You might not have known this, but my father spoke Spanish fluently. This was always surprising to people when I was growing up, like when he’d go to Taqueria San Jose in San Francisco to order our favorite steak tacos. He’d walk up to the counter, pause for a second, and then unleash his order in rapid-fire Spanish, leaving the workers’ jaws agape.
I tell this story by way of context. As a Spanish speaker, he loved the work of Spanish writers including the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. And in this moment of great loss, I want to share with you one of Neruda’s most beautiful poems about life:
at the center
of my life,
waves like grapes,
the sky’s solitude,
you fill me
the complete sea,
the undiminished sky,
sea foam’s white
the orange earth,
gifts and talents,
birds soaring into their dreams,
and the sea, the sea,
chorus of rich, resonant salt,
touch the water,
we touch the sea,
And the waves tell the firm coast:
“Everything will be fulfilled.”
Yes, everything was fulfilled. My father lived a life full of adventure, love — and yes, also loss and sadness. But he lived a full, remarkable life.
My father was born on December 10, 1939 in Yusan City. He graduated from Iri Namsung High School and then served in the Korean Army. In 1964, he graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
On May 5, 1965, Dad married my mom. They were almost immediately separated though, as Dad set sail for San Francisco, CA on the S.S. Dong Hae on August 5, 1965.
With just a few dollars in his pocket upon landing in San Francisco, he found work as a waiter in an Italian restaurant to pay for his education. Dad and Mom eventually reunited in San Francisco in 1967; their first child, my big brother Peter, was born in 1969. Dad worked his way through school and graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1970. I came along in 1971.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Dad built his career as a journalist and photographer for the Korea Times, where he eventually became Editor-in-Chief. He loved being on the scene when big news was breaking — he had a special press pass that let him get into City Hall, fires and crime scenes. He got to interview San Francisco Mayors George Moscone and Dianne Feinstein, and anchored the Korean-language evening news on San Francisco’s Channel 26. For many, he was THE voice of the Korean American community in San Francisco. Dad also had a career detour for several years in the 1980s curating the 5,000 Years of Korean Art exhibition in both San Francisco and Seattle.
In the late 1980s and early 1990’s, Dad achieved a long-held dream of publishing two books — one a collection of his editorial essays from the Korea Times, the other, a Korean language novel entitled America Coup D’etat. He spent hours and hours every evening for months writing America Coup D’etat in longhand on legal-sized yellow pads — so much writing that he had to wear a splint on his wrist to ease the pain. The plot of America Coup D’etat involved a rogue U.S. military general taking over Alcatraz Island to launch an attack on the American government . . . . interestingly foreshadowing the plot of the Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery film The Rock, which was released five years later in 1996.
In 1995, Dad suffered a massive stroke that took away much of his ability to speak and understand language, and left him partially paralyzed. Despite his disability, he lived a fulfilling life for another 22 years with his family, children and grandchildren. But when he was ready to leave this earth, he turned on his inimitable steel will and made his way back to God. He would not be denied.
On that note, I’ll leave you with one more poem from Neruda.
Already, you are mine. Rest with your dream inside my dream.
Love, grief, labour, must sleep now.
Night revolves on invisible wheels
and joined to me you are pure as sleeping amber.
No one else will sleep with my dream, love.
You will go, we will go, joined by the waters of time.
No other one will travel the shadows with me,
only you, eternal nature, eternal sun, eternal moon.
Already your hands have opened their delicate fists
and let fall, without direction, their gentle signs,
your eyes enclosing themselves like two grey wings,
while I follow the waters you bring that take me onwards:
night, Earth, winds weave their fate, and already,
not only am I not without you, I alone am your dream.