"I never get sick. But the day I do, I will die."
I always humored my dad and chuckled along in customary admiration whenever he boasted about his hyper-evolved immune system, borne of "5,000 years of Chinese evolution." He took great pride in never taking a sick day, and availed himself of every opportunity to remind us that this was the true metric of one's strength and vitality as a human being. Of course this claim had nothing to do with the fact that he was a mere 130 pounds.
My junior year in high school, he got an offer to work overseas. My dad was a traditional bring-home-the-bacon kind of guy, so if being shipped off to Turkey meant more bacon for his family, he did it. Aside from a few summer visits, I essentially progressed from boyhood to manhood without my dad.
A year after I graduated from college, I traveled alone to Turkey to visit him. We hung out, we drank, we gambled. We were just two guys, having a good time. A few years later, he came to LA to visit me. We went to Vegas, and we hung out, we drank, we gambled. Two guys, having a good time.
He missed my wedding, as well as the birth of Fury. I progressed from manhood to fatherhood without my dad.
In 2003, when Fury was just a year old, my dad asked me to start looking for a house near us. He wanted to retire; to come home and enjoy the fruits of his toil: his family. I could never picture my dad outside the context of his work persona, but as we visited more open houses, I began to picture him sitting on each respective porch, shooting the breeze with me. No fancy dinners, no casinos -- just a father and son, Scotches in hand, talking about life and comparing notes on the last 20 years.
In 2004, my dad got sick. I'm sure he took pride in the fact that it took lymphoma to finally knock him off his feet. But getting back up was hard, and my mom and sister flew to Turkey when it was too much to handle on his own. In May of that year, I got the dreaded call. I might want to get there as soon as possible. The next day, I was on a plane to Turkey, accompanied by the 2 year-old grandson my dad had yet to meet.
After 18 hours on a plane and an 8-hour layover in Munich, where a certain little boy would only stay quiet if I walked him around the airport on my shoulders, we stepped off the plane in Ankara. In contrast to the usual reception, my welcome party was somber. I expected that. Instead of the usual jokes about customs agents and Turkish prisons, no one said much. I expected that.
"You missed him by 90 minutes," my sister said. I expected that, too.
I felt nothing. Or if I did, I couldn't tell. I held my son on the ride to the hospital and tuned out. When we got there, my mom was waiting for me.
"Want to see dad?" she asked.
I handed Fury over to my sister and rode down the elevator with my mom and the doctor. When the door opened, I saw a gentleman lying on a stainless steel gurney, hair done perfectly, sporting a custom-tailored suit. A gentleman who took cremation as seriously as any meeting with his government contacts, accepting nothing less than being properly attired for the occasion.
I stood over him. My mom put her hand on my shoulder. And I began to cry -- the angry kind, where you pound something, like your deceased father's chest. I wasn't angry at him. I wasn't angry at the world. I wasn't angry at the airline schedule. I was angry for him. I was angry for Scotch conversations with his grown son he would miss out on. I was angry for him not being able to say hi and goodbye to his only grandson. I was angry for him because he never got to teach his son how to be a father. I was angry because this was all so close.
The next day, we visited his office to collect his belongings and say our thank yous and goodbyes. His colleagues entertained us with the usual superlative tales that one reserves for times like these, and we all laughed and remembered.
And then someone said "when Ambassador Lin was too weak from his chemo treatments to walk down the stairs from his office to go home, he'd simply sleep in his office. He never took a sick day."
Of course, we all expected that.
* * * *
One more birthday. It would have changed the world for him. He could have chided me over being a slacker dad and poured me another. He could have beamed with pride hearing his grandson say the words "am-baa-sa-dore!" He could have left the tie hanging in his closet for once in his life. One more birthday isn't simply one more birthday.
This is why I want to thank Tiny Prints and the American Cancer Society for including me in their "More Birthdays" campaign. If anyone could appreciate the significance of one birthday, it is me. Support the American Cancer Society by visiting Tiny Prints' "American Cancer Society Collection" and order a birthday card created by the American Cancer Society's More Birthdays artists. Every card sold enables the American Cancer Society to help more Americans celebrate another birthday. Plus, the cards are really cool because you can add your own picture and message inside them, like this:
If you think one card can't make much of a difference, just ask someone who celebrated another birthday this year.
Disclosure: I was compensated for this post. But my disdain for cancer is my own.