Filial Love (Part 2)

In Filial Love (Part 1), I provided some cultural context for filial love and filial piety because, unlike the emotions vis-à-vis my husband and children that I have as a result of being diagnosed with advanced colon cancer (which I think can be understood across cultures), the emotions I have vis-à-vis my parents are impacted by a cultural context that may be foreign to some of you, and so it may be difficult to fully appreciate the heartbreak I feel when I think about what my cancer has done and is doing to my parents.

I will be forever haunted by the devastation on their faces the morning we learned that it was likely cancer, the weight of shed and unshed tears evident in their sluggish movement.  I will forever remember the lines around their mouths and eyes taut with anxiety as they waited with me in the pre-op room, for there was no pretense of positivity between us then, just the heavy silence of fear and uncertainty.  Josh has recounted to me many times how Dr. D.C. insisted on finding my parents after the surgery as I was being wheeled to the recovery room, so he could break the news to Josh and my parents at the same time, and how Josh instantly began crying when the surgeon told him that they had found one metastatic spread to the peritoneum and therefore my cancer had to be staged as Stage IV.  I can only imagine how my poor parents, who existed there in a world with no translators, must have fixated on Josh for clues in his facial expression and body language as to what Dr. D.C. was saying and inferred the very worst based on Josh’s breakdown.  They wouldn’t have hugged because my parents don’t hug and I doubt that Josh would have even tried to explain to them what happened.  It wouldn’t be until later after Josh had tearfully communicated the news in the series of phone calls that followed to Cousin N and others that the information would slowly be disseminated to my parents.  But even so, language remained and remains a significant hurdle for even we who grew up speaking Chinese and Vietnamese don’t know the words for peritoneum and CEA and platelets; we are left to find mundane words to try to explain to my parents as best we can what is utterly not mundane.

After the surgery, my parents came to visit me in the hospital every day, filled with stories about Mia and Belle’s exploits.  Sometimes, my father would raise his fist and flex his now flabby bicep, wordlessly telling me that I am strong and to fight.  I asked my sister for reports on how they were really doing.  Dad leans against the wall with his weight on his outstretched hand and stares out the window, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs, she told me.  Dad calls his brothers and demands to know why this is happening to his 37-year-old daughter and they tell him to forget about the reason and focus on being strong for his daughter.  My sister told me, Mom cries hysterically in the shower thinking that no one can hear her and she bangs the dishes around muttering incoherent things to herself, most likely reprimanding herself for not making me go to the doctor sooner.  She calls no one and talks to no one.  (I wrote about my mother’s fanatical need for secrecy in I’m Not Crazy.)  After we left the hospital and moved into our temporary rental, my parents came nearly every day, bringing breakfast, lunch and dinner.  My mom puttered around the tiny kitchen and they both tried to find ways to be useful, but mostly they were just there, still recovering from the shock (as we all were) and worried.  All they wanted was to be near me, even if we said nothing to one another.

When plans needed to be made to return to New York and the months of treatment afterwards, I struggled to figure out when my parents should come and for how long.  I doubted that my parents would in fact be of much practical help in New York.  When they’re in New York, my mother likes to cook for me, Josh and the kids.  My father likes to make his daily trips to Chinatown to pick up the Chinese newspaper and buy whatever my mother needs to cook that day’s meals, fruits and other edibles.  I had decided in light of my diagnosis that I was going to be switching to a more vegetarian, low carb diet with little meat and as organic as possible.  The Chinese, or at least my parents who I think are representative of many Chinese, don’t know how to do vegetarian or low carb very well and they definitely don’t do organic.  My parents are convinced that a vegetarian diet will leave me weak, and Chinatown is filled with simple carbs from pastries to rice to noodles.  My father believes organic is a big scam and is offended, angry even, that Whole Foods charges $11 for a pound of organic chicken thigh.  My mother’s tendency to nag me about eating certain things can be exhausting to deal with.  I just wondered if their presence would be more stressful than beneficial as I battled with them over food and tried to teach them to cook more vegetarian and low carb – I had no hope with the organic component while they were here.  I talked to my sister about my concerns.  She told me, “Letting them come is not for you.  It’s for them.”

She was right, of course.  Letting them come was part of my filial love for and duty to them.  They needed to be around me to see for themselves how I was doing, to feel like they were doing something, anything, to help me.  If there was anyone in the world who I should allow to help me, it was absolutely my own mother and father.  I had to dictate though when they would come and for how long.  My mother wanted to come as soon as chemo treatments were to begin in August.  I said no.  August heat in New York can be brutal and I certainly didn’t need them to suffer heat exhaustion when walking through New York City streets and subway stations.  I had a filial duty to safeguard their health, first and foremost.  At some point, children become the caregivers and the parents become the ones needing care.  We have crossed that point with my parents.  They would come in mid-September, I declared, and for “only” four weeks because I determined that that was about as long as my sister could stand to have them stay with her.  While mine and her sense of personal space may be rooted in Chinese conceptions, we were still raised in America and even we have limits after a certain point.  No, four weeks would be sufficient and if I really needed more help from them, they could always come back and my sister would be okay with that.  Besides, those four weeks was the ideal window to capture the perfect fall weather that would be tolerable for their aged bodies that had long grown accustomed to the yearlong warmth of Southern California.

They came for a month and it was fine, good even.  Yes, my mother tried to get me to eat the spit of a swallow (as in the bird) that had dried on the swallow’s nest, purchased in Vietnam 20 years ago for $500 a kilo or some ridiculous price like that.  We battled; I ate three bites of the gelatinous stuff that she’d put in syrupy slurp and then told her she could eat the rest.  (It was just like me and my children battling over food, except I was the child and it was a fight over what I thought was some weird thing that should not be consumed by any human being – oh, I guess the situations aren’t so different…)  After crying uncontrollably upon first seeing me, my father pulled himself together.  He did what I expected him to do – go to Target whenever the girls needed milk and go to Chinatown for his daily newspaper and food run.  Additionally, I gave him tasks like vacuuming and being in charge of making green tea for me and cleaning my water bottle.  They babysat on nights and weekends with never an objection.  They asked to accompany me to the acupuncturist; I said okay.  They asked to go meet the Chinese medicine man; I said yes.  They did not ask and I did not invite them to come with me to chemo.  That would have been too much for them to handle.

The day I received my yoyo CEA results (the saga is described in CEA, PET, MRI…), which was needless to say a difficult day, was the last full day of their visit.  They were to leave early the following morning from my sister’s apartment  The emotional roller coaster of that day was too much for me to handle.  I cried at my desk and my father came to console me.  For the first time in my life that I can remember, he hugged me – not the awkward pats and kisses on the forehead that he would give me when we parted at the airport, but a real honest to goodness hug where he wrapped his arms around my neck as I wrapped my arms around his middle, he standing and I sitting.  At that moment, I was a little girl again needing desperately for my strong daddy to make it all better.  We’ll stay as long as you need us.  We’ll come back whenever you want, he reassured me through his own tears.  I looked up then and saw my father’s face, made haggard by the years, with tears streaming down his droopy cheeks.  He wasn’t my strong daddy anymore.  He was a 70-year-old man, torn up with worry for me.   My mother came to stand at the door, stoic as ever, only the tight look in her face belying the sadness and anxiety that always lay hidden underneath.   What will be will be, my mother told me.  It was good advice.  I pulled myself together and we moved on with the rest of the evening.  My sister told me after they’d returned to LA that my parents were very upset upon returning to her apartment.  Neither of them felt like eating dinner and my mother stayed up the entire night cooking future meals and cleaning my sister’s apartment.

I failed in my filial duty that day.  A filially pious daughter would not unduly burden her parents and would not unnecessarily make her aged parents cry, worry and not eat and sleep.  My father shouldn’t be hugging me like he’s some American dad!  That’s not him.  No matter how much I  believe in complete openness and honesty with respect to illness, including the venting, crying and hugging that comes with that honesty, I have to remind myself, as a filially pious daughter, that these were not the values my  parents grew up with and it isn’t fair to demand or expect them to handle my illness the same way I do.   Truthfully, this whole fucking disease is a breach of filial duty and an attack on filial love.  This is not the way it should be.  Parents are not supposed to watch their children be sick and die.  Yes, it is sad and difficult when a parent dies, but at least parent and child are comforted that parents predeceasing their children is part of the natural order of things; that’s how it should be.

Some have told me that I should focus on myself and not worry so much about my loved ones and the impact that my cancer is having on them.  But you see, to worry is to love and love is the most powerful weapon of all in this war, as trite as that may sound.  I’ve felt from the beginning that to fight cancer, to fight for my life, is to express love in the greatest and most profound way.  Most everyone would instantly think that I am referring to love for my husband and children.  This is in part true.  But a great deal of this war for me is about expressing filial love, about carrying out my filial duties, about ensuring that I’m around to take care of my parents as they grow older, about repaying in full my moral debt to them, about never allowing that heartbreaking devastation to rest on their faces ever again.

In an amazingly filially pious deed, poet Dylan Thomas wrote a poem — one of his most famous — to his dying father called, “Do not go gentle into that good night” in which he urges his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.   Well, Mom and Dad, my situation isn’t quite as bad as Thomas’ father, and even though you’ll never be able to read these words I’m about to write, I have to make this promise to you here anyhow.  I think you already understand the sentiments because after all you raised me and although I’ve never spoken the words I love you, you know through my actions how much I do love you.  Because Josh and the girls are my present and future, I will continue to make my deal with God to encourage God and the universe to do whatever harm that must be done be done to me and spare them.  You understand why that deal must be made.  But know that in my greatest act of filial love, no matter what God and the universe throws at me, I will follow the urgings of Dylan Thomas and I will never go gentle into that good night and I will rage, rage against the dying of the light until there is no more light.  This is my solemn promise to you as your loving daughter.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Debbie whitmore
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 08:45:01

    I am brought to tears as I read you always inspiring blogs. I can relate to your mom as my mom drives me crazy too. My father passed away 3 months after I was diagnosed. He was very ill so we kept my illness a secret from him for fear that he would give up, so my mother could travel to Boston and take care of me. I enjoy learning about your Asian culture also since our son is from China. I can’t wait to meet you next week.


  2. Valerie
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 10:46:05

    Wow, Julie. Thank you for this beautiful and moving post. My relationship with my parents is much like yours (except it was my mother who read my mail, and no one could get me to eat swallow spit!). I think about your parents often–still grateful to them for letting me tag along on the family trip back to Vietnam. They are amazing people. I am glad that you have them (and they, you) to get through this long and difficult cancer coaster.


  3. Anne Marie
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 12:51:09

    Julie, you may feel you have somehow failed in your filial duty, but your words evoke the truth of your immense love, caring and respect for your parents. Beautifully said.


  4. Paula Roberts
    Nov 07, 2013 @ 16:30:16

    Julie your writing is so profound and beautiful. You speak for me and so many others. I rage with you.


  5. Bill Ide
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 14:17:20

    All of us who are dealing with cancer gain much from such authentic and insightful words. .Thanks very much Julie. If we could just marry up the best of Western medicine and of Eastern thinking ( mind, body and spirit plus diet), the healthcare world would be much better.


  6. Shan
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 10:43:52

    This is your most moving post, I think. Your parents are portrayed so vividly and I think you are such a great daughter for giving them the gift of your time and patience now, when you must have so little of both! I’m certain your parents feel so blessed to have you – they were proud of you growing up, of getting into Williams and then Harvard, of working at a top NY law firm, of creating a family, and now, I’m positive they are proud of your resilience and strength in the face of this shadow.


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