It is a well known fact that Chinese culture contains much superstition in their traditions and belief system. I am the product of resounding reminders of some of these superstitions. Growing up, my Father was very mindful of many these ancient rules of consequence. One of the subjects of major superstition and consequence has to do with death. Even as I wrote the last sentence, I could feel my Father turn in his grave and tell me to “STOP, you cannot write about that! It’s bad luck!” The Chinese people are very weary of the number 4, because in the Chinese language, the word death sounds much the same as the number 4. So to avoid confusion, we just stay away from the number 4 as much as we can, we like the number 8 much more. The number 8 has long been regarded as the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Pronounced ‘Ba’ in Chinese, the number 8 sounds similar to the word ‘Fa’, which means to make a fortune and contains meanings of prosperity, success and high social status
So while I could not talk about death as a young boy, the subject of death lingered over me my whole childhood. Let me explain. My Father was 65 years old when I was born (yes absorb that), and most of the Westerners (non-Chinese) in my life would make comments to me from the time I was a very small child, pointing out to me that my Father was very old and possibly near death. Let me share some examples with you.
“Oh that is your Father? I thought he was your Grandfather. Well he sure looks healthy, I am sure he will live to be much older.”
“Your Father is how old? (Let’s say I was 5 and he was 70) Oh my, I sure hope he lives to see you grow up to be a young man.”
“Your Father is very old, do you know that? He could die any time now.”
I never got these types of comments from our Chinese friends, either because age was not relative to them or because of the superstition that came with discussing death. I never knew how to respond to these people, but remember living my early childhood in fear that my Father would die any day, at any moment, despite the fact that he was the healthiest man anyone knew. He worked very long days, building his restaurant business and taking care of us. He worked 7 days a week and never had a sick day in his life that I can remember. He had no surgeries, no knee or hip replacements, no broken bones and while he butchered meat everyday at work, he never had a cut or needed a band-aid.
As concerned as I was that he was about to die and leave me any minute, I could never discuss it with him. One day I decided to bring it up, saying to him, “Dad, what will happen to me if you die?” He became very angry, and told me to shut up! “Son, you should never discuss such a foolish thing, it’s bad luck! Don’t talk about this!” That was the last time I brought it up for many years.
I can remember coming home from school some days late and my Father would be sitting in his arm chair with the news paper on his lap open and his head tilted to the side. I would immediately wonder if he was dead. My heart would begin to pound and I would nervously walk up to him to see if I could catch a glimpse of him breathing. A few times he awoke and the sight of me there nearly did scare him to death, and me too.
So eventually my childhood fear of his impending death subsided and actually turned into an unrealistic belief that my Father would never die. When I was 10 he was 75, when I was 20 he was 85 and still going strong – nothing had changed. I was the boy with the immortal Father. I began living recklessly as 20-somethings will do and he began to live more carefully. Suddenly the tables turned and he became concerned for my well-being, my safety and my ability to live a long life.
I remember my Father’s 90th birthday. To him, it was no more significant than any other birthday. At 90, he didn’t wobble with a walker nor was he living in a senior living center. In fact he was still the same man I knew as a boy, shopping, cooking, eating great Chinese food and laughing. He had a great laugh. Still there was this one subject we could not discuss. Here was the deal for me, I had never lost anyone, other than my mother who died giving birth to me, which really does not count since I did not mourn her as I never really knew her. I do think her passing was a part of my Father’s adamant belief about not talking about the subject, but I’ll never really know.
So as I was saying, I was 25 years old, and had never really lost anyone and was not prepared to deal with the matter. So once more I attempted to bring it up to my Father. I carefully said, “Dad, what am I suppose to do about a funeral? How do I take care of those arrangements and is there even money to do that if anything should ever happen to you?” The same rage appeared in his face as it had 20 years earlier and you would have thought that I had just put the curse of death on him. He refused to discuss the matter and it was never mentioned again.
My Father died in his sleep 2 years later, at the age of 92. I was blessed to have been there with him, holding his hand and talking to him. What followed was unexpected. I was able to put together a wonderful memorial, a simple tribute, but meaningful to me. However on that day, I was inconsolable as the loss was so dramatic and I could not believe what I was feeling. I thought I would never gain control of myself again. To this day I have never experienced anything like it. I was so taken by surprise by his passing, not because I was not aware of how deep my love for my Father was, but because I thought that I was prepared for that moment from a very young age. I could not understand how I was not prepared for the sense of loss that consumed me. Time and the love of friends, along with my sense of self and my memories of my Father, helped to eventually heal my broken heart. I continued to live a life that I felt would honor him and make him proud.
Recently my five-year-old son Tino, looked at me in the mirror when we were getting ready for bed and asked me if I will ever die? He had that valid look of concern that I remember so clearly.
I momentarily froze, and my throat seized up, because of course I wanted to tell him that was nonsense and that we should never discuss such things. But my son is a Disney afficianado, and Disney has done a fine job of teaching our children that unforeseen death and the loss of parents can happen. Mufasa, was killed by his brother Scar when Simba was a boy in the Lion King. Nemo lost his mother before he was born and raised by his dad Marlin, much like myself. Bambi’s mother was hunted and killed before Bambi’s eyes while trying to save him. Hiro looses his brother in an explosion in Big Hero Six and they were are already orphaned and living with their aunt. So I know too well that Tino understands the idea conceptually.
“Tino our plan is to be together for as long as we can, and to love each other from now to infinity and beyond. When we love each other deep, deep in our hearts we will never have to be apart.”
Honestly, I don’t really have any real answers when it comes to loss, or passing or the “D” word. If I did, I would be the next Dali Lama. I just don’t want my son to live with the same fear about it that I did, and at the same time, I don’t think you can really prepare yourself or anyone for that matter, for the pain that comes with loss of a love one. The only thing we can do is focus and concentrate on the living today and enjoy those who are in our lives.
Recently a number of people I know have had to say good-bye to someone they loved. A friend lost her husband, another her dad, and another her son. I feel deeply for what they are going through. And as I thought about how once a year we wish people a “Happy New Year!” and it occurred to me, maybe it’s a practice we should apply to our daily lives. We should wake up every day and say “Happy New Day!” and tell those that we care about, how much they mean to us, because we never know how much time we have together and we should cherish every moment with the ones we love.
In loving memory of my Father.