A Tribute To My Father

Posted by Xiaojuan Shu on Oct 13, 2021
February this year on my birthday, I video called my parents in China. During the call, my mother carried my father on her back to the couch closer to the screen so that I could see and hear him more clearly. When she put him down, his heavy bones landed motionless on the couch. Over the past twenty years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease, my father had gradually lost his flexibility and strength. My mother cheered up the occasion by talking about some of the “adorable” things that I did as a child. At age five, rain or shine, I walked fifteen minutes to a public bathhouse to bathe myself every day. It became my then daily ritual. Slowly, my father turned his head toward the screen, looked into me, and raised his hand to wave... A week later, he passed away.

I wondered about what kind of life my father would have enjoyed if he weren’t sick with Parkinson’s disease for two decades. He would’ve liked to travel, but he was bound to a walker and then a wheelchair for the last ten years. A few years ago, my brother took my parents to Beijing to have a specialist see my father. While in Beijing, they took a long train ride to the Great Wall. Finally, they were at the foot of the Great Wall, and my mother was so ready to climb along the wall while my brother accompanied my father, who was in his wheelchair watching. But my father began to shake violently with intense pain and they had to cut the trip short and return to the hotel.

My father would’ve liked to play erhu—a two-stringed Chinese musical instrument played with a bow—but he couldn’t hold it without shaking; he would’ve liked to present himself respectably, but he couldn’t stop drooling; he would’ve enjoyed food, but he gradually lost his ability to taste, to chew, and to swallow; he would’ve loved to go to the public bathhouse often, if not every day, but that too became impossible.

Back at home in China, my brother took care of the funeral arrangements. Our relatives all gathered. It made no sense for me to fly back due to the mandatory two-week COVID quarantine period after landing. My mother kept a three-night vigil alongside my father’s body at the funeral home. She recited Amitabha Buddha’s name without stopping and didn’t feel tired. I was told that my father looked very peaceful and even beautiful at the funeral home. I called my mother every day to see how she was doing.

“It’s hard to come back to an empty house without your Baba. Even the air is different. There is no longer a feeling of warmth,” Mother said. After taking care of my father for so many years, she still regretted what she hadn’t done to possibly prolong his life. Through the daily calls, I began to have clearer mental pictures of what they had gone through together. One night, my mother changed the sheets and my father’s nightclothes three times. They recently fell together when my mother carried my father out of the bathroom. Sometimes, my father held his need to get up or change in order to let my mother rest a little at night. A week before his passing, my father missed his cousin who lived nearby. My mother pushed him in the wheelchair all the way to his cousin’s, but he was not home.

I closed my eyes. How readily my emotions swarmed upon a mental image—my parents and maternal grandfather were standing outside the bus, on which I was heading to college in Nanjing. When the bus began to move, they waved goodbye. My mother followed the bus for a while, waving to me until I could no longer see her. Seeing me off at the bus station has been a “significant” recurring family event for many years. It is “significant” in the sense that the goodbye could be the last one, like the one from my grandfather, who a few months later sadly entered the hospital for the final time.

Six years ago when my mother had a medical procedure done on her stomach and my father’s mobility continued to worsen as his Parkinson’s disease progressed, I flew back to China to visit. After a sweet two-week visit, I was leaving again. On the day of my departure, my father surprised me by offering me a ride to the bus station. My mother didn’t think it was a good idea. Then he wanted to come along on my mother’s electric tricycle to the bus station, but there was no room. As my mother and I were about to set off, I heard a “Hey!” from behind. My father was standing behind the kitchen window waving. I smiled and waved back, holding back my tears. My father seldom expressed his feelings, but whenever he revealed his care, it would hit me hard on my soft spot.

In later years, when he became mostly immobile, my father saw me off while lying in bed. He would hold my hands and say, “When you come home next time, Baba may not be here.” To dam the flood of emotions whirling inside, I consciously kept that possibility in perpetual suspension.

During our last call, my father looked at me and sang the birthday song in his no longer clear voice. I sang with him. I told him how much I appreciated the monthly journals such as Children’s Literature and Science for Youth that he subscribed to for my brother and me to read when we were in elementary school. Every time a new issue arrived, my brother and I would fight to be the first one to read it. During the call, I told my father a story in the Children’s Literature journal that made my brother and me laugh hard for a long time. It was a story about two pigs taking turns to help each other get out of a deep hole in the ground, only to find one of them still remaining in the hole after repeated efforts. My father was quite amused by the story and laughed uncontrollably. Actually, I wasn’t sure if he was laughing or crying. I only saw tears rolling down his face.

For years, I have tried to clean up my past with my parents. I once apologized to my father for lashing out at him so cruelly when he biked all the way to my boarding high school and brought me some home-cooked dishes my mother made. In my depressed teen angst, I regarded my parents’ love as an insult to my existence. My teenager behavior may be understandable, but one incident five years ago still pains my heart today.

I came home to visit that year and heard that my father wanted to play ping-pong, but everyone thought it was merely a fantasy due to his physical limitations. I said I would take him to play. The next day, I pushed him in a wheelchair to the community center. With one hand holding onto the ping-pong table tightly and the other hand hitting the ball, he played with me. Soon, his physical disability seemed miraculously gone and he began to beat me in the game! I consider myself a pretty good ping-pong player, but I could barely keep up with him. An hour passed and he was still not tired, but I was. The next day, at the same time, we went again. My father amazed me even more with his physical stamina.

On the way home that day, something somehow triggered me. My old judgment of my father cast a shadow over me again. My mother’s words from many years back rang again in my ears: “The most painful thing in my life is having married your father.” On the third day, when my father came to my room and said, “Daughter, let’s go,” I said I was tired and pretended to sleep. After a while, when I came out of my room, my father was gone! My heart started pounding. My mother had just told me about the incident not long before when my father went out on his own and fell in the middle of the street, drawing a crowd and the ambulance. After frantically looking for him for a while, I rushed to the community center. There he was, peacefully watching others playing. He rolled himself there in the wheelchair! I let out my complaints and frustration through a suppressed voice. I don’t remember if we played that day or not. After that day, he never mentioned playing ping-pong again. His mobility decreased and his condition worsened with frequent shaking day and night.

The pain that I may have caused for my father then gnaws at me now. In the morning bowing practice, I contemplated the phrases used in Ho Ľoponopono—an ancient Hawaiian practice: “I’m sorry; please forgive me; thank you; I love you.” Waves of tears swelled up in my eyes.

Upon hearing the news of my father’s passing, the residents at the DRBU-Sudhana Center joined me in the Buddha Hall to recite the Great Compassion Mantra twenty-one times. The Berkeley Buddhist Monastery held an online memorial service for him, which gave me a rare opportunity to reconnect with my friends from high school, college, and the other phases of my life on both sides of the Pacific. Two other students at Sudhana Center and I began to read the Earth Store Sutra every day. The sutra illuminates the deeper meaning of filiality through the great vows of Earth Treasury King Bodhisattva. Each day, we dedicate the merit of reading the sutra to all the parents of the past, present, and future, to world peace, and to ending the pandemic.

All these unexpected acts of kindness have gently strengthened me as I live through this human experience of losing a parent. As a mixture of emotions of gratitude, sadness, forgiveness, and compassion continue to ebb and flow, I feel more connected to my father now than when he was alive. Although he was not a Buddhist, my father learned to chant the name of Guanyin Bodhisattva after hearing me chant. It’s comforting to still hear him chanting in my ears, “Namo Guanshiyin Pusa.” The remaining wall between us—a wall that was built with judgements and defensiveness—continues to disintegrate.

My birthday call with my parents ended when another of my father’s seizure-like episodes began. Just before he was about to lose control of his physical movement, or possibly even his consciousness, my father managed to reach into his pocket and take out a small plastic-wrapped cake and extend it to me. My mother said while helping him, “Baba said happy birthday. That birthday wish became our final goodbye. I hold in my heart that my father’s final birthday wish to me was his way of saying that he was happy that I was born and he appreciated that I was his daughter. I am grateful knowing that being a daughter is a lifelong practice, which will continue to nourish my core at the root level.

Every day during evening ceremony, I video call my mother and set my phone up with her onscreen in the corner of the Buddha Hall at Sudhana Center. She follows along with the ceremony, recites Amitabha Buddha’s name, and circumambulates in the secluded balcony where she long ago set up her altar at home. Every day on that tiny balcony, she makes an incense offering to the same one-foot-tall Buddha that she has been bowing to since I could remember as a child. Whenever we happen to pass by our digital screens at the same time while circumambulating, we glance at each other and share a gentle smile.

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Comments (4)

  • Cletus Zuzarte wrote ...

    Thank you for sharing your journey and such vivid memories of the relationship you shared with your father. At times I felt you have some feelings of guilt of having loved less. I firmly believe that you have done the best possible response as a daughter to a father and you have been such a loving person to him. Blessings to you and now I suppose having learnt from your experiences you can be all the more loving to your mother and family!

  • Pavi Mehta wrote ...

    Such a poignant and profound share Xiao. So many quiet insights and powerful personal experiences threaded through this reflection. Gratitude for opening this window and giving us a glimpse of your heart in all its tender vulnerability and of the vast love that shines between you and your parents. How sincerely you've honored your father and his special role in your life here. Thinking of you and your mother joined across distance through your bowing practice touches me deeply. Sending much love to you.

  • Audrey Lin wrote ...

    Dearest Xiao, thank you for sharing this. What a touching and honest reflection, that brought a tear to my eye. I did not realize your father had passed away this year. Thank you for this heartfelt memoir of your learnings and insights from him, your mother, family, and life. Sending big big hugs.

  • Preeta Bansal wrote ...

    I feel so touched by this deeply poignant share. Thank you Xiao, for sharing your heart and your filial love. So much resonates!