When my father said, "I love you" for the first time.

Annie Gray

The first time my father told me he loved me, I was in my freshman year of college.

My boyfriend's father had just died unexpectedly of a heart attack...

Yet, I knew he was going to die.

Steve's dad was always incredibly sweet to me. He welcomed me into their family, when his wife did not want me to be acknowledged. He thought about the things I needed for my apartment. He talked about me to his colleagues at work.

Steve's parents lived in San Rafael, just a short drive from Berkeley, so every now and again, we would drive to meet them for a weekend meal.

One morning, when we arrived, Steve's younger sister was fighting viciously with her father. Steve also had three younger siblings like I did; his parents had a rough marriage like mine; his dad was the sensitive one in the family like my father was.

I walked into their foyer, his dad seated while his daughter yelled at him. Teenage angst.

For the first time since we met, I couldn't look at him.

I had no idea what was going on, but it was almost as though there was this invisible wall between me and Steve's father, and I kept having to look away.

Something was wrong.

I didn't know what it was. But, I knew it was big.

I had to step into the dining room as soon as possible. I needed space to breathe.

I had no idea that one night later, his mother would be calling me, unable to find her son at his apartment, because he was spending the night at mine.

I had no idea that it was already too late, by the time we got in the car and drove to the hospital.

His father had passed in the ambulance on the way to the ER.

The weeks that followed were a blur. I became inundated with all of his family affairs, and because everyone was so distraught, I became the go-to person to handle everything.

I was 18. Unsure of my place in the world, other than that I was with my first long-term boyfriend, who also happened to be Chinese, so I thought I'd do everything a good girl was supposed to.

One night, after it had been raining incredibly hard and we were putting sandbags at the base of their backyard to prevent flooding, I came back into the house and Steve's mother asked me to make dinner. The kids were scattered about the house, hiding away in their own pain. They had showered. They were warm.

I was still soaking wet.

When I asked them to come eat, none of them wanted to.

I then took a shower, got into my pajamas, found a quiet space in their house in the room Steve's mom no longer cared that we were sharing, and called my father.

I told him what had happened.

I told him how I did not know what to do.

Towards the middle of the conversation, my father said, "I love you."

"What?"

He had never said this to me before.

But, he was saying it now.

These days, it's become more common in our vernacular.

My mother still does not say it, not in Mandarin or in English, but here's the thing...

People will change.

Even Steve's mother. She ended up confiding in me and really letting her heart be seen.

Eventually, Steve's mother also passed from cancer. I had lost touch with her by then, but she had sent me an email once that said that she knew people came into your life for a reason or a season.

I did go to her funeral. I saw Steve.

He was with a new woman. He's married to her now and they have two children.

People will surprise you.

People will love you, if you let them.

And, people will need love, especially in the hardest of times.

I will never forget Steve's dad calling me, because he found a dining table and knew that I needed a new one for my apartment. Or, that when we were at his funeral, that his best friend's eulogy shared how he talked about me to the people in his life, causing Steve's sisters to turn around and smile at me in inclusion.

I will never forget standing with Steve's mom, as she cried that even though they had a fraught marriage, that in the last couple of weeks before he passed, they had returned to what seemed like their newlywed phase.

She began to sleep with his sweatshirt. She missed his making coffee for her every morning.

Steve's dad acted like a father figure when mine was not available to me for college, and his gorgeous soul opened up the path for my father to make his way back to me.

I've never written this in this way before, but I am beyond grateful for the gift that Steve's dad bestowed upon me.

Love.

Said aloud.

And, acknowledged.


Judy Tsuei