Monday, February 15, 2021

The 49th Day.

In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that those who have passed on continue to reside in this realm for 49 days, and those who remain can carry out good deeds on their behalf so that they may take them forth into the afterlife. Today marks the 49th day since my father passed away, so this is my final deed for him before he leaves this realm.

For those of you who know me, this has been an ongoing saga in the past 5 years of my life, which at the time, felt like it would never end. But time works in a funny way. Not knowing when something will end can make 5 years feel like forever when you’re in it, but when I look back on it now, all of it went by so fast. When I look back on it now, I wish I had more of it. If I was to be asked how much, I don’t think there is an amount that would be enough. It’s strange, but there were so many times where I absolutely could not stand my father when he was around, and now, seeing him again is one of the only things I wish I could have again. 

It is a cliché to say that we take the time we have with others for granted, but that is exactly what happened with me and my father. Each step in which my father's cancer progressed, he always found a way to keep going. I just thought he would keep beating it. I remember one time a friend tepidly asked how my father was doing, as if afraid he had missed the announcement that my father passed away since I broke the news of his sickness so long ago. I picked up on the discomfort and said, "Yeah, he's still here. I dunno, motherfucker doesn't want to die yet.” We both shared a chuckle from that.

And if there was anything I could say about my dad now, it is that he was indeed, a tough motherfucker. 

My father tested positive for COVID early in December, but it technically was not what got him in the end. He drew a negative result 5-days before he passed, and a good doctor friend of mine relayed to him how COVID was taking out people much younger and in much better health than he was, which again confirmed that he was, “a tough motherfucker.” That was one of the last times I heard my father laugh so boisterously. 

In total, my father fought cancer for 11 years, and in doing so, he defied a lot of odds. His secondary oncologist would constantly refer to him as a "miracle man", which was music to the ears of his primary oncologist, who was the one primarily responsible for giving him 2 more years of decent life. My father's tumor first emerged when he was doing a routine checkup in Taiwan, where initially he came out with a clean bill of health until a friend recommended him to do a PET scan since it was significantly cheaper in Taiwan than it was in the US. My father is the type to always want the best of the best, so even though there were no apparent reasons for him to do so, he went for the PET scan anyways. The results revealed a tumor in the upper lobe of his right lung.

A surgical removal was performed immediately and my father was on observation for the next 5 years. Doctors would perform a scan every three months, then after a number of cleared scans, they would push it out to six, and after a series of six, they would declare a complete remission and let him go on with his life. Sure enough, on the last scan before the end of his fifth year, the tumor re-emerged. A subsequent surgery gave him another year of tumor-free scans, but when it reappeared once more, there were no more surgeries to be had. He then went on a series of clinical trials, and when he outgrew the clinical trials, he shifted to immunotherapy combined with a regime of low-dose chemotherapy treatments. I moved back home around 2015 when all surgical options were exhausted, haphazardly attempting to help out. 

A lot of people look at my choice to move back home as if I did something noble, but in truth, it really wasn’t. I mean, I guess I could have done other things with the time I spent caring for my father, but it wasn't as if I had any clue what I was doing before that. It wasn't like I had an illustrious position at some major company or was a rising star in some field that I had to give up. I was an adult child with no real direction or marketable skills to offer the world. Looking back on it now, caring for my father was just as much for me as it was for him.

Up until that point, my father and I had a contemptuous relationship. I recently learned from my mother that when I first moved back, my father didn't really like me all that much. To be honest, I can't really blame him. I had just returned from Brazil, absolutely useless from a devastating heartbreak. I’ll spare the details, but the basic gist is that I invested too much of my identity into a relationship, which I later learned to be a recurring habit that kept me from finding direction in my life. Oblivious to the obsessive focus on my needs, I skirted all responsibility outside of myself. From my father's perspective, he had worked his entire life to overcome a childhood of poverty, and there I was, not caring or understanding any of it.
 
My father grew up in Taiwan, during the aftermath of the 1949 Chinese revolution and the shift of governmental rule from Japan to China. The economic consequences of that shift coupled with a few of my grandfather’s vices spun the family from relative wealth to dire poverty within a few years, all which occurred when my father was still in grade school. He would recall stories of public auctions of the family possession and having flashlights shined in his face at 3 in the morning because the authorities were looking for his father for writing bad checks. Those childhood scars carried on well into his adulthood and I am not sure that he ever truly healed from them. Throughout my father’s life, he would wake up from cold-sweat nightmares of reliving his childhood. That and going back to being a government employee.
 
This fear drove my father to spend the majority of his life focused on accumulating wealth. While in some ways this focus protected him, it also strained the relationship with his wife and children. To be fair to him though, my father has always described himself as a “half-assed family man”, and it isn’t as if securing material resources doesn’t fall under the job description of a father. Never once did I go hungry. Never once did I feel the threat of living on the street. He built an environment of safety for his children, and a place for them to cultivate their lives. That’s a lot more than what some fathers would do for their children, and my ability to view the world as I do now is mainly due to the fact that I did not have to endure the same hardships that he did. 

My father spent his entire life wrestling with the demons of poverty and greed, and though he never really overcame them during the time he was alive, he did make sure they died with him. He did not allow this disease to infect his family, so in my eyes, he won. And I don't think I'll ever be able to repay that deed. 

I wish I would have been able to see this earlier because my father and I used to get into heated arguments over his obsession with material wealth. My stance was that he prioritized it over the more important aspects of life. His stance was that I didn’t understand enough about how the world worked. We were both partly right, but the problem was that in our partial “rightness", we couldn’t hear anything that the other person was saying. Over time, the arguments between us did begin to dwindle, but it was more so because the chemical treatments made him just too physically tired to argue anymore rather than our relationship getting better. There was no feeling of victory in winning those arguments after that. Instead I was left with a kind of deafening sadness. 

In the speech I gave at my father’s memorial, I said that he was “kind of an asshole”, which is true. I also said that he wanted me to say that, which is another truth. One time he told me that he wanted to be remembered at his funeral as “Steve Wong - The Asshole.” He emphasized this by spreading an imaginary banner with his hands of his self-proclaimed title, and giving a most satisfactory grin. He later specified the reference of a particular kind of asshole.

“Nick, there are two kinds of assholes in this world,” he began. "There are assholes, then there are goddamn assholes. I’m a goddamn asshole,” he proclaimed, pointing at himself with two thumbs-up gestures. 

And generally, that was true. He’d curse someone out over the most minuscule thing, but if they were in any sort of real trouble, he'd bail them out immediately, no questions asked. He had a bad mouth, but a good heart, and his unabated instincts would reveal that true nature.

One example of that was when we were watching “The Green Book”, and in that scene where Dr. Shirley is denied use of the house bathroom and instead instructed to relieve himself in the outhouse barely holding itself together, my father innocently asked, “Why won’t they let him go into the bathroom?”

I sort of gave him this look that asked whether or not he’d been paying attention to the last hour of the movie. 

“Oh...it’s because he’s black,” I said.

If I ever had any doubt on what indignation looked like on a person’s face, I no longer had any after that moment. 

“That’s fucking BULLSHIT!” my father belched. 

I swear he watched the rest of that movie hoping that rich white guy’s house would catch on fire at some point of the plot. 

It was moments like this that simmered all the other noise down to the base character of my father. Knowing this allowed me to take his outbursts less personally, even finding humor in most of them. And I’d like to think that over time, the fewer arguments between us weren't only from his lack of energy, but that we were getting along better too. 

This also allowed me to make a sincere effort in understanding and undertaking all that he had built throughout his life, something that I had avoided for many years as a young adult, and in doing what I thought to be what I wanted to do least, I became a person who could offer something tangible to the world. I now look at those last years with my father as some of the most cherished times of my life. He became one of my best friends. 

We both changed the more time we spent with one another. As I became more responsible, my father became kinder, and I think it is because he worried less of what would happen to the family after he left. But what transformed my father the most when he became a grandfather. Seeing him with my niece and nephew was probably the only time where I saw it impossible for him to be angry. Something inside of him that just wouldn’t allow it. Something in him just softened. It was maybe the only time he felt safe enough to be such a way, but I think that’s how he always wanted to be. 

My father wasn't Buddhist, but he did understand Buddhism in this very innate and profound way. One of the only counsels he ever gave me about love was when I first came back from Brazil. He told me that I could not find love by chasing it. He told me that I had to be still, and let it come to me. He then made this gesture with his hand, very much like a mudra, in the center of of his chest, and something about that moment will never leave my memory. 

The final gift I bought for my father was a calligraphy painting from a Zen temple I had lived in five weeks prior to his death. I hung it up next to a cross that I brought him from Brazil. He then pointed at the wall, moving his finger back and forth between the cross and the calligraphy. 

"Those two are the same,” he said to me. "They both teach you to be a better person." 

In Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, Heath Ledger’s character says that, "In their last moments, people show you who they really are.” I never thought I would quote the Joker in a piece about my father’s death, but I haven’t found a truer statement to describe his last moments. On December 29th, 2020, I woke up at 5:45 in the morning at my father’s side. He was heaving for air. He could no longer speak at this point, but he could understand what I was saying. I asked if he was in pain and he shook his head "no". I asked if he wanted morphine, something that he had clamored for all day the day before, and he shook his head "no" once more. He wanted to face death clearly, as a man, because that is who he really was. 

After reciting prayers for a good death, I asked him if he felt forgiven for his sins, as he had also confessed his earthly transgressions to me the night before. He shook his head "yes". And with that, I told him to go in peace, because he was forgiven.
 
Those were the last words I said to my father, and he passed away a couple minutes later, at 6:15 that morning.

In the final week of my father’s life, there was a day where he said to me, “You’re being nice to me now.” Those words sliced me to the core, but not because he intended them to hurt me. It was because he was simply making a statement of how he felt. I suddenly I asked myself how necessary it was to be upset with him in all those many instances in which I was. Most of them were not, and if I was a bit wiser, I would say none of them were. It hurt to know that I had given him so much grief in his life. It hurt to know that it was too late to correct those mistakes. It hurt to know that there was so little time left to show my remorse. But sometimes that is just how life teaches you. I look back on all the times where I spoke back, raised my voice, and cursed under my breath (and sometimes over), with a very deep shame. And it is a shame that is difficult, if not impossible, to wash off once someone is gone. So if there is anything I would want to pass on, it is to make use of the time with those we have around us. Striving towards a reconciliation will give us clues to the meaning of life.
 
There is something about losing someone close to you that transforms the relationship with your surroundings. It’s sounds silly, but it is only now that I look at all those around me, all those whom I love so dearly, and realize that they too will one day die. This makes me cherish every breath that I have on this earth. Life is too precious to be wasted on hatred. And I also mean hatred for the things in which we believe to be wrong. It is just not worth viewing the world in that way. 

This is the final gift in which my father left me - the courage to be kind to the world. And as my final deed to him on this day, I give my gratitude and a promise:

Thank you for showing me how to live my life, and I promise to carry forth your legacy in the way in which you intended.

I love you, Dad. Have a safe journey to the other side.