I left home for college in the fall of 1986, and I was not ready. I was emotionally immature and psychologically damaged; I’d spent far too much of my high school tenure in self-hating isolation; and my lack of success in both the academic and social fields felt absolute. Predictably, I experienced a wretched first year that resulted in academic suspension.
My father drove out to pick up me and my belongings, and his disappointment was both understandable and unmistakable. He seemed at a loss, however, because he could clearly see how unhealthy and unhappy I was. He charmed my roommate and all the other people we encountered, as he always did, and we started the long drive home.
Dad had a temper, one which I’ve inherited, and his anger could be intimidating, but it was a measure of how much I’d disengaged from the world around me that I wasn’t afraid or apprehensive. I just waited for it, dull, turned inward, wondering whose luck was worse, mine for being me, or his for having me as a son.
At some point we stopped for lunch, and as we sat in a booth at some unremembered roadside eatery, I could see him struggling for words. I didn’t or couldn’t say much – he asked questions, and I responded lifelessly, mostly by saying “I don’t know.”
He then said something truly remarkable. He said that college wasn’t cheap – that first, awful year had cost him a lot of money, and it was hard for him to see how it had turned out for me. He said that the most important thing was that I learn something from the experience, however, and that if I’d learned something, anything, no matter how badly the year had gone, then it was worth it to him. He would do it again, and try harder to help me.
I couldn’t take it in. I felt damaged, worthless, useless – I couldn’t take it in. I didn’t understand how much it meant for my father, born and raised in a traditional Korean household, the visual artist who’d forsaken his creative impulses in favor of a practical corporate career, a man who’d fought intensely with his sons who were intent on making the opposite choice, to say that. To accept my failure like that was an act of love as great as any I’ve experienced. I just didn’t know it.
April 9, 2014 would have been my father’s 78th birthday – he’s been gone for more than ten years now. Happy birthday, Dad. I’m sorry I never thanked you for that moment. I’ve done better since then – it took me a long time, but I finally figured out how to do better. I’m sorry I didn’t understand back then, but I do now. Finally, I understand.