Because he loves minute-answers to complicated questions (not).
“I’m not good in the morning,” my father says, raising his voice. I had just started gushing to him about the latest scandal in the morning papers. I always want to know what he thinks; he is a political genius. But when I hear him say those words, I know my timing is off. I regret my miscalculations.
His voice is raised out of exhaustion and anger. You could say he’s grumpy in the morning, but it was me coming up to him with a request that started it — in the early, blurry morning light, I am the first sign of the day that awaits him. It is the sign that the world wants something from him. It needs him to hurry up and work. The demands for him are nonstop with few breaks in between. The morning hours allow him to collect himself, but I’ve already interrupted this process.
“Sorry,” I turn away silently and exit the room, reprimanding myself for not remembering how he works. I used to get angry at him for cursing the world first thing in the morning, but now I feel guilty.
It’s not his fault he’s cranky. I feel stressed that I cannot help him, and I go down a list of shallow ideas that could alleviate his crankiness. Maybe he’s dehydrated and tired. He should drink a liter of water before noon. I am embarrassed by how stupid this idea is.
Maybe he just needs to change his attitude and take personal responsibility. Again, another ridiculous thought. I am a hypocrite — I don’t even take care of myself. My parents take care of me.
A scene flashes in front of me: my father, drinking heavily in Turkey. Shot after shot of whiskey with his brutish ex-convict employees. He leaves the bar with one and gets caught with a DUI. The next morning, his boss calls him: “You need to leave the country immediately. As in, now. They want to make an example out of an American.” With a throbbing headache from the alcohol and suffering from dehydration, he grabs his messenger bag and flees the country.
He told me that he escaped successfully, but in many ways, it made him drink more.
Years later, he finally took refuge in rehab. Through the AA program, that was the last he drank, but the demons still find him. They know where he lives. Every morning, they hammer at his brain: Do you remember this feeling? Do you remember your past life? Never forget.
I wait for him around the kitchen corner to finish up his plain breakfast of black coffee, toasted white artisan bread, and Olivio butter (because he has cholesterol problems). It’s been a long time since I’ve heard him mention “Iggy’s” bread, the kind of bread that he and my German grandmother used to enjoy. I never knew what made it different from other breads. Perhaps he’s actually been eating it all along and has just never called it by its true name, the name that I knew as a child.
I listen for the pegs of his chair to squeal across the wooden floor. I wait to hear him move around the kitchen for a few minutes, paying attention to how briskly he puts away the toaster or if the fridge door is too heavy for his spirit. I am looking for that moment when the beautiful chemistry between the food, sunlight, and his circadian rhythm react to jumpstart his day. It’s usually in his footsteps — when his too-big alpaca slippers slide across the kitchen floor with youthful energy, I know that’s my cue.
“Shall we take our meds?” I ask carefully.
“Sure,” he responds, unaware of my cautiousness and happy to fulfill his responsibilities.
We pray together: Bless us our Lord, and these thy gifts…
I look at the pills in my hand, but I think about why my father prays. He has many reasons, but one that I think of is from before I was born.
He told me that he used to live in a foreign country with poor medical care and rampant disease. Within the first few months of arriving, he contracted dengue fever or “breakbone fever” (because it makes you feel like all of your bones are broken). A week or two after recovering, he started to grow a grapefruit-sized tumor out of the side of his neck. No one knew what it was, and the doctors didn’t know what to do. It seemed only a matter of time before he would die. Finally, my father’s brother, a priest, told him to get blessed by the Catholic Church through Saint Blaise’s intercession.
It worked — whereas he had had this tumor on the side of his neck for months, within weeks of Saint Blaise’s blessing, the lump subsided.
I keep looking at the pills cradled in the palms of my hands, but I don’t think about them. Instead, I imagine a God who has mercy on us.
* * *
Bang! Bang! Bang!
My father is downstairs, installing a plywood ceiling on top of the pantry room for insulation. I am upstairs in my room, sitting on my bed with my laptop in front of me.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I once tried to help my father out with this project. In that short time, I caught a glimpse of how frustrating the job is. The boards need to be precisely cut, the pipes need to be accounted for so that one doesn’t burst, all of the pantry items and furniture must be painstakingly removed from the room to have space to move around, and much, much more…
Bang! Bang! Bang!
In his youth, my father was Station Manager in one of the American stations in Antarctica. It was up to him to keep the station running so that the scientists could conduct their experiment and not die from things like freezing conditions or gas explosions.
He told me that at one of the stations he was stationed at for 13 months, there was a banging noise in the background 24/7. It was awful and you never got used to it, he said. But in a place like Antarctica, it was silence that you should be worried about. Silence meant things weren’t working to keep you alive.
My father often tells me about his grandfather, Josef. I can hear the reverence my father has for him in his voice. Josef was a humble farmer who had been drafted twice into the German Army for both World War I and World War II. Even though he was against Hitler, the entire country — average citizens, children, elderly — was drafted into World War II: Totaler Krieg, “Total War.” As much as he despised Hitler, there was no choice but to fight for your family and loved ones.
It is silent downstairs. I assume my father is making sure there are no spaces between the plywood boards so that the ceiling is perfectly insulated.
When my father mentions Opa Josef, he describes how Josef helped his American son-in-law, my father’s father, build a garage decades after the war. My father would watch Opa Josef pick up bent nails off the floor and straighten them out. Nothing must go to waste. And when Opa Josef went back to hammering something above his head, his shirt would lift high enough to reveal a large scar across his belly from when he was shot in the stomach during WWI. His guts had fallen out but were fortunately scooped back in with a spoon by his comrades. He ended up convalescing for two years.
My father always says that Opa was a German soldier who fought for Germany in both World Wars and lost in both of them. So imagine what it was like to find out that his daughter wanted to marry the enemy…
The pantry room my father is working on is partly inspired by Opa Josef. As Hitler was coming into power, there were more and more signs of an oncoming war such as jets flying over towns. Opa saw into the future and started planning for the day that bombs from above would obliterate his hometown. Neighbors and loved ones alike mocked him, but when the bombs started pouring and never stopped, he saved over 200 lives by cramming them into his homemade bomb shelter.
Silence. I don’t hear the banging anymore. They only echo in my ears.
My father told me that when he made the pantry room for us in case of any emergency, he made sure that he dug until the shovel hit the mountain rock. He remembered his Catholic calling: And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it (Matthew 16:18).
I hear my father’s slow steps climb the stairs. Thump. Thump. Thump. He is finished for the day.
* * *
“Nah, it’s fine,” he says, sounding like a 14-year-old boy who shrugs off his parents.
The TV screen shows images of the recent violence committed by Antifa during the BLM protests. There is fire burning and people are screaming. After a few seconds, the screen flashes back to a dolled up face of an abnormally beautiful woman.
Meanwhile, my father munches on his food, absorbing the content of the news at lightning speed.
This is his whole life. This was his career. It never left him. It was his job to preserve peace for the American people. He has seen enough horrors overseas to deeply appreciate American values: E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”), Liberty, and In God We Trust.
I get up to wash my dishes. Shortly after, I hear a chair in the dining room screech, and my father suddenly appears next to me with an empty, oily plate and cutlery.
He once told me how he had to attend a meeting with an American official who was a representative in the UN. This man was a survivor of the Cambodian genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in the name of socialism and communism. This American UN official witnessed his whole family being murdered along with a quarter of the Cambodian population. By divine intervention, he made it out of Cambodia alive.
The meeting that he and my father were going to attend was one with a few prominent political leaders of an unnamed country who proclaimed themselves as ardent socialists.
“I’ll take care of it, Dad, don’t worry.” I take the dishes from his hand and put the faucet on hot so it washes away the oil more quickly.
“Are you sure?” he asks, sounding like a young child who wants to seem willing to help and be good, but who secretly disdains doing the dishes.
“Yeah, I’m already doing the dishes anyway.” I smile. I am always happy to do the dishes for him.
The socialist leaders were miffed that my father and the UN official arrived late, but it was intentional: In a relaxed and calm manner, the UN official looked them straight in the eye and told them, “You don’t understand what you’re fighting for. I have already gone through what you seek.”
“OK,” my father says cheerfully. He heads off back into the living room to plop back onto the couch and continue watching the news for another several hours or so.
Meanwhile, I humor myself by wondering whether my father applies his political skills to make sure he finishes his meals perfectly at the time when I am doing the dishes.
* * *
“You hear that?”
We stay silent.
“That’s the stream.” He smiles and closes his eyes. He opens them up again. “Let’s go out and look at the water.”
We step out onto our humble and rustic porch and look down the hill. The water is frothing white here and there as it trickles down each stone.
“One of the reasons I chose to live out here in the middle of nowhere is because of this stream.”
When my father worked in an office, he had two small, dark windows where no sunlight came in. He had to stare at two computer screens for hours and had to stay even longer than that because he only knows how to type with two fingers. This meant coming in before everyone else, leaving after everyone else, and coming in on weekends — about 60 to 80 hours per week on average.
I watch him marvel at the stream, and then he looks back at me, laughing. “Cool, right?”
If only I could find the right words for the color of his eyes. They are blue, but what kind of blue? Stone-blue. No. That is too cold and dense. Gray-blue. Too flat.
I could ask him: “What kind of gemstone are your eyes?” That would be the best way to find out. He loves gemstones, and he always has the right words for everything. But first, I would have to find the courage to get past the awkwardness of expressing too much intimacy in our conservative household.
My cousin calls my father’s eyes “huge glass eyes.” My father’s eyes used to magnify everything for him — he had 20/15 vision; everything was five feet closer to him. Amusing to some, enviable to others, but it is what saved him from shooting down a street market in Vietnam.
The American base was on Code Red: be ready to attack at any moment; the enemy is near. My father had been awake for 36 hours for mechanic work and then on guard duty. As he was posted high up in the tower, he saw a young Vietnamese woman chasing an American soldier down the street. She had something in her hands.
My father aimed and put his finger on the trigger. It could be a grenade…
He waited several seconds and watched. His mind was foggy and his body high-strung from the intense pressures of war. He put all of his energy into focusing on what was in the girl’s hand.
It was a rock.
Smiling peacefully, my father turns around and enters the house. His sleepy alpaca slippers patter into his room where he can nod off to the radio. I stay outside.
I take deep breaths in and out for a few minutes, trying to calm my system down. I focus on the sound of the water wetting the rocks.
I hear Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the restful waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
I take one last deep breath in and then enter the house, sliding the glass door behind me. The warmth envelopes me immediately, reminding me that if not for my father and mother, I wouldn’t be here.
* * *
He’s got one hand on the steering wheel and one hand grabbing his knee tightly.
Neither my mom nor I say anything. I think it is his osteoarthritis.
I don’t know what to say. I chastise myself for not coming up with something. Isn’t there anything I can say to comfort him? But maybe it’ll make things worse…
He told me once that sometimes he says ouch because he’s had a bad memory. When we come home, I ask him about that moment in the car. “What were you thinking of?”
“Well,” he starts to tell me. “I was sitting down once with a Black colleague, and he was trash-talking our boss. I saw our boss approach behind him as he continued to bad mouth her. I don’t know why, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t stop him. She was standing right behind him, hearing every word he said. Eventually, my colleague became aware of her presence and was humiliated. Later, he found me when we were one-on-one and started to choke me. How could you let me — why didn’t you say anything — I didn’t say anything while he was choking me. I stayed silent. Years later, he became my boss. I even invited him over to dinner at our house. I knew I shouldn’t have done that, that I should have told him to change the subject, but I don’t know why I didn’t stop him.”
I stayed silent as I wondered why he didn’t get angry and report this man. Only someone with a deep sense of honor would feel guilty.
* * *
I don’t look like my father with his blond hair and blue eyes and my own darker features. I don’t talk like him as I sometimes use words awkwardly and still use a very, very slight Hispanic accent when I try to say words in old English. I can’t ever be as smart as him with his political intuition to stay out of the real opium of the masses (not religion but pseudoreligion like socialism/leftism), and I will never be able to protect our family like he could in a situation like World War III.
It’s not because he has a White man’s mind and I don’t. His personhood cannot be flattened to one dimension. He is not just a color. He has a mind that has been crafted from accepting circumstances around him and doing the best that he could with the knowledge that he had. He always tries— and tries — to make the best decision for himself and those around him. He, like everyone else, has suffered, but he, unlike everyone else, accepts full responsibility for himself so that he can best serve God.
So, here is 8 minutes or so to think about a White man. I hope these small moments of my father’s life color your vision so that you don’t see him as a White man. He is someone who has suffered tremendously in this world but still finds the courage and strength to care for and love others. I want you to be kind to him in the same way that you deserve kindness.
If it helps you soften up to him, remember that he has taken me into his home and nurtured me from the worst places in the world back to good health and safety. He has saved my life and many others. He is worthy because all lives are worthy. White man or not, he is a hero.