September 20, 2019 | Feature
what happened in yueyang
a tale of baijiu, disaster, and beautiful things
Content Warning: Death
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been haunted by the prospect of my parents’ death. It usually comes when they’re running late: school pickups, after-school pickups, various other pickups. But the fear is really always there, waiting. It gripped me two weeks ago, the day after my move-in to Brown when I knew they were making the 13-hour drive back to North Carolina on very little sleep. It grips me now as I think of my mom walking obliviously through busy streets in the city where she’s visiting her parents, and my dad alone at home, bicycling to work next to trucks that could crumple him like paper.
I used to wish on every fallen eyelash that I would die before my parents would—I didn’t want to live through their deaths. I recently told my mom this, and she laughed. Then she said, very seriously, “That’s not going to happen.”
According to Healthline, obsessive fear of your death or other people’s deaths is called thanatophobia, though the term isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Verywellmind declares that fearing the deaths of others “does not constitute thanatophobia” (the italics are theirs); Medical News Today agrees. Either way, I haven’t come across any literature, medical or otherwise, that makes it easier for me to breathe when three hours have passed since my parents should’ve come home and I’m still alone in the house.
No one close to me has died, and I think that’s partly why death has always seemed so incomprehensible to me. My parents immigrated to the United States from China in the 1980s. All of our relatives live in China, and I only see them for a few weeks of stilted conversation every few years. So after my paternal grandmother died when I was in middle school, I didn’t know how to feel. I felt very bad for my dad, but I barely knew anything about her, and the sadness of it passed. My dad didn’t talk to me about it; I didn’t even know there’d been a funeral until I stumbled upon pictures of it years later. No one else I’ve met more than twice has died.
So let’s talk about this past summer.
My mom, my dad, and I were staying in Yueyang, a city in southern China. My dad was working at a university there. My mom grew up in the area, so she was reuniting with old friends. One night, the three of us went out to dinner with a group of said friends. One of them had brought baijiu, translated literally as “white liquor.” Brands sold in stores often hover around an alcohol content of 50-percent. My mom’s classmate, however, had not bought his baijiu at a store. It was in a gallon jug labeled “Mangos” which, he announced to great fanfare, he’d gotten straight from the countryside. My dad had a shot-and-a-half, and I watched his face turn a deep red.
After dinner, my mom wanted a picture of us all together. We emerged onto the cobblestone sidewalk outside the restaurant, cars zooming by a few feet away. We assembled in a row. My dad and I stood on opposite ends. My mom approached a passerby and asked him to take our picture. She has a fancy-ish camera, so she had to explain the buttons. The passerby didn’t understand. My dad called to my mom that I should just take the picture; I agreed. My mom waved us off. She was still demonstrating, looking through the viewfinder, when she jerked her head up and screamed, sharp and scared, “胡新华, 你怎么回事!”
I can’t give my mom English words here. Her horror could only be expressed in the language she grew up with—the language she first used with my dad. But I’ll say this roughly translates to, “Hu Xinhua, what’s going on with you?!”
I whirled around to see my dad, still red-faced and several feet behind us, almost fall into the street. He was in a precarious sort of squat. Veering, arms out. My mom and I were there immediately to grab him. I’d never seen him like this, but he was laughing, looking down. It’s nothing, nothing’s going on, I’m fine. He lurched back into a standing position. The men on either side of him made to brace him, but he shook them off. It’s nothing, it’s nothing.
It seemed like the passerby finally understood how to use the camera. My mom moved back to stand beside us. The passerby hesitated. And then I heard someone yell, and I turned, and I watched my dad fall straight back onto the sidewalk like some kind of wooden board, his elbows barely cushioning the fall. The sound of his head hitting the cobblestones.
All I could think was: I can’t believe this is happening now. I can’t believe this is happening now, in summer, in China, on a busy day, ever, there’s so much I haven’t done and there’s so much we haven’t done and this is happening now. I somehow ended up on the ground next to him, unable to do anything but hold his head: hair and skull and skin. It was wrong, it was all wrong, he never lies down on the sidewalk, he never falls straight back onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t believe death was coming the way I knew it eventually would.
My mom was saying his name, 胡新华, 胡新华, then she stopped. He was breathing, was he breathing? He was breathing. Someone was calling whatever 911 is in China. I kept saying, both aloud and in my head, trying to tell him: Daddy. Daddy. Daddy. My entire body seemed to be vibrating, and I had to press my hand over my mouth and nose so people wouldn’t see how much I wanted to cry.
And then his eyes slid open and closed a few times. They were dull, gray, red. He didn’t seem to see anything. His face didn’t look like his face, his skin didn’t look like skin, bunched up and drawn and wrong all over: nose, lips, chin. Was this what he looked like before?
Then he regained some consciousness and asked me what happened. I told him he fell. He tried to get up, move with his usual abruptness, and everyone rushed over and pushed him down and told him not to try to get up. The ambulance arrived. He tried to get onto the stretcher himself but was pushed down and scolded again. He closed his eyes as the medics lifted him into the ambulance. I’d never been in one before, and felt a melancholic kind of thrill.
We got to the hospital. It seemed my dad’s moment of lucidity had passed. His eyes stayed closed and his body was still. He was scanned and prodded and wheeled around. In the elevators and hallways, people—other sick people, other families and friends of sick people—made way for him so quickly that I realized I wasn’t the only one who thought he looked like he was about to disappear.
But he began to come back again. He started to keep his eyes open. He told us not to worry. He vomited into a small plastic trash can. He squeezed my hand and glared at me, at the tears I had to keep wiping away, the shaky mouth I had to press a hand over.
He had to be moved to the 10th floor of another hospital. The doctors there said he had a concussion from the fall and would have to stay for at least a week. The alcohol had been extremely strong. But he would be fine.
Some of my dad’s colleagues came, and I left the hospital room and wandered through the dark, empty hallways. It was hot—no air conditioning. I followed a faint breeze and came to a huge window, completely open, no screen. And with total silence, I let my face contort in all the ways I’d held back since the fall. A fraction of the crying I needed, but it was finally something. I breathed in the air of the city below and ahead of me, a city I felt I now knew.
I returned to the hospital room, and my mom told me she was staying the night. There wasn’t enough space for me, so I’d spend the night alone in our townhouse on the university campus. One of my dad’s colleagues drove me back. He kept telling me not to worry, my dad was stable now. But I kept thinking—one day, my dad wouldn’t end up stable, and I didn’t know what I’d do then. He dropped me off, and I unlocked the door to this house that I’d only ever been in with my parents.
I stepped in quickly without turning the light on, so no mosquitoes could sneak in, the way my dad taught me. I closed the door softly, thinking of how my mom hates when people slam things when they are upset. I turned on the light and stepped out of my shoes, and then, with one hand still gripping the door handle, keeping it perfectly shut, I let out an awful, strangled scream.
I screamed through all three stories of the townhouse and all its stone floors and stairs. I screamed and sobbed and placed my things on the living room counter and stalked upstairs to take a shower. All night I’d kept quiet around my parents, the doctors, all the other adults I barely knew—and now I could finally let loose this strange almost-grief, a grief for something that had been so close to happening, a grief for something that I knew would one day happen. And it felt incredibly right. It felt like the only thing I could do. I wailed through my shower, and I marveled at the continued existence of shampoo and conditioner, of warm water, of dry towels.
And then my shower was over, and I was in front of the sink, clean and tired. Almost exactly like the night before. How could such a peace still exist? I swept a hand across the fogged bathroom mirror and studied my face. The same skin I’d been born with, the same skin as my mother and father. Really, the same skin as everyone I knew and everyone I didn’t. My father was alive; my mother was alive. But suddenly, I knew that even if they weren’t, I could still live—wash my hair and change my clothes and crawl into bed at the end of the night. Nearly all my life, I’d been unable to comprehend the point of a life without the two people who loved me the most, the two people I loved the most.
I don’t believe in love that continues after death. At some point in the future, my parents and I won’t be able to love each other anymore; I’ll have memories, they’ll be gone. But I’ll still have all that they’ll have given me, and it will always be beautiful. Their hope, real and exquisite and visceral, that I’ll make a good life for myself. Violin lessons and bike rides, multiplication tables and bedtime stories, spaghetti and dumplings, a garage door opening and a warm kitchen. When the time comes, I’ll just have to remember to accept it all again. And I’ll hope that I gave them something beautiful, too.
A few days after the fall, when my dad was still in the hospital, I asked him, haltingly, how he’d dealt with his own mother’s death. He told me you just have to deal with it.
I think I finally know how.
In the meantime, though, I’ll be trying not to think about it so much. There’s no use mourning the living. We have to bring them close—however we can, however far away they may be—and love them.