Thirty-seven years ago, in a small town in North Malaysia — a young doctor was introduced to an occupational therapist.
They fell in love, got married and had three children. I’m their youngest and only son.
My mother is a very vocal teacher. But my father? Like most men of his generation, he’s a man of few words. If I ask him for life advice, he’ll just tell me his three favorite idioms: “Honesty is the best policy”, “Look before you leap”, and “Make hay while the sun shines”. Hardly TED worthy.
So with my dad — I had to instead learn by observing his actions and studying his life. This is his story. And this is what he’s taught me about love.
1. Love is Sacrifice
When he first met my mom, my father drove a loud sports car. He was a fiercely proud man who loved fine quality goods — my mother tells me he never bought anything discounted.
And then he had us.
Anyone who has kids knows these two things: your life changes to completely revolve around your kids, and kids are extremely expensive.
So like all good parents, Dad learned to sacrifice.
The sexy sports car went away for a practical family sedan. Money went from buying branded clothes to buying quality food for the kids. And the pride? We kids became the pride of his life. Dad buys discounted things now.
One specific memory always reminds me how much self-sacrificing love dad had for us: When I was about eight years old, dad took my sisters and me to watch a movie in the local cinema. I think it was Beauty And The Beast. I was too young to appreciate how beautiful Belle was, so I fell asleep. It would have been practical for Dad to just let me sleep till the movie ended — but instead he gently woke me, brought me out of the cinema, and drove me all the way home.
After putting me to bed, he drove back to the cinema to rejoin my sisters.
I’m still not sure why he went through all that trouble. To this day, I fall asleep easily in all kinds of seats: airplane, car, meeting room — you name it. But that’s just the kind of man he is.
2. Love is Boundaries
While he really doted on us, Dad never went to the point of spoiling us. He would give us everything he could, but he had certain principles on which he would not compromise. He never had a problem disciplining us.
One morning, I was feeling extremely lazy to go to school. So I rolled in bed and said I was too sleepy. After thinking awhile, Dad said “OK.” I thought to myself, “Hey this is great!” and proceeded to waste the day playing at home. The next day I tried it again. And then I experienced the wrath of his fierce voice: “If you don’t get out of bed within three seconds…”
I jumped out of bed quicker than I ever have.
For my dad, boundaries didn’t mean the forty-year age gap between us. It didn’t mean being a hard disciplinarian whom I was afraid to approach. It just meant that sometimes when I crossed the line, he’d pull me back and say “No. That’s not acceptable.”
He taught me how setting strong boundaries is fundamental for all relationships: home, work, friendly or romantic. Sometimes you just have to say no.
3. Love is Responsibility
My dad is far from perfect. He can be chauvinistic at times. He isn’t the most patient of people either — he still has that fiery temper of a young man. My mother could easily recite a list of things he could improve on.
But as a father and a husband, he’s always been an example of responsibility.
My family lost a lot of money during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. But even when things weren’t going well for Dad, there was always excellent food on the table for us. We were always taken care of in the highest standards possible. He separated those “adult issues” from us so we wouldn’t worry unnecessarily — and concentrate on doing well in school.
All I knew was that Dad was frequently in a bad mood. I only found out years later from Mom what had happened.
I found out too that Dad used to smoke two to three packets of cigarettes a day. He could never quit, despite multiple attempts. And then Mom got pregnant with me. He hasn’t smoked a cigarette since.
Love is fulfilling your responsibilities, even if you don’t feel like it. And even when you feel like crap.
4. Love is Giving
Above all, my father taught me generosity. When he first started work, he would faithfully send money back to help support his brothers’ children. He reminds me to never be stingy about helping others.
He’s also been known to treat his friends and family with overly generous meals. It bugs Mom that he goes overboard, but that’s just the way he is. Dad has never looked at money as something to be hoarded, but a blessing to be shared. He has never been any good at keeping money, but has always been the best at spending it on others. I guess that’s why he’s so happy.
It’s not just his family and friends who benefit though. My father is a servant of the people. He’s given thirty-seven years of medical service to the people of my hometown. People from far and near come to consult him on quality of life, fertility, and aging. It’s about helping people. And it’s a profession of giving.
In this world of unfulfilled ambitions and reluctant careers, my dad is an anomaly — he truly loves his job.
* * * * * * * *
Dad turns 70 this weekend. We will celebrate with a small group of close friends and family. In a small restaurant in North Malaysia.
He’ll likely be unsentimental about the whole thing. In typical fashion, he’ll downplay its significance, say it’s “just another year”, and talk about the latest couple who came to thank him for helping them have a child.
But as he goes to sleep that night, I hope he’ll allow himself just one moment to reminisce about a life well lived — a meaningful career, the love of family and friends, and the blessings of his children and grandchildren. And how it all started from him loving first.
Happy birthday Dad.
I love you too.