I spent my entire life trying to find ways to make my dad proud.
And, for the better part of my life, I figured I was failing miserably in that regard.
By his own admission, my father wasn’t an easy man to please. I’m guessing this had quite a bit to do with his own upbringing. My father’s parents, my grandparents, immigrated to this country from China in the first part of the 20th century. His father came here as a teenage boy, unable to speak the language, when illness threatened to wipe out his village. My father was one of nine children growing up in Boise, Idaho, working in their father’s Chinese restaurant.
They basically lived a step or two above squalor in the back part of the restaurant. I only recently learned my father grew up without running water. My grandfather was a firm believer in “The American Dream,” and taught each and every one of his children that the only way to succeed in this country was by outworking everyone else.
My father took that to heart in everything he did. Like his brothers and sisters, he worked in the restaurant to help support the family. In the classroom, he took all of the most difficult classes possible, with an emphasis on math and science. On the athletic field, he played four sports — football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring and legion baseball in the summer — and won a state championship as a member of his high school’s 4×200 relay team in track and field.
Once his high school career was finished, he attended the University of Idaho (Go Vandals!) on a full ROTC scholarship, then was commissioned into the United States Army upon his graduation from college. After he left the Army, he went back to school and got his master’s degree, then began a successful career in the business world.
He tried to instill the same philosophies and work ethic into his own five children. He wanted them to excel in everything they did — through sheer force of will, if nothing else. And in four of those cases, it worked out pretty well for him. He had four children who were every bit as athletically gifted as he was, if not more so. One of his sons attended the United States Air Force Academy, while another attended the United States Naval Academy. For four of his children, pretty much everything they touched turned to gold.
And then there was me.
I don’t think I ever fit the mold my father had envisioned for his children. I wasn’t remotely athletic. Not that I didn’t try. But I couldn’t find a sport in which I didn’t manage to stink up the field. He coached my older brothers and sister in all the sports they played. He never coached me. He came to my games when I was younger, and I distinctly remember him standing farther and farther way as I moved up the ranks. Eventually, he just stopped coming. I always figured my lack of any discernable skills probably embarrassed him.
He and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye when it came to how we wanted to live our lives, either. He was big into getting an education and utilizing it to succeed in the corporate world. Decades after he left the Army, he remained a military man at heart. Everything in its place and a place for everything. Spit-shine until it glistens and make sure every corner is crisp and clean. I, on the other hand, was a free spirit and a free thinker who didn’t hesitate to challenge authority — whether it be his or anyone else’s.
I guess I always sort of felt like nothing I ever did would be good enough to please him or exceptional enough to make him proud. As I got older, I accepted that as fact.
Until he passed away three years ago today.
When I was helping my mother go through some of his belongings, I came across a thick, blue folder in one of his filing cabinets (my dad loved filing cabinets … they appealed to his organized nature, I suppose). It was filled with clippings of dozens of my old Troy Daily News columns. Each was cut out in perfect rectangles, each one was meticulously dated in his almost-mechanical penmanship. Some dated back to the late 1990s, the beginning of my career.
I pulled out more folders. I found more columns. There were hundreds of them. He had been clipping them out of the newspaper and filing them away almost until the day he died.
I showed them to my mother. She just smiled and told me he had saved all of them, and how proud he was to have a son writing for the local newspaper. I asked her why he had never mentioned that to me.
“You know your father,” she said. “That just wasn’t his way. He was always proud of you. He could never say it.”
I hope he’s reading this column right now, wherever he may be. You don’t have to say anything, Dad.
I’m glad I could make you proud.
Reach David Fong appears at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong