My father Zhang Songshou passed away at 4 am on 9th of January after a long illness. He went peacefully at a hospice in Nanjing where he spent his final 102 days. He was 87.
In the past three years since he had taken ill with a heart problem, he had experienced quite a few near-death encounters. Nevertheless I still felt greatly saddened and a little dazed when I received the news. I rushed down home from Beijing to say the final goodbye.
As I neared my parents’ flat in New Wuding Village, in the southern outskirt of Nanjing, I heard noises and commotions. Strangely I thought I heard my father’s amateur Beijing opera-singer’s voice. Father was famous for his very loud voice. Back in the good old days, for each of my home visit, he would find out the rough time of my return and wait for me around the corner from building number 50. Upon spotting me, he would should, in a thundering voice loud enough for my mother and half of the village to hear: “Little Li has returned!” I used to feel embarrassed and dash to the house as soon as I could.
I walked into the open house and discovered that it had been transformed. The sitting/dining area became a mourning hall. An enlarged flattering photograph of him – father was an exceedingly handsome man – sat in the middle, surrounded by bouquets of flowers. The wall was decorated with pretty red brocade, a special type of silk produced in Nanjing. Stream of visitors, mostly neighbours and my sisters’ colleagues, were coming in and out of the flat.
I lit incense and bowed. For a long while I starred at the color picture. It was strange to be home but he was no longer here.
Three months ago, his situation made a turn for worse. Some doctors, friends of my sister, advised us that there was no point in trying to save him with any radical treatments or wasting so much medicine on him – until that point, he had been taken a dozen of pills every day – because all of his major organs were failing. That was then that he was transferred to Chengguan hospice, attached to the hospital ran by my former rocket factory.
In the end of last September, I went to India to attend Bangalore Literature Festival. After a few days, I was called back as my sister believed that the final moment had come. I rushed back to his bed side. Indeed it looked like that way. The big man had shrunk to a scarecrow. His lifeless face looked like aged wax and he threw up even a little bit of water fed to him. He suffered from chest pain and had trouble breathing. We all had to take turns to pat his back in the hope of easing his pain.
One day, he told my mother that he was not going to live through the day. He cleared his throat and said in a loud and formal voice: “I’ve saved 6000 yuan, which I hid in a box next to the TV set. That’s my Party membership fee!”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, we all burst out laughing. My father was never a Party member! I think he might have watched too many revolutionary films in which the revolutionary martyrs always hand over their life savings to the Party. Or he had secretly wished to become a Party member, a common aspiration for men of his generation.
‘The Party membership fee’ was one of his few muddle-ups. Otherwise, he reminded conscious right till the end.
It was a miracle that father somehow recovered a little from mid October, though he remained bed-ridden and require full-time care. This extra time seemed to have helped him to come to terms with his final destiny. When I nursed him, after my return from India, he said openly that he was scared of death. (who could blame him?) When I last went to Nanjing in the end of November, however, he appeared calm and resigned. When I asked him if he had any unfulfilled wishes, he said none. “I am a lucky man,” he asserted, “I have a great wife and three wonderful children.”
During my last visit, I bought him a down duvet to place hospital’s heavy old one. He said: “This warmed my body and my heart.”
Wang Ayi, his caretaker, was very impressed by father, thinking him a great character. Once while she was cleaning him, he farted. Partly to cover his embarrassment, he quoted Chairman’s saying: “If you have things to say, go ahead and say it; if you want to fart, go ahead and fart!”
To give him credit, father never lost his good sense of humour.
Wang Ayi asked me if father was a professor or someone like that. Sadly he wasn’t.
Father was a Nanjing native, and the eldest child of Zhang family who made a living from dubious business – involved in some sort of gangster activities and such. This politically incorrect background meant that he wouldn’t go far in life under Mao’s rule or become a Party member. He was very tall, good looking with a full forehead and strong square jaw, all auspicious signs, according to Chinese traditional belief. That was one of the reasons that grandma Na picked him to be her son-in-law. Na wasn’t savvy enough to check his background carefully.
After completing senior middle school, father was assigned to a job looking after prisoners in the notorious laogai – labour through reform system in the neigbhouring Anhui province. So we grew up without seeing much of him.
In 1958, during the ‘hundred flower movement’ when Mao invited the public to criticize the Party, father joined in the choir and made some mild critical comments. Because of this, he was later labled as a ‘rightist’ and suffered a lot in Anhui’s harsh countryside. For the past 15 years, he worked as a low-level clerk at a factory in Anhui that belonged to laogai system. It was a soulless job that required no brain.
He was pretty good at writing. Apart from occasional help with his children’s school composition, he never explored his talent. It would be too harsh to describe his life a wasted one. Apart from his lack of discipline and ambition, the social and political environment also played a large part.
After his retirement in 1986, he and his wife lived together for the first time like a normal married couple. They had a lot of difficulties in adjusting to it. And father fiery temper didn’t help either.
As he grew older, he mellowed. And he and mother become pretty good companions. Mother gave him meticulous care during his illness, sleeping on a chair by his hospital bed until she really couldn’t cope.
I used to be quite critical of my father, especially his not so caring way he treated my mother, for example, when mother gave birth to us at hospital, he was out playing mahjong. Now I am trying to think the good moments I shared with him. I remember vividly once when I was ill (some mild problem), he took me out, carrying me on his shoulder and treated me a hot bum stuff with red bean paste. In our days, children rarely enjoyed any snacks. I must also bear in mind that father was a product of his generation.
And after all, he partly shaped the way I am. For example, my curly hair came from him and perhaps my fondness for humour. Father will not become a saint in my mind just become of his death. But I know that I will miss him and his loud voice.