…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
When our beloved pet cockatiel of seventeen years died, my dad had witnessed the event. He said that Binky had been acting sluggish for about a week – sitting on his perch, feathers puffed up, eyes closed, not eating. And when dad finally looked at him closely – as if on cue – Binky gave one final chirp/croak and fell face first from his perch onto the bottom of his feces-lined cage, knocking down his favorite toy bell, which then fell into his water dish, spraying water everywhere. To hear my dad describe the event, it was as if Binky’s death been captured on camera from different angles, then played back to us in slow-motion with “Carmina Burina” playing in the background – complete with the bird’s eyes fluttering towards the sky, as he drew his last breath.
Shocked and saddened by Binky’s death, my dad tried to find an appropriate resting place for him – no easy task in a densely-populated condominium in Taipei. He’d first put Binky in a paper bag from “Bread Societe” – a bakery where dad had purchased some sweet buns from the day before.
However, the “Bread Societe” bag was grease-stained. Dad then placed Binky into a small box, but couldn’t bring himself to throw Binky out with the trash and he obviously couldn’t keep a dead bird at home. So, at about 11 o’clock on a Monday night, my 77-year old dad sneaked into his condo’s garden, dug a hole in the ground with a broken soup ladle, and carefully placed the tin box into the grave. He then covered everything up with lots of dirt, twigs and leaves. He had wanted to bury Binky with his favorite toy bell, but later changed his mind.
Just as dad was putting the finishing touches onto Binky’s final resting place, the security guard, who was investigating the source of a tinkling bell, shone his flashlight on an elderly man dressed in a stretched-out wife beater, my mom’s hand-me-down gaucho pants, and sporting a comb over that would put Donald Trump to shame. This man was attacking the ground with what looked like the business end of a soup ladle, his every movement punctuated by the muffled sound of a tinkling bell in his pocket.
Everyone took into account dad’s age and the circumstances, so Binky was allowed to stay where he was. But dad was (politely) asked by the Homeowners’ Association to refrain from future “gardening” and was even given a lucky bamboo arrangement in a pot. The bamboo arrangement implied, No hard feelings, sir, but please confine your gardening instincts to this lovely potted bamboo.
Dad became a reluctant celebrity in his condo complex: he couldn’t leave the house without a neighbor saying, HI. The brochures for animal shelters, which they’d always received, suddenly took on a new meaning. Binky became the avian equivalent of canonized, as neighbors visited his grave and left toys, rice, and bird seed. The bird seed sprouted into plants, which then became weeds, till one day a stray dug up the area, tantalized by the smell of leftovers.
So, if you were to ask how our pet cockatiel’s death affected my dad – traumatized – would not even begin to describe it.
Before my dad died in the hospital, my mom had brought his iPad to the ICU, believing that an 84-year old man covered with as many tubes and wires as Boston has streets going in every direction, might suddenly regain consciousness and scrawl a message to his family, or gather enough strength to play a round of Casino Slots. We might spend a lifetime with loved ones, but nothing they say during that entire time will seem as important as the words they might utter during the last few moments of life. We hope those words might contain a heartfelt message, or a soundbite, which can be passed onto future generations. However, some of us may never experience this, or when the words do come, they are unintelligible, like some kind of Esperanto.
Families can also be ripped apart by deathbed declarations: your sister, Joan, was adopted from a traveling band of Chinese acrobats. Her mother’s stage name was Limber Lotus. All of the Chinese antiquities your parents have spent their life savings on were Made in Bangladesh. Your dying parent professes to have loved you unconditionally, despite the fact that you’ve always reminded him of Marty Feldman with a bad home perm.
My dad had said nothing to us before he passed. We didn’t even know what kind of funeral he wanted and whether he wanted to be buried or cremated. Before going to the hospital, he had been sluggish for a few days, swaddled in layers of clothes and blankets, sleeping in front of the TV, eating very little. But unlike Binky, dad’s funeral required a little more planning than a paper bag or a box. And once action is taken – ie. Cremation – it’s usually irreversible.
We thought that the answers might be found in the piles papers and notebooks dad had kept in his desk. As my sister Annie can’t read Chinese, and my mom was too fragile to read anything belonging to dad without reminiscing for an hour, then crying for another two, I was left to sort through the mountains of letters, pictures, and documents – some of which were written on scraps of paper.
On a random piece of paper. In neat English handwriting –
I prefer pens with a finer point than this one…I do not care for this one.
(Next to this sentence, random scribbles and lines.)
In an undated Chinese fax from dad to mom when he was visiting Annie and I in the U.S. –
Today we went to the “QFC”, which used to be the old “Food Giant”. The new store has been renovated and expanded, as well as its selection. Annie found a salad which was to her liking, then Susan’s boyfriend came over. I don’t know how to tell her he is stupid. Not a kind of nice stupid, but just plain stupid. I think Susan is a smart girl and will figure this out soon.
(Note: My dad could have been referring to anyone I’ve dated from 1991 to 2008, and for a brief period in 2010.)
At one point in the 80s, dad was learning Spanish, and kept a little notebook of words and phrases in this:
In case you’re wondering, the Spanish word for plaid is tartan.
After going through all of his things, we also found a barely-used accordion, a gold trophy cup from Vegas’ Circus Circus Casino, a formidable matchbook collection, countless magnifying glasses, Frosted Flakes stashed in Chinese tea tins (dad was diabetic), and three pounds of keys. Despite the fact that most of the keys were urgently labelled, OPEN THE DOOR!!! in English or in Chinese, they opened nothing.
When our loved ones are alive, we see their Royal Dansk cookie tins of trinkets and papers as junk to be discarded. After their deaths, we want to keep everything we find, because each object was important to them at some time. The unused mint-flavored toothpicks from 1995. The pearl-encrusted toenail clippers. The wooden earwax picks topped off with a tuft of pink feathers. Even as recently as a month ago, I might’ve wondered why dad had more combs than he had hairs on his head. Now, each object tells a story. Annie and I recall when we each first saw the monkey claw back scratcher, now in its fourth reincarnation. The first back scratcher had an index finger pointing straight ahead, so Annie had thought it was a nose picker.
We took turns sitting on dad’s swivel chair and spin around, the way we used to when we were kids. But Annie and I were both bigger and heavier now, and our legs reached the ground, so we couldn’t spin as quickly or as easily. And we only spun around on dad’s chair because he thought it was hilarious. We’d spin and spin, then throw ourselves from the chair onto the bed, then watch the ceiling spin around. But now there was nobody to enjoy our swivel chair routine, and the spinning made us nauseous, so we stopped.
The Taiwanese Buddhist cremation ceremony allows us to place some of dad’s dearest possessions into his coffin, as well as letters written by his immediate family. These objects will accompany the person into the afterlife, so writing about your impending sex change is generally frowned upon. These are not letters from which you’ll get a reply, but an opportunity for the living to make amends with the dead, reveal some hidden secrets, or get a previous hurt off their chests. And, as the addressee of your letters will be cremated, the chances of their beating you up for sleeping with their spouse, or stealing their money, is very slim.
While I write letters everyday and have written countless letters to my dad, standard letter writing rules do not apply when writing to the deceased. Things such as, How are you doing? What’s the weather like up/down there? Can I borrow your car? Would you mind if I borrowed your chainsaw? will not elicit a reply. I also had nothing to get off my chest. Dad and I were constantly communicating by email. He was always the first to know about a new boyfriend and my vacation or work plans. I’d often ask him advice about how to handle a difficult problem.
However, in the last few years he became progressively worse at keeping a secret, and I’d often get calls from my mom telling me how my new love interest sounded stupid.
“Your dad says the guy sounds like an idiot. He doesn’t want to tell you to your face, so I will. Your boyfriend is no good. You can do better. Oh…I’m not supposed to tell you I know about it. OK. Never mind. I’m hanging up now. Your dad’s upset.”
On the day of the funeral, about half an hour before the ceremony was about to start, I finally decided which letters I would leave in dad’s coffin. The first was written when I had first immigrated to Canada with mom and dad stayed in Taiwan due to work. Mom found this letter in dad’s nightstand, next to the bed:
The second letter was the one I’d written the day he was admitted to the hospital – two days before he died:
I’ve written you many letters but have not yet received your reply. Hope everything is OK.
Today I went to pay the deposit for wedding reception in Seattle. The deposit is $1500 and it’s still refundable 60 days before the dinner. This restaurant is very nice and is special, because it’s the one where Doug and I had our first date. It is also by the water. I’ve attached some pictures of the banquet room. This room can accommodate up to 80 people for a buffet style meal.
I’ve chosen the option which includes the prime rib as well as seafood, appetizer, dessert and coffee/tea. In case this isn’t enough food I’ve also ordered several dozen appetizers. For the wine and beer, alcohol, and other beverages, I can decide later whether to have an open bar, or just pay for unlimited beer/wine/beverage depending upon how many people arrive.
Since it’s been a while since you’ve been in Seattle, do you think the doctor would let you travel on the plane to attend the reception? All of our friends and relatives from Canada and the U.S. will be here. I’m sure everyone would love to see you again. Perhaps you can even make a side trip to Vegas and play some slots at “Circus Circus”. I keep getting letters from “Circus Circus” addressed to you. They’re offering a promotion for the next few months. If you spend a certain amount of money they’ll give you a free room. I do hope you can make it. It’ll be like a big reunion. We all miss you a lot.
Twelve hours before getting onto a plane back to Taipei for the funeral, I was in a Bank Manager’s office trying to explain why they couldn’t freeze dad’s term deposit due to inactivity. I’d only received the bank notice in the mail the day before. I had dad’s official English death certificate, but nothing to verify that I was his daughter. The account would be transferred to State while I was in Taiwan attending the funeral.
The Bank Manager was very understanding. He made all of the appropriate calls and managed to close the account and give me a check for the amount. There is something that happens to others – even bank employees – when they discover you are bereaved: They feel sorry for you, they allow you to act like an idiot, they speak in hushed and soothing voices, they frequently ask if you need anything, and they don’t talk about life insurance policies. The thought of death makes us more human. Despite our differences, we still have death in common. And the death of a loved one is something that everyone can relate to.
As I got up to leave, the Bank Manager pointed to a Teller and suddenly asked me if I’ve seen the Transformers movie. “Charlie, here…His nephew did all of the C-G-I in that movie.”
“Well, he did Spiderman, too…and Noah’s Ark….” Charlie offered, “…but Noah’s Ark‘s a piece of crap.”
“Spider Man? Your nephew did Spider Man? Oh, man – that movie was just freakin’ awesome, all the action scenes. That’s really somethin’! Wow, I never knew your nephew did Spider Man! Susan, if you haven’t seen that movie. You’ve got to. That thing has the best action scenes – THE BEST.”
After I shook the Bank Manager’s hand, thinking that I’d sooner suck on a sweaty gym sock than watch any one of those movies in my present state of mind, I walked out into the bright Spring sunshine. The tulips were just coming out, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and it smelled like fresh cut grass.
Life – in all of its THX, The Audience is Listening, Dolby-surround-sound, CGI, Lucasfilm goodness – more or less, goes on.