yale town

Sunday, September 10, 2006

fathers be good to your daughters
My dad turns 65 today.

My dad would appear to be an unlikely role model and certainly not a prime candidate for father of the year. When I was younger, I was determined to distance myself as much as possible from his unhappiness and do everything I could not to be like him. It used to worry me that I am so much my father’s daughter. He is complicated, emotional, intense, and moody. His worship of beauty expresses itself in his passion for books, music, travel, and the outdoors.

So much of him, the best and the worst, fell straight into me. Not all bad, but our house lived and died by his moods. There are countless times when his black moods and misplaced anger brought me to tears. His drinking shattered our lives for years. And even when he was sober, he was ridiculously strict and downright Draconian in his ideas about curfew, makeup, and boys.

When I was a little girl, we got along wonderfully. I was a happy chatterbox and a daddy’s girl and we’d play silly games and go places together. He’d come home from work and surprise me with presents for no reason. I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing my parents kissing and I’d pretend to be disgusted and they’d pull me into their embrace and kiss me too. Memories made all the more precious because of how rare they are, drowned out by louder, uglier things. The older I got, the more we clashed.

To say that we have had a stormy relationship would be a profound understatement. But it seems that we have finally found the peaceful way of relating to each other that only time, distance, and grace can bring. Anger has finally been subsumed by respect. And I finally told him how watching him survive everything life has thrown at him has taught me the real meaning of strength. He grew up poor in rural South Korea, had to take care of his family when the father he worshiped was killed, and once he moved to the U.S. and had a family, he was again consumed by the role of provider and all of his dreams and ambitions fell by the wayside. Both of my parents’ lives are strewn with such sacrifices and lost dreams. Very Joy Luck Club. My dad has battled alcoholism, cancer, and a lifelong struggle with depression. He’s been beaten down by life. But he’s still kicking.

And even though he’s not in the best of health and as grieved as he is by his estrangement from my brother, he’s finally found a measure of peace. He spends a lot of time tinkering in the garden and renovating the house. He goes to church and his faith brings him a lot of comfort. He’s really…mellowed, there’s no other word for it. I was a little worried about how he would react to my breakup but I underestimated him. He was as sympathetic and comforting as anyone could be. He even said girlfriend type things like how I would have plenty of other chances to find love and to follow my heart and wait for the right person who would make me happy for the rest of my life. Shades of Oprah from a man I used to find unbelievably intimidating.

He’s changed a lot. He’s always been the stereotypical Asian dad, bringing to bear unrelenting academic pressure. It was foreordained that I was going to get a Ph.d long before I knew what that meant. But the last time I was home, he told me that the most important thing was for me to do something that made me happy, regardless of what he or others might want me to do. He said if he could go back and do things differently, he would have taken the time to make himself happy. To have hobbies and go out with friends and have some sort of life, because he knows now that he sacrificed too much and because he was so unhappy, he was in no condition to make his family happy. Something I’ve known for years.

He’s made a lot of mistakes as a father, some of which I know have scarred me, but I also know he did the best he knew how in constantly difficult circumstances. And I know that he loves me and my family unconditionally. In his usual overprotective way, he was so worried about me being lonely after the breakup that he even wondered if my mom should have come to stay with me. And he reminded me that if I ever needed anything, he was just a day or so’s drive away.

Happy Birthday, Dad.


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