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I used to be “Daddy’s little girl.” Because I dropped into the world in between my genius, future-Nobel-prize-winner sister and my attention-needy baby brother, my mom never had enough time in between attending math competitions on the weekends and juggling baby bottles at four in the morning. Thus, every morning, my dad was the one who stirred up Campbell’s chicken noodle soup for breakfast and nudged me awake to watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
I always begged my mom to let me tag along with my dad, and he loved taking me along with him on his errands. Sometimes I helped him pick out watermelons – he rapped the sides of each melon and we decided together if the sound was “just right.” On lazy Saturday afternoons, I sat in the passenger seat, rubbing the dark crimson velvet with both hands, as we drove off to wash the car or check out a stack of books from the library.
My dad competed every year in the high jump competition at De Anza College. The night before, I always stayed up to decorate posters which screamed, “Go Daddy, go!” One year, he brought home the gold medal, which I fingered lovingly. When he noticed my awestruck eyes, he leaned down and pressed the medal into my palms. “Take care of this for me, okay?” he grinned.
On my first day of kindergarten, my dad fumbled my hair into a messy ponytail before we drove to school. When my new teacher pushed open the door, my dad tried to say good-bye, but I refused to let go of his hand. “Stay with me, Daddy, please?” I begged. He smiled and shook his head as my teacher coaxed me into the bright classroom. From the door, I watched my dad linger at the curb before he drove off, a cloud of smoke trailing behind his old red Chrysler. Hot tears welled up in my eyes, and my soft sniffles flooded into grief-stricken sobs. Even though Mrs. Belong tried to reassure me, the tears kept coming – I hadn’t realized that I had to go to school without my dad.
Yet something changed as I started to grow up. In elementary school, I never understood why I was so different from everyone else. When I was invited to birthday parties or to explore the creek, my dad never allowed me to go. I could never invite my best friends to our house and I was forced to wear knee-high socks, even in June. Consequently, I stopped understanding what my dad had to say; instead, I informed him curtly that he was wrong. I blamed all my problems on the one person that seemed furthest from being a friend: my father.
As the years ticked by, he stopped asking if I wanted him to tie my hair into a ponytail. We talked less and less, and I never wanted to go anywhere with him. Instead, I chatted incessantly on the phone with my friends, started wearing bell-bottoms, and experimented with black eyeliner. He hated that I was changing; I hated that he didn’t understand me. I felt like I could never live up to his expectations and nothing I accomplished would ever be good enough. At first, I responded to his criticism with an indignant comeback. As time passed, I found it easier to just not respond at all. Eventually, communication dwindled down to the bare minimum. I justified his aloof personality by brushing him off as nothing more than an irascible man.
In the past few years, we have both changed for the better and our views have finally aligned. I have realized that all along, my dad was not trying to criticize who I was becoming. Instead, he just missed his little girl. He is now grayer and wiser, and I am more independent and intuitive than I used to be. Nevertheless, things have not changed all that much. I still tag along with him, except now we spend Saturday afternoons at Starbucks Coffee, where I peruse biology outlines and where he leafs through a Chinese newspaper. In many ways, I am still his little girl. I am the girl who he helps with the hardest set of calculus problems and who always needs rides to the bookstore. Because he is a man of few words, I am his friend who understands the significance of what he does not say, rather than just what he does say. I am his daughter who loves him and respects his decisions, not because I need to, but because I want to do so.
I see parts of myself reflected in my father. He has passed to me not just his blood type and his cheekbones, but also the belief that I can get anywhere and do anything as long as I work hard and believe in my success. Only in the past few years have I started to understand that he has always been proud of who I am. He has taught me that I need to move on in life, no matter what may be holding me back. Most importantly, I have learned to accept the imperfections in him, as well as other people, because he embraces and cherishes the imperfections in me.
I never realized how old he was until he hurt himself competing in the high jump competition last year. By this time next year, he will be fifty-four years old. After that, I don’t know how much longer we will have with each other. All I know is that my dad will continue to be who he has always been: my father, my hero, and my best friend.
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