I was so stunned by Aaron’s death that I had been completely oblivious to my parents’ grief and sorrow until my father was taken to emergency room by an ambulance at 1 am, and a few days later, my mother fell off her bicycle on an icy patch of road. Though they both turned out to be fine, I became acutely aware that my parents need me now more than ever.
My father “lost” his parents and his only brother at the age of six. His father, soon after ending the first marriage, started a new family a few hundred miles away, and his mother quickly remarried, bringing her younger son with her. My father lived with his benevolent grandfather and grew into a resilient young man who harboured no bitterness. He never stopped trying to recreate connections to his “lost” family members, by walking miles to see his mother, by sending money to support his brother’s study in high school, etc. Unfortunately, just when he began to earn his first salary and thought he could finally take better care of his shattered, scattered family, both his parents died. His mother suffered at the hands of an abusive husband and died of cancer at the age of 48. His father was jailed during the Cultural Revolution and died from a stroke soon after he was reinstated in his government position.
Pain was not new to my father. I thought Aaron’s death was another storm my father had to weather with his incredible courage and stoicism. What I did not realize was that he was facing the biggest storm in his life, or in his own words, “the heart-rending kind of sorrow and pain that I have never experienced in my entire life!” Note that my father wrote down these words in our family WeChat group. Face to face or over the phone, we do not talk much about our feelings, which may partly explain why I had been slow to the recognition of my father’s pain. My mother said to me that she often found him weeping while staring at the floor or at family pictures and videos where Aaron and everyone else were all happy and lively. One day, I drove Anthony to his university with Angelina tagging along. The three of us took a picture (see below) in front of Anthony’s dorm building and, without thinking too much, I shared it in our family WeChat group. Upon seeing the picture, my father broke into uncontrollable tears. What I saw in the picture was a lovely contrast between big Anthony and little Angelina, but what my father saw was the poignant absence. With so much extra stress on his high blood pressure and a pre-existing heart condition, his heartbeat sometimes goes from irregular to crazy. His heart had been brave and resilient for most of his life; now it needs some support.
I was equally slow to recognizing my mother’s suffering. I thought my mother would be the tower of strength in the family, not least because she is always a resilient person. If my father’s resilience was gained from hardships in childhood and early adulthood, my mother’s is rooted in her Christian faith. Christians live by hope and faith; Christians are not afraid of death, because Jesus defeated death once and for all. And yet, she is Aaron’s laolao, and they were so deeply fond of each other. In Aaron’s last moment, laolao called him via WeChat video; upon hearing her, Aaron used all his strength to open his eyes and said his final word, “laolao!” In the days that followed, my mother was inconsolable. Every time I saw her, her eyes were so swollen that I became genuinely concerned about her eye health. Then one day, she fell off her bicycle. Was it because of the ice? Failing eyesight? A distracted mind? Or simply age, for she is 79 years old? She has been an experienced bike rider for six decades; ever since she immigrated to Canada, she has used her bicycle to do all things, including grocery shopping. An independent soul, she never depends upon me for anything except when I am called upon to decipher English-language letters and documents, and when she is in too much pain to walk or bike. On our way to her X-ray and bone density exams, I held her arm and decided that I would give more love, support, attention, and time to my parents.
My parents’ grief is double-folded. They grieve for Aaron’s death, and they grieve for their daughter’s grief. They think that my sorrow has no end. Maybe they are right, but I must also let them know that one can be sad and joyful at the same time. I hope and I know that my parents will continue to be resilient especially when they realize that their daughter is as strong and resilient as them. What I greatly look forward to these days is my weekly date with my parents. As part of this new arrangement, I take them to a restaurant and then spend some time either shopping or just chilling in their house. We still do not plainly talk about feelings, but at least we do some mutual check-in to make sure we are all fine.