‘Say, I’m here, Dad, my mom said. I’m here, Dad, I said. You have to say it louder so he can hear you.’
China Academy of Art, death, family, Father, Fiction Friday, Generational gap, Ghost Forest, Hangzhou, love, mourning, Sickness
Scroll down or click here to watch “Wind Among the Trees on the Riverbank,” a video of Pik-Shuen Fung’s story “Ghost Forest.”
Twenty-one days after my dad died, a bird perched on the railing of my balcony. It was brown. It stayed there for a long time.
Hi Dad, I said. Thanks for checking up on me.
I lay down on the couch and read some emails on my phone. When I looked up again, the bird was gone.
One day, after working late at my summer internship in Hong Kong after freshman year, I called my dad on my way home. We had plans to watch the World Cup.
Hello? he said.
I’m coming home, I said.
Who are you talking to?
I’m talking to you.
Later, when I got home, he was sitting on the couch.
Why didn’t you address me? he said.
What are you talking about?
When you called, why didn’t you say, Hi Dad?
Are you serious?
I lay down on the couch perpendicular to his and stared at the ceiling.
Look at me when I’m talking to you.
I counted the ridges in the lamp above me.
Look at me.
Why are you making such a big deal out of this?
He stood up and walked out of the room, slamming the door.
I went to my room and sat on my bed. I took out my laptop and pulled up the website to stream the game. Half an hour later, I heard a quiet knocking. I got out of bed and stood there, facing the closed door.
The World Cup is starting in a few minutes, he said.
I imagined my dad standing on the other side of the door, facing me. Maybe he would be looking at his feet.
I don’t feel like watching it anymore, I said.
I listened to his footsteps walking away.
I got back into my bed and watched the game from my laptop. I didn’t leave my room until the next morning.
I Love You
I was 24 when I realized I had never told my dad that I loved him. So I made a pact with myself that I would.
A few days later, I called him and told him about my day at work, the weather in New York, my weekend. I kept moving my phone from hand to hand so I could wipe the sweat off on my jeans. I sat on them, too, to warm them up.
Finally, he said that he was tired and passed the phone to my mom. I asked her to give the phone back to my dad.
Yes? he said.
I love you, I said.
Thank you! he said.
I could hear him smiling. Then after we hung up, I cried.
I flew to Hong Kong two weeks later to visit him. He was starting to get sick around this time. The first night I arrived, I sat at the dining table while my dad watched the news. I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water and drank it, and poured another one. Finally, he got into his bed and turned the light off. His door was ajar, so I poked my head in.
I love you, I said.
I didn’t know if he was asleep or not. I walked back to my room and sat on my bed for a while.
A few days later, he was in the hospital. I had used up all my vacation days and was flying back to New York that night. My relatives were standing around the bed, so I didn’t want to say it then. As I was about to leave the room for the airport, I turned to my dad.
I love you, I said.
He looked at me. He didn’t smile. So I left.
A month later, I called him and told him that each time I had told him I loved him, I’d only been pretending that I didn’t care when he hadn’t said anything back.
You’re getting a lot of Western education, my dad said. We’re Chinese. It’s not important to express our feelings. All parents love their children.
I thought I should let it go.
Then, I thought, no, I won’t.
I came up with a script.
Hi Dad, I would say.
Happy Father’s Day, I would say, because it would be Father’s Day the next day.
I love you. And I would say it in Chinese, even though it would sound especially weird.
Do you love me?
Can you tell me?
I rehearsed the script in my head all next day, and called him in the evening.
Hi Dad, I said.
Hi, he said.
Happy Father’s Day! I love you, I said in Chinese.
I love you too, he said in English.
Thank you! I said, and hung up.
The next day I woke up laughing.
When you were two, you lived with your grandma on the weekdays, my dad said. Your mom and I were working all the time. On Friday nights, we would come to pick you up. We would walk in the door, and crouch down as soon as we saw you. You would run towards us, and as soon as you got close, you would turn toward me and jump into my arms. You always hugged me first.
Do you think Mom was jealous? I said.
Don’t tell her, he said.
The Flower Garden
During my junior year of college, I studied abroad at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. I stayed in the international student dorm across the street from the West Lake. Along the West Lake, there are pale weeping willows that bow down and graze the water. There are pagodas, temples, and small stone bridges. Sometimes, with the staticky sound of erhu in the background, groups of old people practice tai chi together. The West Lake has inspired countless poets and artists over the centuries.
My dad came to visit me. It was the first time we traveled together without my mom or sister.
His visit coincided with the 100th anniversary celebration of the China Academy of Art. We watched the opening ceremony and then I gave him a tour of the school gallery. My painting had been accepted into the juried show for the 100th anniversary, and was hung on the top floor. In the painting, I am riding a brown bird. We are soaring above tree after tree, and each one is white and translucent. I used white watercolor on gray rice paper to create that effect. I called it “Ghost Forest.”
I think there’s something wrong with you that you’re making work like this, my dad said.
The next day, we went to the Lingyin Temple, the famous Buddhist temple in Hangzhou. They say the temple is famous because people who come to pray there often see their wishes come true. Afterwards, as we sat in the taxi going back to the city center, I asked my dad what he wanted to do.
Shouldn’t you be the one taking me around?
We could go to the flower garden.
Is that what you would recommend?
I don’t know. I’ve never been there.
You’re not very ambitious are you?
I watched the West Lake pass by from the taxi window. Mist began to collect on the glass, and soon, droplets of rain were racing across the window like tadpoles.
Actually, I think I’m going back to my dorm, I said. My ankle hurts.
There are three women I owe in my life, my dad said. They are my mom, my older sister, and your mom.
Why do you owe them? I said. I was sitting next to his hospital bed.
They have all been so good to me. And I’ve had such a bad temper.
A lot of people have bad tempers. I don’t think they would hold it against you.
When I was a kid, he said, I was really skinny. I’d get cold at night and wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. I shared a bed with my sister, and she could always tell when I was cold. So she would wrap her big thighs around me until I felt warm and fell asleep. But the thing is, she’s deaf and mute. She’s deaf and mute!
He turned his head and looked away.
The doctor prescribed half a sleeping pill to your dad, my mom said.
He didn’t take it, right? I said.
Your dad was the one who asked for it. He told the doctor that he hasn’t been able to sleep. He asked the doctor to help him.
I thought Dad was against sleeping pills.
I thought so too.
So he’s been taking them for the last two months?
No. After taking half a pill, he would sleep for only two hours and wake up again, so he wanted the doctor to prescribe the whole pill after a few days. I didn’t want him to get addicted to them, so one night, when he asked me to give him the sleeping pill, I told him that I already gave it to him. He fell asleep soon after.
Then what happened?
I started giving him a foot massage whenever he woke up because every time I give him a foot massage, he falls asleep right away.
What happened when he woke up in the middle of the night?
I gave him a foot massage every night from 11pm to 2am because according to Chinese medicine, that’s when the organs renew themselves. After that, I would go to sleep.
You gave him a three hour foot massage every night?
What else could I do? I didn’t want him to get addicted to the sleeping pills. I think the nurses started suspecting something because the other day, the doctor asked me how the sleeping pills were working.
What did you tell him?
I told the doctor that your dad was sleeping fine without them because I was giving him a foot massage every night. One night, in the middle of the night, a nurse came into the room. I think the doctor sent her to see if I was telling the truth. Luckily I really was giving your dad a foot massage at the time.
Mom, I can’t believe you’ve been giving Dad three hour foot massages every night. You have to take care of your own health too.
Don’t worry. It’s not like I’ll be doing this forever. After your dad gets better, I’ll have plenty of time to rest.
There was a waiting list for livers in Hong Kong, so the doctor advised my dad to transfer to a hospital in Hangzhou, where he would be able to get a transplant sooner.
My parents flew to Hangzhou.
My dad became unconscious shortly after and was put in the ICU. They said that maybe it was because of the flight.
I hadn’t been back since I studied abroad there.
The visiting hours in the ICU were only between two and three o’clock in the afternoon. I was relieved to hear this because I knew this was the only way my mom would rest at night.
I arrived at the hospital fifteen minutes early, and waited with my mom outside the doors to the ICU. There were several other families waiting. As soon as it turned two, a nurse unlocked the doors and poked her head out, and everyone rushed inside. We all stood in the entryway, a group of families, putting on plastic gowns, plastic caps, plastic gloves and plastic shoe covers. All the plastic was baby blue.
I walked with my mom towards the room directly across from the doors.
My dad was lying on the bed near the window. There was a nurse standing next to him, writing on a clipboard. The other bed was empty and untouched. I wondered when they changed the sheets on it.
My dad had been unconscious for days. His body was thinner than I remembered, and curled into a fetal position.
Say, I’m here, Dad, my mom said.
I’m here, Dad, I said.
You have to say it louder so he can hear you.
My mom leaned in close to his face.
We’re here now. We’re here! Give us a sign! If you can hear us, give us a sign!
I stood there, nodding and patting my dad’s hand.
Call your dad back. You have to call him back, loudly.
We’re here, Dad! We’re here!
Did you hear that? my mom said. We’re here!
We kept taking turns leaning in and shouting, but as soon as the nurse walked out of the room, my mom pulled a small glass spray bottle out of her pocket.
This is from the temple, she said.
She sprayed the water in the room a few times, in all different directions, muttering something, then sprayed it on a cotton ball, and dabbed that onto my dad’s forehead.
This is from the temple, she whispered.
I waited for my dad to wake up.
Then it was three o’clock.
Later, at dinner, my mom didn’t say a word, so I asked her what was wrong.
I made a mistake, she said.
I spoke to the Feng Shui master, and he said that we weren’t supposed to call your dad back while he is unconscious. We weren’t supposed to shout at him. I did it so many times. And we weren’t supposed to do that.
It’s ok. You didn’t know.
She shook her head and closed her eyes.
One of my favourite things about Hangzhou is the food.
They have a dish called Dongpo Pork, which is pork belly that has been stewed in a thick sauce on low heat for hours. It is so heavy that it is served as a two by two inch square, in a tiny ceramic cup, with a bit of sauce. The layers of meat and fat alternate like a luscious layer cake, covered by thick bouncy translucent skin. They say that women should eat the skin more often because it is full of collagen. The dish is named after the poet Su Dongpo.
We ordered it several times while we stayed with my dad in Hangzhou. Usually we would order one and cut it into four pieces. The fat would melt in my mouth as the meat fell apart, oozing with sauce. It was delicious. It left a layer of oil floating in the ceramic cup.
Three days after we returned to Hong Kong, my dad had an emergency surgery, and we were not allowed to visit him at the hospital until early afternoon.
I clapped my hands together. That means we get to sleep in tomorrow, I said to my sister the night before.
When we arrived at the hospital, we found my dad asleep.
He’s very tired from the surgery, the nurse said.
So my sister, my aunt, and I went out to buy snacks. We bought Japanese chocolate and airy shrimp chips and pineapple juice boxes.
When we returned to the hospital, my dad was still sleeping. After a few hours, we decided to go out for dinner.
You should eat something, I said to my mom. Or get some fresh air outside. It’s so stuffy here.
No, I’m okay, she said. You can bring something back for me.
My mom stayed in the hospital room with my dad the entire time.
We went out to a restaurant and ordered lots of dishes to share. We had winter melon soup, and hot and sour soup, and stir-fried noodles, and tapioca pudding. The food was delicious. We laughed and joked. I don’t remember about what. We ordered Singapore-style noodles to go for my mom.
Mom should really loosen up and take care of her own health, I said to my aunt and my sister.
When we got back to the hospital, several of my aunts were there.
Why did you eat for so long? my mom asked. The doctor said that your dad won’t live through the night.
What do you mean? I said.
The nurses came to wipe his body, and after that, he became unconscious. I’ve already notified our family and friends.
I walked over to my dad.
His eyes were wide open and staring at the ceiling.
There had been a discussion of whether I would carry out the customs traditionally given to the eldest son. My mom had asked if I would do it. One relative told my mom that I shouldn’t because I’m not a son.
If she does it, she might not ever get married, the relative said.
In the end, I accepted.
On the morning after the funeral, a large group of us returned to the funeral home. After we all sat down in the chairs and started folding more joss paper to burn, one of the funeral advisors came over and led me into the back room, where my dad lay in the coffin. They had moved him out from behind the glass room into the viewing room.
Hold this, the advisor said, handing me a damp white towel with both hands. Now, say, Dad, I’m washing your face.
I held onto both ends of the damp white towel, but the advisor never let go. We were both holding onto the towel.
Dad, I’m washing your face, I said.
The advisor swept the towel back and forth in the air above my dad’s face, without ever touching him. Then he asked me to go back to the main room and take a seat.
A few minutes later, they wheeled my dad out to the main room. Everyone took turns bowing in front of the coffin before sitting down again. Then they announced that they were about to close the coffin, and said that those born in the year of Horse, Rabbit, or Pig were to avert our eyes during this part of the ceremony. Because I was born in the year of the Rabbit, I looked down at the ground. I wasn’t sure when exactly they would close the coffin, so I looked down at the ground for a very long time.
Later, I also carried a stone bowl filled with water over to the windows facing a specific direction, and I carried my dad’s large framed photograph to the van that took us to the cremation site.
There was a large travel bus for all our relatives and family friends, and a smaller van for my mom, my sister, and me. The cremation site was at the top of a hill. The cremation was held inside, in a room covered with gold and yellow wallpaper. As we entered the room, each of us was handed a stick of incense, and we were directed to stand next to each other, row after row. My mom, my sister, and I were in the first line. The coffin was sitting on a conveyor belt on the left side of the room. Each of us bowed and placed our stick of incense into the burner. Then the advisor called me, my mom, and my sister over to the coffin.
Put your hand on the button, he said.
We each put a finger on the small button on the wall.
One, two, three, he said.
We pressed the button, and the conveyor belt took the coffin, and my dad inside it, through the hole in the wall and out of the room. There were no flames and no smoke.
What’s on the other side? my sister asked.
They burn him on the other side, my mom said.
In this gold and yellow room, with a faint smell of incense, the three of us pushed a button that sent my dad into flames that we could not see or smell. What did it look like on the other side? Were they going to throw the coffin into the fire the same way they threw the paper offerings into the fire? Were there rows and rows of coffins in a fluorescent room, waiting to be burned later in the day?
Now that I think about it, the last time I saw my dad’s face was when I held the damp white towel above his face. If I had known that then, I would have taken a better look.
All I thought then was, am I holding this towel right?
“Wind among the Trees on the Riverbank,” 2015, HD video, 8 minutes 8 seconds.