[May 2012, California]
The chief of staff stepped in as we stood around Dad’s bed, talking. His white mustache hid his lips, nose twitching when he spoke.
“Your dad is dying,” he said. “His organs are shutting down. Let’s talk about moving him somewhere else.”
Mom and I followed him to the hall, not knowing what else to do. We found and settled into a bank of chairs across from the nurses’ station. Last Saturday Dad had hiked for three hours as usual, but in the afternoon he’d felt some pain in his sides. He went for a checkup. Cancer. Stage 4.
“Where should we move?” we asked.
“Somewhere else,” he said. “This is Scripps Memorial Hospital, not Mayo Clinic. His organs are shutting down, dying. I don’t want him here… Hospice, whatever, you pick… He needs pain management.”
Mom folded her hands into her lap and lowered her head, studying the freckles on the backs of her hands.
“Can you rephrase things? You are upsetting my mom,” I said.
“But you must face truth. It will do you good, in the long run.” He said, patting my knees. Mom rocked back and forth; her legs shook. I sent her home to get some sleep.
My brother Brian and his wife Grace had stayed in the room and were watching Dad sleep when I returned. “Go fetch your boys from school and make dinner,” I said, sitting down next to Dad’s bed. Then it was just Dad and me. I looked down and saw his shoulders poking through the wide gaps in his blue hospital gown.
The hospital air conditioner clicked on, gently moving strands of Dad’s hair, still thick and glossy, graying. The sun slanted across the window, washing away already muted colors in the room—pale green walls, sandy beige carpet, blond wood furniture, lots of whites. He shifted and a hand fell, dangling at the side of his bed. I picked it up, examining the spots gathered there over the years.
* * *
Before I learned to walk, Dad plopped me onto his shoulders and let me ride the crossbar on his bicycle. Mom showed me these pictures, black and white versions of Beijing in the late 1970s. In one, we stood facing the borrowed camera with wide smiles, innocent eyes, and matching Mao suits. Mom held Brian, while Dad clutched onto me. The TianAnMen gate stood in the background, a revolutionary red, somehow, against a palette of grays.
I don’t remember taking the photo, but I remember riding on Dad’s bicycle. Dad was in charge of dropping me off at a weekly care center. The wind scraped my face raw and dry, biting my ears. While I sat on the crossbar, he leaned over me, forming a shelter, a protective alcove. I buried my face in my hands. The wind didn’t howl as much after that.
I hardly cried as a child, but I couldn’t let go of his hands at the end of the journey, inventing a game of tug of war with his sleeve. Chinese parents did not hug. So he patted me on the shoulder, peered into my eyes, and smiled. Silence fell over us, interrupted by the howling wind.
Among a forest of cribs, between the ages of one and five, I spent the weeks at the Children’s Garden. I imagined Dad lost on his way back, waiting and longing for him to find me again. Mom told me they found my crib covered with nail marks, tiny crescents pressed deep into the soft railings, a thousand smiles and frowns. I didn’t understand why it took him so long to come back. Time played tricks on my nerves. After a while, I stopped looking.
* * *
Mom came back to the hospital that evening armed with a stack of new research. Several clinical trials had turned us down, and Dad qualified for few others, so we turned to surgery. The chief of staff cornered mom and me in the hall the next day.
“What’s the point?” he said.
“He was healthy enough to climb a mountain last week. What do you mean what’s the point?” I said.
“He has cancer. He will die if we cut him,” he said.
“He will die if you don’t,” I said.
We went back and forth in this loop a few more times, stuck. Mom wandered off, called away by a nurse to sign another form.
He folded his hands across his chest, peering up at me. “I will feel better about this, if you are, say, willing to give me a hug.” With that, he opened his arms, eyes expectant.
His white coat felt scratchy, cold and stiff under my fingers.
“I will send in Dr. Brashear for a surgical consult tomorrow.”
Dad came home one night, a tattered book in hand.
“What is that?” I stretched my neck towards his desk, where he had set the book down.
He told me about Dickens then, and that he was using it to learn English.
“Oh, can I read it?”
He promised to translate the original text into Chinese as he read.
“After dinner,” he said.
It sounded important, this business of learning English. We stayed quiet, letting him read. After dinner we put away the dishes, swept the floor; mom capped the fire with a new block of beehive coal. I set down some folding stools for reading. Our one-room dwelling felt cramped and cozy, with most of the space taken up by two beds, a desk and a tall dresser. The dining table folded up and remained standing beside Brian’s bunk bed.
So we huddled next to the stove under the light. Its dark chamber glowed red, making my face hot. Mom sliced up pears, and placed them in a bowl on the floor. I forgot to eat as the story grew thick and Dad’s lips grew dry. There they sat in the bowl when I turned in to bed that night, white slices of sweet and tang.
Dad could use that, I had thought. But he didn’t touch them, saving them for me.
“They are good for your cough,” he’d say.
Once or twice, around Chinese New Year, he brought home a live chicken. Squatting in the small opening of the Beijing courtyard (SiHeYuan) we lived in, he slit the chicken’s throat in one swift slash and held its head back so blood drained neatly into a bowl he’d placed underneath. Then, he dipped the chicken into boiling water and plucked its feathers. The stench made me gag, but I stayed close. I tried to fish for a bright green feather, but the water burned me. He shooed me away, skin red and puckering on his hand.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Old skin. Tougher”.
After hours of cooking, Mom would put away the chicken stock so she could add more water to it for another night. The stock lasted weeks during the cold winter months, sometimes longer, and Mom served it until the soup tasted like dishwater.
But on that first night we ate the meat fresh, legs for Brian, breast for Mom and me. Dad ate the rest—the head, neck, and the heart. “Those are the delicacies, my favorite,” he told us.
* * *
Dr. Brashear was tall and lean, olive-skinned. Trained in Cambridge, he spoke with a lovely accent. His online profile established him as the expert in surgery of the digestive tract, where Dad’s cancer resided.
The surgery didn’t take long. Did that give me hope? I only knew he sauntered in, his steps muffled by green surgical slippers. He sat down, held Mom’s hands, and leaned close.
“I am really sorry, but there is nothing I could do for him.” He said. “His stomach cavity is covered with tumors.”
“Can’t you remove them?” Mom asked.
“It wouldn’t do any good.” Dr. Brashear answered. “Ten will grow as soon as I remove one.”
Mom rubbed a hand over her tummy, her soft voice interrupted by hiccups. Brian massaged her back. I handed her a cup of warm water.
“Are you okay, Mrs. Lee?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just get this, uh, -gah. How big, are- uh, -the tumors?”
“The smallest are the size of my pinkies,” He made a line across the top of his finger to show us a pea-sized fraction. “The biggest are like grapefruits.”
I stared at Mom’s hair, sunlight rinsing through it, revealing patches of orange. Brian’s face stayed blank, until he covered it with his hands. I pictured Dad cold, alone, still too numb to hear any of this.
* * *
Dad never finished telling me the story of David Copperfield. I remembered it as the year of silence, as he demanded it whenever he was home. And whenever he was home, he studied, mouthing English words late into the night. Brian and I learned to stay out or breathe quietly, except at dinnertime. Silence stretched out between Dad and me, growing into a wall we couldn’t climb.
A year later Dad left, bound for a new job in America.
“Don’t ask any questions, and don’t tell the neighbors,” Mom whispered one day.
I had learned to rebel by then, years ahead of schedule. I shrugged off his departure, not thinking of questions to ask, and not missing the sight of him walking down the narrow paths of the courtyard, whistling foreign tunes.
Two years later, Mom joined him in America. After high school, I joined Mom in San Diego. Dad had returned to China on a semi-permanent basis then, establishing a consultancy in Asia Pacific. I shrugged again, letting life settle into me at predictable beats. School, work, marriage.
When my son Nick turned three, I left a failing marriage and moved into a compact condo. A few months, maybe a year went by before I did anything to the place or invited guests over. One day, Mom and Dad came. Mom fired up the kitchen, while Dad took Nick outside to examine the two strips of dirt framing my new patio. A few minutes later, Nick wobbled back in.
“Mama! Grandpa and I, we are going to plant stuff!”
“Grandpa said. We are going to buy the store. Bye!”
Dad waved before they both disappeared. Mom shook her head, smiling.
Half an hour later, I looked out the window and saw them at it, digging up dirt and splashing water. A rose bush sat next to their feet, bare branches stretching up from a small nest of dirt. Dad’s legs quivered from age, back bending up and down like an arched bow. His salt-and-pepper hair drew streams near Nick’s sandy curls, their heads close like conspiring thieves. The rose looked hopeless, weepy and sparse. Dad and Nick patted down loose soil until it hugged the rose tight. Then they sprinkled down some water. Both dressed in blues from a morning’s outing, church perhaps, or a brunch.
I rushed to take a photo.
* * *
After surgery, we followed Dad back to his room, the chief of staff on our heels. “Now are you ready to move? Did Dr. Brashear explain things to you? He is dying. You need to be prepared.”
Mr. Donnelley, the patient in the next bed, yelped, “Let me out, let me out!” He exposed his catheter when I stepped closer, shouting in a loud voice.
The chief of staff turned away from Mr. Donnelley, facing us and getting ready for his next round of the “move to the hospice” speech. Mom pressed her lips together, staring hard at his face. His nose twitched. She stepped forward, forcing him to back off—one, two, three more steps until he was out of the room with her. Then she shouted, “St-o-p!”
She lifted her arms high, making her five-foot stature taller. “Please stop telling my husband he is dying. You are killing him… We have a lawyer… and he will hear this. Do you hear?”
He heard. He turned. He left.
The next day, Dad moved into a private room in the corner. Brian chuckled for the first time in weeks when I told him the story.
There was even a small table, and some chairs, room for friends to visit. He seemed comforted for a while, even eating a meal once.
Nick visited the following Saturday, after his symphony orchestra practice. He brought his violin and performed Vivaldi’s concerto for Dad. A tall and lanky ten-year-old, Nick drew a crowd of doctors, nurses, visitors and patients. They clapped for him at the end. Dad stretched his neck a little, so I could see how his skin folded now, loose, sharp against his still smooth face. Sickness climbed behind his muddled eyes, making his gaze glassy. Yet I knew he heard every note, and all the rests in between.
His whistling came back to me then, hours on Sundays listening to Beethoven, morning to night just before he left for America. He had gotten the vinyl and a record player, perhaps the first in the courtyard neighborhood we cramped into with thirty other families. He whistled beautifully wherever he went, so incessantly I memorized the tunes myself.
At the end of the piece, Nick leaned over his Grandpa, forming an alcove, a loose hug, an innocent harbor of protection, embracing him in a way I never did.
[June 2012, Scripps Memorial Hospital, California]
“It’s almost Father’s Day.” I said.
Dad was watching slideshows of the ocean in his room. “Perhaps I can take you to the beach on Father’s day,” I said. “See the ocean.”
He paused the TV and turned to me.
“We will just have to get you a wheelchair.”
“I won’t need you to push me,” he replied, eyes full of mischief, and of a spirit I remembered. He ate half a cup of chicken soup that day.
But his body refused to process it. His stomach swelled like a basketball until solid bits of food drained from his catheter, along with brown fluids.
Soon his bones protruded, skin hanging loose for want of padding. Deep furrows locked into his brows. No voice but husky whispers. Not even that.
The chief of staff sent in representatives from a hospice. Pain management, comfort, no more struggles. We nodded to their quiet words, signing our names on the dotted line. Mom drove home alone that day, sobbing until she reached my door.
The hospice allowed an extra bed for family to stay overnight, so Brian and I took turns sleeping in dad’s room. A stench of decay filled the room, those catheters.
“Sorry,” he said, whenever I stirred at night, at the sound of his coughs, grunts of effort at turning over. I got up to get him ice, to adjust the morphine drips or turn him onto his other side. Brian did those things without the nurse’s help, and massaged his legs all night sometimes.
One morning I realized it was Father’s Day. The garden below his room offered fresh blooms and sprigs of herbs, so I gathered them into a cup by his bed. He woke in good spirits, stuffing his nose deep into the bundle I had collected. The room overlooked a scenic stretch of the city, with a golf course on one side and a bustling cluster of shops on the other. Bands of highway overpasses threaded with streams of cars, dazzling with purpose as they swooshed from one place to another.
“Can you see…Beach?” he asked once I finished describing his “fantastic view”. His words choked me, as I remembered my promise and his once fighting spirit before “pain management” took over. He seemed to remember also, propping himself up, stretching his neck toward the window, and peered from those once distant and once familiar eyes. I took a few moments to compose an answer, but failing in the end.
“No,” I shook as I told him. “The ocean is just beyond the golf courses and the buildings of the shops, though. Do you recognize them? We had lunch there once. Perhaps if you squinted towards the lowest and farthest blue lines of the sky, you would see the edge of the ocean.”
He slumped down and clicked the button for more morphine. The light that had shone in his eyes for a few moments dimmed, and I would later find out that I would never see it again. I sat by his side as he fell back into a quiet haze, wishing and wanting to say something, anything. But I was afraid.
* * *
Flipping through old photos recently, I came across the one of Dad and Nick planting that first rose. I looked out the window, and found twelve blooms on the bush. Red and white rose petals interleaved, curving like smiles. I had forgotten that first day of conspiracy, and the life that had sprung out of unsightly patches of neglect.
The photo told a different story, making sense of neglected spaces in my mind, calling alive memories. Memories of Dad pulling apart that chicken, of watery old soup, of spicy cabbages, sour yogurt and sweet pears. Memories of him curving over me, blocking out wind and cold.
Memories of me tugging on his sleeves, urging him to stay.
Tina D’Amore’s writing reflects on her childhood memories in China as well as her current life in the US. She lives in a California seaside town and refuses to divulge its exact location. Having spent a number of years traveling the globe, she now enjoys being mom to her almost teenaged son and a mediocre swimmer. She received her MBA in 2013. Her work has appeared in University of Wisconsin’s Women in REDZine.