My father-in-law was buried today.
My father in law was 86 years old, and had lived a full life. As a young man, he joined the army shortly after the defeat of the Japanese, and fought in the PLA against the Nationalist army. Later, in the 1950s, he fought in the Korean War, against America, and was shot in the leg, a war injury which bothered him his whole life. He lived the rest of his life after the war as a farmer, building his family’s home with his own two hands, and raising a family in that home, a family consisting of his wife and three sons, the youngest of which is my husband.
My husband has lots of stories about his father. Unlike my husband’s relationship with his mother, which was one of warmth and support, of exceptional closeness that perhaps only exists between mothers and sons, his relationship with his father was more distant. He described his father always as a loner, as a solitary, independent man. His father didn’t talk much, but would often take off early in the morning to go walking the village and the surrounding countryside, and not return until late at night. One day last Spring my husband decided to show me what he considered to be a testament to his father’s peculiar personality. We walked out into the fields, towards the river. The fields are divided into plots, and each season a particular crop will be grown in the plots. I remember in Spring and early Summer, the countryside surrounding my husband’s village was awash with the smell of onions. Onions were being grown everywhere, their green stalks shooting up out of the ground, their bulbous bodies harvested and piled in stacks around the perimeters of each plot.
We plodded through the fields, and finally reached the edge of the riverside, where a small “beach” was formed by silt and river sediment. At this particular point in the river the water had collected into a small pool, a deep pocket of cool blue-green mountain water. It looked extremely inviting at that time of day, the sun still high in the sky and the heat of the early-May day still upon us. My husband said that this had been, when they were children, the swimming hole. When school was not in session the village children would come down and splash and play in the water. He also told me that his childhood friend, a man peculiarly nicknamed “nine-eight” (jiu-ba), had lost his older sister in this particular swimming hole, that the girl had drowned and been pulled out of the water, cold and blue.
Perhaps it was the drowning that motivated my father in law. My husband next directed my attention to an odd stone structure that snaked down to the water and out into the crops. It was clearly a crude irrigation system of some sort. My husband told me that this half-finished large stone “channel” had been the result of months of work on the part of his father, who had spent large amounts of money and labor on this peculiar project. At the time, his father had been ridiculed and not a few people commented on his conspicuous absense from the normal field labor, digging, planting, pulling. What was he doing down by the river that summer? Why was he so singularly obsessed with building this irrigation system that was doomed to fail (for the fields sat on a slope. The water would have to somehow flow upward in order to actually reach the plants above)? My husband had a simple explanation. He wanted to be near his children. Of course, he couldn’t outright say so, as his fears would have been laughed away. In rural China leaving children alone to amuse themselves while the parents work is perfectly normal, and to suggest otherwise would be ridiculous. So my father in law invented an excuse to watch his children swim. In his own, quiet way, he showed his love. The irrigation system still stands as a testament to my father in law’s peculiar nature.
In his last few days, my father in law clearly did not want to live any longer. Ever the independent, he first pulled out his oxygen tubes, and then pulled out the IV that was providing his only nutrients. Although my husband implored him to wait, just another month, in order to see our son, his grandson, my father in law was determined, and had decided it was his time to go. My poor husband, the youngest child, the last to marry, the last to have children, would be denied a grandfather for his son, but he could not deny that his father was, in the end, suffering and that he’d lived a good life. My husband brought me back to Kunming the day before my father in law passed. Chinese superstition dictates that a pregnant woman should not see a body, because doing so would mean bad luck for the unborn baby. Although my husband and I are not superstitious people, we respected the wishes of his relatives, and so he brought me home. My husband returned to his father’s bedside the next day, and had been back in the village for only an hour when his father passed on. I later told my husband that I was certain that his father was waiting to see him one last time before he could go peacefully. Although my father in law died before our child’s birth, I think it is no coincidence that he chose to go when he did, knowing that his youngest son, the baby of the family, was married, had a soon to be born son, and was clearly grown up and ready to handle whatever obstacles life may throw in his way.
There is so much more I could say about my father in law, about his family, about his spirit. Instead, I simply want to thank him for always making me feel like a part of the family, for, despite having fought a war against and having been wounded by Americans, he never held that against me personally. I want to thank him for having raised such a kind, considerate, gentle human being, and entrusted that human being to me. If a man’s children are in any way a measure of himself and his own accomplishments, then my father in law must have left this earth content.