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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

MY FATHER’S ATHEIST DEATH

(I wrote this a while ago. I'm posting it here as a tribute to the one-year anniversary of my father's passing.)


Sheng Mingliang, former violinist of the Central Philharmonic Society.

Flying half an Earth from Toronto, I finally arrive in Beijing, late for my father’s passing. But I can’t go home yet. Mother makes me stay at a hotel for five nights, as a self-imposed “quarantine”, even though all the Zero-COVID lockdowns have been lifted in China. As much as Mother loves me, she’s afraid, “I can’t die now. I still have so many things to take care of.”


*-*-*


My father had a dream way of dying, and he often talked about it openly and light-heartedly:


A colleague of his, Ms. Gan, had a very long-living father. Mr. Gan Sr., who was over 100 years old, had always been healthy. One of his favourite pastimes was solitaire. The old man played it every day well into his 100s. At 106, one day, Mr. Gan Sr. arose from bed, had his breakfast, and as usual asked his daughter for his card deck. Ms. Gan set the table for him and turned around to clean the kitchen. Half an hour later, when she came back to the living room, she saw her father sitting motionless at the table, in front of a deck of laid out cards, and holding one card in his hand, already dead.


With huge admiration, my father always concluded, “I want to die like Mr. Gan Sr. That’s my favourite way to go.”


As if he had a choice. And now he was lying motionless, in a jam-packed ICU in Beijing, sedated and with all sorts of tubes inserted in him, struggling to breathe with his COVID-damaged lungs.


Back tracking to early December 2022, all of my families in Beijing – parents, brother (as well as his wife and children) – contracted COVID, during the peak of the massive infection after the government suddenly lifted all the lockdowns. Father was the most vulnerable. Not only because he was 90 years old,  but particularly because, at doctor’s advice, he hadn’t taken any COVID vaccine. Within a few days, his blood oxygen saturation level dropped to below 70%, dangerously low. The small home-use oxygen generator could not keep up. Father still insisted, “I’m fine, no big deal.”


Father was an atheist. He always saw death as a materialistic passage. The older he got, the more he resisted the medical establishment. Not that he hated it, but going to hospital for him was more of a waste than cure. Especially when he approached 90, he said repeatedly, he was “ready to go” at any time. That’s why a year earlier, when he had major blockages in his coronary arteries and needed bypass surgery, he resisted until the very last moment, when my mother adamantly ordered him to “be a good boy” and go with her to the hospital. That time Mother won: the surgery was so successful, Father came home “good as new”. Playing his favourite solitaire, he told mom, “I was all ready to go, but you had to pull me back.” Offended by his kind of “appreciation”, Mother was happy to have her “old companion” back, and they celebrated his 90th birthday together.


Mom and Dad, on Dad's 90th birthday party.

But this night was different from any other. Father was so weak from hypoxia it’d take him eight minutes to walk from the living room to the toilet. Unable to make it in time he wetted his pants. They had no other choice but to take Father to the hospital, despite government warning that hospitals were already overpacked. My brother, himself barely recovered, drove Father to five different major hospitals in Beijing, none could take him in. Their fever clinics were all so crowded many patients had to be placed on the floor while waiting for treatment. The next day, leaving Father at home, Brother continued trying by himself. After searching across the city and turned away by another 4-5 hospitals. Finally, a ER doctor at a smaller suburban hospital, learning that my father’s condition was so bad, gave me brother “tip”, “Don’t go to the designated fever clinics. Send him to general ER. By law, ERs can’t turn away patients.” Their ER had already about another two dozen COVID patients, all seniors, waiting for admission into the ICU. There was only one broken bed left. Originally used for piling supplies, its headboard couldn’t crank up. They vacated that bed for Father and told Brother to bring extra pillows from home.


The next day, one patient in the ICU was deteriorating so badly, that family chose to give up and a bed was vacated. Out of the two dozen waiting patients in the ER, the doctors picked my father, the 90-year-old. Maybe because they saw chances of cure in my father’s condition, or maybe because my father had the best government covered health care plan. Nobody would even care to pry open the doctors’ heads to find out about their decision-making process. As long as a bed was open, the only choice was to grab it right away!


Brother consented. Surrounded by medical staff preparing to wheel him away, Father was adamantly resistant, “I don’t want to go to the ICU! No way! I want to spend my last days at home, watch some TV, play some solitaire, and say good-bye to your uncle and my best friends!” Brother had to call Mother, who was recovering at home. Mother pleaded him to oblige: Look at how many more people got turned away? And think about how hard it was for your son to find a hospital to admit you? This is our last fight, fight it for me! Seeing Mother’s tears through the video chat, Father gave in. As he was wheeled away, with Brother holding his phone overhead and walking along, Father tried to cheer Mother up, “No worries, I listen to you! See, I was born (in the year of the) monkey  – I flip just like one!”


*-*-*-*


Half a world away in Toronto. The Holiday Season was upon us. My attention was constantly on the family WeChat group for updates: they put Father to artificial sleep because they tubed a ventilator right into his lungs and it hurt; they found bacterial (besides viral) infections and white patches on his lungs; he was nasal-fed with liquid food … No visits were allowed in the ICU. Days went by without updates, except a call from the ICU to my brother to top up the deposit, which we could only interpret as “good news” – at least they were still working on my father. By this time, there was no turning back. Brother had paid up an equivalent of nearly $30,000. Even if we decided to take Father home now, the hospital would have to wake him up and remove all the tubes before discharging him. He would die at home in unbearable agony.


New Year’s Eve, my Buddhist wife and daughter and myself went to their temple for a year-end gathering. Being non-religious, I help out occasionally, but have never participated in any of their practices except a few lectures for lay people. This evening, I thought it was a volunteers appreciation night and I was to help out in the temple kitchen. Towards midnight, they announced there would be a Buddha name chanting ceremony at the Zen Hall upstairs for crossing the year. One of the sisters, as I had shared with her over dinner that my father had been hospitalized, encouraged me to participate, “Try it, it might be useful.” Hesitant, but having nothing else to do, I obliged. A vague thought lingered in me, “Maybe, this could send some energy to Dad. Maybe, he could hear us.”


The Zen Hall was dimly lit, with rows of praying mats lined across from side to side. Most of the participants wore dark grey haiqing - praying robes. I was in jeans and a burgundy shirt. Up front, a sitting Buddha statue, not so imposing, with half-closed eyes, gazed down onto the prayers from the not so grand altar. There was no dharma master (monk or nun) present. The session was led by a female practitioner and her husband. The sister hit on a chime while singing “Amitābha” (Buddha’s name) repeatedly; the husband, with a soft voice, prompted the prayers to follow the chanting and to kneel, kow-tow, rise, and repeat. The chanting continued for I didn’t know how long, then the crowd started walking in a single file, snaking through each row of mats. As we kept repeating “Amitābha” to seemingly no ends, the lead lady started to speed up the rhythm with her chime. The tempo became so fast I could hardly catch up my breath. A bit of hypoxic feeling filled my chest, as if alarming me how COVID would actually feel. The chanting forged on, faster and faster. I had no idea where it was leading me, but was in a trance I couldn’t stop. The chiming got faster and louder, fusing with the chanting, completely wrapping us in an aura of sound clouds. We walked in rounds and rounds, then were directed to return to our prayer mats, kneel down and lower our heads between our open palms, still chanting incessantly. The chiming came to a sudden stop with a reverberating ding lingering long in the air. It was just past mid-night. 2023 was here! Being non-religious, I wasn’t quite sure what I was praying for: Father’s recovery? Or the ending of his suffering? Maybe this was how “believing” was supposed to be like: I hoped Father could hear this prayer. I had no way to know, but I BELIEVED he did.


*-*-*


New Year’s Day. My in-laws came over for a family party where the kids were having a wonderful and noisy time. It was 10 days since Father had been admitted to the ICU. About 7:15 p.m., my WeChat rang. It was my brother. A bad feeling gripped me.


Brother sounded hesitant and in search of words,


“The hospital called. Dad’s heart stopped. … They said dad’s blood pressure suddenly dropped over night. And, they tried to revive him, but couldn’t get it (the blood pressure) back. … The attending doctor said there was one more way we could try, … to cut open his air pipe. Mom and I said no…”


I, “So, … you mean Dad has passed away…”


Brother, “…Yes.”


No one was in the living room at this moment, except my daughter suddenly came to my side, “What’s happening, dad?”


I couldn’t hide it from her. I embraced her in my arms, while covering my mouth and holding back tears, “Grandpa’s dead.”


A few minutes later, Brother buzzed me again, “The hospital has pronounced Father’s death at 8:17 a.m. Now they allow us to go to the ICU to say our last good-bye. I’m going to pick up Mom. I’ll video-chat with you from there. Stay tuned.”


I sneaked upstairs, told my wife the news and asked her to let no one come down to the basement. Brother’s video chat was staticky and shaky. Through his phone camera, I saw Father lying in the hospital bed, covered with thick blankets, with all the tubes already pulled. The ICU was noisy. I couldn’t make out much what Mother said, except, I saw her reaching to Father’s forehead saying, “He’s still warm, he’s still warm. …” and “I love you! We all love you!”


The medical staff were ready to wheel Father away. Mom said to me, “Tell Dad, he can hear you.” My pale words were nearly all drowned out by the noise in the ICU, “Dad, I will be missing you! I know you are suffering no more. You are in a better place. There’s beautiful music in heaven. Farewell, Dad!” And they whisked him away, as Brother’s phone screen went dark.


*-*-*-*-*


Father was a classical violinist. He was a founding member of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra and had a 40-year career in it. As an atheist, he had said he’d want no grave, no tombstone, just a simple farewell from his closest families and friends and a sea burial. We had pictured that, in a farewell hall of the funeral home, the sound system would loop Father’s most favourite musical piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by my pianist brother. Without prayer from a priest (or a rabbi, an imam, a dharma master), we, along with his closest friends and colleagues would walk around his casket, bow and pay our last respect. In the serene music, by a composer who happened to be a devout Lutheran, we would wish Father to go to somewhere called “Heaven”, where he would eternally enjoy his life long love of classical music.


But Father got none of that. In the peak of the pandemic, any funeral, religious or atheist, was simply infeasible. All funeral homes and crematoriums in Beijing, operating 24/7, had days of backlogged bookings. Their farewell halls were packed with deceased people, unavailable for any ceremonies. A private service was out of the question too, as almost all of Father’s families and closest friends were sick, some struggling for their own lives in hospitals.


Five days after Father died the crematorium called. It was his turn and they wanted the family’s final verification. Brother and Mother waited in line for two hours before the staff called, “the family of xxx.” as they wheeled out a thin casket, appearing to be made of plywood. Mother, still frail recovering from her own COVID, tried slowly to stand up from her wheelchair, saying, “My old man, I’m here…” They asked my brother, “Is this him?” Upon his yes, they closed the casket and showed them the exit. The whole thing lasted merely 20 seconds. Mother didn’t even have time to shed a tear.


*-*-*-*



Mom and Dad coming home from Dad's 90th birthday party.

In the past three and a half years, I kept hoping that “next year China would reopen” and we could visit my parents again. But the lockdown dragged on. I missed Father’s 90th birthday, and now his passing. As China is finally reopening, I will go back to my hometown without him.


During the seemingly endless wait for my visa, the only way to keep me updated was through video chats with my brother. Many friends sending their sympathies lamented, “This is no closure.” Once my wife asked, “Grandpa’s Day Seven is coming. Maybe I could ask a few sisters at the Temple to host a sutra chanting session for him? ” Gratefully, I declined. I know this is a folk tradition in China, where on the seventh day of a person’s passing, the family would hire Buddhist monks to chant sutras to send the deceased to the other world, while the family burn faux money to wish the deceased a well-to-do after life. But I also know Father would want no religious prayer for his own passing. So would Mother, “Thank her for the offer, but we are atheists. We have no regrets.”


However, I wondered how Mother was feeling. Wasn’t she sad that her beloved husband didn’t even get a proper funeral service? Wasn’t she mad about all the rude and insensitive treatment? Mother sighed, “We ARE atheists. We HAVE feelings. But it’s not just us. There are so many others in the same situation. The hospitals and funeral homes are just doing their jobs.”


Days later, Mother told me, our favourite “Uncle Horse” also died from COVID complications. Uncle Horse – his last name in Chinese means “horse”, so that’s what we called him since we were children – was one of the closest friends to whom Father had wanted to say goodbye in his last days. A cellist, also a founding member of the Central Philharmonic, Mr. Horse and Father had their friendship traced back to nearly 80 years ago when they went to music school together. Mr. Horse’s son called my mother and told her they would plan a sea burial too. Mother said, “Fantastic! We’ll go with you! They didn’t get to say good-bye to each other. Now the old buddies can make their final journey together.” Mr. Horse Jr. brightened up, “Thank you so much, Auntie! My dad would be super happy!”


Dad and his life-long friend Ma Yudi (Mr. Horse) at Dad's 90th birthday party.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*


After five nights of self-quarantine at the hotel, now I’m on a taxi, driving through a grayish drizzle and familiar Beijing traffic toward my mother’s home.



On Father's Day, 2022, I played a little tribute to him, using his violin.





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