As the plane circled Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Dad began to feel weak. The color drained from his face, and even though sweat was dripping down his forehead, he shivered.
“Excuse me, but could we get a blanket, please?” Mom asked the flight attendant. We were flying coach, and it looked like she was about to tell us they didn’t have blankets on board. But then she saw Dad.
“Of course. I’ll find something,” she said.
When she came back, she brought him a blanket and gently tucked it in around him. Even though she didn’t know about the cancer, it was obvious by this point that Dad was dying, and everyone could see it.
By the time we landed, Dad needed a wheelchair to make our connecting flight. It made me wonder if this trip had been a good idea. Dad desperately wanted to see his mother before he died, but she had Alzheimer’s and was too sick to leave California. So we were going to her.
Everyone knew this would be the last trip, so our entire extended family was gathering for a week in San Jose. My cousins Emily and Pearl drove from San Francisco, my auntie Alicia and uncle Franco flew in from Las Vegas, and my auntie Kristin, uncle David, and their kids, Ashleigh and Alissa, flew up from Los Angeles. Other relatives also came from all over California. But Po Po was too sick to leave Oakland, so we had to go visit her. Because she had Alzheimer’s, no one had told her that Dad had cancer.
As we arrived in San Jose, Mom kept checking to make sure Dad felt okay. Maybe it was the ocean breeze, or knowing that he would soon see his mother, but as soon as he stepped off the plane in California, a twinkle returned to Dad’s eye. For the first time in a while, it was like he wasn’t sick. When the flight attendants asked if he needed a wheelchair, he waved them away. He held Mom’s arm, but he walked out of the airport on his own two feet, and I could tell how happy that made him.
We rented a giant minivan so that we could do touristy things but always have a place where Dad could sit (or even lie down) if he needed.
“Your dad is very sick,” Mom had cautioned us before we left, “so we might not do a lot of activities. Okay? We’re going to only do what Dad can do, and that’ll have to be enough.”
“Always looking out for me.” Dad smiled and kissed her on the cheek. I knew it made him sad to admit how sick he was, but he was happy to have such a wife, who cared for him so much.
Luckily, Dad found a reserve of strength somewhere deep inside him. For that entire week in California, it was as though he wasn’t sick. We went everywhere. It was the best trip of my life.
One of my favorite parts was dinner at Auntie Polly’s house. It was like footage from a Disney movie. Everyone was just so happy. Auntie Polly made dinner for about one hundred when there were only about fifteen of us. Every single dish was a different color and had a different taste. There was so much laughter and joy in the room, I never wanted to go. Leaving her house was like the day after Christmas. You couldn’t wait until the next time.
My favorite memory was being at the ocean with my dad. Dad loved the ocean, so we spent at least part of every day by the water. He took Matt and me to see the seals on the pier at Santa Cruz. We went to Monterey Bay to watch the surfers, and to visit the aquarium. In the afternoon, we played games on the boardwalk with our cousins, who we never got to see much. Dad watched with a smile on his face. He was always happiest when we were all together.
“Family,” Uncle David said as he dropped down to sit next to my father. “It’s the most important thing in life. We should do this more often.”
He was talking to Dad, but he looked at me as he said it. I knew “we” would never do this again, but it reminded me that family didn’t just mean my parents and brothers. I had a great big extended family, and even if we didn’t see each other often, we still loved each other very much. I knew Uncle David was right: family was the most important thing. When Dad was gone, we would be the ones to remember for each other, to comfort each other, and to tell the stories of Dad’s life that would make us laugh and cry for decades to come. But for now, I was happy just to be in the same place as them, feeling the same sun shining on all our smiling faces, even Dad’s. I stared out at the ocean, and wished his life would go on forever, just like the sparkling water in front of me. But I knew it wouldn’t.
We visited Oakland to see Po Po, who I’d only known when I was a baby. She was like a little-old-lady version of Dad, always sweet and smiling. We went all around Chinatown, where she lived, seeing the sights. Everyone seemed to know her, even if often she couldn’t remember them. But it was clear that she was well loved, and seeing how happy she was—even though she was sick—made Dad even happier.
“This is very much like Hong Kong,” Dad told me as we wandered past bright red-and-gold awnings above stalls selling vegetables and live crabs in buckets. I slipped my hand into Dad’s, and for a moment I imagined we were in Hong Kong together. I knew we’d never make it there, but at least we had right now, and I could pretend.
“There’s someone else we need to see,” Dad said one afternoon, after we’d left Po Po to take a nap. The whole family got in the minivan and drove out beyond the city limits.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see” was all he would say.
When we pulled up at the cemetery, I understood. It took a while to get to the grave, because Dad had grown tired from walking around all day, but finally we stopped in front of a small tombstone in a large, grassy field.
“This is where my father is buried,” Dad said. He placed a colorful bouquet of flowers in front of the stone, which was dark, weathered granite. Then he looked at the clear space next to it. “And this is where your father will be buried.”
He put his arm around my shoulder. I looked at the innocent patch of grass. It was so fresh, green, and beautiful. It seemed impossible to believe that one day, Dad would be buried beneath it. A chill ran down my spine. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to think about this. The entire trip had been so normal. No one had cried, not since we’d arrived in San Jose, and Dad had been strong again. But there was no escaping the future.
We stood silently, side by side, looking at the graves of our fathers. For the first time in my life, I began to understand what it felt like to be a grown-up. To be a man. My father had buried his father, and soon, I would bury mine. It was a universal truth, something every man must do someday, but I would have given anything to put it off for one more day, one more hour, even one more second with my father.
When we returned to Iowa, Dad’s health collapsed. It was as though he’d used everything left inside him to give us that final, wonderful week in California. As Dad got sicker, my brothers and I spent more time outside the house so that Mom wouldn’t have to take care of us and Dad at the same time. Our next-door neighbors, the Abdos, were good friends of the family, and more often than not, Matt and I slept at their house. They had sons near us in age, and we would stay up late into the night talking, laughing, and beating each other at games.
It felt weird not being at home—but truthfully, it felt weirder being there. The house I knew was a place full of laughter, music, and the scent of delicious food constantly wafting out of the kitchen. Now our house was full of whispered voices and quiet tears. I could deal with my father dying—but I couldn’t deal with watching him die. And he didn’t want that. I knew he wanted me to remember the laughing, loving father I grew up with, the Dad who took me all around California, not the sick man who could barely walk. Mom tried to keep our spirits up, but those last few weeks were hard on all of us, but especially on her, because she took care of everyone else.
My dad died in his bed at a little before two a.m. on June 10, 2007. Matt and I were asleep at our neighbors’ house. When they woke me up to say there was a phone call from my mom, I knew instantly that Dad had passed, but part of me refused to believe it. I refused to believe so hard that when I got up the next morning, I was convinced it was all just a bad dream. Even once I knew it was true, I let it touch only the outside of me. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t give a speech at his funeral. Instead, I pretended I was somewhere else, at a service for a friend, or someone I didn’t even know. I understood that Dad was gone, but it was months before I really felt it.
And once I did, I could never not feel it—that dull ache of something missing, like when you lose a tooth and your tongue constantly probes the place it had once been. There is a Sam Ko–shaped hole in this world, and nothing will ever fill it. Thankfully, I know in my heart that there is another world beyond this one, and that my father is waiting for me there.
Right after Dad passed away, my mom was out on our front porch, talking on the phone with a good friend. As she stared at the moon, a star burst into glorious movement. Most shooting stars went across the sky from one end of the horizon to the other. This one went straight up, like a rocket. I think it was my father’s soul, ascending to heaven.
I know that he watches over me every day. He is in front of me, clearing my path; behind me, holding me up; and at my side, whispering encouragement. He’s my dad, whether here on earth or up in heaven. Nothing will ever change that. I spent all this time worrying about whether he would ever get to see me dance ballet, but now I know that he watches me every time I’m onstage.
I love you, Dad.