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The International Writers Magazine: Life & Death

What Matters
Dying with Dignity & China memories

I guess we will never know what really matters about our lives and what doesn’t until the day we literally lie on our death bed and count the days!

Nobody teaches you how to face your mortality when you go through all the struggles of becoming an adult (whatever that means), and when you first discover a grey hair on your head or simply marvel at the energy of a young person running next to you on the treadmill, the shock can not be easily passed. But the biggest knock on the head happens when you witness someone you love dying! And when that happens, whatever matters in your life will never be the same!

I made a visit to my childhood friend Gina recently; we have known each other since the first grade. She and her family are a big part of my fond memories from those days, particularly her mother, she was a career woman, always elegantly dressed and spoke beautiful Mandarin which Gina obviously inherited (she has long been a respectable anchor woman on local TV channels). Her mother is dying of cancer. She appeared very frail when I saw her but carried herself with a sense of pride and spoke humorously as usual! I brought a bouquet of carnations for her and we chatted for a little while, I told her what I remembered of her from my childhood and about a trip she took us to, she dressed me up with a pair of pink pants and a pink hair band on my head (which my mom would never dressed me with) and we took pictures in a park. Those pictures store permanent in my memory I told her, and before I left, she said she would take me to the park again and put on a pink hair band for me next time I come visit!

Later Gina wrote me and tells me that her mother was in good spirits after I left, she didn’t say much but she managed to have appetite to eat (she couldn’t eat most of time)! A person so proud as she is, Gina says, there was a great comfort knowing her best self had been witnessed and remembered!

The last days of my father were quite different; he was 80 at the time, suffering from one of the worst pain caused by liver cancer. He was a man with much passion about life, he wanted to savor every little thing he enjoyed, he requested all kinds of his favorite food that doctor forbid (he cried out "What difference would that make I am dying anyway!") he asked to go people watching in the market and for excursions on long bus rides. His sense of taste was long gone by then and he could hardly move about without help! He was a man with a big appetite for life, and the one he had certainly didn’t fail him! He also conspired to put an ad on newspaper to find husbands for his three daughters "Must have a doctor's degree" he asked for...
(We found the piece of paper in his drawer after he died, and that has remained a favorite excuse for me staying single till now).

My aunt had five beautiful daughters; she married to her high school teacher at a young age and was a dedicated house wife and mother for most of her life. The last days of her life she asked to move to a hotel and stay away from home and hospital, she wanted to be surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren, but not the husband! She wanted for a divorce! I am not sure why or whether anyone really took it seriously but she was determined even though she knew her days were at the final count down! There were never big dramas I remembered from their family but surely the determination for a divorce came from a long cry of a suffering soul!

My other aunt was a dutiful wife of a Catholic priest (please don’t grill me about this, I don’t know what church or ranking of the position her husband served, but he did serve in the church all his life). She was a model for every role she played in her life, other than being a priest’s wife, she was a dedicated mother, a loving primary school teacher, a dutiful daughter and daughter-in-law … she earned herself the way for departure that most people would envy – a heart attack took her life in the middle of sleep! "Angels have descended and took her" the church people we met in the funeral said!

I had a memorable ride with her to the train station just before she died; she spoke of the trips she took in recent years to the various countries and remote places in China (including the first plane ride). She spoke with such excitement that she could hardly contain herself! She was half-retired by then, family burdens were more or less released from her, she was free for the first time! I remember watching her steering the car with an intensity as if she was steering her life for the first time, she spoke of wanting to live her own life while she can (she quoted a line from a TV commercial without knowing it, it was very cute!). It must have been the merest little peek into her heart which was going through intense life reflections, perhaps the deaths of husband and her sisters strikes a chore in her heart that was ignored for too long. I felt like she was a dear friend sharing her heart felt feelings with me, not the aunt that I used to know, and I do believe that angels took her to spare her from watching her mother (my grandmother) died, with a bonus of some fun at the end of her life journey.

My grandmother was the toughest woman I know, she lived until she was 106 (or 105 or … no one knows). The abandoned first wife by my grandfather who was the mayor of the town at the time, supposedly a respectable gentleman and was with a well off family background! He brought home a mistress one day who quickly took over everything my grandmother had to live by, and when he died, the family was buried deep in debts and the mistress was nowhere to be found. There were a lot of juicy details to the drama of course; none of us could forget them because grandmother made sure we don’t. She lived by herself in the same house, at the same village for the rest of her life and her daily ritual was going to the family shrine in the morning, burning incense for the ancestors and then talking to my grandfather in a bitter sweet tone of how he had mistreated her ... for most of the day no matter what she might be doing!

She carried this ritual all the way through her life, I mean all the way! In the last days of her life when she could hardly remember a thing that happens 5 minutes ago, she could recall clearly events about "that bitch" happened 70 years ago, she would tell the stories over and over again! The secret of her longevity, we wondered, might be that she wanted to live to tell for as long as she could and that’s the only thing that matters! In old days, the Chinese government would build a stone gate to honor her!

My mother had a simple order for me while she was in the hospital "Go back to school!" she said! I was at my sophomore year in a university two hours bus-ride away from home. The next time I was called to the hospital, she was already in coma, without another word from her, she passed away in three days. I made it to the graduate school at Yale for my mother five years later.

My baby brother was muted by the respirator in his last days; it might have been part of his plan because he had always wanted everything to be perfect, a perfect death might just be it! He was gay in his whole life and we didn’t know about it until we found out that he was dying of AIDS in the hospital! In fact, I think he had plan to die on the day he was sent to the hospital against his will, before that day, there was no telling, no revelations, no shouting for helps of any kind. He didn’t ask us to doing anything for him, didn’t ask to see anyone, didn’t mention a word of the things he left behind, didn’t cry, he was that strong it kills me.

When the last day came close his digestive system deteriorated so badly we couldn’t even inject liquid food to the tube, one day he wanted a pen to write and asked for OREO cookies, he managed to put on a smile and asked too for hugs from us. His will power carried him that far to complete him by dying a dignified death he had planned, but at the end, he was just a little boy, a baby brother of us … that’s what he wanted us to remember.


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