A Belated Eulogy
Published in Asbury Park Press June 2004
My father’s picture sits on the fireplace mantel in my living room. He is standing in a tailored English wool suit, his kind eyes beaming behind rimless bifocal lenses. He’d retained his full head of raven hair and his signature radiant smile until he succumbed to failing health.
When he was alive, I dwelled on his shortcomings and I neglected to tell him that I loved him. I thought that he would be here forever. For this Father’s Day, I worked up the courage to write this belated eulogy.
Born in 1924 as the youngest boy of a large and wealthy family in China, Papa was mild-mannered and soft-spoken. He loved books and was talented in the art of Chinese calligraphy.
He was a graceful survivor of many fateful disasters, including the suicide of his eldest son in 1994. He did not speak of the hard life of his family after the army and his older siblings took control of the family fortune in World War II. Only once did I hear him compare our small bungalow in a congested area in Hong Kong to his childhood home in Canton, where jasmine bloomed in the garden and the goldfish swam in the ponds. He buried both his parents, who died of tuberculosis, which he contracted later.
In the 1950s, in Hong Kong as a refugee, Papa’s dream to continue his teaching career became unattainable because of his illness. He accepted a job working the second shift as a conductor on a double-decker bus. He disliked his monotonous work, but did it with equanimity. He hated to inject the experimental antibiotic every day. Yet he quietly embraced life while death haunted him.
When I was young, I resented Papa’s not hugging or kissing me. As I matured, I understood that the absence of touch was due to his disease. However, I can recall his determination to be a caring father in other aspects. To get an application for my brother to a prestigious Catholic school in the neighborhood, he waited on a mile-long line overnight and slept on the sidewalk. He knocked on doors of strangers and old acquaintances to seek work and references for his needy sons.
I have fond memories of Papa taking all of us to see The King and I, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and many other classic movies. He favored westernized movies whereas my mother enjoyed only Chinese operas. On his day off, he would take us to tour the Hong Kong landmarks not typically visited by the locals. Afterward he would treat us to hamburgers and French fries followed by soft vanilla ice cream cones instead of the usual Chinese meal.
My father had difficulty fitting into mainstream America in the 1970s because of his poor English. Long cured of tuberculosis, he became a chef in a Chinese restaurant in New York City, again not a profession of his choice. The heat and moisture in the kitchen gave him bad rashes, and his loud-talking peers caused him constant migraines. But he rarely missed work in the 20 years until his retirement.
When my parents had saved enough money to buy their first home in Brooklyn, my mother offered the large bedroom to her own parents out of respect. Papa accepted the tiny bedroom, too small to accommodate a dresser and a chest next to the bed placed against the wall. He quoted Confucius, “The gentleman sets his heart on virtue; the petty man sets his heart on privilege.” Another one of his Confucian quotes was, “Nowadays, to provide for parents is considered filial piety. But dogs and horses are so provided. Without respect, what is the difference?” Only once did he say, “Your mother wakes me up when she climbs over me to get out of bed.”
When my teenage brother was in trouble with the law, Papa looked haggard. He could not bear the spectacle of the trial and the wrong choice of a real estate lawyer to handle the case. Tears fell on the vest of his three-piece suit. Only then did I realize that underneath the powerhouse façade was a vulnerable man.
Papa once told me, “I’m glad that you are not a lawyer. You would put me away if you believe me guilty of a crime.”
And he was right. All my adult life I had been straightforward and outspoken with my father. I scolded him for locking my toddler son in the car outside of an OTB office where he placed bets; I lectured him for making derogatory remarks about other ethnic groups, and whenever he gambled away his earnings, I harassed him for not being a good role model to my brothers. My father understood, and accepted my blunt openness.
In 2000, my father died at 76 from complications of heart surgery. I never got a chance to tell him that I am who I am because he had shaped me with his courage, a code of ethical conduct, respectful behavior and openness to the West.
Perhaps the best way to say good-bye to my father is to remember his goodness and accept that a father is never infallible. Words of love are better said late than never.