June 18, 2016

This year, I’m giving my dad a very special Father’s Day gift: unconditional love. So what if he’s been dead for 41 years. Remember, parents never really die. Besides, it’s never too late, right?

My father crushed his family — Mom, my kid sister, me — with tough love. As a cranky Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant struggling with survival issues in America, he functioned on two switches. Either he bullied or didn’t bully. Unconditional love was beyond my father’s personal experience. He couldn’t give me what he never had.

I’ve spent most of my life being mad at him for making my childhood miserable with his rules to study, study, study. Obey, obey, obey. Between that and working after school in his Chinatown accounting office, I grew up rarely using words like “happy” and “fun.”

Even during our best years together, my dad kept me on a tight leash, literally:

Dad & me, the best years

But four decades of holding a grudge is enough, already. Quite frankly, I might finally be running out of bile. After all, I’m nearly 60, just 10 years shy of my father’s age when he died of a sudden heart attack.

DAD photoGetting older gives me a fresh view on his pain. It takes courage to start life over as an adult in a new country. Plus, he carried the burden of being the #1 son among six siblings. His widowed mom expected a lot of him.

My father was the first to come to the U.S. During the Vietnam War, he saved many of his relatives. He filed tons of immigration-related paperwork on their behalf, making it possible for them to flee Saigon and resettle in New York, New Jersey and Texas as refugees.

Locked inside the hard, isolating shell of family obligation, my father never had time for belly laughs, hanging out or random silliness. His idea of stress management was to yell at me for almost anything — from the way I washed dishes in our kitchen to bringing home B’s (or worse) in math.

While he was verbally abusive, I feel more compassion these days because I’m raising a daughter, too.

Quite frankly, becoming a parent myself shows me just how easy it is to be clueless or even stupid. But unlike my dad, who died when I was 19, I am a living parent of a 21-year-old adult child — which means I sometimes hear about the repercussions of my own craven acts of unacceptable parental behavior.

I’m tempted to share details of regrettable moments with my daughter. But she wants her privacy so let’s just say that I wish I could take back certain things I said when she was younger.

Thankfully, we’ve reached the point in our relationship where we can talk about the past, which teaches me it’s never too late to learn or change. It humbles me even further when she reassures me that I’m a “wonderful mom.” Her exact words.

Having a father with a my-way-or-the-highway mentality made this type of genuine conversation impossible. Yet, because I’m his recovering daughter and a writer, he and I continue to have daily exchanges that go on inside my head.

From there, blogging offers a release that marks our growing affection for each other. For this, I must thank you, dear reader. Your presence validates me as I work out feelings about:

Throwing light on the dark stuff makes positivity possible. Last summer, I blogged about my first vegetable garden. Planting and harvesting made me feel connected to my dad, the son of farmers. Hey, one upbeat blog post is a start! I suspect more bright moments await me – us.

I’m starting to focus more on fond childhood memories, like ones that surface when I look at this photo on my desk:

Dad and me

Take charge of your Father’s Day experience

Even though I’ve let go of many regrets and expectations, there’s four things I wish I could’ve said to my dad, face-to-face:

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

I learned about saying these four things from a medical expert. For more on how this works, check out my blog post about four things to say to change a relationship.

Today, I’m saying these four things to my dad, in my head. Yes, this is awkward. Asking for forgiveness was especially hard because in my mind, I am the victim. But I asked him to forgive me for not being more helpful to him in his times of need. Saying the four things leaves me peaceful.

Happy Father's Day

The four things lift me out of the cycle of wishing my father was different or pining for alternative father figures. These longings were both forms of emotional masochism for me because I kept wanting a perfect dad. As we all know, perfection is the enemy of love.

And my dad took care of me the best he could. I’ve come to accept that.

With acceptance, I’ve turned elsewhere for unconditional love. Caring friends and family — and even pets — stepped in to fill the void. They’ve embraced me for who I am, with all my quirks, talents and yes, even flaws. Now, I can give what I have to others, including my dad.

So I’m here to celebrate my dad for who he was: the most influential man in my life. He got me here, gave me survival tools. The rest is up to me. Thanks, Dad.

How are things going with your dad? Feel free to share. And if you want to let loose anonymously, you can use a fake name. :)