Monday, October 1, 2012

To Dad on the day of his retirement

I just got off the phone with my dad this morning. It was the last time I'll dial his work number, as today is his last day of work at Case Western Reserve University. He has had a long career there - 35 years working as a cancer researcher.

Over the years, we've had hundreds of phone calls while he was at work at CWRU. In junior high and high school, Dad would call every weekday afternoon to make sure we got home OK. "Remember to make rice," he would gently remind me and my sister.

For the past several years, Dad has talked about retiring and he would always say it was going to happen in a few months. And then, he'd say it would happen after a research grant ran out. And then after another research grant ran out. And then he'd casually mention that he was applying for new research grants. Finally, we stopped asking about his supposed retirement because we never thought it would actually happen. 

When my dad told me today would be his last day, I was surprised. I asked him if he was happy about retiring and starting a new chapter in his life. He was quiet. I thought he might feel liberated and excited to plan new adventures, but instead, he seemed rather sad. I should have understood why.

Looking back, I think about everything my father's career provided for our family. His job led us to move from Canada to the United States, allowing us a clear path to permanent residence and, eventually, American citizenship. I remember when we first moved to Cleveland, Ohio on a cloudy gray day. My dad's supervisor took us out for pizza at Geraci's, where I tasted anchovies for the first time. We settled into a rented duplex in Cleveland Heights on a leafy street with lots of kids my age. 

Dad and a dinosaur at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Dad's job led us to lots of time spent at University Circle: art lessons and exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, trips to see dinosaur bones at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, music recitals at The Music Settlement and the Cleveland Institute of Music. My sister and I loved visiting Dad's lab and examining the setup and equipment, especially the Geiger counter, centrifuge and microscope. Sometimes, he would bring home toys for us: test tubes, pipettes, Petri dishes and colored masking tape. 

The most valuable benefit of Dad's job, undoubtedly, was the remarkable undergraduate education I received at CWRU. Admittedly, as a high school senior, I felt a little disappointed knowing I would be staying so close to home for college. I took it for granted how lucky I was to have a free college education. Dad didn't. 

One day during my sophomore year, he called me at my dorm room. Even though we were both on campus, we rarely made plans to get together. He summoned me to meet for lunch in the hospital atrium, where we had a pointed discussion about my subpar grades that semester. All my life, my mom has been the Tiger parent in the family. Dad has been pretty selective about his Tiger parent moments. That was one of them.

It took a while, but eventually, I got serious about my studies as an English major. I found wonderful faculty mentors who encouraged me to become a writer. I took a class, The Immigrant Experience, that deeply resonated with me. I felt blessed to be part of such a culturally rich CWRU community.

On the day I graduated from CWRU, Dad was flying back from a work conference. We were hoping he would make it back in time for him to get on stage to award me my diploma, but it didn't happen. He did get there in time to change into his cap and gown, though, and it was really great to see him afterward, both of us wearing our graduation robes.

Ten years after I graduated, I started working on campus at CWRU. Following my dad's footsteps, I brought my kids to work sometimes and took them to various campus activities. Some of my favorite campus memories are of three generations of our family participating in university traditions. When my oldest son was four, my mom, dad and I took him to Halloween at the Farm, an annual campus event with a giant bonfire, live music, fall foods and pumpkin carving. 

Five years ago, I called my dad and summoned him to meet in the hospital atrium. We had a quick, excited exchange before I had to dash off for my scheduled c-section. Dad went off to work in his lab. At lunch time, he came to my hospital room to meet his second grandchild. And then he went back to work. After work, he and my mom returned again, this time with flowers (and homemade Chinese food).

CWRU is a special place for our family. It's where I earned my undergraduate degree, my husband earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, and his father earned his graduate degree. It's where I worked for eight years and made lots of great friends. It's home for us. For the first time in 35 years, we will not have a single family member studying or working on campus any more. Dad was the first and the last. 

Well done, Dad! We are so proud of you!


Claire said...

Lisa, this is lovely. And I can't help but wonder why it took us so many years to meet! I have childhood memories of being on campus (in my mom's office or my dad's lab), Octoberfest, fishing at the farm, and family dinners in the hospital cafeteria (wha?). And then there's the shared Canadian emigration experience . . . But seriously, thank you for reflecting on this. Sometimes we take these occasions and experiences for granted, too. Congratulations to your dad!

Lisa Chiu said...

Claire, thanks for your note. I can't believe it took so long for us to meet too! I hope my dad will follow your parents' example in traveling and staying young at heart. :)

Sandy Piderit said...

This is a delightful tribute. I know that the transition to retirement is a gradual process, and I am sure that your dad will find new ways to stay active and still connected to the university.

I love the two mini-stories about meeting for lunch before your c-section, and going to the Halloween bonfire at Squire Valleevue Farm. We loved the latter event!

I hope that life on the other side of the bay is enjoyable for you and your guys.


PS: Claire, please say hi to your folks for me sometime...

Lisa Chiu said...

Sandy, thanks for leaving a comment! I think the first time I met you, in fact, was at Claire's mom's retirement party. We are enjoying life in California and really should get together some time!

Sandy Piderit said...

I would love to get together. I'm in the middle of a teaching quarter right now, but that wraps up in early December. Maybe then, or maybe early next year sometime...