Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Cane

In the corner of my office sits a cane—a dark, knobby stick, with bright splotches where the outer varnish has been rubbed raw. Crowning the cane is a carved dragon head, with eyes and teeth that grin at me as I write this essay. And in its mouth a red ball, the Chinese sign of luck and celebration. But for me this cane is no cause for celebration. The cane troubles me. It nags at my conscience, a glaring testament to my failure. You see, I obsessed over it for years before I could claim it as my own. From my first sight of the cane as a young missionary in the mountains of Taiwan, I tried to imbue it with symbolic meaning. It was supposed to fill a hole, it was supposed to be significant, a family heirloom that I would share with my wife and pass down to my children, a tribute of the divine nature of relationships and the bonds of love. But now it sits in the corner of my office, neglected, watching me with dark eyes.
To understand the meaning of this cane, you must know that I am blue, or so I was told by one of those personality tests that boil down infinitely complex human characteristics into four simple colors. Being blue means I love people and relationships. Despite my incredulity for the test, I agree with that summation. I do love people. One morning, as a missionary in the mountains of Qishan, Taiwan, I took a notepad and tried to list every person I had ever met. It was a humbling task, made all the more daunting by the fact that I was a missionary, talking to hundreds of strangers daily. Ghosts from the past reappeared on that pad of paper. There were names: Tyler Rush, Jesse Hudson, Cathy King. There were memories: Pokemon card kid, scout camp kid, basketball team girl. And then there were the forgotten, the countless names and faces omitted from the notepad all together. In an hour’s time, I had completed up to ninth grade. The exercise drove me to a crisis. I felt responsible for these people, as if only my memories of them could prevent their slip into nonexistence. I envied God and his perfect knowledge.
As for the cane in the corner of my office, it once belonged to 98 year old Uncle Wang, or Wang Beibei as I called him. Standing at 6’3, a giant among the Chinese, he was a soldier, a mainlander, fluent in Japanese, Mandarin, Hawkanese and Taiwanese, who’d come to Taiwan after wars with the Rising Sun and the Reds. In the wars he’d been shot 8 times. But what the Japanese, the Commies, and the rest of the world failed to understand is that Wang Beibei was meant to live forever. When I met him, so many years after the war, he was still alive, sitting on a bed in the corner of the house, watching those awful Taiwanese soap operas with the elaborate costumes and angry women. His tall frame was hunched and filled with a gut. In his hand was the dragon cane, a physical reminder of his homeland. At 98 he was smoking a pack a day, causing me to question my conviction of the harmfulness of cigarettes that had been instilled by Dare officers and cartoon dogs.
We came to his house to meet his granddaughter, Wang TingTing, a nine year old, who only a year earlier joined our church.  But while I came to meet his granddaughter, it was Wang Beibei who kept me coming back. In terms of missionary prospects, he wasn’t the best of finds. He had a strange relationship with Jesus that reminded me of women and hormones. One day he would confide in us that he’d already been saved by grace, the next day he wasn’t sure if his calling and election had been made sure, and the day after that Jesus was one of the Gods that floated around at Buddha’s heaven party. Each day he was of a different faith and ironically he never seemed to be of mine. Despite the exasperation caused by his manic religious views, I think I was secretly fine with not baptizing him. I held, and still hold the belief that old people, like children, are unaccountable for sins. I believe in a loving God, and I like to think that by the time one of his children has lived long years in this world of trials and pain that He views them with the  same type of respect we pay to old veterans. He watches over them daily, excited for that soon-to-come time when he can take them in his arms and welcome them home. Old people are God’s favorites; I have no doubt about it. Besides, I was scared of baptizing the old man. I was sure he’d drown and I didn’t want to be responsible for killing the man meant to live forever. 
After the maddening failure of trying to confine all my friends and acquaintances onto a concise list, I decided to create broader categories. There were friends of youth, indestructible bonds. There were friends out of youth, a connection dependent on progressing interaction. There were associates, lasting their proper season. There were connecting strangers, the bus drivers and store owners. There were strangers, the petals on a wet black bough. And there was family eternal. Classifying was easy; establishing admittance requirements was not. Does a friend have to have been a friend from childhood to be a friend of youth? Why do some strangers disappear and others stick in memories? What draws us to people, establishes their role in our lives, the connection we share, the strength of our bond? In the end, I scrapped my categories for the same reason I discount the color test. Relationships, like people, are too complex to be grouped.
Other than the religious differences, Wang Beibei and I got along splendidly. We played Chinese Chess, ate Wang Mama’s delicious dumplings and went for walks. Well, I walked, he rolled. Wang Beibei’s feet had been eaten away by years of untreated diabetes that somehow failed to kill him. So to get the old man out of the house and into the semi-fresh Taiwanese air, I would push him and his cane in a wheelchair through the town. On our walks he would tell me stories about his life in China, point out pretty girls, and laugh. I loved his laugh. Wang Beibei had one of those infectious, deep, booming laughs. I say infectious because every laugh was accompanied by a voluminous, bronchial coughing spasm. When the coughing stopped, and I was sure he was still breathing, I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Yet to be honest, he was no idyllic, pleasant old person. Before me, Wang Beibei had been adamant that no missionaries enter his home. He would yell and curse and fume at the sight of their white shirts and ties. And it wasn’t just the missionaries. On his many cranky days, the old man would viciously insult Wang Mama, Wang Tingting and any pedestrians who happened to walk by the house. It was his temper that made me love him most. It linked him to my own grandpa, who in his spirited moments often favored me with creative titles like “chicken shit” and “horse’s ass.”  On those few days when Wang Beibei took the opportunity to swear at me in three different languages, I didn’t mind. As he was yelling, I’d give solemn nods, but then out would come the pictures from my pre-missionary life and I’d show him American girls that were dying to meet him. Pretty girls make beasts of young men, and tame the beast in old men. After a few girlfriend jokes, he’d be back to his infectious laughing.  
What draws us to people? The answer means everything. If it is a likeness of personality, similarity of experience or parallel interests, then I could rest at ease. It would signify that relationships, like all else in life, are only selfish. So why feel guilty for the loss of selfish interests? But I suspect the answer is something more divine, something akin to providence. That would signify that relationships, like all else in life, are given of God. And as the scriptures say we have a responsibility to cherish the gifts of God. But then there is the cane, reminding me daily of a gift that I once prized, but have long since laid aside.  
I did my best to take care of the old man. My missionary friend and I took mattresses from our apartment to give Wang Beibei something more comfortable to sit on than his wood boarded bed. We loaded them onto the handlebars of our bikes, accomplishing a balancing act that would have impressed circus clowns. Our mattresses were the first he’d ever owned.  I also tried to get him to quit smoking. You might think it silly or perhaps futile to ask a 98 year old man to give up a habit he had cherished for more than 50 years, and it’s true, I never expected him to really quit. But I liked to challenge him. Boredom is the leading cause of death among old people, and challenges are the cure for boredom. After a few weeks of relentless preaching, Wang Beibei was down to smoking just five cigarettes a day. I took his last pack, holding the cold turkey card in front of his eyes. The next day, as dusk was approaching, I stopped by his house to check on the challenge. Just as I was stepping off my bike and unstrapping my helmet, I saw Wang Beibei ride up to the front door on a motor scooter. It was a frightening sight, his bent and decrepit body powering that machine. He alighted the scooter, ignoring my gaping mouth, and hobbled with his cane back to bed. When I asked, he shamelessly admitted he’d gone too long without a smoke and had to buy himself a pack. I ended the smoking challenge with a promise that as long as he agreed to stay off the scooter, I would be happy to buy him a pack whenever he needed.   
On his bad days (which due his age and various afflictions were many), Wang Mama would call and ask for a visit. In his pain, he liked to talk and to pray. They were simple prayers, full of gratitude and blessings and sincerity. I knew Wang Beibei would never join our church, but in those pure moments we would be joined in our faith in the miraculous nature of prayer. After lifting our heads and opening our eyes, there was a certain peaceful stillness that even he couldn’t deny. When I wasn’t praying with him, I prayed for him. Praying for world peace is admirable, but there was tangible power in those intimate prayers for a friend. I knew his loneliness, his pain, and his fear, and in my nightly prayers I pleaded for him to have the simple promise of comfort.
I still pray for him now. What is this essay if not a prayer for the old man? But my petitions on his behalf are different than those in Taiwan. The intimacy has vanished. These prayers, this essay, are accompanied with a sense of guilt, conjured by those I have left behind. They haunt me. And as the faces appear at night with their accusing eyes, I can’t help but envy sociopaths. I am cursed to care. I make phone calls, write letters, schedule lunches and yet people still slip by. The lost ones depress me, they are my greatest failure. Technology only exacerbates the guilt. Now, relationships can be maintained by a few moments at the keyboard and a simple mouse click, but still they slip by. And then there is the cane, sitting in the corner of my office. It belonged to my Chinese grandpa, the man I loved, who I cried with at his hospital bedside. Why don’t I write him any more letters?  
Missionaries live transient lives, and after six months in Qishan I was called to move away. We wrote to each other the remainder of my time in Taiwan with my letters in sloppy, painstaking Chinese chicken-scratch and his in elegant calligraphy. A few months after the move, my grandpa passed away. To cure my grandfatherless condition, I wrote Wang Beibei, promoting him from friend to Chinese grandfather.  Before going home to America, I promised to return. It took me a year, and in the time between he had a stroke. But what the stroke failed to realize is that Wang Beibei was the man who was meant to live forever. He had his 100th birthday, lying paralyzed in the hospital. The stroke took his speech and his booming laugh, it left him hollow except for some tiny whisper of cognition.
 I visited his hospital side. At 100 years, he no longer had a gut, his figure had thinned from disease and his only movement was the frail swelling of the chest every time his lungs gave off a rattled breath. I hated that visit, seeing him confined in a motionless body in a motionless bed. I grabbed his moist hand and looked into his eyes; the man I knew was gone. His wife whispered in his ear. The words were simple: Elder Lei is here. There was no initial reaction, but soon his eyes began to move. He looked at me and I knew he saw me. I tried to smile and tell him some old joke. Instead, we both cried. I don’t know how to describe the sight of a 100 year old man sobbing. He cried without noise, just an open mouth and glistening eyes. And I wanted to run. Instead, I kept holding his hand. Before I left, his wife gave me his cane, the cane that the old man used for 50 years. When I look at the carved dragon head and I can see the room. The creaky wire bed, the ash tray, a mouth propped open by gusts of sad air, those last moments joined together in a type of prayer.
Wang Beibei was a gift of God. How else could a 98 year old Chinese man and a 19 year old American boy becoming the best of friends? But what troubles me when looking at the cane is that I don’t know whether to refer to him in past or present tense. After the hospital, Wang Beibei became one of the forgotten. Now, nearly three years from our last meeting, I don’t know if he’s alive. I have my excuses: he lives 6,345 miles away, his family doesn’t have internet, he can’t talk on the phone. But with all the memories, with the strength of our bond, how can I justify not even knowing if he is still alive? Occasionally I talk to Wang Mama; neither of us talk about the old man. I want to ask, but I’m afraid she’ll tell me about the death of the man meant to live forever. Yet my neglect has already killed him, it has erased him from my life. The cane is his ghost; it is my failure. It is a tangible reminder that I can still neglect the things I believe most important.

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