My Father's Achilles
My father scared our entire family in Disneyland when I was seven years old. It was a family outing with my pregnant mother, my elderly grandparents and my five-year-old little sister – a group that obviously had only one person capable of riding a roller coaster: my father, who was a sturdy, tall man with broad shoulders, six-pack abs, and biceps swelling under his Tshirt. He was in his late thirties and had a perfect beach volleyball player’s body, tanned and slim and masculine, boasting muscle mass on the arms and calves. His penetrating eyes revealed his fortitude, and his contagious laughter created a magnetic field that pulled people to him. Yet, even though my father was the ideal candidate to ride with me, he refused to go. While I was almost in tears, my baby sister came to my rescue with just one long, sweet word.
“Daaaaaddy!” she pleaded for her brother.
My mother also gave my father a provocative look and teased, “You aren’t afraid, are you?” She knew that their daughter’s affectionate plea aided with her own dare would undoubtedly send my father onto that scary machine with me despite his acrophobia, fear of heights, especially on an open flight in motion.
With a loving pat on my sister’s head and a frowning glare at his wife, my resolute father signaled to me. “Follow me, boy.” My father probably did not utter a sound while I was screaming my lungs out during the thrilling, fun ride. Happy feet ran to us when we stepped out of the flying dragon, and everyone cheered and laughed. Then my mother noticed my poor father pressing his hand on the chest: “My heart hurts.”
I did not know whether or not he had had a minor heart attack, but I started to feel his character or his heart. On that day and through all the years I grew up, I witnessed his warm, strong, and simple heart that made him a man who would risk his life if defied, especially when it came to guarding his loved ones. He was never submissive to supremacy but would always give in to the feminine charm of his mother, wife, or daughter.
The man was indomitable, even when he was a child, as my grandfather recalled while shaking his head with an inconceivable expression on his face that to this day I still remember. Once, when I was in third grade, my grandfather told me that my father refused to apologize for someone else’s mischievous behavior of which his third-grade teacher had wrongfully accused him, even after my grandfather had slapped his face from left and right many times. He would not say a word. Then he was stripped of his clothes, tied up, and whipped till his father was exhausted. “He just bit his tongue, not sounding out a single syllable,” said my grandfather, “You can’t overpower him.”
But do not get him wrong. One cry for help from his mother was all it took for him to roar like an injured lion and jump onto an armed robber. He saved his mother and drove away the thief though he ended up with ten stitches on his arm. It was all because his mother had cried, “Oh … my son, help!” He was fifteen that year.
Of course, I also saw with my own eyes how he had taken care of my mother and sister at the drop of a hat. To protect my mother, he dreaded no dangers and feared no menaces. One hot and humid summer day in the mountains in Hong Kong, we hopped onto a scenic lift. It was a twenty-five minute ride before reaching a flight of 268 steps leading to the bronze Tian Tan Buddha statue, the biggest sitting Buddha built outdoors, perched high on the hills of Lantau Island. It was breathtaking both for the unparalleled bird’s-eye view along the way where we overlooked Lantau and the South China Sea and for the ecstasies from the ride itself. The lift sometimes brought us high enough to float with the clouds. Then, suddenly it would descend even below the treetops, almost scratching the bottom of the valley. Amidst all the excitement, one of my mother’s shoes fell off.
“My shoe … honey!” my mother exclaimed, leaning onto my father’s solid shoulders.
“No worries, baby. You’ll walk up those stairs up there in your shoes,” my father assured her.
My father did not answer; instead, he waited till the lift dropped to the valley floor before rising again. Off he jumped. He landed on the surface of a large rock. When he climbed up to the front of the 268 steps on the mountain top more than an hour later, he was shirtless and soaked in sweat, panting. Extending his hand to my mother, he gave her shoe back.
“Don’t you ever go for such a chance to show off your muscles again! You could have killed yourself, honey,” she scolded.
My father grinned.
My father was truly a daredevil by heart; he was, as you see, exhilarated by challenges; however, I have to say that he was not always mild if you showed the slightest disdain or disrespect. A few years ago, after I had become a computer engineer, in a dialog between us I used a piece of technological jargon, a common expression in my field, taking it for granted that he would understand with my context clues. Then I ignored his request for clarification by carrying on with the ongoing conversation in my normal speed. What a mistake it was! I ended up getting lectured for the rest of the day as if I had betrayed the Holy Spirit or deceived his Tian Tan Buddha.
The truth is that my sister, the pearl on his palm, conversed with him in her more than a hundred words per minute bullet train speed all the time. Even when she could detect the poor man’s laborious effort to comprehend, she still talked like an auctioneer. She was never our father’s walking dictionary; for that “you use your iPhone,” my sister would defend with her sugarcoated smile. I could even mouth what my sister would say next if it hadn’t already calmed him down. She could easily wipe off the dark cloud over his face and rub the benevolent, serene sun onto his cheeks just by saying: “Daaaaaddy!” It always did the trick. Yes, after all, she was still the daddy’s girl that sat on his lap every Christmas when she had returned from college.
Like most parents, he wanted to talk to his daughter all the time. But unlike my mother, he would not initiate a phone call though he complained that she had not called home often enough. Through his I-don’t-care disguise, I saw his nostalgia for his daughter, his pain from missing her. Whenever his daughter was on the line with her mother, he would pretend to be doing something around in the same room. No sooner did he hear the word “daddy,” he would leap to the phone, grasp the receiver, press it onto his ear, and reply with, “Yes, sweetheart.”
His daughter did call, though not as frequently as he had yearned.
“I’m moving into a new apartment which is closer to campus this weekend.”
With neither an invitation nor a request, he appeared at his daughter’s place from two thousand miles away, sleeves rolled up and ready to move her furniture, claiming that he could be competitive with any one of her young guy friends that was there to help. My astounded sister had to secretly direct her friends to get to the heavy items ahead of him, for he had just had serious surgery to repair his completely torn Achilles tendon.
Yes, my undaunted father is warm. From our roller coaster adventure in Disneyland to our chair lift ride in Hong Kong, I have gotten to know that his heart is like a fire burning with love. I have learned that his heart also flames bellicosely if you challenge him. Yet this is where his Achilles lies: not in his heels but in his heart, swayable by his loved lady’s simple plea or anyone’s sheer daring. Sadly, I’m always the son of his that refuses to cajole. Perhaps I can never be his preferred kid since I am his boy that does not contest. Or maybe I don’t need to dare or coax him at all, for I have just become a father with my own newborn daughter. All I have to do is to teach my baby girl to call my father “Granddaaaaaddy” with her beautiful voice.
I know how to melt you too, Dad.
Charles Lee: "I am a Professor of English/ESL at De Anza College in California. Aside from being a recognized scholar, I translate and conduct consecutive as well as simultaneous English/Chinese interpretation.
"I came to America from China about thirty-two years ago and have been living in the San Francisco Bay Area with my wife, Helena. We are proud parents of two talented and promising children: Steven and Tammy. I love sports and coach volleyball.
"I can be reached at CharlesLee988@gmail.com."