Dad on his 90th birthday
Dad at age 90. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

My dad died a few days ago. He was 96 years old. He went quickly and quietly. No pain. Dad was asleep and then he stopped breathing.

By the time I got on a plane to Los Angeles, he was already gone. I didn’t have a chance to tell him how much I love him. Or to thank him for making the person I am today.

He was the one who talked me into law school rather than become a poet. He didn’t think the latter would generate much of a living. But when I graduated from law school he told me he was sorry that I would have to work for my money. It was his duty to find me a nice Chinese boy to keep me in the lap of luxury.

Despite our divergent ideas of a fulfilling life, Dad believed in me. He thought that I would succeed in school, at work or in faraway Amsterdam and so I did. More importantly, he talked to me. He told me stories about his childhood in Shanghai. Those stories turned into seeds and the seeds grew into a memory palace. I wouldn’t be a writer today if it weren’t for him.

Since I didn’t make it back in time to say goodbye, I hope Dad is still out there some place so he can hear these words. Because we’ll be telling stories about you, Dad. About your childhood in Shanghai and wartime in Chengdu, though you told those stories much better than any of us can.

But I have stories, too, about my crafty old Dad. He’s suspicious of strangers, quick to pass judgment, and annoyingly sharp. The Dad in my stories loves Neapolitan ice cream and See’s caramels. He’s always on the lookout for a good bargain. He’s the kind of guy who’d pay a fortune teller to predict the date of his death so his kids can get a good deal on a flight.

Until now, my father has been the inspiration for my writing. I think soon he’ll be the star.

I love you, Dad.