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Someday I'll go to Valparaiso University. Take a close look at its buildings, the trees around the campus. Imagine how the place looked 60 years ago when my father walked its paths to engineering classes. A young man, a foreigner in this country, where I now find myself.
In the summers-so family legend goes-he picked fruit to earn money. I can picture him up a ladder plucking oranges and apples from heavily laden trees. A carefree vagabond with a purpose: to finish his studies and go back home. I never did go back home.
He died when I was nine. A month shy often, actually. One never forgets things like that. After his death, there were times when I had difficulty picturing him in my mind. This disturbed me, and I got his photo. I etched in my memory his oval face, gold-rimmed glasses, balding head, his expression of tranquil joy. An old man, but the only father I knew and loved.
I remember clearly the feelings of unity and stability that he evoked in us, his family. Or maybe I remember more clearly the disruption and insecurity that his death caused.
He was the driving force that kept our family together. People expected that, since he was considerably older than my mother. He was 33 when he married the 19-year-old beauty-queen-little-rich- daughter of a politician. By the time I was born, he was a rheumatic 53-year-old. My classmates used to ask if he was my grandfather. I explained that the man with the cane was my father. I sincerely believed his cane was a symbol of elegance rather than the necessity it was.
We, his four children, were special to him. Perhaps it was because he became a father rather late in life. He nurtured us carefully. He brought us to school and picked us up at the end of the day. Afternoons, he took us for a ride around our seaside city, driving down the pier past Slapsy Maxie's bar where the sailors hung out with the girls. On the way home he stopped by the soda fountain near the church to buy us Cokes and M and Ms. After dinner he helped us with our homework. I recall his listening with delight as I read my Dick and Jane book.
When he collapsed that Wednesday near Kowloon Bridge, his gold- rimmed glasses must have shattered because I never saw them again. When I last saw him in his coffin, his face was a waxy mask. He had a tight little smile which was a grimace. No glasses. The dead man was a shell and not my father. To the nine-year-old he was still on vacation and would return to straighten out my chaotic world.
But after a quarter of a century, I woke up realizing he would never be back from that vacation. In the confusion after his death, I put aside mourning. I did not infuse my being with the finality of his death. There was school and I grew up, got married, had children. A part of me steadfastly believed he would return. He had promised. When he kissed me, he said he'd be back with the doll I wanted. The doll came. Marie Antoinette-now lashless-in faded lavender gown and tattered yellowing lace waits for me still in my mother's armoire.
But as I pause in the midst of the levity of my own family, I realize that I will never see him again. Never hear his voice again. Never feel his presence once more.
So I gather what memories and tales I have of him. I piece them together to have a mental image of my father. I reorganize my life knowing that he is indeed gone, and 1 am alive, a woman, a mother who must tend to her children as he did us. And someday I'll visit Valparaiso.