When I think of my father, I think of the word empty when in fact, he was the fullest person I had ever met. Every morning he woke with a smile, and every night after late night supper and a shower, he went to bed with a song and a dance.
How can you not be afraid of death? I asked him once during my childhood, terrified of loneliness and the unknown. How did you feel when you prepared your dead mother’s body for the funeral? (This was a time in Burma where there were no morticians and so he, being a physician, took over this job.) Don’t you ever think of death? How could you not when you deal with death and dying at the hospital? I interrogated him over the breakfast table. I was twelve and obsessed with death. He looked at me and knew what my fears were. He calmly said, “No. I am not afraid of death.” That was all the answer I needed to calm myself down. Looking back now, I wondered if he was being truthful. Maybe he was or maybe he was being my father, whose priority was my welfare which at the time was my all consuming fear of death.
When I think of my father, I think of the word gentleness. His voice was the most tender voice I had ever heard in my life. It had the qualities of a bird’s morning greeting and an owl’s wisdom. His hands were always soft and gentle. His brown eyes underneath the black rimmed glasses looked like they held the universe’s secret to joy. A couple of years ago we transferred the Betamax home videos into digital and I watched my father smile and sing for the first time in twenty years. “Did he really sound that tender?” I asked my sister. As impossible as it was, I had forgotten the sound of his voice.
When I think of my father, I think of the word light. There was so much love in our house. Joy weaved through the walls and warmed our family. Our doors were always open. His patients, colleagues, friends and family went in and out of our house at all hours, often bringing seasonal fruits and gifts of many kinds and seeking his advice and soothing presence. He transformed everyone around him to be joyous and peaceful. His steps were lithe and light, his laugh contagious. His patience legendary. “Don’t say, I hate..” he said to me repeatedly. I was the brattiest kid in the family who found fault with everything in the world. “The world is the loveliest place. Say, I love…” He said this while going to the dirtiest hospital every day where medicine was scarce and the poor died on the dingy beds. He treated them as if they were the most important people in the world. He said the world was lovely while we waited for the rationed food at the government run shops and queued for our weekly two gallons of gas at the station. His patients loved him for his love and patience. “You cured us without curing us,” the liver cancer patients would tell him to his gentle face while dying with grace on their deathbeds. The light in our family went out the day he died. We are fractured, broken, untethered, and unbonded. We begin to forget his ways: to speak kindly even in the midst of the most trying times.
When I think of my father, I think of rain that incessantly poured down from the sky during my childhood years in Burma. The Tin kids splashed and ran through the yard naked except for our underwear, our skin sheen-brown, our hearts open like the sky. When I think of my father, I think of wild grasses in the backyard, as tall as my father’s height. After returning from a trip to Kyeik-Htee-yo, a mountainous religious retreat, I would not stop whining about not having had a picture taken because I ran alone during the climb away from an adult with a camera. While other kids smiled and had their pictures taken with their mountain gear, I was too busy running ahead to be the first one to reach the top. Upon reaching back home, he told me to dress in my travel clothes, which were the jeans and the six-million-dollar-man T-shirt he brought back from a recent trip to America, and took me to our backyard where the wild grasses swayed with the wind. He told me to grab the walking stick, put my hat on under the drizzle of the rain, and stand in front of the mounds of green grass. “Smile. This is your mountain vacation photo.” I beamed into the lens of his camera. He snapped the picture, and later filed it with the rest of our Kyeik-Htee-Yo vacation photos.
When I think of my father, I think of all the things we had done together and all the things we had missed since he passed away. When I think of my father, I think of my daughter and son, whose hearts are open and tender with love and kindness. When I think of my father, I look at my husband whose patience and kindness amaze me every day. When I think of my father, I think of the word grace. How wonderful it is to have lived a life full of giving? On this Father’s Day 2015, I am thinking of the past and the present, the moments that have long gone and the moments that stay. I am thinking of my father today.