Staring Down the Sting of Death (translated from Helen’s Chinese)

The following is something Helen posted on her blog the weekend after MH 370 disappeared. Her article was picked up and republished by several Chinese publications, and proceeded to go viral, even reaching — and comforting — some of the people bereaved by the disappearing Malaysian Airlines flight (we know this because one of them has written Helen to thank her). At least three people she hasn’t heard from since college got in touch with her after having the article forwarded to them, including one who is a devout Buddhist and read the article upon the enthusiastic recommendation of the spiritual leader of the biggest Buddhist temple in Shanghai. The original article (which, being in her original Mandarin, is infinitely better than my translation) is here:

I sent this out to a few friends, by the way, and Helen was horrified by my mentioning how widely the article is being read, as she thought it was obvious that I was bragging on her. That is good; I would hate to think that any of you had missed my point.  ;-)



This weekend, I seem destined to thinking and talking about death. And since I can’t seem to avoid it, I might as well just throw myself into it wholeheartedly.

A few days ago I had started thinking about where to take my son for our spring break getaway this year, but on Friday some news came without warning: my husband’s Aunt Sue had died, and the funeral was scheduled for Sunday. Although I had never met her, for my husband’s sake we needed to go to the funeral. My heart gave a tiny whisper, “Our whole vacation is messed up.”

Who would have thought that the same day, the evening of March 7 in the U.S., the news would break that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was lost. Later, I learned a new word 失联,  “lose contact.” So, as far as our travel plans being messed up…so what? An airplane filled my heart, those 239 lives, and the thousands of families associated with them. While I packed my luggage, I imagined them happily getting dressed for the trip, in high spirits about getting back home to their wives, laying out in order the presents bought for loved ones back home, imagining their excitement when the gifts are opened … However, some luggage never reaches its final destination; some who leave on a journey will never return.

The funeral was held in a small town called Athens, Texas. The whole trip there it rained in a steady drizzle; the grey skies matched my mood as I thought about this bleak affair. Although it was March, spring seemed a long way off. The sky was grey like a canvas, every tree was bare, it was like a picture in Chinese ink. Trees, they have their cycle. In the midst of winter’s bleak desolation, you do not despair, because the heart is already looking forward to spring. Spring’s blossoms, spring’s aromas, spring’s flirtatiousness, “spring” — this single word represents exuberant vitality and power … … but what about people? When they look ahead all the way to the end of life, how many people can feel hope? For they have no idea what to expect. Death, like a deep pool, like a wall, like a black jungle, fathomless, pitch-black and sinister, wrapped up in humanity’s ultimate fear, the utter denial of everything beautiful and warm. All because we don’t know the bottom of that abyss, the far side of that wall, what it is that awaits humanity. Heaven? Hell? Nothingness? Reincarnation? The bare trees will meet the spring, the earth will warm back up, people… they disappear from this world, and what then? At the end of all things, they will…what??

Even while my mind was running wild with these thoughts, I never stopped looking at websites, microblogs, WeChat… — expecting news of a miracle. “Not sure…suspected…possible … …” In the end I grew disenchanted with advanced science and technology; humanity is so limited! When we arrived at the funeral home where they had placed Sue’s body, I put away my moodiness, and before we went in I told my son not to laugh, lest people think we didn’t respect the deceased. We walked through the door, and unexpectedly we were surrounded by smiling faces. In the hall itself gentle, relaxing music was playing; an ivory casket was placed in the forefront, studded with pink powder-blue flowers. Up on the wall to the right a slideshow was playing, photographs of Sue from childhood to old age. She was in her seventies, and naturally time had left its mark. Friends and relatives wandered hither and thither at will, chatting, now and then going up to look at Sue in her coffin, or perhaps turning to look at the photographs projected onto the wall. The old people talked to the young, explaining the stories behind the photographs, relating amusing anecdotes about Sue. Now and then there would be some tears in the eyes, but then they would not be able to keep back a smile … … Music without pathos, no heart-rending lung-ripping weeping and wailing — is this a funeral??

I couldn’t help but ask my husband, “Didn’t they love her? Didn’t they really care about her? How can there be so little crying?” My husband patted my shoulder and leaned over to whisper to me, “It’s a small town and almost everyone is a Christian, and we are all sure that Sue, who we know loved God, went to Heaven; so her death is no reason for grief. Of course there will still be some tears, because her loved ones who are still alive will miss her. However, there will be a day in Heaven when we will meet again face to face, and so for the time being we can bear it.” His voice was soft but firm. It turns out that generations of faith have planted hope in their hearts: the bare trees wait in expectation for the spring, they wait in expectation of seeing each other again in Heaven. So, looking at the beloved one in the coffin, their minds are filled with warm memories and beautiful hope; Despair and Fear, begone, you have no place here.

Sunday’s funeral was just as peaceful. Now and then there was a sob, and a comforting hug. Sorrow floated in the air, but very shallow, not terrifying, not unbearable, not suffocating. My own childhood fear of death sprang directly from my grandmother’s funeral. The ceaseless wails of grief, the sight of desperate relatives hurling themselves on the coffin trying to drag it back as it was being pushed into the furnace, left me with a single impression of death: when one person dies, it’s as if the sky falls for the whole family. That sort of despair and sorrow is far too heavy for a young little heart to bear.

After the ceremony in the chapel, everyone went to the cemetery to bid farewell. Just as my husband had told me, the friends and relatives drove in a long, slow-moving line, each car with its lights on, and the vehicles that met us coming the other direction, large trucks and tiny passenger cars alike, all stopped as we passed. Our passing in the opposite direction wouldn’t in reality affect them at all, yet they were willing to dedicate this brief moment in time to a show of respect for the death of someone they didn’t even know. My heart was moved to its core with warmth a few times. When all the living show such respect even toward the dead, the people of this country must have such bedrock happiness. My husband said that years ago people would get out of their cars and stand with their hats off to show respect for the dead. I said, what they are doing now is already more than enough. As I said that, in my mind was Sue and her blue dress, her face with its light makeup and its serenity, the trace of a smile on her lips, her hands folded, her left hand still wearing her wedding ring, a delicate watch hanging loosely on her right wrist — looking exactly like someone going to keep an appointment, going to meet friends long missed…

That night in the hotel, I kept waking up all night long. Each time I would grab my cell phone, get on the internet and check the news. Every dream was of an airplane, the sky, the sea. Even though I know that God has prepared Heaven for His children, fear and anxiety still held their ground. “Whereabouts unknown…” all the terrors conjured up by such words seem more frightening even than death itself. On the road home, all of a sudden I reached over and turned off my husband’s music and asked him, “It’s been more than fifty hours with no news, with everyone praying for their safe return. I don’t know what to think; how in the end am I supposed to pray for them?” Even before he answered, the image of Sue’s funeral rose back up in my mind, and it seemed to hold an answer: I would pray for those heart-stricken family members to find true hope in the midst of their despair; pray that under the blow of knowing that their loved ones might already have passed away, they could arrive at a true perspective on their own lives, that they might no longer fight desperately to cling to wealth and power, but instead would treasure every moment spent with those around them, would leave behind in others’ lives love and respect and kindness……

At that moment I got a message on WeChat: a friend had just passed away in Chicago from illness, on the eighth of March at two o’clock in the morning. In our last phone conversation, she had said that she missed Houston and wanted to come back and be together again. But death came so unexpectedly, there was not even time to say good-bye. I said to myself, “This weekend is destined to be about death.”

“To be born, to get old, to get sick, to die” — everyone in China knows this traditional summary of mankind’s fate. But apparently getting old and getting sick are not inevitable, for catastrophe strikes down some infants, while there are people who live to a ripe old age and die in their beds without ever getting sick. Only death makes everyone in the whole world equal, only death is the ultimate inevitability. So, with regard to this subject, shouldn’t we spend more time exploring and understanding death than we do on other things that may not even happen? Work, marriage, hobbies — these things make up an important part of life, and each of them has to be studied and prepared for. Death should also be thought of as a course of study, should be researched, pondered, discussed. Unthinking taboos and silence, they only feed the dread, isn’t it so? Whatever lives, has already been stung by death. When the veil of the unknown is even slightly lifted, the looming terror of death recedes; even if it does not disappear completely, let people at least have the courage to face it.

When it comes to what is said about death, the most straightforward words, the ones that most have comforted my heart, are from the Bible. Sue’s funeral let me glimpse even more how, in this particular actual death, Christian faith produced serenity, peace and hope. Her body unexpectedly didn’t give me the slightest feeling of icy cold. It could not have been more different from the scenes of death in my memories.

About death, the Bible says: “all humanity will die together, and mankind will return to the dust.” “Death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” It tells us that death is inevitable, which we already know, but it also tells us that we should think about death while we are still alive.

The Christian faith is not afraid to talk about death — because Jesus’ “death and resurrection” is the cornerstone of the whole religion. Never in history was there anyone else as humble as Jesus, to give up His life for the whole world, and yet with His resurrection to defeat death itself; and never was there anyone like Jesus to firmly declare Himself to be the way, the truth and the life. He said: “I am the resurrection, I am the life! Whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, yet will he surely live again.” And that means that death is no longer the end of the story.

Maybe the closer we draw near to the place of death’s poisonous sting, the more clearly we can see the need for faith. In order to live calmly and undauntedly, we need to find it, experience it – that faith that destroys dark horror, that brings hope and freedom and love. I am deeply convinced that only the flower of a life lived free from the fear of death, can make every moment in life bloom without limit, spreading its beauty throughout the world.

“A Thank-You Note from Grandmother” (translated from Helen’s Chinese)

I liked this post of Helen’s very much. So did a bunch of other people. The original is much better than my translation but you have to be able to read Chinese.


birds in snow

Grandmother took this picture of her back yard covered in deep snow. Even during her recovery she didn’t lose her spirits; she took this picture so that we could try to count how many little birds we could see.

Houston almost never has a winter, but this year even Houston has had several episodes of sub-freezing weather. One very cold morning, my husband’s cell phone suddenly started ringing, and my heart skipped a beat. Sure enough, there was a problem. The call was from West Virginia, where his parents live. His father said, “Your mother has had a heart attack, and right now she’s in an ambulance headed for the hospital.” Oh oh oh oh heavens! My husband immediately began muttering, “Oh, oh, oh Lord, please don’t take her so soon; we aren’t ready yet.”

It’s very difficult when your parents live that far away. My husband had been sick with a fever just the night before, and I had been wondering whether he should call in sick that day. But after he hung up the phone, he booked a plane ticket and flew straight to West Virginia that very morning. He rented a car at the Pittsburgh airport and drove to the hospital where Grandmother was near Clarksburg, despite the fact that Pennsylvania and West Virginia were in the middle of a snowstorm. Grandmother stayed in the ICU for three days, sedated and unconscious. My husband stayed there for a week, serving them with all his heart and energy. All that time there were serious snowstorms in the North, and the temperature stayed near and below zero. My husband is always able to find the silver lining in the clouds, and it was no different this time. He sent me a picture of himself and told me that after I saw the picture I would not worry about him being frozen anymore — we could only see his eyes and his nostrils in the picture, like a soldier armed to the teeth. The kids were asking, “Where is that terrorist from?”

Although the kids and I do not like how it feels when the head of our household is not home, still, taking care of grandparents always comes first. So the kids were cooperative and good. Until he came back, we did not give any thought to that; it was just what we all had to do. Grandmother had gotten a small cold, but from that the heart got infected, and then her lungs got full of fluid, and finally her heart failed. Grandmother has always been very healthy, always walking around like a young person; a month earlier they had driven thousands of miles to Houston from West Virginia for Christmas, but this time she had been to the very door of death before coming back to us. Two weeks later, we started hearing good news every day. The heart, which had been on the edge, stabilized. We kept thanking God that the couple will have more time to respect each other and love each other, more time to be admired by others, a chance to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary with their children!

As Grandmother was getting better, and this unexpected episode in our lives drew to a close, we went back to our normal, busy way of life. However, something happened after Grandmother recovered that gave me a lot to think about! One day my husband and I got thank-you e-mails from Grandmother, while she still was not totally recovered. She expressed her thanks to my husband and to me and to the kids, briefly but with genuine feeling. There were a few typographical errors — obviously she was still very weak while she was typing. My first reaction was surprise; isn’t it just natural and unremarkable when children are good to their parents? In China, parents accept ten thousand trials to raise their children, but few children thank their parents. Then when the parents get sick, it’s understandable that when their children are good to them, they feel relieved. But writing a thank-you e-mail — is it necessary??? I didn’t know how to answer Grandmother’s e-mail. I tried to get my husband to reply, but he was busy, busy, busy.

Then about one week later, Grandmother wrote another long e-mail. She said she was sorry that she could not stand the hot weather in Houston, and that therefore they had to give their children so much trouble by living so far away. She said thank you to my husband for racing there the moment he heard about the problem. Although she didn’t know for three days what my husband was doing while she was unconscious, Grandpa kept saying it was a really good thing that he was there. She said thank you to me because I took the responsibility of caring for a big family to make it possible for my husband to fly there and take care of her, and she said thank you to the children for cooperating and for praying for them. And she also said thank you to my husband for buying plane tickets for his sister so that she could fly to West Virginia and take care of Grandmother after she came home from the hospital and my husband went home…it was very detailed and sincere, she mentioned every single person one by one. I have to admit, although I don’t think what we did was worth such a heartfelt outpouring of thanks, still I was very touched by the gratitude from the bottom of her heart.

Chinese always value being reserved. For family members to express gratitude to each other seems too polite, it seems like pushing people away, denying intimacy, treating people as if they were acquaintances and not family members, and some people even call it hypocrisy. Ah, so is it that Americans do not have close relationships between family members — is that why they spend so much time saying thank you??  Well, I don’t know about other American families, but the relationship between my husband and his parents is very close and they respect each other very much. My husband calls his parents almost every day. Sometimes he shares one funny joke or piece of news with them; sometimes they watch a game together over the phone and laugh at a mistake made by one player; sometimes he discusses a verse in the Bible with them; sometimes he just tells them the trouble we have in our life and asks for prayers. It’s not like a phone call between women — their conversation is always short, yet at the same time full of affection. Not like me…most of the time I just tell my parents good news, because I worry that bad news would give them too much of an extra burden. But my husband shares bad news too, as he knows that they would pray and hand that burden over to God. I envy their relationship. How much I hope that in the future my son could share all his happiness and sorrow with me! He would not worry about giving me any burden, he could throw all those negative feelings to me, whether fear, depression, failure or any other emotion. And I could be calm; no panic, no blame, no nagging…..

Well, anyway, that thank-you letter absolutely was not written because the family relationship is weakened and distant, but simply because it is the habit for people in their family to share with others the gratitude their hearts feel, whether the others are strangers or their nearest relatives. For the first time I really understand that even though I didn’t at all expect gratitude, still I shouldn’t, just because she expressed thanks, start feeling that she doesn’t think of us as family members. On the contrary, in my heart I went from astonishment to warmth, to feeling that I was being honored and understood and cherished and appreciated and cared for…whatever it was that was bubbling in my heart, it was beautiful and good and positive.

I remember before their granddaughter’s wedding, when they were helping set up the wedding hall. Whenever they were separated from each other for a little while in the middle of all that hustle and bustle, they would be keeping an eye on each other, and whenever they had a chance they would give each other a little help. And then they would say, “Thank you,” and then add “I love you.” Watching these dear grey-haired old people behaving like youngsters who had just fallen head-over-heels in love, thinking how it really is possible for romance to last all the way into old age, I stood aside smiling delightedly to myself, practically intoxicated with joy.

Maybe it’s just in our Chinese character that we find it hard to express our feelings. If a stranger helps us, we will feel gratitude and we will naturally say thank you, right? But sometimes when our family members take care of us in every imaginable way, we take it for granted and are perfectly comfortable not saying thank you. Sometimes we even have a very different attitude toward our family than toward our friends and colleagues. We are careless with our wording, we hurl complaints, accusations, contempt, even rage…and we excuse ourselves, we tell ourselves, precisely because they are family, “No need for disguise, let the real self flow freely, just relax and be myself…”

Don’t you know, the true self, before it undergoes the fire of transformation, is always selfish? We can thank a stranger with a hug to warm his heart; but we can also use the “true self” to hurt those closest to us day after day. Those people whom God put nearest to us are the most important, the ones we ought most to cherish, the ones we ought most to appreciate, the ones we ought most to thank — because they walk through life at our side, through frost and snow and rain, never far from us, never abandoning us. Even if they have hurt us before, it’s just because they have not learned how to express love. Let’s learn to forgive, to make changes starting with ourselves — more smiles, more thank-yous, more hugs, more acts and words of love.

The Bible says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Gracious words have more power than we can imagine. Dear one, right now, can you try to let true gratitude take root in your heart? Can you display a sincere smile and let a family member hear your gratitude? It doesn’t matter who they are. If you can’t say it, then write it on a piece of paper or a small card or whatever. You will definitely make someone’s day brighter!


My comment to Mozilla

I have lots of friends (and family members for that matter) who hold pretty much every imaginable position on gay marriage, and I imagine very few of them share mine, which is as idosyncratic as my political opinions generally tend to be. But only a very great fool indeed thinks that a person’s moral character is accurately revealed by something as hopelessly incoherent and carelessly thought through as the typical American’s views on controversial political subjects. Alas, I am not always able to be as charitable with others as I should be. So I share the following comment, left by me on Mozilla’s feedback page in the wake of the absurd Eich controversy, in the spirit of honesty with my future self, who will probably find much to criticize in it. Only…it really is true that opening Mozilla now reminds me of the Eich thing, and the next thing I know I’m being annoyed by it all over again; so it’s much easier to simply switch over to Google or Safari. This is not because I am punishing Mozilla for its liberalism; the folks at Google and Apple are probably at about the same spot on the political spectrum as are the folks at Mozilla. This is purely a personal thing: nobody at Google or Apple has done anything as supremely asinine yet, and therefore using their browsers doesn’t remind me of any distractingly annoying incidents. It’s a personal optimization I’m making, not a political statement.

But I probably still should have been less obnoxious in the comment. Or better yet not left one. Ah well. Sainthood is still a long way off, but I already was well aware of THAT.

The comment:

Have used Firefox for years upon years. Off to Safari I go…I imagine that most of the folks at Apple share your opinions, to which you are welcome and which would not have influenced me in any direction in my choice of browser, any more than they affect my willingness to be friends with persons from all points on the spectrum. But I find narcissists, hypocrites, and self-righteous persons highly annoying. As it appears that the dominant element in Mozilla’s culture is the peculiarly American variety of intolerant bigot who combines all three in one noxious ass, I find that every time I open Mozilla now, I’m reminded of unpleasant people — and life is too short to be thus spoiled unnecessarily. Good-bye, and I hope someday you grow up and learn how to deal with people who disagree with you with something less self-demeaning than the petulant tantrums of six-year-olds.

[grinningly observes to self that said comment looks very much like the petulant tantrum of a six-year-old except for the vocabulary — very Calvinesque, all in all, don’t you think?]

Link to the comment