Taking a break from my usual Hong Kong or regional travel-based posts, I post today in honor of my father. Twenty years ago last week, my dad, Jones, passed away. It seems both an eternity ago and as if it happened yesterday. Hard to believe 20 years could go by so quickly. Even harder to believe my dad’s life ended when he was just 59 years young.
Born in northern California, Dad grew up in a humble but comfortable home and later pursued a career as a chemist, helping to develop early forms of sustained release drug technology (the foundation of more convenient, long-acting medicines that started to become available a few years later). His work was borne of course out of his intelligence and meticulous attention to scientific detail, but also his innate, impressively patient tendencies. Anyone who works in or knows someone who works in ‘bench’ science knows that the progress eventually reflected in publications or the media likely took years of arduous, tedious work. Those summaries almost never really reflect the people behind all that work.
Passing the torch – life lessons
This type of work is definitely not for everyone. Despite my initial interest as a teenager to follow in his footsteps, Dad had the foresight to advise against such a path for me. During one of many conversations I had with him as I prepared for university, he pointed out what I could not see in myself – that I simply did not have the personality to fit the job. Amidst the hubris of my youth, all I extracted at that time was an insult. But with the relative wisdom of adulthood, I realized later that of course he was right. I had neither the patience nor the willingness to work in such isolation in a laboratory for years on end, without the guaranteed promise of what most would define as success.
Dad was a quietly perceptive man. His early guidance against pursuing a career as a basic scientist was just one of many life lessons he imparted to me. It took years after his death before I realized how much he had taught me over the course of the 22 years I knew him.
He was a man who believed in, fully exhibited, and taught me the merits of humility. Part of this stemmed from the culture of old China from which my grandparents came. But mostly, this was just who he was – a man who lived within his means and eschewed almost all frivolity or indulgence. He drove cars into the ground before moving on, had no desire for anything ‘designer’, and had zero interest in ‘status’.
He instilled in me the need to earn my own keep, even at a young age – exemplified by me taking on a newspaper delivery job almost as soon as I could ride a bike (much to my then-dismay!). If I wanted to order anything beyond a main course on the occasional family visit to a restaurant, it came out of my allowance or eventually paycheck.
Almost all of any monetary gifts my brother and I received until we reached adulthood was placed into our college fund. It drove me crazy mostly as a teenager – but fast forward to my post-graduate school years, and I can’t tell you how grateful I was (and am). No loans to pay off. Part of the reason for this was due to scholarships – but that also largely reflects other key qualities that Dad instilled – the importance of hard work, dedication, focus.
But of course humility is not just about money. It is about how you frame yourself to others. Dad was the ‘anti-peacock’ – no feather-showcasing with him. He taught me to be proud of my accomplishments but not to shove them in others’ faces or show off, and not to snub my nose at anyone else who might be less fortunate. He reminded me that we really know very little about other people, but that we are all fundamentally just human beings. There is much more to be gained by treating others with respect (as long as they do the same in return) and not making assumptions.
He once explained how he learned that the janitor who cleaned his lab had been a college professor in his homeland. My dad was one of the only people he knew who ever treated him well in the US and spoke to him like an equal. How refreshing, but also – how sad. I think about this often now that we’re in Hong Kong, where there is a seemingly never-ending buzz around money and status and near-constant ‘peacocking’.
Dad’s softer side
As you might gather, Dad was a mostly rational man of great practicality. But this did not make him cold. He wasn’t overly affectionate, but he was a caring man who prioritized family. I was a lucky child – Mom and Dad never missed any event that was important to me, whether a music concert or a dance recital. Or just helping me with my homework.
I remember one night when I was young when he consoled seemingly inconsolable me. I was distraught, because Mom had left us for choir practice, and I felt abandoned. Of course, he reminded me that I wasn’t. And in yet another act of humility, instead of being offended that I still felt lonely despite him being home, he focused on reassuring me that Mom would soon be back.
It’s funny how memories live in our minds. It took years for me to recall, but I now distinctly remember a conversation he had with me when I was about 16 or 17. He said, Deb – it doesn’t really matter if you decide to get married or not, as long as you do what makes you happy. But no matter what, always plan to rely on yourself, not someone else. Dad believed everyone should be independent and take responsibility for themselves.
He also said, if you even think you want to have children, make sure you select a partner who you see as a good father. And if you don’t see that, run the other way. He believed we should all surround ourselves with really solid people who are caring and supportive. I suppose the kids part hasn’t really worked out for me, but the partner qualities Dad felt strongly about certainly still ring true. And I’ve heeded his advice, with zero regrets about waiting years and years to find the right person.
Who else was Dad?
When asked during a job interview what his long-term goals were, Dad told his future boss that he aspired to become a philanthropist.
He was not what you might call a social butterfly. Going out, attending parties, drinking even casually – these were never priorities or even really activities of interest. He was one of those guys who observed the world, read extensively, never said too much – but when he did, it was always something intelligent and insightful. Or else, a dirty joke.
Dad was a man who hated injustice. This was mostly in the context of world issues. But it played out even on a smaller, more personal scale. Growing up, we had one distinctly disgruntled neighbor. Once in a while, when my brother Clint and I would play ball in the side yard, the ball would bounce into the neighbor’s yard. Somehow, this deeply angered him even though we always quickly retrieved it, and he waged an unfriendly mini-war with us. One day, he stormed over to Dad and sputtered exceptionally offensive profanities and vitriol at him. Dad, as always, took it all in quietly. Then in a moment of twisted brilliance, he devised a plan. Dad was never one to condone or encourage revenge. But such pettiness really got under his skin. The next afternoon, we gleefully heard our dear neighbor shout in astonishment, when he discovered the head of our ‘lawn jockey’ in his beloved barbecue grill. Dad had made his point, in his own wickedly humorous way. (By the way, in case you don’t already know, a ‘lawn jockey’ is an odd American icon – a statue of a man in jockey clothing, intended as a lawn ornament to welcome guests.) Was this the appropriate response? I don’t know. But it was funny as hell, and it ended our battle for good.
Dad had a weakness for penguins. I still have no idea why penguins in particular, but they are of course adorable. He loved to joke about them always being overdressed. But perhaps it was more because of their loyalty to family. That wouldn’t be surprising for Dad. When I saw the documentary, March of the Penguins, years later – I cried, not just because the story it told was such a beautiful one, but because I knew how much he would have appreciated and enjoyed it.
We took full advantage of his love of animals and after some initial scoffing at the idea of adopting pets, he later ended up being the guy who cuddled our cats like babies.
Dad was a standup guy. But he had his flaws, too, like all of us. Even he realized, too late for himself, that excessive frugality also has its negatives. He learned first-hand how short life is – and that enjoying oneself and sharing that joy with others is often worth an occasional monetary cost. He believed in establishing security for oneself and one’s family, which is of course highly respectable – but that also has its costs. Sometimes taking a few calculated risks in life pays off more – and not just with money, but with satisfaction, happiness, a stronger sense of accomplishment, greater ownership. Maybe it would have been better if he socialized more, if even to just support Mom and her interest in social gatherings. He realized too late how critical it is to travel as much as possible and see for oneself that the world is indeed a very big place, with so much to offer – yet partly by traveling, the world can indeed be a much smaller place, and we can connect more with others. But despite his flaws, Dad died a great man.
Do not go gentle into that good night…
It is sometimes said that staring in the face of death brings one clarity and a sense of greater purpose. When family and friends would visit Dad in the hospital in the days before he succumbed to his illness, despite his constant fatigue, he used those visits as opportunities to remind them to live life fully and tell the people you love that you love them. He had long ago abandoned the idea of a god, but this was his own way of preaching, I suppose – arguably, to much greater effect.
This may be a bit morose, but have you ever wondered who would show up at your funeral? I have. Mostly because of what I witnessed at Dad’s. Of course, we expected close family and friends to attend. But literally hundreds came to Dad’s memorial service to pay their respects. Mom, Clint, and I never had time to sit down, as there was a queue that literally wrapped around the room and extended outside to get in. I remember being overwhelmed, then slightly amused since it became almost festive. Then just incredibly awestruck that despite his apparent lack of interest in traditional socializing, Dad had touched so many others in his abbreviated life, so deeply. We heard over and over how Dad had treated people – with respect, with kindness, with compassion – and always with a touch of slightly off-color humor.
As is typical for immediate family, Mom, Clint, and I sat in the front row during Dad’s funeral service the next day. When I stood to speak in his honor, imagine my shock when I l turned around, looked up, and saw the entire church packed to the rafters with people. I was utterly stunned, speechless – not such a helpful state for someone about to make a speech! It was my first time publicly speaking to more than a classroom, and I remember being so scared but knowing that I had to push through for the sake of Dad. I was trying to make sure that his last life lessons were shared with everyone there. Live life fully, tell people you love them before it’s too late.
20 years later..and peering into the mirror
I remember Dad with much love and think of him often. I reflect on how much of him I now see in myself. Many of us spend so much time trying to not become our parents – perhaps for very justifiable reasons, perhaps due to the rebellious inclinations of our youth. In my case, I am both amused and proud that I have become so much like him.
Dad loved photography. He showed up to my birth apparently frantic and armed with 2 or 3 cameras. He took photos when we traveled – which wasn’t often, but he made sure he captured moments he felt important. I remember being annoyed by it when I was young, impatient, and frustrated – most notably on our family trip to China, just a few years before he became ill. Fast forward, and as you all know, I sort of obsess over photography. Go figure.
Also like me, Dad loved to eat. But his experience with international cuisine was a bit limited. I remember the night I introduced him to Indian food. He was very sick at the time and had already been in and out of the hospital. He was very thin, weak, tired. His appetite and taste for food had become extremely fickle. But he thought it was so delicious. This new experience cheered him up so much. I still tear up when I recall that evening. In some ways, I suppose I felt like our roles had reversed for just a moment. I was so happy I could be the one to ‘teach’ him something, instead of the other way around.
I’m sometimes angry that the treatments now available for the condition Dad suffered with (chronic hepatitis B, a too-common problem for many people from Asia, particularly China and Korea) weren’t available to him years ago. But after having spent a few years working in this area myself, I am relieved and optimistic that there has been progress at least for others.
I still have regrets about things I wish I had said to Dad, things I wish we had done together. I wish I had danced with him one more time. I wish I had told him how grateful I was for everything he had done for me, taught me. I wish he was there when I learned by last-minute surprise that I was graduating as my class salutatorian. I wish he was there at my wedding to Mark.
I wish I could have shared with him the exciting news that we were moving to Hong Kong. I wish he could visit us here and experience some of what we are experiencing now. I wish I could introduce him to yet more cuisines and all the crazy-fun foods and traditions in Asia. I wish I could pick his brain on what is happening in Hong Kong politics today.
I wish we could travel and photograph together.
I wish he could know who I am now and who I aspire to become.
But mostly, I just miss him.
In final tribute
Dad was not just a father. Of course, he was also a husband. A few months ago, Mom and Dad would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. So I’d like to end on a shout-out to Mom for bravely picking up the pieces after Dad died, starting over again, and helping me do the same. And also to Clint, for rising to the challenge of becoming man of the house and helping us get through very tough times together.
I dedicate this post to Dad, Mom, Clint, and all of you who may have lost someone very close to you. I wish you strength and the peace that comes from endless great memories.
In honor of Dad’s legacy, and because I know he would want me to help spread awareness – I would like to share some resources in case you or someone you love is at risk for or has been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B. PLEASE don’t be ashamed or put off seeking help. This is not a disease that should carry stigma anymore – that is an unacceptable and wasteful obstacle. There are healthcare professionals available to help you, a vaccination program, and newer, more effective treatments. Do it for yourself, for your family and friends, for your children (those you have, those not yet born). And please help spread the word!