We took this picture of my appa (the Korean word for dad) back in February around my brother’s birthday in New Jersey. Just a few days before this picture was taken, I got an exasperated phone call from my mom because my dad was refusing to go to the airport to make the cross country flight to see us. Both my brother and I called our dad to try to talk to him and then we just held our breath until we heard from my mom that they both got on the plane.
The past few years have been quite difficult with my appa – especially this past year. He has been suffering from dementia which may be from Alzheimer’s or from Parkinson’s. Since my parents don’t live near me, but across the country on the west coast, I feel quite helpless. We have tried to spend as much time with him, despite our distance. Each time is so precious to me, but I’m always unsure if he remembers those moments.
But this post isn’t meant to be about my appa now, but my appa from before all of this. In honor of Father’s Day, let me share a little bit of the story of my appa.
Growing up, I wouldn’t say my appa and I were close. As in most Korean-American families, we didn’t hug or tell each other, “I love you.” I longed for such softness in our family and from my appa, but the hugs didn’t come until I was in college and I think I can count the number of times “I love you” was said between us on one hand. Regardless of the seeming distance, I knew my dad really loved me.
My first memory of my dad and me was when I first began kindergarten. Since both my parents worked, my maternal grandparents and great grandmother were my primary caregivers. None of them spoke English, so my first language was Korean thrown in with some Spanish learned from watching a handful of episodes of Sesame Street. When it was time for me to go to kindergarten, I had to go to E.S.L. because I didn’t know English. My dad was a bit outraged! He cited the fact that I was born in the States and he wondered how they could put me in a different class than the rest of the students. When we got home, my dad had me sit down with a tape player, a notebook, books, and the accompanying tapes. Yes, I had to listen to the tapes, read the books, and then copy one book in the notebook every night. I was only in that E.S.L. class for about two weeks. Amazing, right? I would not recommend this course of action, but it worked for me and my appa was determined!
Many years later, my appa discovered a picture of his father (he had lost his parents during the Korean War) and I remember him sitting in a dark room and weeping. I had never seen my appa cry – ever. We enlarged that photo and framed it. I’m not entirely sure why he was crying – maybe it was for a lost childhood or for the relief of having a tangible memory that he could look upon. After all, the last time he saw his parents was as a 5 year old child. I just remember sitting together with him in that moment, but just for a bit because I felt uncomfortable. I wish I stayed a bit longer and asked him what he was thinking and feeling. I wish I asked him to tell me a story about his parents.
My appa impressed the importance of family and staying close so that we would not forget who we were and where we came from. He also stressed the importance of learning and speaking Korean because he wanted to make sure that we could communicate with them and our grandparents always in their heart language. (I will have to tell you more about that one later.) Finally, my appa just believed in me – whether I was winning or losing, doing something that was difficult for me or something that came easily to me. I didn’t realize this until much later in my life, but I am so thankful for that. It gave me resilience. It gave me confidence. It gave me something beautiful that I hope to pass on to my own child.
Appa, I want to have the courage to say to you that I love you in your heart language. I also just want to say thank you for being the best appa that you could’ve been. You didn’t grow up with a father to model, but you did your best. When I was in high school, you were willing to change and strive to be an even better father and husband. It taught me that we are never too old to make changes in our lives and it’s never too late to be the best version of ourselves. My heart hopes that you will forever remember this and know this always – that I learned so much about never giving up, persevering, and loving from you. I hope that I will do justice to your legacy as I live my life out. Thank you, Appa. I love you. Happy Father’s Day. XOXOXO