Donald Liu, a pediatric surgeon at The University of Chicago Medicine, died in early August after attempting to save two children who had fallen out of a kayak in Lake Michigan. A Chinese convert to Judaism, Liu is survived by his wife, Dana Suskind, and by his children: Genevieve, 13; Asher, 10, and Amelie, 7. The family traveled to Shanghai the month before Liu’s death for Genevieve’s bat mitzvah. The following is Genevieve’s remembrance of her father:
My father passed away as he was saving two drowning children in Lake Michigan. The tragedy was shocking and devastating, but in some ways it was not out of character, because he died being the savior that he was when he was alive, saving hundreds of thousands of kids from life-threatening diseases through his discoveries and surgical brilliance. To me, he was the best father anyone could ask for. For example, he sent me to a very expensive camp for four weeks, only to drive there four days later to make sure I was okay. He brought me home that same day and did not make me feel shame or embarrassment. (Not to mention the camp was a 9.5-hour drive there and back.)
He was the best friend with which to giggle at the stupidity of social hierarchy in middle school; somehow he could always make you laugh. He was also a hero to my brother; he always came home from around 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. to practice his pitching, or to attend a baseball game. He would then leave after dinner to put in a full night’s work.
The trait that stood above all his others, and made all his other traits possible, was that he was a father with eternal love for his wife and his kids. The night before my bat mitzvah, when we were all making toasts, he said that I taught him eternal love. I don’t think so, though. I think that he knew what love was all along, even though there was a barricade around his family that his parents wouldn’t fight through to give him that love. He taught me how to love, all the love that he had around him made him love everyone around him more, and live the life that he lead. To love is to be loved. The funny thing is, I never, even when I got mad at him, doubted that I loved him.
I never doubted that he loved me, either. I still remember on my bat mitzvah day, the way dad approached the bimah. He put his arm around my shoulders. “Genevieve,” he said, his eyes teary and his nose stuffy, “you taught me eternal love, and I have a story for you: There was a time when one of my greatest mentors was dying. He sat me down and told me: ‘Don I’m dying, I need you to do one thing for me.’ Being the young resident that I was, I anxiously nodded my head like his little puppy dog.
‘Anything, anything,’ I said. ‘Please,’ he asked, ‘take this letter and put it in the Wailing Wall for me.’ I took the letter, and a month later, your mom and I went to Israel to put the letter in the Wailing Wall, but I was always curious what it said, so I opened the letter. It said two things, the first something along the lines of, ‘I hope my children are successful in life,’ which all parents hope for, and the second that ‘I pray that my children know that I love them.’ That’s what I always want my children to know, that I will always love each one of them eternally.” He gave me a big fat kiss and a tight squeeze and left the bimah.
What devastates me the most is the fact that some people are so great, so much bigger than all of us, that we can have them in our lives for only so long. I feel as if it should be the other way around: Some people are so great, they should live forever. It’s a hard fact to accept, but in some ways — actually in all ways — my father cheated death. He will live eternally through his memory and his model for living. My brother, my sister, my mother and I will all continue with life and live on, because that’s what he would have wanted. If anything, he would be sad to see us shut ourselves out of life. I am sad for our family, but we are still one unit of five.
I am especially sad for my father. His life was more fulfilled than anyone’s, but he surely could have had many great years ahead of him with my mother, as a grandfather, finishing life together with his true love. It pains me to think of how much I miss him, and need him. This horrible tragedy and experience has made me realize a few things: first, how much I love my father, and how much he loves me, which I guess I knew all along; second, that I should live like my father did, like he was dying. In reality you can know and live in only the here and now, so focus on that. Third, and more than anything else, that I would never trade those 13 years for an eternity with another father.
My Father the Hero