I have envied my brothers’ and sisters’ command of our native language Vietnamese for some time now. My Vietnamese couldn’t catch up to his, and his English couldn’t reach mine. But I think he’s now at a place where that stubborn barrier of language doesn’t matter.

I’m grateful he can finally understand everything I’ve always wanted to say:

First, I love you; we love you. Ba, you did great. All of your family are in a good place. Your children all have wonderful families of their own now. We are blessed with loving husbands, wives, and beautiful children in our eyes; exactly the same way you felt with mom and us. By God’s will, love, and your determination, you kept us safely together from our journey from Laos, to the Thai refugee camp, and now here. You kept all nine of us — yourself, Grandma, Mom, Phuong, Phuoc, Huyen, Loc, Kim, and me, Danh — secure through that fraught trek across the world. You settled us into a new home — a home where you’ve watched us all grow, experienced our First Communions, graduations, marriages, babies, and a final goodbye to grandma. And now you say goodbye to us in this very home you’ve held so dear.

My father was Nguyen Van Ky, son of Nguyen Van Cam and Cao Thi Van. He was a loving husband, father of six, grandfather to eleven, loyal brother-in-law, uncle, and friend to many. He was a strong man. As my cousin Hoa once remarked, he had these thick, solid hands, and equally thick forearms. My father never knew a day without hard work since he was a boy growing up in Cambodia. He never stopped moving, working. He delivered supplies daily to my brother’s market well into his late age.

As a child, it felt like I was raised by a superhero.

Around 1976, our town in Laos was enveloped by a flood from the adjacent Mekong River. Too small to walk through the high waters, my father carried me atop his shoulders, uphill to our mother’s cousin’s house. We stayed there for days, waiting for the waters to subside. In the Thai refugee camp he took me jogging every morning. We rewarded ourselves afterwards with a Vietnamese iced coffee at a cafe.

He even played in a local soccer league.

One time, Dad forbade my brother, Loc, and I from watching him in a tournament. Naturally, we concocted a plan to sneak into the stadium. My brother suggested we trail behind an adult couple the right age, masquerading as their kids. It worked. We had to do it; he was our hero.

He moved mountains to escape the war and crossed continents while keeping us safely together. How difficult it must have been to leave the home and land he knew so intimately. How brave to create a new life from so little resources and no knowledge of the language. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like with eight people — women and children — under his watch, spiriting us away from dangerous lands, the cover of night our only shelter. The journey was terrifying, our unknown future equally so.

My father’s strength of will and character was enormous; his love for God, his family and people profound. It guided all his decisions in life. I never knew him to hold grudges. Once you were welcomed into his house, he loved you like one of his own. Such was the case for my wife and my siblings’ spouses. And such was the case for the foster brothers and sisters who lived with us through the years. I never saw him drink anything alcoholic. He did smoke until, all of a sudden, he didn’t.

My parents did not have much; they lived modestly and simply. There were times distant family relatives from Laos wrote, seeking help. My parents never hesitated to send aid. These were not loans. Such was the depth of their generosity.

In the early 1980s, after church service, my father and mother sometimes visited young men who had recently immigrated from Vietnam. The men always greeted him with great smiles, respectful gazes and reverence. Here was a man who carried with him the dignified strength of kindness and goodness. Perhaps they were reminded of their fathers they left behind?

My father loved and honored God every day. He never missed a Sunday Mass while his health allowed it. Beyond that, he prayed every day with my mother by his side. To Dad, everything that was good extended from the Lord. Every kind or generous act was from his Catholic learning and a merciful Christ.

Even to his last days he worried that he may not have been worthy enough to God’s eyes.

Did he live a good life? Did his faith waiver? Were some of his life wishes too selfish? Ba, I assure you, because you loved God so completely, he, in turn, loves you equally.

I’ve never known anyone in my life so easy to love, and so deservedly.

The other important thing: my father was a remarkably stylish man. I don’t know what his influences were, but he took great care in how he presented himself to the world. With his muscular physique, trademark fedora hat, artfully half-rolled shirt sleeves, leather band wristwatch, dark leather shoes and brown slacks, he was a striking, timeless image of a gentleman in the nostalgic mold. There are few photos, however. They were some of so many things lost in the war.

By miraculous chance, my sister Kim acquired a photo from a relative on one of her trips to Laos. It shows him in his late 20s or early 30s, elegantly dressed, three quarter profile, hands folded behind back, pensively looking off to the distance. It’s as dreamy as those you see of long past silver-screen idols. No wonder he caught my mom’s eyes.

But of course that wasn’t all she saw. As I grew older, I realized he had a deceptively sharp and penetrating sense of humor. One could laugh with him, but also catch a nugget of wisdom. He wasn’t easily fooled by people or things. There was often a loaded meaning to what he said. Growing up, sometimes I feared angering him, because of his quiet intensity, his serious nature. He could be a man of few words; that’s why when he said something it felt important and sincere. And oftentimes, quite hilarious.

I moved far away. In better days, I looked forward to his calls. He seemed less serious and put me at ease as I struggled to keep up with him. We broke through the language barriers sufficiently to laugh on the finer points.

So instead of saying goodbye, I’d rather say thank you. Thank you for teaching me and showing me the way. You taught me how to work hard, to care about my place in the world, how to be a good husband and father, and most importantly, how to love.

Rest easy Ba.

I will greatly miss your musical voice, one that comes from the south of Vietnam. That is a chapter I would love to hear more about when we meet again. But mostly, I will miss your embrace. This is the most painful if not impossible thing to accept. It calls for the most strength. And so I will stay strong, like you, so I can hear your voice again and to feel your arms about me. My comfort in the days ahead will come from imagining you peaceful and content in the living room, listening to your records or watching your beloved Vietnamese soap operas, waiting for mom to be done outside in the garden so you can sit and pray together. To me, you are not gone. The memory of you carrying me above the flooding waters 44 years ago is as fresh and sweet to me as it were yesterday. The sun is still beating on our backs, the water splashing violently around your legs, and I’m clinging around your neck. This will stay fresh and sweet five years from now, 10 years from now, and beyond.