My father often presented himself as a very private, conservative, and quiet person, but with his friends and family, he was actually very open in thought and considerably verbose. In fact, sometimes we couldn’t get him to stop talking! He often repeated long monologues on his thoughts, beliefs, views, and feelings so often I had them memorized.
Because he was so silent with strangers, it always surprised me that he not only permitted, but encouraged my very public life. Since I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, we seldom saw one another in person, but became closer than ever, because he religiously followed my 3-year-old blog, where I shared every single moment of my day with the entire world. Sometimes I feared he believed I was revealing too much, but the truth is, he was proud of every single decision I ever made, often telling me he was continually learning more about himself in my most raw and honest moments. Even when I announced that I would literally be baring myself to the world in the movie “Saving Face,” he shocked everyone not only by making it clear I had his full support, but that he was impressed with my bravery.
When I made that movie “Saving Face” in 2005, I learned the meaning behind this concept most Chinese families are familiar with as keeping up appearances – of maintaining a certain public demeanor and proper self image, even when you are suffering and in pain. My father spent his whole life saving his face and maintaining the most impeccable, disciplined, and powerful public image.
Everyone keeps telling me to be strong, not to cry, and hold it in – like my father would be right now in this situation – but the truth is, the most valuable lesson I ever learned from him was just a week ago, on his hospital bed, when he reached out for my hand, making it clear he needed me and did not want me to leave his side. I summoned a strength I never knew I possessed to help soothe him in his most painful moment. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry, and admit any weakness. He spent his entire life sacrificing his own desires, showing great strength and absorbing his own pain for the happiness of others. I had never seen my father so emotional – I’ll never forget how close that difficult moment made me feel to him, and honored that he finally revealed his vulnerability to me.
I spent a large portion of my life believing I couldn’t tell my family anything, literally stuffing my emotions down through food to “save face.” Even with professional help from eating disorders specialists, my body image battle continued for years. It wasn’t until I finally revealed to my parents, by being completely honest with them (and everyone else) through my food blog – that I wasn’t perfect and was able to finally heal. Just a few days before my father passed away, I was so honored to announce to him that I became the newest Celebrity Ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association. Even in his condition, I understood how proud of me he was, and I asked him to fight just like I did, to be strong in the face of fear, to help me summon up all of his will and courage so I could continue speaking up and help change lives and families around the world, just like ours.
My father suffered a great deal those last two weeks. But during that time, he taught me more lessons about life without saying a word. I learned how to truly be humble, kind, generous, strong, independent, empathetic, patient, compassionate, courageous, hopeful, connected, thoughtful, present, and most of all, to truly understand the saying he embedded in me for as long as I can remember – “Don’t cut your standards to fit other people.” I always thought that represented pure strength and independence, but I see now it also indicates knowing your self worth, to ask for just that, and accept nothing less. And yet, at the same time, it also means knowing when to let go and say “enough,” despite what others may want or need from you.
I must admit that I doubted those lessons the evening he died. Although I was raised Catholic and my mother is very religious, I have never had a deep relationship with my spiritual side. The last few years have been especially troubling for me in testing my faith with life’s many struggles, and just before he passed, I spoke to him, privately asking him to teach me that all the hardships were going to be worth it. When I found out moments later his life had ended, I felt confused, angry, sad, and hopeless, believing that there really was no lesson, no meaning, no purpose.
But a few days ago, sitting in Church, asking for a sign from my father, and listening to the Deacon speak about strong women, I heard something familiar. It was the Deacon, and he had the same voice of the director of all my high school plays, someone who literally started my career as an actress. I took it to be a mere coincidence, but it turned out to actually be him! And as he hugged and comforted me in my greatest moment of despair, I felt the presence of my father, and the profound faith that his lifelong struggle really HAD all been worth it. I sense he is now somewhere far greater than any of the places he believed would bring him peace during retirement – like the homes in California and Philadelphia that he worked so hard to purchase but never got the chance to experience. I sense he was teaching his family in the last few weeks the most important lessons we’ll ever learn to carry on and live happily, but we have to let him go peacefully to his final retirement, so that he can enjoy his lifelong sacrifice as well.
Even in his physical absence, I trust that he will guide me through my life by holding my spirit as I continually learn this balance and face even more challenges. I feel so blessed knowing I had a father I could be myself with – flaws and all – who truly loved, accepted, and was proud of me. I hope you can see now just how loved, accepted, and proud we all were of you, Daddy. You will never, ever be forgotten.