It’s been five years since that sunny February afternoon in San Diego where I had my last conversation with my dad. That Starbucks table outside on Main Street across from Tacos El Gordo where we just had lunch together before driving to LAX for the flight back to Seoul. Filled with awkward silences, we gazed at the cars headed toward I-5. He handed me a hundred-dollar bill, like the smaller bills he handed me after getting a rare A- in school growing up. I guess I’m still the spoiled mak-nae in that I was disappointed that it wasn’t more.
I still remember that conversation well, a short one while mom was shopping at CVS. Awkward and quiet, like the many conversations Korean fathers have with their sons, walled up by facades of patriarchal masculinity. I always thought that my dad lacked compassion. He had his own, misunderstood way. He told me the same thing he’s been telling me for a longest time, “–watch your health, lose weight”, but added before that, “you got your studies and livelihood figured out so–“.
My dad is a planner. After his funeral I found on his laptop a spreadsheet he made, of our family financial plans until 2030. Me figuring out my life was a big deal because I fucked up a lot growing up and he worried a lot. That first sentence was his way of saying he was proud of me. And it took a tragedy for me to figure it out.
A week after my dad died in a car wreck in Laos, during his first volunteer trip with his Buddhist temple to deliver supplies and tour the countryside. He finally had the chance to go after retiring from the company he spent 33 years of his life working for mostly away from his homeland.
Loss never fully heals; it hits you in waves and you don’t know when, where, how. There are still regrets: pain of lost time, distance, and of diaspora. Even after six years I still can’t get dental treatment without panic attacks and fears of drowning. But after all this time I take solace in the fact that that last two weeks in San Diego and Laos, he was proud, and he was happy. A day before we had that conversation was my mom’s birthday. It was also the day I received my first check of my first full time job, and for the first time, I took my parents out for a fancy steak dinner. And in Laos my dad was sending pictures of him smiling and messages to my mom until the very last moment. I still have that hundred-dollar bill, I keep it in his wallet which is mine now, a nice dark blue one that I asked him to give me multiple times. Looking at it now brings sadness, but also memories of his pride, joy, and sacrifice providing for us allow me to cope, allow me to hope.