The fact that my father passed away less than two weeks before Father’s Day doesn’t really make this any harder to write. I can’t imagine any way it would be easy. Still, as his health began to decline, I’ve had several weeks to begin to think about my father’s legacy and what he meant to me. On the surface, my father is an easy man to eulogize. He was a kind, gentle man with simple tastes. He was laid-back, non-confrontational, and never sought to be the center of attention, though he certainly loved to tell stories if you’d ask. He didn’t dress flashy, he didn’t spend a lot of money. He was clearly smart, whether you considered the book smarts of a PhD in Biochemistry or the savvy of a man who lived in multiple areas of multiple continents. He had many friends and no enemies. As the folks from our old Jewish neighborhood would say, he was a “mensch”.
But when you dig a little deeper, you really begin to understand what made him such a special man.
Circumstances made being Robin Khaund’s son a little difficult. His ridiculous 2.5 hour commute EACH WAY had some collateral damage on me as I wouldn’t see him in the morning as he left before I’d wake up and he wouldn’t get home until 7pm at night. In some ways, it’s easy to wonder how we became so close. What people probably didn’t realize was how dedicated he was to me with every minute we spent together. Sometimes, I think the greatest gift a parent can have is the ability to not take any moments for granted. My dad had that gift. A simple trip to the local mall became a bonding experience. We’d talk about anything or talk about nothing–but the important thing was that we talked. It was an easy dialog and, even as a teenager, spending time with my Dad was never a chore. It wasn’t like the parents that want to be their kid’s best friend–we weren’t peers and there was no question about that. Yet, I still wanted to spend time with him in the same way I wanted to spend time with friends. I always felt better after talking to him. Without preaching, he was constantly providing lessons in life. I recall some of those lessons vividly.
We all have those seminal moments in our life. You know, those critical times when a special word or comment or even lecture could change your life and make you who you are. When I was junior in high school and getting stressed out about exams and SATs and my college chances, my dad had heard enough. Still, he didn’t yell or get mad. That wasn’t his style. Instead, he looked me in the eye and said “Sandy, what happens if you fail? What happens if things don’t work out as you planned? The sun will still rise tomorrow. People will go on living their lives. Your mommy and I will still love you. What else is there to care about? If you don’t try, you have no one to blame but yourself. But if you do the best you can, we will all be proud of you.” I never forgot that talk. Accountability and perspective, all packaged in about 30 seconds of wisdom. That talk alone probably saves my blood pressure about 20 points to this day. Thanks to my father, I remember that the sun is still going to rise. That’s an incredibly liberating feeling and probably why he managed to stay on such an even keel through a life filled with highs and lows.
It was that calm, collected approach to life that made him such an easy person to talk to, whether you were his son, a friend, a coworker, or just some random person. Even his caregiver in his final days told me that she was sharing intimate details of her life with him and not even realizing it. He never passed judgment. He never condescended. He never told you what to do. He just made clarity out of complexity and then let you come to your own conclusions. The Indian Dr. Phil.
This continued well into adulthood. He was always my first call. The first call after I became a father for the first time. The first calls when I got accepted to Cornell and Wharton. The first call when I got to finally meet and present to Bill Gates. The first call when I got perfect 800 scores on the quantitative and analytical parts of the GRE (of course, his reaction was “so you got a 590 on verbal?”–ok, sometimes his expectations of me were high). These calls were not my need for approval, but a implicit expression of appreciation and understanding that none of these events would’ve happened without his love and support. He had the same exact reaction to every one of these calls: “Sandy, I am so proud of you.” I can’t think of a greater reward I’ve ever received in my life than those seven words.
Along those lines, the most remarkable thing about my father was that he defined unconditional support. I often made decisions about my life that didn’t align with his expectations of me, yet he never wavered in encouraging me and cheering me on. He knew that as long as I remembered the lessons he taught me along the way, I would find my path to what I was meant to do. Unlike my brother, who pretty much knew what he wanted to do by the age of five, my path was long and my father always showed tremendous amount of patience as I looked for my calling. In recent years, he used to joke about my phase where I was convinced I wanted to be a sportswriter. He laughed as he’d share how he was truly nervous about that possibility, thinking he might lose his kid that was so destined to become an engineer. The funny part is, I don’t recall him being nervous when I was in that phase. In fact, he encouraged me to write for the school newspaper and even apply for a journalism scholarship. Whether it was faith in me or faith in fate, he knew that the most important thing he could do was lend his support and put his trust in me.
But we all grow older (as my friend likes to say, it beats the alternative). I didn’t have as much time for him and we diverged politically, which made for some tense conversations. You can almost hear “Cats & The Cradle” play in the background. There were times he’d absolutely frustrate me and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. But then, there were those moments of clarity when it all just clicked. Last June, I was deciding what to do next with my career and started talking to him during one of our brunch outings. Twenty minutes later, I realized that the job didn’t exist, but I had a path to make it happen. Suddenly, I’m strategizing on how to make this dream role a reality over dessert. Again, clarity out of complexity–even as he hobbled on a cane and needed my help to get out of his chair. Whenever I had to count on him, he never stopped delivering.
The end wasn’t sudden. He knew it was coming and he was at peace with it, and so was I. We had a long, wonderful talk where we effectively said our goodbyes. He reminded me how lucky he considered himself to have two sons like me and my brother. He told me that my greatest accomplishment wasn’t any degree or financial success, but rather finding an amazing wife like Cherise. He talked of the joys of getting to know his granddaughters. And in the end, he had no regrets and nothing left to prove. We should all be so lucky. I reminded him that anything I’ve done successfully as a father was pure emulation of what I received from him. I told him that my numerous degrees were a reflection of the importance he placed on education. And I reminded him that I had already honored him with the greatest tribute possible–naming my precious second daughter after him. And then I told him a joke. It was his favorite joke from when I was 9 years old. Before I hit the punchline, he knew what was coming and let out a big grin and I was reminded of what a joy it was to make him smile. At that moment, all was right with the world. He passed away three days later.
His passing was actually somewhat poetic. His body simply could no longer contain his outsized spirit. Hinduism describes as the spirit as eternal and the body as a temporary vessel that houses that spirit. When I was explaining my dad’s passing with Iris, we talked about this concept and I assured her that spirit will live on somewhere else, providing the same love that he so beautifully shared with us for years. I don’t know if that made her feel better, but definitely did something for me.
The morning after my dad passed, I woke up and looked outside. Just as he promised, the sun rose once again and I was lying next to the woman I love while hearing the footsteps of two awesome little girls chasing around our adorable puppy. I’m the very definition of a blessed man. But my Dad was wrong. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there are some events that do change everything. I no longer have my first call. I no longer have that source of unconditional support. What I do have is a commitment to carry out his legacy and continue to make use of the gifts he gave me, not to mention pass them along to my daughters. I gladly accept that commitment and hope that my actions can, one day, reap one final reward from above: “Sandy, I am so proud of you”.