Sunday, February 24, 2008

Part Thirty Five

Requiem for my mother.

Most of the major events in my story
happened many years, even decades ago,
but recently, our mother just died,
and what could feel more important than that ?

I suppose there had been a few premonitions.

When I visited last Spring, she told me that I would probably never see her again. I didn’t believe it, because she was in good health and as active as ever. And then there was the dream she had described to her maid earlier in the year. In that dream she saw my father and many other people who were no longer living.

On December 11th , I got the first text-message. It was from my youngest niece. “Grandma is sick, dad is at her apartment, and you should call my mother.” But it was so late at night, I thought I'd wait until the next day. But by the end of the next day, I had forgotten all about it.

Two days later, I got text messages from two different nieces -- and then I knew something really serious was going on. So I phoned my sister right away , and she told me to come to Beijing as soon as possible.

24 hours later I was in the Beijing hospital -- and how I got there so fast is a story in itself.

First -- we had to find a ticket -- and my husband and my boss finally found one for me on a Korean airline that was leaving Chicago at 1 am the very next morning. That was lucky -- because it was the only seat available on the plane -- it was very reasonably priced -- and the service on that airline is great -- and, shall we say -- colorful ? (the stewardesses wear funny tri-corner hats with a white feather in back). I also had to get a visa on very short notice -- so we raced downtown, and got an emergency visa in a matter of hours. Then -- I even managed to avoid the long layover in Seoul by trading my ticket there for an earlier flight to Beijing. The universe was definitely cooperating with me that day ! Even when I got Beijing -- and didn't have cash to buy a phonecard -- a passerby let me use his cellphone -- and soon my brother-in-law was picking me up at the airport. (he's not retired - but he's been a policeman so long - he pretty much gets to spend his day however he wishes)

So there I was -- the next morning after I got the call -- standing at the foot of my mother's hospital bed.

She looked terrible, her swollen face and labored breathing made me so sad, I was trying to hold back my tears, but how could I? I cleared my throat quietly, and tried my best to talk without crying out.

She knew I was there - but with the oxygen mask on her face, she couldn't speak to any of us – just mumblings that none of us could understand.

She was still alive - hooked up with all kinds of tubes -- and a monitor was hung above her bed. My sister and brothers were all there. They briefly described her condition, and showed me how to read the monitor. The blood-oxygen number up on the screen was not looking good.

Everything had gone down hill so quickly. At first, she had a low fever, My sister and brother-in-law took her to a hospital to have it checked out, and they dismissed her with some medication. But over the next couple of days, the fever would not go down – so my brother-in-law found this hospital through a physician whom he knew. She was admitted immediately to the emergency ward, and from there, her condition continued to get worse.

(and by the way – this was the first time Mom had been admitted to a hospital in 40 years)

The whole family was there -- and we had a consultation with our doctor friend -- who he told us that the chance of her recovery was zero.

Maybe this is a good time to describe care in the Chinese medical system – because it’s quite different from America – even in this special hospital that my sister’s husband got us into.

Everything is ala carte – so hospital staff solicits family approval for every procedure and medication. That’s because the family will have to pay for them – on a long itemized bill that is presented every other day. (insurance, if there is any, gets paid later to the patient) The cashier only accepts cash – and if the bill isn’t paid – the patient has to leave – and indeed – the patient can’t even get in until a deposit has been paid.

There’s no such thing as a “living will” – the extent of care is completely up to the family – so, for example, we were asked whether we wanted to put a breathing tube down my mother’s throat to extend her life a few more days. It’s not that we couldn’t afford it – and we would do EVERYTHING possible in the hope for a “miracle” to pull her through. But – we had done this with our father – it was very painful – and what had those few extra days of misery been worth to him ? We even asked the doctor “would you do this if she were your mother?” – and he said “off the record…. No”. So --- we opted out of this procedure.

(actually -- when she was still conscious at the beginning, Mom heard the doctor talking with us about this procedure, and she waved her hand to reject it – but her wish would not have counted had we wanted to go ahead with it)

We were also queried about the use of each expensive (and maybe useless) medication – and in every case – we agreed to it. But the curious thing was – in some cases – it was medication which the hospital did not stock

One medication was made from human blood, so it was in very short supply. Fortunately, my sister-in-law knew someone who knew someone – and the back-door connection served to locate a vendor and have it express mailed overnight to the hospital.

So the family must make the decisions – pay the daily expenses – locate some medications – and also is expected to provide some of the care. We stayed with mom 24/7 --- all of us during the day – and one of us all through the night – and we hired her maid to be there as well.

We not only had to take care of mom’s cleaning and diaper changing, but we also had to monitor her IV drip. We informed the nurses whenever the IV had ran out and sometimes had to adjust the intervals of the drips. Mom’s maid had never even been to grade school or learned to read and write, and I was not too happy about relying on her to make technical adjustments – but what could I do ? I could not change the situation.

And if a job were too unpleasant for the nurses – we were expected to do it – like placing an anal suppository or obtaining urine samples. I was so angry when the nurse wouldn’t even take the urine sample that I had collected –but told me to follow her down the hall until we reached the samples rack, where she pointed to the receptacle where I should leave it (so she wouldn’t have to touch it) I was so shocked and angry – but what could I do ? Mom was still under her care.

And so the family – with the occasional help of hospital staff – cared for mother during the last week of her life – carefully watching the numbers on the monitor above her bed – as they recorded her recovery or decline.

The second night I was in Beijing, I stayed the entire night with her at the hospital. Every two hours I fed her -- either freshly squeezed orange juice, milk, or water -- or a special drink that my niece brought on the recommendation of the doctor. Feeding was difficult – since we had to lift the Oxygen mask and let her suck through a straw. But I could tell she was really longing for food –and was using all her strength. She looked so weak -- but her desire to live was so strong.

I do not remember the last time I had hugged her.

Maybe I was 12 or 13 years old, as I was returning from school in the middle of winter. My cheeks were red from the cold , and my younger sister and I took turns letting mom warm our little hands under her arm pits, and our faces on her chest. That was the closest contact I ever remembered. We Chinese (especially my family ) simply do not hug each other.

Now, as I was at her side, -- I saw her hands trembling -- sometimes reaching out, as if she were looking for something. That’s when I would hold that hand -- so soft and tender – with beautiful long fingers (she had done a lot weaving with those hands back when she was a child) .

Mom was in high fever the entire day and night I was there – and I tried cooling her down a bit by massaging her legs with my cooler hands. Had I ever done this before ? I can’t remember.
I changed her and cleaned her, and each time, we tried to turn her body to the side, you could tell that she was in a lot of pain.

The 4th night, my second brother volunteered to be at hospital with his wife, even though it was my older sister’s turn – while I was sleeping at my younger sister’s apartment.

That’s when our brother at the hospital called us at 5 am to tell us that the end was near. The numbers on the monitor were dropping off the chart.

How can I ever forget entering that hospital room –and looking up at the life-signs monitor – which now had gone blank. I can’t remember how my siblings reacted – but I couldn’t even stand up – and someone helped me to a chair in a small adjoining room where I could weep.

Now it was time for the family to perform its final function – to dress our mother for the next world. We sent for her special funeral clothes -- which she had been preparing for several months.

She had chosen the hat, the shoes, and the gown – without buttons -- of black silk – beneath a pattern of a single, red Chinese character (the one that stands for “happiness-longevity”), That’s how she would be dressed for the visitation - and her traditional trip into the next world -- lying beneath a sheet of silver cloth, and above one of gold. Money is very important for this journey - and her ankles were supported by a special cushion that looked very much like a sack of gold cash.

The hospital staff offered to dress her (for a small additional charge) – but my second brother declared “we will dress our mother” – and so we did. Her body was still warm.

One last thing that’s different about Chinese hospitals – is that they also serve as funeral homes – i.e. there is no funeral industry in the People’s Republic. Bodies are sent to the hospital morgue – where they are kept in a large cooler until moved out into a small room where receptions are held continuously throughout the day – in one-hour increments. It’s customary to wait for 3-5-or 7 days before the reception – and we chose 5 days – to give us enough to time to notify the 50 or so people who would be attending the wake.

My younger brother-in-law turns out to be an excellent calligrapher – and he wrote the names of each guest on a banner – all of the banners being then attached to a large floral wreath. The body was prepared for display – the face looked very peaceful -- and when the hour was over, we drove in a long procession, the fifteen miles out to the crematorium on the west side of Beijing. (there’s no such thing as burial any more – that’s the law)

Under the advice of one of our rural cousins –we brought along all my mother’s favorite clothing (what she would want to wear in her next life) – and it was all burned – along with strings of phony-money -- in a separate furnace at the facility. (I thought I would take a piece of phony cash home as a memento – but then thought better of it).

Eventually – the ashes would be destined for a place next to our father in a special mausoleum dedicated to high officials – but that niche could not be unsealed and resealed until the temperature had risen several degrees above freezing.

And so – our mother’s life was over.

A new job had to be found for her maid – and she was no ordinary maid. Mother had been a difficult person in her final years – and this was the only maid who was willing – and was invited – to stay. Our well-connected brother-in-law found her a position with a wealthy family that needed three maids to begin working the following month. In the meantime, she was put up in a big hotel – but in the meantime – she had second thoughts about working with two other maids – and she walked out, never to be heard from again.

And a place had to be found for our mother’s beloved Pekinese (the one who had wept when mother told him that she was leaving)

My younger sister is the animal lover – so she adopted the little fellow – but problems soon followed. To begin with – the animal was shedding its long hair all over the apartment – so my sister had him shaved at a pet salon. Now the poor creature only had hair left on his neck – so he looked like a lion with a mane. Then – he got into trouble with my sister’s cat – many fights ensued – many messes were made – and my mother’s sad prediction eventually came true: “when I am gone, there will be nobody left to take care of you”

And so it was – the favorite pet was given away to owners unknown.

It’s a sad ending – but what ending isn’t ?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Part Thirty Four

July 18th, 1980.

The birth of my first niece
was a major event in our family

On that day , we all crammed into father’s car to go to the hospital. Well actually – it wasn’t really all of us – only my parents and me could fit – and it wasn’t really my father’s car – it belonged to the university of which my father was vice-president – so it was driven by a professional driver – and it should only have been used for official business ( except for special occasions like this one !)

Due to the Cultural Revolution, all of our marriages had been delayed – and my older sister was already 30 year old when this first child was finally born. All of us were so anxious and excited to see her and take her home. I cannot imagine how my parents must have felt. They must have been so patient – waiting for this day.

We picked up the new mother and daughter at the hospital and drove them to my parents’ apartment. .

It was a very hot day in mid-July – but we had to keep the windows rolled up in accordance with a strange Chinese custom that requires new mothers to be kept indoors – with windows shuttered – for 30 days after giving birth. Very strange – and very uncomfortable for all concerned.

My older sister, had been very large with child, but my first niece only weighed 5 pounds – and as soon as we got home – we put this precious treasure in the middle of the bed for all the family to admire. She really was soooo beautiful ! (but I do have to mention that her head was a bit longer than normal and there was a big red dent on the right corner. My sister told us that she had a hard time with the delivery, and the hospital used a sucking device to get the baby out. Later on the dent disappeared -- and the long head was rounded up on its own)

Soon she impressed us all with a great sneeze. My oldest brother had remained quiet throughout the event – but finally he spoke the word that all of us were thinking: “Success”

Soon, she’d be given two names. My father thought she was so pure, he named her after the Chinese word for “ice” (Bing Bing –which we’ve always used at home) – while her other grandfather gave her a more formal name that meant “getting ahead” (Chao – which was used at school)

She was a very good baby. She ate – she slept -- she quickly gained a few pounds – and she liked to be around people, smiling at everyone who was present. She could recognize all kinds of facial expression, so if you smiled at her, she would smile right back, but if you showed her a sad face, she was ready to cry. She loved to be held and loved to be touched – and she loved to play seek and hide games with you over her mom’s shoulder as early as 2 months old.

We all loved her dearly, and I could not wait ‘til the weekend to see her in grandma’s apartment. Later, we learned that she did not sleep like other babies. Most babies sleep 20 hours a day, but Bing Bing slept only 10 -- , so the rest of the time she expected us to entertain her.

Her mother had trouble putting her to sleep, but I was the one who figured out a way to do it – and here’s how it happened:

She loved to be held – so I carried her from room to room – and noticed that whenever there was a loud noise, she would hold me ever more tightly. One day I discovered that she was really afraid of tractor noise, so when she refused to sleep , I would tell her quietly that “the tractor is coming”. Then, she would bury herself in my arms, and a few minutes later, was sound asleep. (should I feel guilty about pulling this trick on her ? Is she still afraid of tractors?).

Since my sister had to return to her job in the local police station, grandma was asked to do the babysitting – which she consented to do – at least for the first several months. We didn’t know anyone who used a crib, so baby was kept on the bed. That worked for a while – until she learned how to crawl - but eventually she fell off and raised a great bump on her head – which was a subject of much concern for everyone in the family.

The problem was that none of us – even grandma – had ever spent that much time with infants (we had all be raised by nannies/wet nurses or eventually boarding schools.

Feeding became a problem because my sister fed her too much – figuring that if she grew fast with 1 tablespoon of nutritional supplement, she would grow even faster with four – until eventually the child refused to take any food at all, and had to be fed by putting a bottle in her mouth whenever she was sleeping.

My sister still feels responsible whenever Bing Bing has a stomach ache, and jokes about her being the family’s guinea pig in our experiment in child raising.

But what we lacked in knowledge – we made up for in love and enthusiasm – and all of us would gather every week – put baby in the center of the room – and enjoy her company. None of us had ever gotten that much attention when we were that small ! She was not only the first child for her parents –she was the first grandchild for my parents – and the only child of the only son of her father’s grandparents.

And … she was the first child in our family to grow up with color television – which fascinated her. At first – in the early eighties – it was only a few hours every night – but soon we had a full schedule of programming – including commercials (though nothing like commercials on American television. When I first came to America, the commercials were my favorite part of television)

Developmentally – she was ahead of her age – in beginning to talk (at six months) and to walk ( at nine months) – and need I say, that whenever we took her out in public, people would comment on her beauty and her smile. She was a very good and very happy baby!

At the age of two, she entered her first pre-school, and I remember the time I went by bus to pick her up and take her home for the weekend.

I arrived during lunch – and there she was, happily giving her food away to whomever would take it. (I guess she still didn’t have much of an appetite). ) She was always dressed very nicely, and if my sister could not find anything pretty enough from the department store, she started sewing the clothes herself.

But perhaps all of this attention and adoration made her just a little bit lazy – she was a good student, she just wasn’t driven to excel in school the way that our generation had been.

So her grades were not tops – and when it came time to take the examinations that would qualify her for placement at the next level of education, there was a great deal of anxiety.

Every day, before her university entrance exam, her mother would wake her up at five in the morning to study with her –and this went on for months until the examination was taken.

And she had some help from grandpa, too --- who began to teach her calligraphy at the age of 3 – so she was well prepared for later schooling and won some major competitions. (unfortunately, she has not continued to practice –and I hope she picks it up again when she gets older)

She always passed her examinations – but only by the skin of her teeth – so back-door, family connections were usually needed to get into the best schools.

She had a very good friend whom she had first met in grade school – and after college, her friend’s Mom got them both into a program in England.

Concerning boyfriends – well --- she has been very picky. Who could ever be good enough for her ? She would say “this one looks like a monkey” --- etc.

Big changes can happen quickly in a young person’s life – but as of this writing, she is back in Beijing, living at home, though she does have own apartment, and using her degree in event management to work on the preparations for the Beijing Olympics.

She is a smart, good-hearted girl – she has no enemies, she is a friend to everyone she knows and I think she is going to have a good life.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Part Thirty three

As the youngest child, my younger sister
had a special place in our mother’s heart,
and that special relationship continued
right up until the end.

Like the other girls in our family , she excelled in school, both in academics and athletics. Her specialty was the vaulting horse, and even though she was two years younger than I, she could vault just as high.

When the family moved to the Friendship Hotel complex in the early 1965, both of us went to the same primary school, so we played together a lot – and believe me, she was very competitive.

One game we played together was called “catch”: one girl would sit on the top of the double bars, and one girl was on the ground trying to catch her. As soon as she was tagged, the players would change positions – and both my sister and I were very quick and hard to catch. (which might explain why we wore our pants out so quickly). The other game was jumping the elastic rope – so that our shoes got worn out very fast too, especially the soles, so mom had to mend them all the time.

Once in a while we had a fight, mainly quarrels. One time, I had something in my hand and it touched my sister’s face. I felt very bad when I saw the red marks it left, and I was scared to see her crying. Mom scolded me and said that I had a cold heart – but that was not true. It really was just an accident.

Like me, she was sent to a boarding school at a very early age (two)

She was in a different class, but we saw each other all the time in the courtyard or hall way. Every Saturday afternoon, a bus picked us up and dropped us off at the gate of our father’s work unit, and then dad would take us home. One time dad was so busy at work, he forgot all about us. We waited and waited but he never came. Since it would soon be dark – I made the decision to follow a neighbor who had come to take his son home, (the neighbor didn’t know us, and he didn’t notice us following him either). We walked behind him until we reached our house – which was a quite a distance for a 3 and 5 years old -- plus we had to cross a major street. When mom saw us without dad, she was scared -- but she was proud as well and gave me a lot of credit for that brave and quick thinking

When the rest of her class advanced to grade school, she was kept out of school by an illness she picked up when my mother had taken her to the countryside to visit her grandmother. When she recovered, it was too late to join her classmates, so she went to a day school close to home, and lived at home thereafter. (I had always wondered why I was the only child who went to boarding school from age 2 to 11 --- and early last year, Mom told me about my sister’s illness)

She also lived at home with mother all through the cultural revolution – although that home moved from Beijing to a small village in Henan province.

Their village was very poor – and there weren’t even enough warm clothes to go around in the winter – so people had to take turns going outside. There was also barely enough food – so the farmers ate three meals of steaming hot cornmeal porridge every day – just to fill their stomachs. (which led, unfortunately, to high incidence of throat cancer).

While there, my sister attended a rural school, where she scored top marks – and even though her father was in prison, she participated in all the school activities. She even got to play a role in a revolutionary opera.

Upon graduation, she was given a job as gardener in the Fragrant Hills recreational park, just outside of Beijing.

Being two years younger than me, she had always been a bit shorter and smaller than me -- but after she became a gardener, she got really strong – I suppose from carrying all those heavy pots up and down the hills in the park. She also grew to be an inch taller than I am – and soon people thought that I was the younger sister – since she had grown into a young adult much earlier.

That was where her hard work and good attitude got her nominated to become a member of the Communist party – and although she was the youngest sibling, she was the first to join the party.

As told earlier, that was also where she caught the eye of a young officer who began dating her for the next five years. But for reasons never explained, she eventually broke off that relationship, and ended up being matched with a co-worker of my older sister’s husband, and they would move to Beijing and start a family.

She got a job working in the offices of the Beijing public school administration and then began attending night school to get her college degree. After that, she got one promotion after another, and eventually rose to become director of the eastern district, overseeing all the high schools in that area.

Unlike me, my sister is not a trouble-maker ! She knows how to say the right things and work her way up in a bureaucracy to a higher position than any of our other siblings have ever achieved. She writes very well, and just like traditional scholar-officials – she has beautiful hand writing. She gets along with everyone, but still she stands up strong for her own opinions and beliefs.

Her husband’s father held a high position in the steel industry – and this gave her husband many opportunities as the Chinese economy began to expand. He was the one, for example, who managed to give my older brother the opportunity to purchase a factory for the window manufacturing business that he and his partners began.

He’s had many business projects over the years – making, and also spending, a lot of money. More recently, he’s been managing the sale of properties in a shopping mall in Tienjin – so he lives in that city and commutes back to Beijing on the weekends in his BMW.

They have been a very successful, post-Mao Chinese family.

Over the past 10 years, my sister has done a lot of official traveling outside the country.. One time, she joined a delegation sent to visit the public schools of Taiwan – and she has been the only one in our family to visit our uncle who lives there. Her job has also sent her on several trips to Europe and various neighboring countries.

And remember the cat she tried to keep while living with our mother in the countryside ? Ever since she was very young – she is the one who loves animals – while I am the one who’s afraid of them. Now she has a huge tank of very fancy tropical fish that she cares for every day – while still attending to various cats and dogs

But although her life has been a good one, it has not been especially easy for their only child, who like many other children of that generation, has had a hard time finding a direction for her life, even though her parents could afford to send her to schools all over the world.

But my sister never gave up on her – and now it seems her daughter has finally gotten back on track -- working in a high school, and going back to evening school to get a higher degree.

Finally, I have to mention all the time my sister spent with our mother – visiting her almost every day during her lunch hour – since her office was only five minutes from Mom’s apartment All of us are very grateful for that – especially me, who lives so far away

I am very proud of my sister.