years ago, Carrie and I shared with my parents that she was pregnant with Kyrie while we enjoyed a meal together at Salty’s on Alki. I will never forget looking at my mom as a tear rolled down her cheek, and looking at my dad as he literally threw his napkin down on the table and repeatedly and breathlessly said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” The only words he had in that moment were words of gratitude. He loved and adored Kyrie and Reese more than anything in the world. He could not help but hug and kiss them, and tell them he loved them. His time with my kids is a picture of who my dad always was, fully embodied and articulated, free and unshackled. In that moment at the restaurant, no other words were necessary to express the joy that erupted inside of him; no other words could more perfectly capture him.

The last time I saw my dad alive was at my belated birthday dinner at Din Tai Fung. As we ate our dinner, he reached over and gave me a firm push on my shoulder. Startled, I looked over at him, and he reached his hand out to me and handed me a fifty dollar bill, and said, “happy birthday” with a smile. This was his last gift to me, the last time he touched me. I am still processing the meaning of that fifty, but I know one thing: the meaning of that fifty, like the paychecks he brought home before, like the long work days, like the times he walked into my room to help me process conflict, like the countless times he wanted to tell me he’s proud of me but couldn’t, is no less a sign of my dad’s heart for me.

My dad was a great, loving, joyful, gentle spirit. He loved to tell jokes. He was funny and kind. He was obsessed with his grandkids. He has left behind a gaping hole in my heart. But like all the other gaps in our life together, it is lined with tenderness, affection, and love that can only be seen when you pay close attention, and sometimes only when you pay close attention in hindsight.

Kyrie speculated that maybe Yah Yah passed away because he wanted to go see Uncle Dennis. I take great comfort in my hope that they’re in fact together, right now.

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