In the early morning hours of this past Wednesday, after a three week struggle with COVID-19, my father died. In this pandemic time, visitors are not allowed, except in one instance—if a patient’s status has been changed by their family to end-of-life, where life support is withdrawn, and the patient is given only what is needed to pass away in peace. On Monday afternoon, my father had ‘coded,’ medical terminology for, his heart stopped. His physicians regained a pulse, but now a ventilator breathed for him, and medications known as vasopressors were required to support his weakened heart.
Into the next day, his treaters struggled to maintain his blood pressure and breathing, but the early afternoon update on Tuesday was that he was stable. I planned to call at 9p for an update, but, having hardly slept the night before, I fell asleep on the couch, not waking until 11:30p. Unsure what to do, I was prompted to call anyhow, and my father’s nurse had concerning news: his vasopressors were now at maximal dose, and they were struggling to maintain his blood pressure. She was unsure he would survive into the morning. I gathered our family, and together we decided that most of all, we wanted to be with my dad, to not let him die alone. We changed his status to end-of-life, and my brother and I arrived at bedside at 2a, with my mom and the rest of the family joining on an iPad screen. When I held his hand and spoke to him, his eyes moistened and at the corner of each, a tear formed—he knew we were there. His life support was withdrawn, and as we watched his pulse and blood pressure fade, we told stories of remembrance, our favorite memories of how he had touched us all. He passed away at 4:15a.
It is a delicate affair, giving a eulogy. On the one hand, there is a desire to speak the truth, even with all its messiness; on the other is the desire to honor the deceased, to judiciously forget the shortcomings and conflicts, the mess. The day-to-day mundaneness of life strips away the facades that we show others outside. Live with a person, and you will know their true character. I knew my father’s character. And of course we had our difficulties as I grew up: he, struggling in a new culture to parent children in-culturated into the individualistic mindset of America; I, a young boy disdainful of the quaint demands for filial piety. He had his temper, I had my rebelliousness.
Yet, as we left home to lead our own lives, the distance provided a different perspective. As a child psychiatrist first, and minister later, I gained a deep appreciation and admiration for who he was and what he had done. His work ethic, foresight and vision not just for himself but his family, humility, and sense of humor, are not common. Even less common is the way he conducted his life. There are many who perhaps know the words of Christ, but not as many who truly live it out. Here are the words that I spoke at his funeral service yesterday.
30 January 2021
Hon Kwong Kam (甘漢光)
5/17/1941 – 1/27/2021
The day my father died, one of his physicians called to give his condolences. My dad’s dialysis nurse called also. Now, dialysis is a terrible affair—difficult, uncomfortable. It can easily lead one to bitterness and anger. His nurse called to tell my mom, “Usually, I comfort my patients and do my best to lift their spirits. But in the case of your husband, he comforted me and lifted my spirits.” What prompted these people to call?
I struggled about how to honor my dad today. Should I tell you about his sense of humor, how when I was a young child, he told me the orange seeds I accidentally swallowed would sprout into a tree atop my head? Or his idealism, leaving a high-paying job in Hong Kong, to pursue a dream of getting an education? Or of his humility, willing to do whatever it takes to eke out a living after he left Hong Kong, even on the factory floor of a sausage factory earning but $10 a day? It must have been humiliating, except he wasn’t humiliated. He kept a remnant of his previous life with him—he wore a Rolex watch to this and his other menial jobs that first year in Vancouver after he left Hong Kong, until my mom laughed at him about the silliness of it all. He replaced it with a Timex. I could have spoken about any of these but, in the end, I‘ve decided to tell you about his heart. His heart for God, which he revealed to me over the years, not in showy words or actions, but in the quiet, faithful way he led his life.
For those who are here in person, you have a prayer card. On it is the story of the Wise and Foolish Builders, and it speaks of the choice of building one’s house on a foundation of rock, or upon sand. It’s a story my dad would have appreciated because he was a mechanical engineer, and he knew the value of a solid foundation. I want to tell you about the house my dad built.
But let me first put this story of the Wise and Foolish Builders into context. It’s a teaching from Jesus, and you can find it in the Bible, in the book of Matthew, at the end of chapter 7. It’s the last teaching in his Sermon on the Mount, called that because Jesus was teaching on a mountainside. For those who are not familiar with Jesus, he was a wise man who preached in the land of Israel around the year 30 AD.
In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke on how to live—‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but rather treasures in heaven’; he spoke on how to treat another––”Love your neighbor”, and even the seemingly impossible, “Love your enemy.” After these and other teachings, it ends with this, the Wise and the Foolish Builders. Here is what Jesus said:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Mt 7:24-27)
Basically, the message is: you’ve heard my teaching; the choice is now yours whether to put my words into practice or not. The Sermon on the Mount is well known passage. My father, who decided to follow Jesus in his youth, would have heard it taught in the pews of his church. I’d like to tell you now, what my father taught me about how he put into practice the words of Jesus. And I’ll give you two examples from his life: one was my father’s love for gambling, and the other was the way he treated people who had wronged him, his enemies. Gambling and enemies. So first, gambling…
My dad loved gambling. I heard it first, and often, from my mom. And we all knew the story about the gold Rolex watch—he had his eye on a gold Rolex Cellini, a hand-wound 18k beauty. On one of his many gambling excursions to Macau, he won big, and he thought, “Now, I can buy that gold Rolex (金 Lo)!” But… he made the mistake of continuing to play, and lost it all. He loved gambling, after all. Don’t worry, he bought it anyways (here it is, and no it doesn’t mean I’m the favorite, my brother Paul got his own Rolex).
We went on a cruise together, the entire extended family, in summer 2018. One day, he asked me to play the slot machines with him. Normally, I would have said no, but he seemed so excited that I said yes. We got there, I watched him play. After he lost some small sum, he handed me $20 in tokens, and asked me to try my luck. He always thought I was lucky. A few pulls later and it was gone, and I shrugged—gambling holds no appeal for me—but there was this look in his eyes: was it gladness? Glee? Joy, it was joy that his son had joined him, even briefly, in one of his life pleasures. I don’t think I knew until then, how much he liked it, how much he loved gambling.
Now, I’m a child psychiatrist. I’ve worked with families broken by addiction, including to gambling. And we knew my dad loved playing mah-jong—a Chinese gambling game that has ruined many an Asian family. There were more than a few times I remember my mom and him arguing about how he played too much. Then something happened. He stopped playing. No more mah-jong. No more arguments. Actually, he did still play—he taught us kids to play, and eventually he introduced a $2 buy-in. We would play, many times into the night. He usually beat us badly, but the most anyone could lose was $2. Losses went into a jar, and when enough money was collected, we would go for a family dinner. That was my dad.
Growing up, you would have thought he was a typical engineer. Same old shoes, same old shirt, suit, and tie—all from K-Mart or the cheapest place he could find—day after day. When we ate out, it was at the York Steak House, a cafeteria-style place at the mall that had a policy of no tipping, which according to my dad, was its greatest virtue as a restaurant. He had no taste in fine clothes or food, or fancy electronics, or really anything, it seemed.
But no, when he was in Hong Kong as a young man, he did have a taste for fine Swiss timepieces—he owned two Rolex watches by the age of 26, remember. He had his gambling jaunts to the casinos at Macau. On their first date, he treated my mom to fine delicacies, including a dish of deep-fried pepper leaves wrapping delicately cooked chicken. He spent HK$200 on their first date! He not only knew about the high life, he lived it. He had fine tastes! He had just put them aside, just as he did the gambling. He did not indulge, so that he could be a responsible husband to his wife, and a loving father to us children.
With that saved money, he bought us a house, two plain but useable cars. He paid for all our college educations, and my medical school education. He did it on a single-income, with no familial wealth. When I fretted about whether he could manage the tuition bills, he said to me, “Don’t worry, your mom and I will find a way. We can borrow, I can work more. Just keep studying.” He made sure to give us what he had valued and desired as a young man. That was my dad.
Why was he this way? My father was not a showy person, or an outwardly religious man. But I remember his counsel clearly: “Don’t be greedy (不好貪心). Always do what is good, what is right… We may not have as much as other families, but we have other things of greater value.”
In Matthew 6, earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches this:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy… But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (6:19-24)
The teaching is about money, and also about the world. Love the things of the world, whether money, or fine suits, or pleasure, including the pleasure of gambling, and it will control you. My father taught me, with his words and his life, neither to serve nor to love money. “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb 13:5), the Bible teaches. My dad embodied this. He never loved money, or fine suits, or pleasure. Perhaps he did, but he put them aside, because he loved people.
That was gambling, now enemies. This teaching is in Matthew 5, near the beginning of Jesus’ sermon.
“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (43-45)
My parents could have had many enemies. My father was generous, and some people took advantage of that, they cheated him. I asked him one time this happened what he would do about it, and he replied, “I’ll just not let them cheat me again.” And then he would go about his business, even stay friends with them.
But there was another instance, one that was more serious. When I was in first grade, our family moved temporarily to North Carolina for my dad’s work. My parents inquired at the local Chinese church whether anyone could benefit by living in our newly purchased house for the next year. An older Taiwanese couple with a couple of young kids ultimately moved in.
My memory of this couple was that they constantly badgered my parents to go to church. Then, in the year we were gone, this Taiwanese family ended up breaking our television and our bikes, and digging holes in our lawn for some reason. My parents, who were in financial distress, asked if they could pay something for living in our house, but they refused. Some time later, we found out that they had made our house ‘church central,’ well-known to church members from the sheer number of functions they hosted in our house. When we finally moved back, I remember my mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor beside the grease-covered stove. It took weeks, months to clean the mess they left behind. Meanwhile, with the money they saved that year not paying rent, this couple bought a house nearby. I don’t know what their house is like inside, because they never invited us over.
My father had treated them with kindness, and they had treated our family with contempt. Years later, my brother and I were in the living room, and a knock came at our door. My brother answered, and the Taiwanese father was there. He muttered a few words, pushed an envelope into my brother’s hand, and left. The envelope was stuffed with cash, a thousand dollars or more, perhaps. I had never seen that much money in one place before. That evening, when we gave the envelope to our father, he abruptly rushed off, returning a short time later empty-handed. I asked, “What happened?” My father said, “I returned it to him. I raised my hands over him, and, declared, ‘In front of God, I forgive you.’” I was not a follower of Christ then, and if anything wanted him use the money to buy all the things he said we couldn’t afford.
It would be many years later before I understood why my father did what he did. I heard the good news of Jesus Christ also as a young man, in college. I learned about God’s mercy, and grace, and forgiveness, his love for all of us. I learned about the Sermon on the Mount. I understand now, what my father did. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 19:19) Indeed, “Love your enemies… that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
My dad taught me one time, using his fingers to demonstrate [hooking index finger to thumb on each hand, and connecting the loops]: “When you live your life, it is like making a chain. Make sure every link is strong, because if even one is weak, the chain will break.” It’s another way of teaching that if you build a house, make sure you build on a solid foundation. Build on rock, not sand.
If you read his obituary, you’ll know that my dad worked for one of the largest and most respected construction companies in Hong Kong. One thing the company did was install pilings, long pilllars, essentially, driven deep into the ground, providing the foundation for skyscrapers to stand along Hong Kong’s mountainous terrain. As the purchasing manager, he controlled the flow of contracts, and so people came to him with food baskets, expensive gifts, probably even outright bribes, to curry his favor. He never accepted them. He acted with such integrity, that his Dutch boss trusted him with the financial discretion to conduct all but the largest transactions. He earned a reputation for being as solid, as dependable, uncorrupted and uncorruptable, as the respected pilings that his company put into the ground.
My father knew the value of a solid foundation, from the pilings that he helped put into the ground to anchor buildings in Hong Kong, to the foundation of rock upon which he built his life. It is on this foundation that he put aside his love of gambling, or the fine life, for the good of his family. It is on this foundation that he lent freely, generously, to all who asked, and forgave those who wronged him, even those who wronged us greatly.
My dad came from a poor family, one with low social standing. He did work hard, and was a capable, intelligent man. But his story is more than one of a hard-working immigrant who lived the American Dream. From an early age, his heart inclined towards God. He told me once, “One day, my mom (你的阿嬷) and I decided to explore the different religions.” He went to a little church in Wanchai (灣仔), where Methodist missionaries told him the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news that Jesus was not just a wise teacher but indeed, the Son of God, who came and died for our sins, and who offers eternal life to all who trust and follow him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) My father heard, and he followed.
My father always thought I was lucky. I am lucky, and eternally grateful that our Father in heaven gave me an earthly father who embodied so well, the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. He heard the words of Christ and put them into practice, building his life on a foundation of solid rock. And upon this foundation are his three children and nine grandchildren, thriving. Upon this foundation of rock is my mom. With him, she found a life away from the conflict and sadness of her own family, and came to a place of peace and reconciliation. With him, she fulfilled her own dreams—her children doing what she could not do, and she traveling the world with him as she had always dreamed of. Upon this foundation, we stand. We are the house that you built, and we are grateful for who you were and what you taught us.
So also for all those he blessed along the way with his kindness and generosity. Such that even his dialysis nurse would call my mom to say, “Usually, I comfort my patients and do my best to lift their spirits. But in the case of your husband, he comforted me and lifted my spirits.” And so we commend him, his children, his wife, all those he has touched, we commend his soul to our Lord in heaven. Amen.