I’ve started and stopped several posts over the past few weeks. Stuff about my job, my career goals, technology in higher ed. The type of stuff that’s become the focus of this blog as it has migrated towards one about my professional rather than personal life.
The reason why I kept stopping, though, is for a very personal matter.
On Saturday November 10, my father fell while walking down a set of stairs by his apartment in Brooklyn. On the morning of the 11th, I found out the injury was worse than expected. He had lost all sensation below his neck, leaving him essentially a quadriplegic. That afternoon, I was on a plane headed to New York. On Tuesday November 13th my father, having made his decision while completely lucid and with all his wits about him, started on morphine to control the pain he would be experiencing over the next few days. He had opted not to have surgery that possibly – but not likely – would have recovered the use of his arms. He would never have walked again in any case.
On Monday the 19th, a day after I had flown home and a few days before Thanksgiving, my father passed away.
Before I left, when there was a chance I’d still be in New York when he passed and possibly there for the funeral, my sister asked if I’d be willing to give a eulogy. I was torn. This would be for a man from whom I’d become estranged for probably the last 15 years. A man who spent much of his life feeling frustrated about how everything had held him back, had prevented him from being a success. Someone who spent the last decade of his life finally accepting that he had in fact been the main culprit in these failed dreams and aspirations, and that he had in many ways let down everyone around him. Someone who had left my mother, sister and myself to find our own ways.
I have spent the last 15 or so years – since leaving home for college – trying to become a man using my father not as a role model but as a counter-example. I did not explicitly try to be the opposite of him, but he was a cautionary tale in almost every decision I made.
Yet, on that night a couple of weeks ago when my sister and I asked my father if he was in pain and wanted to start the morphine, when he asked me if he was brave or a coward for choosing not to have the surgery and live a life that he did not want, in a wheelchair and fighting through painful physical therapy, I cried. I sobbed. I felt that rare type of emotion that simultaneously overwhelms yet does not cloud one’s thoughts. The sadness and sense of loss was one that came from somewhere deep in my core, a place that was beneath the logical, conscious level from which “normal” emotions exist. It is with the residual of such a visceral emotional experience that I offer the following.
Robert “Bob” Chen was not a perfect father, but he was my father. He yelled, he was short-tempered, and he sometimes saw us as holding him back and preventing him from achieving his dreams. Depending on his mood, he either felt it was his destiny or his curse to be successful, as the oldest child in his family. In either case, it was always external forces – such as his family – that thwarted his efforts. But he was also a man that did eventually change. He spoke repeatedly over the last decade that it was us – his son and daughter – that were the true successes in his life. That if there was even the tiniest bit of our achievements as adults, professionals and now parents that could be attributed to him, he would be happy and content. We were not perfect children nor did we make a perfect family, but we were his children, and his family, and in the end he thought of us with pride and took every opportunity to say as much.
Even when he was in the throes of placing blame on others, he did not entirely forget his family. When he ran an office supply company, he named his products after us. It is perhaps telling and was indeed prescient that his lack of attention to detail caused him to stumble even in this effort. When he used my name as part of the brand of a line of paper products, he spelled my name incorrectly. I could easily look back and think of him as hapless and that it was merely a portent of years of frustration to come.
I prefer to remember that he thought of me as his “Prince Allen.”
My father was not a perfect man, but he was an honest man. Sometimes to a fault, to an almost child-like degree of naivete. When he asked to borrow money for some venture, he truly did feel it would be a success. If only you would invest in his dreams, you’d be paid back many times over. Each time he embarked on a new project he honestly felt that he would succeed, that this would be the one. Whether he was trying to climb the corporate ladder at the United Nations or striking off on his own, he was on his way to success. How can you not find a degree of merit in such optimism? How can you not find some value in that innocent faith in one’s ability to succeed? How can I not hope that I will have that confidence when I am faced with a challenge? How can I not hope to be like him in this way?
My father would say things that seemed confrontational and perhaps even hurtful at times. What is the point of doing this or that? Why would you study history, or anthropology, when there is no profitable future in those fields? Why did you not visit more often or even talk to me online?
Yet I came to realize that these not judgments. My father lived in some kind of meta-space where he could truly, honestly feel that there was no point in studying something other than business yet also accept that we had our own reasons for choosing our own paths. That while he was deeply disappointed that I did not write him as much as he wished, he did not fault me or even question the reasons – really excuses – that I gave. It’s not that he chose not to judge. He simply did not. His questions were questions, and his faith in the honesty of others in response to his own rarely faltered.
My father did not really know how to maintain a friendship, but he was perhaps the friendliest person I have ever known. Even to his last days, when he was not in pain, when the morphine was not too strong and he could be clear of mind, he was smiling, talking, and reminiscing. I spent many years wishing to be anything but my father. Yet when relatives commented that I inherited his personality and good humor, I found myself filled with pride. I found myself hoping that I could make the most of such a gift.
Robert Chen was my father. No matter what I think of, remember, or even perhaps dwell upon from the last 34 years, I have and will always know that he was my father. Someone that helped raise me and shape who I am today. Whether the lessons I learned were pleasant or not, whether I was blamed or praised, whether he is the rule or the exception, I cannot be separated from him, nor he from me. And I will treasure this for the rest of my life.