My dad died on Saturday, September 11, 2021.
The guy lived a heck of a life and passed peacefully at home at the ripe old age of 93—so shed no tears, please. But even though I couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate departure for the pearly gates, there’s still an overwhelming sense of sorrow and grief surrounding his immediate absence. It’s impossible to pay homage amid the emptiness when the wounds are so fresh—but I’ll give it the old college try.
Back in 2006, as Bah-Bah was clinging to life support after undergoing brain surgery for a subdural hematoma, I wrote the following eulogy in preparation for his passing. After a miraculous recovery, I read to him what I had written. He listened stoically, inscrutable as ever, brushing it off as if somehow knowing that there was more to his story.
(Remember that the following was written nearly 15 years earlier. Please excuse the over dramatic narratives, false assumptions, and run-on sentences. As they say in the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future outcomes.)
When I was in the third grade at Picadome Elementary, our social studies class sponsored a school-wide assembly on ancient Chinese civilizations. My teacher asked if anyone in the class knew any real live Chinese people who could come and talk about their native culture and customs. I quickly volunteered my father, who after meticulous thought and preparation, pulled off a presentation worthy of the most prestigious Academy Award-winning performance. He not only kept hundreds of hyperactive elementary school kids enthralled with his pictures of ancient pagodas and his Chinese calligraphy skills, but he also dazzled everyone with his yo-yo talents and shuttlecock kicking acrobatics. Imagine the immense pride etched on the face of an insecure eight-year-old boy as 4th, 5th, and even 6th graders came up to me on the ensuing days and told me how “cool” my dad was.
OF COURSE I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. That was evident the minute he decided to leave his native homeland, traveling a world away in pursuit of the American dream of creating a better life for his family. In 1961, while entrusting my mom, my older sister Mary, and myself to the care of relatives back in Taiwan, my father left for the United States, alone with only a small, packed suitcase and a handful of change. Today, as I gaze at my daughter Katie basking in the luxuries of American teenage life—as I stand here with my brother the compassionate physician, my sister the distinguished professor of pharmacy, and my loving and supportive wife Kanisa—I can only imagine the courage it took to make that momentous decision which would impact our family for generations to come. Visions of my father tug delicately at my heartstrings—all alone in a strange land, yearning longingly for his family back home, working diligently on his studies, while subsisting on his daily ration of tuna fish sandwiches and Ramen noodles.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My Dad was smart. There wasn’t a mathematical problem that ever stumped him. Whether it was solving polynomial equations, analyzing modulus of elasticity, or calculating the area under a curve, my dad always had the correct answer. I think he secretly looked forward to helping me every day with my homework, and I now treasure every single second we spent together during those personal sessions. I remember frequently showing up in class the next day taking all the credit for solving the impossible problems no one else (including the teacher) could explain.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My dad never complained. Like the apostle Paul, he was always content, regardless of circumstances. The day-to-day stresses of raising a family in a strange country, language barriers, cultural prejudices, graduate and doctoral studies, occupational advancement, and health and financial challenges just never seemed to bother him outwardly. He had a peace about him, an omnipresent positive outlook, a type of concealed joy derived only from the belief that he was living a life of righteousness and virtue.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My dad was such a hard worker, making the most of every opportunity afforded him to teach and study. He valued education and exhibited such a passion for his profession, working long hours into the night to tweak a lesson plan or to develop a new formula. Even his retirement years were filled with doing what he loved—authoring a leading engineering textbook that is currently used by universities worldwide. Throughout it all, he never boasted, never bragged, maintaining that same, simple humble servant spirit he exhibited while filling drink cups at Wednesday night church dinners.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. The greatest gift he gave us kids was loving our mother so deeply. They were inseparable for fifty-one plus years. Whether they were going for walks, serving dinner, vacationing, or watching television, wherever you saw Pete, you also saw Jane. My dad frequently conveyed the need for me to “love my wife unconditionally”. He walked his talk, and the most difficult aspect of his passing will be the painful empty void left in my mom’s own heart.
A couple of years earlier, my sister relayed to me stories of my grandmother—a deeply devout Christian woman who took it upon herself to pray daily for the presence of the Holy Spirit in her life. I frequently picture her in my mind, a feeble, stooped, well-weathered matriarch out in the bucolic countryside of a fog-shrouded Chinese river valley, surrendering herself in prayer every morning so that the salvation of her family and future generations would be secured. Today, in this bittersweet moment—a time of mourning and celebration—standing amongst a priesthood of believers, I take great comfort in knowing that my grandmother’s prayers were answered—that although we will miss my father dearly on this earth, that one day we will all experience the inexpressible and glorious joy of being reunited as a family. I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. The angels are rejoicing! May the gates of heaven be graced with your presence! I love you Baba.
Of course, my dad didn’t die in 2006. In fact, he survived another decade and a half, teaching me more lessons about unconditional love that would resoundingly resonate within my own personal life and marriage. Despite everything I had written in my dad’s premature eulogy—up to that point—I hadn’t really seen anything yet!
Because almost immediately after my dad recovered, my mom started showing signs of dementia. https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/26/mah-mah/ For those not familiar with the devastation of Alzheimer’s, let’s just say that it sucks. Watching the matriarch of our family—someone so vibrant in her youth—slowly and agonizingly lose her memory, her mind, her bodily functions, and eventually her life is beyond gut-wrenching. My heart still aches just thinking about it. For you see, up until that time, my mom handled everything in our household—from the daily chores, to the grocery shopping, to the social calendar, to paying the bills, to organizing our lives. My dad, on the other hand, would have been hard pressed to balance a checkbook or set the thermostat.
And yet, when the tables were turned, my dad rose to the occasion. He was there at my mom’s side every step of the way—from the early days of trying to keep her mind active by memorizing Scripture together, to later on by driving her to appointments and cooking her meals, to near the end where he had to spoon feed her and change her diaper. All the while, he maintained that same positive contentment that I so much admired. In caring for my ailing mom, he taught me the greatest lesson of my life. He became the inspiration for me as I struggled in dealing with my wife’s ongoing depression and mental illness. As well-meaning friends encouraged me to consider abandoning ship, there was Baba—a rock of stability in the shitstorm of life.
In the years since my mom’s death, my dad has also taught me much about two traits which I sorely lack—compassion and generosity. As I was sorting through his mail a while back, I often wondered why he received so much junk mail. It turned out that all those free gifts were due to the multitude of random checks he had given to all the various charities over the years. His philanthropy was punctuated recently by the donation of his life savings to the university and church he so dearly loved.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t bristle a bit at having my inheritance given away. But those dollars pale in comparison to the values he taught me in his life here on earth—a life lived with industriousness, integrity, fidelity, humility, and love. Yep, there’s that word “love” again. My dad loved life, he loved his work, he loved people, he loved his family, he loved his community, he loved his church, and he loved the Lord.
I picture my dad in heaven now, finally reunited with my mom—holding hands, going for walks, and pouring drinks at that great Wednesday Night church dinner in the sky. Well done, Baba. Well done! It’s not a bad way at all to spend eternity, eh?
May your legacy here on earth live on through all those you have so graciously touched.
Me, Bah-Bah, and granddaughter number two (Katie) in our last photo together
Dr. Yang Hsien “Pete” Huang Obituary