Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sent From Heaven

The past few days I've been mulling over the plot of an epistolary novel that I'm working on and I've been thinking a lot about my grandfather because one of the characters is inspired by him. For the past few weeks, I've been thinking about scenes from my childhood with him. 

My grandfather, who I called Akong, was the only doctor in a very small, rural part of Japan and his patients were mostly the older rice farmers. Some of them had spent so much of their lives hunched over their fields that they were permanently hunched over and could no longer stand upright. And yet, they were always quick to smile whenever they saw me. 

Akong's office always smelled like iodine and he had a leather examining table that had felt the weight of everyone in town. There was such a sense of security growing up in his house because whenever something ailed me, I knew that he would have all the answers. 

Akong earned his license during a time when a Taiwanese medical student had to learn Japanese and German because the professors were Japanese and the textbooks were written in German. He also spoke Russian, Mandarin Chinese, a bit of French, and since my great-grandfather understood that if his children spoke English, they would be able to communicate in any part of the world, he hired an English tutor (a real English tutor from England) for all of his children. This would explain why I have relatives who live all over the planet, including several Parisiennes and a South African uncle. 

My sister inherited his love of languages. She speaks French, Mandarin, Taiwanese, English, and Swahili fluently. 

My mother told me this story which is a scene in my novel. She said that whenever he would finish with a patient, he would come into the kitchen (his office was at the front of the house) and ask her what color she dressed me in that morning as he washed his hands by the sink below the window. And then he would search for me in the schoolyard. She said that he was always so happy to spot me and he would tell her whatever it was I was doing. Hearing my mother tell this story always made me feel so cherished. 

Akong died the day after the Chinese New Year in his sleep. He had been in good spirits because his entire family in Taiwan had visited for the holiday. He couldn't stomach the rich foods and went to bed early. The next morning, my aunt came in to check up on him and he told her to go back to bed because he was still tired. When she returned, he was gone. He was 94 years old.

When I heard the news, I thought how strange it was that I had been thinking about my grandfather so much the last few days. And then I realized that for the very first time, I was living on this earth without him. It was difficult to grasp the concept. Because he lived so far away, I told myself that I could pretend that he was still there on the other side of the world. But even as I told myself that, I knew that it would be impossible. I feel as if a part of me has become a bit untethered. Perhaps that's what we all go through and we keep getting untethered until it is time for us to leave the earth. 

I asked Peter, who lost his father four years ago, how long he mourned for his father. 

"I'm not sure how long it lasts. I might mourn him for the rest of my life," he said.

When I called my father, he told me that when he was young, his mother had taken him to an oracle of some sort and she had told them that my grandfather was a god who had been sent back down to earth. 

My father said that at the time, he didn't quite believe it, but hearing about Akong's amazingly peaceful death, he was reminded of this and thought that perhaps it was true. 

Akong was such a kind man and a gentle person. While he practiced medicine he saved countless lives and genuinely took care of his patients. He was a brother to eight sisters and truly loved his wife, so when he birthed babies, he understood that this took time and never rushed the process. Years later, women would approach my mother and tell her how lucky they were to have had him as their doctor. 

He and my grandmother taught me what love could be when you found the right person. Every morning, he would bring my grandmother a hot towel as she was waking up so that she could wash her face. Witnessing this relationship gave me the faith not to settle and to search for the right man for me. 

Akong was a lucky man. Unfortunate things did happen in his life. He lost his hearing in one of his ears as a child when an uncle clubbed him on the side of his face. He lost out on his father's medical practice when he had been sent to mainland China during the second world war. Later, he would have to lead his young family aboard a smuggler's ship and brave the pirate-infested seas to return home so that his children and grandchildren would not have to live in Communist China. He borrowed money on some very bad terms from an old friend which ruined their friendship. He underwent major surgery, I think it was an appendectomy, without anesthesia because the surgeon, ignorant of Akong's identity, didn't want to waste anesthesia on a patient who wouldn't be able to afford it. Imagine his surprise when my great-grandmother came to visit her son in her mink coat and imported European fashions. I always picture this surgeon quaking in his shoes once he found out that my great-grandfather was a member of the Taiwanese parliament. 

Akong was lucky because he was born the eldest son in a wealthy and generous household. He was beloved by his family. He had a father who valued intelligence and encouraged Akong to study, and study he did, for his favorite story of his schooling was that he never scored lower than a 96 percent on a mathematics examination. 

His eight sisters filled the house with music on the piano my great-grandfather had bought for them (at a time when a piano cost as much as four houses). Akong was able to work in a profession he loved. After failing his hearing test three times, he valiantly strived to take it again and was rewarded with a broken machine and a lax administrator to become the doctor he always wanted to be, a profession that suited him. 

Later, he married my grandmother, a beautiful woman who was the love of his life, and they were together for more than five decades. They had two sons and two daughters.

Then, during a time when most men were considering retirement, Akong embarked on another adventure, and that was moving to Japan to take up residence as the town doctor in a small village. He was able to invest wisely in this new country and that's where he made his own fortune. 

It's almost impossible to fathom the world Akong was born into during the early part of the twentieth century. He loved technology, so this was an exciting century for him to live through. He was an avid photographer who fashioned a darkroom out of my father's childhood bathroom. Towards the end of his life, he was converting all his files into digital format and Akong was on his computer every day answering emails from his children and grandchildren.

I know that Akong was afraid of death. I think that's partly the reason he was so careful about his health. And as a doctor, he always monitored himself carefully. His own father died in early middle age of a heart attack while hiking in the mountains. I'm glad that his last moments were in his comfortable bed with his family by his side. 

When my father told me the story about the oracle, it does make sense to me. Perhaps Akong was a god sent back down from the heavens. And now he has returned home. 

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