On October 24, I was shocked and pained by a piece of heart-rending news: my beloved cousin G had passed away in September, shortly after undergoing a second round of chemotherapy. The regrettable part is that I hadn’t even had a chance to communicate with her while she was fighting for her life, as I had had to feign ignorance in order to respect her wish that the news of her sickness be kept strictly confidential, though I had known by chance for some time. I only learned of her death when I emailed her younger sister GG on that Monday to ask how G was doing. This post is to bid a belated farewell to my beloved cousin.
G had been my trusted friend and ally throughout our early youth. That night after hearing the heartbreaking news, I cried in bed and couldn’t go to sleep. All I could think of was the image of G in a photo taken when she was a teenager: she was smiling sweetly with one of her hands stretched upwards to touch an apple ….. Then scene after scene of the times we spent together in our youth flashed through my mind.
When I was around nineteen, one day I had a big fight with my father, as he had been verbally abusing everybody nonstop at the dinner table in one of his habitual intoxicated bouts. Infuriated that I had the nerve to throw some water in his face, he picked up a wooden stool and hurled it at me. It missed me by an inch and my mother urged me to go into the bedroom while trying to restrain him. I was distraught and called J (our phone was installed in the bedroom), one of my male cousins from another family, and told him what had happened. He advised me to go to G’s home. So I did.
G, GG and their two other sisters all studied at Maryknoll Sisters’ School. Coming from a well-to-do family, G never came across as snobbish or conceited. On the contrary, she was one of the most endearing, kind-hearted and considerate persons I had ever known. When their father and J’s mother and mine (they were first cousins; J’s mother and mine were sisters) had reunited after a long period of separation and the children had begun getting acquainted with each other, the adults used to say that G and I looked very much alike and had similar temperament. She, J and I were all born in the same month and same year.
At that point in my life, G, J, GG, JJ (J’s younger brother) and I were very close to one another. One of our favorite pass-times in autumn was to go hiking in the wooded area surrounding Wongneichong Reservoir, sometimes together with one or two of J’s schoolmates from Wah Yan College. J would bring along his guitar and we would sing folk songs when we stopped to rest. We all loved the crisp fresh air and the soul-calming green scenery. When we got tired from the walking and singing, we would walk slowly back to G’s and GG’s home on Blue Pool Road, where their mother (my aunt) would treat us to delicious snacks and tea and we would play with G’s cuddly youngest brother. Those were the days …. Sadly, we soon lost JJ to leukemia. He was only seventeen when he died. That was my first taste of the meaning of death and it was unnerving.
That dreadful day (I think it was a Saturday or Sunday, as I didn’t have to work and my cousins didn’t have to go to school), I went to G’s home to seek temporary refuge from my father’s wrath. My aunt tactfully left the two of us in private in the bedroom that G and her elder sister shared. In her quiet ways, she showed her sympathy and asked if I would like to lie down for a while. When I said I’d rather talk a little, she pulled up a chair and listened intently to my story. Then she tried to distract and comfort me by offering to play some piano pieces and encouraged me to learn playing a simple piece.
It was while studying at the U. of Wisconsin that G fell in love with a guy F.
Not long after that, I heard that she had fallen into a lovelorn state and was very depressed. Knowing that she was prone to keeping a stoic front, I felt it was best to just be in her company whenever an occasion allowed. At one of the gatherings, I was reposing on a bed beside her and tried to encourage her to talk. She only lay there with her big eyes wide open, speechless and expressionless. I could feel that underneath her armor of indifference, her pain was seeping out of every pore. From the corner of my eyes, I could detect her desperate struggle to fight back tears. It broke my heart to see her like this. But I was sure that she could also feel that I cared deeply. Shortly thereafter, she went on a date with one of her cousins and the two became steady. He would later become her husband.
In the early 1970s, G emigrated to the United States with her parents and siblings. In 1975, I emigrated to Toronto and in that summer took a greyhound down to New York to visit G and GG. They came to meet me at the greyhound station and we were thrilled to see each other. Everyday during my 3-day stay there, G and GG showed me around the wonderful city and on two evenings, G prepared delicious home-cooked meals for us. When the day came for me to depart, G got up early to bake some marshmallow rice cake squares and wrapped them up neatly in foil. Without me noticing, she slipped the wrapped squares into my overnight shoulder bag. On the boring journey home, I thanked G in my heart for her thoughtfulness.
The last time I had a chance to see G was in 1997 when she came back to Hong Kong with her family (her husband, a son and a daughter) for a vacation. We had a great time doing catching up on a yacht outing arranged by JS (J’s elder brother) and at cousins’ reunion dinners.
A couple of years ago, I had already lost JS, also to lung cancer. He was 65 when he passed away. Both JS and G underwent chemotherapy. In both cases, when the cancer was detected, it was already in stage 4. From what I gathered, they both suffered hugely the side effects of chemotherapy. I’ve recently read a blog post by a Chinese pathologist with special interest in oncology, which says that cancer in a late stage can neither be treated nor eliminated and that it would be much preferable to focus efforts on the patients’ quality of life rather than on treatment. I don’t know how authentic he is but I’m inclined to believe him. Above all, I think the patients’ own wish to do one thing or the other should be respected and the doctors should be forthcoming in explaining in depth the side effects of the intended treatment.
I think I can understand why G had not wanted too many people to know about her sickness. For one thing, there would be little that friends and relatives, close or not close, could do to help her. Being the always-considerate person that she was, she would naturally not want people to worry about her, especially her aging mother. My heart goes out to her close family members who had to watch her suffer great pains in her last days. Picturing this lovable person going through agonizing moments in the final stage of her life is just unbearable for me. It brings back the torturous feeling of helplessness and despair when I watched my own mother withering and suffering noxious side effects from radiotherapy and eventually losing the fight.
My dear cousin, goodbye for now. Rest assured that you will always be in my heart.