URS coming of age… a child became a man
How many of us have had a life-changing trial at the age of 17? Most teenagers, especially in “westernized middle class” societies, have a rather “protected life,” going to good schools, living in air-conditioned homes with ample space, and making college plans. At least that’s how adults might see it. So, it’s a surprise when something radically challenging happens.
This particular story started when phone calls began coming in, repeatedly, from Asia in the middle of the night that my father had fallen, usually off the bed, again, and appeared to have fractures, often in his ribs. What were we supposed to say or do, half way around the globe in America? When these kinds of calls came more and more frequently, our questions and prayers became more and more urgent.
Who were the local friends or relatives that could be called to help? What if they could not respond? What if they lived far away from dad? And, what about his cancer of the prostate? Wasn’t the surgery considered successful? How come there are signs of spread now, in the bones of the body? We couldn’t realistically give any good advice from such a long-distance, could we?
We had asked our parents often about potentially moving to join us in the USA, where we had lived for decades. The answer was always, let’s wait and see. My dad and mom had lived for 40 years in Hong Kong, and there were excellent reasons for them not to move, to leave their comfort zone, relatives, church friends, and friends that they would often see on the streets or at numerous social functions.
But now it was getting really out of hand, as we tried to give suggestions or instructions on the phone 12 time zones away, while not knowing exactly what was going on. We had a deep sense of helplessness and frustration. Previously, dad had always been the decisive surgeon, the Asian patriarch, the very well-respected leader of the community. But now he was beginning to defer his decisions to us, at long-distance.
It was intimidating and confusing. Meanwhile, at my US hospital work place, I had just been given a huge academic responsibility, on top of my usual clinical and research work, and my equally heavy church ministry. I was truly feeling desperate and confused as to what to do, and our prayers reflected our state of anxiety.
Suddenly, in the middle of all this, out of the blue, at dinner, our young son announced calmly, “I’ll go to Hong Kong, and bring grandpa over!” We were stunned, and it took us a few seconds to recover. Of course, we were thinking to ourselves, “he’s just an American kid, living most of his life in a Midwest small town, thinking innocently of going to the fastest moving city in the world, a city that could beat New York in brashness, speaking a language that was too fast, had tangled up jargon and often sarcasm, a language that he only heard, but never officially learned. Well intentioned and touching, but could he survive?”
In his defense, though young, he had traveled quite a bit, accompanying me on some of my many international trips, so it wasn’t like he didn’t understand airports and foreign cities. But he was a very quiet kid, not what you might picture as being very adventurous. This decision was extremely adventurous! And he was only a kid!
We all realized it meant probably a two-month, basically solo stay in Asia, time to sort out many problems, belongings, and papers, at the residence and medical office. Our prayers quickly turned into specific prayers of whether this would work, and how. It was a blessing that it would soon be the beginning of summer, and Trevor could take advantage of that, to essentially spend his entire summer vacation over in Asia. It would be no vacation, we were sure.
An American kid, at age 17 traveling alone for more than 24 hours by plane, to live 7,500 miles away, adapting to a very foreign culture, is not something you would glibly sign up for. But so it happened.
Arriving in Hong Kong, our young man found that grandpa had turned from his usual gregarious self into some kind of a stunned, withdrawn, and indecisive person. No longer was he the firm authoritative patriarch. The anesthesia had damaged his brain, and he was no longer the Great Doctor. He became rather childlike, and his grandson assumed the major responsibility of bringing order to chaos, making decisions about what things to throw away, and what to bring to the USA, consulting with local relatives when necessary or possible. But my parents’ home was quite far from the city, requiring a long bus ride followed by a hike up a steep little hill, so not very many people could easily come and visit.
My dad’s medical office was in the city, and at that time he had at least one staff member, an uncle who could help make some decisions. But the office had become rather rundown and a lot of the papers and documents were in disarray. Since all the documents were basically in English, not quite understandable to the uncle, our son had to try to make sensible decisions for much of the stuff, even though it was very strange for him. Mostly it was laborious, since documents were piled up, or stuffed in drawers, mixed in sometimes with cash and checks, and even investment papers. A dramatic learning experience for the young man! And long distance phone calls were hugely expensive, emails non-existent!
The family home was in no better shape, since newspapers, journals, books and paper records easily filled up several rooms, including my former college phase bedroom! All those things had to be sorted out and adequately disposed. In the middle of those 2 months, I joined my son for 2 weeks, mostly to make sure that he was still alive! Together we worked at a fast pace to get rid of stuff that could be quickly decided upon. We even brought in a garbage truck that lined itself up on the ground floor roadway, while we gathered enough things that we could just throw off from the balcony on the second floor, onto the top of the flatbed truck. That seemed quite efficient, and rather morbidly fun.
My parents just sat there, I guess stunned from all these things happening around them, seemingly uncertain, and maybe even somewhat unconcerned, since they were essentially no longer making any decisions. It was a very strange experience all around, but so it happened, as we prepared some furniture and other belongings to be ultimately shipped by sea to the USA. Later on, we realized probably too much was shipped over, but everyone was literally overwhelmed by all the decisions, and likely scared to throw away things which might turn out to be valuable somehow. A very uncomfortable feeling, throwing away things that didn’t belong to you!
So how does a young teenager, then, singlehandedly, transport a sick elderly man who didn’t walk too well and was incontinent, and his elderly wife, thousands of miles from Hong Kong in Asia, to Cincinnati in the middle of the USA? Well, this young man had to carry his grandfather on his back onto the plane, change his diapers during the plane ride, and manage a quite deaf and fragile grandmother. Fortunately, we had relatives in Seattle, so the group of 3 stopped there for a few days first, a wise move, before proceeding finally to Cincinnati. I would guess the total flying time, minus the Seattle layover, was an exceptionally stressful 24 hours.
Photo 2: Young man’s travels at age 6 ½ years in Southeast Asia, in preparation for his age 17 adventure and trial?
The final hiccup occurred in Chicago during transit between flights. Grandmother, being quite hard of hearing, somehow did not catch the warning that the airline gate agent could not wait for her to go to the washroom, and the plane took off. Our patient but frustrated young man had to arrange another flight hours later, and escort grandma on another walk to the next gate, all this in the days before cell phones and APPS of today. To the huge relief of everyone, especially our by-now-exhausted son, everyone arrived safely, finally, in Cincinnati.
In retrospect, for the last few decades, a major reason that our son kept urging us to move from Cincinnati, where we lived ultimately 47 years, to Seattle, was this “adventure.” The tension and trauma for a 17-year-old to experience, being practically “stranded” in a strange land, was clearly a “coming of age” event. Whenever I think of this, even now, I can feel my tears welling up. It was a bold and caring move that was really touching: we saw him from that point onwards in a different vein. He was now a man, a son definitely to be hugely proud of.
Was there a coming of age event in your life that was particularly meaningful, signaling adulthood, even if not as dramatic? Personally treasured memories like that might indeed be inspirational to others.