Saturday, December 31, 2011

becoming "dad"

photo: Raj Lulla Photography

I've been thinking a lot about my dad lately.

About two months ago, I wrote a letter to our soon-to-be-born daughter, and I signed it "love, Dad" when I reached the end.  As I typed that paternal palindrome, I realized that the word had instantly taken on an entirely new meaning in my life.

For 27 years, Dad was the salt-and-pepper-haired man who smelled of Aramis cologne every morning as he left for work. He returned around dinner time each night, often tricking us into looking another direction so he could steal a bite of the food his paycheck had put on the table.  He was the man who left a lucrative job to help his brother start a small business because family was more important than money.

Until I signed that letter, Dad was always him in my mind, not me.

I have never been disposed to the type of feelings that lead men to say asinine things like, "Mr. Lulla's my dad, call me Raj."  When I was a teacher, I insisted that my students address my position with the respect it deserved, for both my benefit and theirs, so I never expressed that particular piece of drivel.

Eight years ago, when my sister had her firstborn, who was also the first grandchild in our family, I remember practically squealing with delight (in the manliest way possible) each time I jabbed my parents with their newly minted "grandma" and "grandpa" titles.  Though I understood the transition that was happening in their world, it had not yet arrived in mine.

"Grandma" and "grandpa" were additional titles, like those letters doctors put after their names to show they're qualified to hack off your gangrenous foot or insist you drop your pants for a more thorough examination.  They were still my mom and dad, even to the degree that I still lived under their roof and ate their food on my frequent visits home from college.

This shift in my life feels both inauspicious and monumental at the same time.  I was alone when I wrote that letter, so it feels like I was alone when I realized this new identity.  Yet, in many other ways, I feel as though I am sitting on my dad's shoulders, making good on the advantages he worked so hard to provide for me.

When I look at myself in a mirror these days, I often wonder if my dad ran the same gamut of emotions from excited to nervous to insecure to eager to panicked to elated and back again before my eldest sister was born.

My dad had emigrated and made homes in new countries twice before meeting and marrying my mom, and he knew five languages fluently, having learned nearly a dozen.  He had gained respect internationally in business and jet-setted between New York, Hong Kong, and San Francisco long before my siblings or I had been conceived of or conceived.

Somehow, I feel like he must have been more confident than me as he considered impending fatherhood. His engineering degree must have made crib assembly look like child's play, and teaching us to talk must have only raised the question of which language to start with.

It's hard to imagine my dad with the baited breath of nervous anticipation that now resides in my chest.  Fatherhood just looks so natural on him.

Whenever my dad tells stories about how he used to fly planes before we were born or what life was like in India and Hong Kong before he met my mom and settled down in the States, the stories seem like legends.  They feel as though they are based in some shadow of reality, but the far-fetched nature of them reveals that significant embellishment has accrued throughout the years of retelling.  This is not because my dad is incapable of factual retelling but more because I am unable to imagine him as a jet-setting, black-haired, young, and carefree bachelor.  To me, his identity is a domestic, white-haired, mature, and stable father of four, as though he has eternally existed in this state, somehow immune to the passage of time.

I suppose it is perhaps the highest compliment to him as a father that I cannot imagine him as anything else.  Never once did I fear his departure because I knew it would always be soon followed by his return.  He has never seemed to long for anything but our best, even at great cost to himself.

I wonder how my daughter will see me.  Hopefully, I am cut of the same cloth as my dad.  It would be my single most praiseworthy attribute.

Thanks, Dad!  I love you.

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