The time has come to tell you of something very sad.
My dear father died two weeks ago.
His death was sudden and unexpected. He had just finished making dinner, complained of a headache to my mom, and within five minutes, lost consciousness forever. He had suffered a bleeding stroke, which is like a lightning strike in the brain. He was 83.
My family and I are still in shock. Lightning strikes in the brain don’t give any warning. My dad was active and vibrant and in good health. I had just spoken to him by phone a few days before. His oldest friend who came by his hospital bed (he was on life support until my daughters and I could fly across the country to say our goodbyes), said that my dad had just visited him the day before, and had brought over Asian pears from his garden.
My dad was like that. He always had a couple of fruit trees, tended them carefully year-round, and loved giving away the bounty. When I was little, he couldn’t wait for August when he could finally tell people to bring over their grocery bags to fill with plums. He’d even made a fruit picker by tying a clothes hanger to the end of a long bamboo rod to hook the “best sun-ripened” ones from the top of the tree. He really loved standing in the shade of that tree and looking up into its heavy, summer darkness. I know this because I was perched on the little wooden platform halfway up the tree, looking down. I saw my dad’s face open with wonder, bewilderment and absolute disbelief at his good luck. Year after year.
With my mom on a recent trip to China.My dad had taken me to his ancestral village in China, in 1998. You can read an excerpt from an essay that I wrote about the trip here, or you can find it in its entirety in Best American Essays 2001 (Houghton-Mifflin). My dad was the very end of the lion’s tail in the Chinese New Year lion dance in Seattle’s Chinatown in the 1950s.
When he wasn’t kung-fuing down King Street, he could make today’s A&F male models look like tufted sofas:And wasn’t he adorable standing in front of a jukebox?Feeding the ducks in Lake Washington was a life-long activity, but here, it looks like he was actually dipping his BARE FEET in the water. Something I’d never seen him do!
My dad at play:My dad doing tai chi:My dad ALWAYS bought Chevrolets. The only time he bought a different make of car, a Mercury, it was a complete and utter LEMON. Here he is with his latest Chevy. Note the super-duper hiking boots! And the pen in his breast pocket. He was never without a pen, or his watch.
Here is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral:
My dad was a very modest man and would likely consider a eulogy to be unnecessary and a form of bragging. So please allow me to address him in a personal letter:
When I was little, I had no idea what a brave man you were.
When you left your little village in southern China in 1949, you were 19. You had 100 Hong Kong dollars distributed in small sums among the pockets in your clothes and tucked into your socks. Later, bandits held up your bus and demanded all your money, and you pulled out ten dollars from a pocket and said that it was all you had. They believed you. You carried a drawstring bag that contained two extra shirts. It was all you owned. Your mother had not even packed you a lunch because, as you remembered it, “there was nothing left to eat.”
I loved your stories of survival as a little boy during the Second World War, when Japanese soldiers occupied your village. Your father and your yehyeh were living in Seattle. You were only seven. Every morning you and your mom and gningnin and younger brother would escape to the caves in the mountains. Every night you would come home after the soldiers had returned to their camp. They would take your chickens and your rice. But they couldn’t take your sense of adventure as you outsmarted the enemy troops. Your lives were in great peril, and your sense of wonder at the enemy planes that flew overhead must have driven your mother mad.
You not only survived enemy soldiers, but you also survived floods. When the Pearl River Delta flooded every spring, you were ready. You and your brothers took down the wooden doors of your house and used them as rafts. You would paddle around using your hands. Floods were such GREAT FUN, the way you told it. It never occurred to me that it was a dangerous event until I asked you a few years ago, “what was GninGnin and Lo Bak doing while you were paddling around?” You looked at me as though it should be obvious, and said, “They were saving the chickens and rice, of course, and screaming their heads off!”
As a young man in Seattle during the 1950s, you were brave to take a job as a dishwasher making $2 a day. You put yourself through school at Edison Technical College. You found a better job as a waiter. Then you bravely returned to Hong Kong in 1960 to marry my mom.
Marriage takes a lot of courage, but fatherhood takes even more. You became a dad three times during the 1960s. I don’t know what you were expecting, Dad, but ABCs are horrible children. We are not the nice respectful children that are born in China. We wear our shoes in the house. We speak English fast and Chinese slow, if at all. Our chopsticks don’t work. And our homework machines are not as good as the ones made in China. And did anyone ever tell you that when ABCs become teenagers all hell breaks lose?
Well, you braved it all, Dad. You screamed at us when we were bad, and you took us out for McDonald’s hamburgers when we were good. But whether we were good or bad, you went to work. You worked at Boeing as a mechanic until you got laid off in the 1970s. Then you worked as a cook in many different Chinese restaurants. You worked long hours. You worked swing-shifts. You stood at a hot stove all night long. I know you did this so that you could heat our home and feed us red meat, two things that you wouldn’t have had to do if we were living in the village. And eventually you did it to send me to college.
Thank you, Dad, for sending me to Princeton. It changed my life. You were very brave to let me go so far away.
You were very brave to try church. It is very different from anything you had ever known. You stayed away for many years while my friends picked me up Sunday mornings. You thought it was some strange club that required lots of money, which you didn’t have. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college that you gave it a try. Thank you for waiting, Dad, and for not giving away my tuition! Now I see that it has brought you many friends.
Thank you, Dad, for taking care of mom. She’s loved depending on you because you’re the type of man who is strong and brave and steadfast. She could depend on you no matter what. When mom faced some health challenges in recent years, you took her to every doctor’s appointment. You were the last person she saw going into surgery and the first person she saw when she came out. You were amazing, Dad. You really were. You had your own health issues, but I never heard about them until afterwards when you would say, “oh, BTW, i just got a stent put in,” as though you had just had your shoes repaired!
Thank you, Dad, for living so bravely and with a wealth of humor and grace. You always had a child’s sense of wonder, a tall tale to tell, or an astonishment to share. You laughed and you made us laugh. And the harder we laughed, the more embellishment you would give your stories.
While you made us laugh, nothing made you laugh more than being a grandpa. Thank you, Dad, for being a GREAT gunggung to Charity and Madison. You’ve given them so many wonderful memories of playing Chinese chess with you, going to Coulon Park, playing in the sand, getting clams from Ivars and you buying them anything that they even glanced at in the gift shops.
Thank you, Dad, also for taking me and the girls to many places in China, including your village, where you took down those doors when you were their age. They will never forget it.
None of us will ever forget you, Dad. You are a truly kind soul who gave SO much to everyone who came across your path. You lived a good life. You fought the good fight. You were brave and loyal and true. And now that I am still little, but old, I know just how lucky I am to be your daughter. Thank you, Dad, thank you for everything.
Your loving daughter,
Wah Neng Look, 1930-2014, my dad, my inspiration.