I usually approach writing a post like this with trepidation. The pressure of having to write an important post about an occasion, or a mental road marker in my life, that must be profound, or interesting, or strike at some universal truth via a theme I draw throughout the entire post is paralyzing, and makes the piece hard to write, harder to edit, and hardest to publish. And yet, I think every writer, at some point, tires of such academic games, and arrives at this, simple realization: just tell the truth.
And the truth is that, 10 years after his death, I miss my dad.
This past weekend, we congregated in Vancouver, and, per Chinese tradition, we went to his grave site with things that he would have liked. The collection of things – some prosciutto, a pomelo, a Vietnamese iced coffee (both a gift from the owner of one of our favorite restaurants, and an ode to his love for coffee breaks), some wine, grapes, and flowers – would seem to suggest that he was some kind of glutton, or at least someone who greatly appreciated fruit and cured meats (well, I guess that’s not far off). As we sat by his grave, drinking the wine (Martinelli’s for me) and ‘telling’ him our updates, I was struck by how little of the specifics I remember. I have a few, very vivid memories of him, and I cling to these, hoarding them, afraid that if I lose the memories that I know to be true, I will be at the mercy of others’ recollection of him, and their relationship with him, which was not the same as mine.
I often picture him, standing at the corner of the Kits rink watching me play hockey. He has his grey-blue winter coat on, his hands tucked in his pockets to ward off the cold. Instead of joining the other parents and family in the stands, he stands impassively watching the ebb and flow of the game on the other side of the rink, seemingly disinterested. I’m sure, after a day of hard work, the pressures of a business, and a family bustling with activity at home, the last place he wants to spend his evenings is in a rundown, cold rink that smells faintly of mildew-y hockey equipment and old sweat. But I knew from our conversation after each game – and the fact that he always came back – that he watched with great interest and, hopefully, pride.
I also see him sleeping, his broad back turned towards the bedroom door. Often, for hockey practice, I would have to sneak into my parents’ bedroom to wake him up to drive me, without waking my mother (god help whoever woke her up before she wanted to get up). I remember listening to his guttural snoring, loud and regular in interval, as I quietly approach him in the dark room. The dim light given off by the VCR, his clock radio, the weak glow of the neighbor’s yard light from across the alley, and the hint of dawn are all that illuminate my footfalls, as I quietly approach, praying that there wasn’t a newspaper lying on the ground in my path. A gentle shake of his shoulder, and his head whips around, his sleep weary eyes try to focus (to little avail; his eyesight is horrendous), and I watch his brain reboot and realize where he is, and what time it is. He twists around, violently at firsts, then, realizing that my mother is sleeping next to him, gently, and swings his legs (those Sung calves …) off the bed, onto the floor, waving at me to pack up the car and meet him downstairs. Knowing how hard he worked now, knowing the crush of the effort required to go to work and perform at a high level on a daily basis, makes me truly grateful for the gifts of his time he gave me freely and willingly.
I can see him making sandwiches on a school night, hunkered over the counter next to the sink, Bobo (may his soul rest in peace) looking expectantly up at him. I remember him sneaking bites of lunch meat and cheese when he thought no one was looking, and, to make himself feel better, tossing Bobo some cheese scraps. He made very neatly stacked sandwiches: meat all together stacked in a rectangular, flat pile, then cheese, also rectangular, then pickles, arranged flat, between a single slice of sandwich bread. He cut them in half, width or lengthwise, never diagonally. If you looked at a cross section of his sandwich, you could swear that this was some kind of sandwich flavored Neopolitan, everything seemingly fused together into one solid mass of food. They were dense, economical, hearty sandwiches. I regret trading them for hot lunches or other kids’ food now, knowing that I won’t get another one of those made for me.
I remember following him through his warehouse, his hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket, his shoulders hunched in a kind of trudging posture. He would occasionally look left or right at the pallets of produce, sometimes calling out to his employees, or nodding to a passing forklift driver in greeting. I can see him talking on the phone, either negotiating some deal, or reaming his employee, Sing, about tomatoes.
I remember his laugh, a kind of wheezy, hearty laugh, his shoulders shaking with mirth. I recall his anger too, his eyes widening, his face reddening and his brows furrowing. You could literally see the anger boil over (I would know). Even though he wasn’t a tall man, I seem to recall he could grow to at least 8 feet tall as his long fuse quickly burned down to a nub.
I remember he often liked to rub his mouth and chin, either subconsciously or out of frustration. I remember he definitely liked to rub his head in frustration, until the friction between his hand and hair sounded like some grainy sandpaper was at work.
I remember his goofy tennis stroke, and his crazy, wide, horse stance when addressing a golf ball.
I remember his hands, wide, powerful and thick, with his flat knuckles and a short index finger.
And it strikes me now, as it did by his grave a few days ago, that I do remember; not just those vivid memories, but a lot of the stuff in between too, the minutiae that makes your mental image of a person whole. And even if I’m crying, recalling all these things, I’m happy that I can (both cry and recall); I’m happy that 10 years later, I can still remember the warmth of his presence and the comfort of knowing he was there, even if I have neither now.
In many ways, the person I am today was shaped by my father. His generosity, his kindness, his temper, his work ethic, his competitiveness – these are all things I learned from him. In many other ways, however, his death has done more to shape my personality and the way I think. I wrote, 5 years ago, that his death gave me a “real and visceral reminder of the brevity of mortality.” As I get older, I am constantly reminded of this, constantly aware that every minute of every day, we are face to face with our mortality. 10 years ago, I was terrified of death. It took me 2 years to come to terms with it, and I’ve spent the other 8 trying to figure out how to make the most of life; for some reason, when you can see the end, what you’ve got left doesn’t seem like enough. If you knew him, I hope you’ll take some time to think about him today. And I hope something here makes you consider every moment of your life precious and valuable, not to be wasted on pursuits you aren’t passionate about, or people you don’t care about. Happy Dad’s Death day.