Today – Jan 11, 2015, I found the video selfie of earlier the day below and uploading it here.
(Dateline: Shanghai, Feb 16, 2009)
My father would have been ninety-four years old today had he not died of a heart-attack on a foggy Halloween night nine years ago in the emergency room of a small hospital in southern New Jersey.
As it was, by reaching eighty-four, he had more than exceeded the actuarial predictions for a life begun in the middle of World War I as the pampered youngest of fourteen children of a former officer in China’s last Imperial Army.
An alumnus of both China’s top science school, Tsing Hua University in Beijing, and its elite secondary school, Nankai High School in Tianjin – which produced both Zhou En-lai, Mao’s successor, and the current Premier, Wen Jiabao – my father became an expert in vegetable oil refining and part of the Chinese expatriates who developed the soybean industry in Brazil.
I try to imagine what kind of a ninety-three year-old he would have been: bed-ridden or active, muted or alert, palsied or paralyzed by a stroke (his worse fear), incoherent from dementia (my worse fear), or just a slower version of the father I had always known. At eighty, he had gone para-sailing at a beach resort in Thailand; the weekend before his death, he was still the designated driver on an outing to New York City with his circle of friends. The trajectory of these nine extra years could have gone either way, but I’d like to think that he would have been one of the lucky.
Today, in Shanghai, while heading into the Yu Yuan Garden complex, I stumbled into the courtyard of the City God Temple of Shanghai, founded in 1403 during the Ming Dynasty. It’s a Taoist center now, run by Taoist priests, and emphasizes Taoist spirituality. (I say “stumbled” because I both tripped over the raised threshold (which keeps ghosts from entering) and accidentally skipped past the door-keepers – an unsmiling woman and a much gentler older man – without paying and had to be called back with a stern look. Very mortifying…)
It was when I returned inside again – after paying – and saw people buying and burning bundles of incense sticks, that I connected how appropriate it was to be in that place on his birthday. He and my mother had spent the immediate post-war years (1945 – 1949) in Shanghai: had it not been for the Communist takeover in ’49, I would likely have been born there instead of Hong-Kong, a few years later.
I had been thinking for days on how to memorialize and pay my respects and it seemed very right to send birthday wishes to him from the temple. I bought a bundle of incense, peeled off the wrapping, lit it from the common brazier, and then stood at each of the four “stations” in the courtyard and bowed, before putting the sticks into the common vessel.
Afterwards, as I walked around inside the main building, I missed him terribly yet felt very connected at the same time. (I don’t know what’s harder: being an only child when I was young or now as an adult. Both have their moments of almost-unbearable existential loneliness.)
I was struck by how emotional I felt/feel today and realized that his absence is intensified by my being so far from home for so long this trip. (I have now been in Shanghai one week and have two more to go before returning.) My only blood-relation that matters is Julia and I see her too infrequently – and only for a few days each except on our trips – now that she lives hours away and making her own life. Such are the times into which we have been born….
Is this “progress” from less-than a hundred years ago, when both Chinese and American families were more inter-generational, extended, and living in close proximity to each other?