THE YEAR OF THE ROOSTER
First published in Meanjin (edited by Ian Britain), Volume 66, No.2, 2007. Anthologised in Growing up Asian in Australia (Black Inc., 2008)
My father grew up in the country. When he discovered he had terminal cancer his one wish was to return from Australia to his home village in China. It was a futile wish because the cancer had destroyed the bone at the base of his spine; he could not bend and when he sat he suffered intense pain, so flying was out of the question.
As compensation, he bought three silky chickens to remind him of his childhood. The silkies were fluffy, beautiful young things. They occupied my father. He smiled at them, petted them, carried them in his arms like newborn babes. When he put them on the grass they followed him trustingly like gentle innocents, tended with magic.
But it was not long before two of the silkies picked up a bacterial infection and they died within days of each other. They were replaced. My father gave the new chickens his full attention. They grew in strength. One of them even started laying eggs, delivering one each day under the hydrangea.
One morning my mother accompanied my father to his chemotherapy appointment. When they returned home the silkies had disappeared. A trail of feathers suggested the predator was a fox or a large cat. Then we found a cigarette butt near the chicken pen. Dunhill brand. None of us smoked. My father was in a state of shock. Why would anyone want to steal a chicken? We bought more chickens as a mark of defiance.
A year passed. Visitors came from all over the world to see my father. They came to reminisce and to reconnect but inevitably the subject turned to his health. They told him he must rest and recuperate. They gave him Chinese herbal medicine. They advised him on new types of pain management.
My father was losing weight rapidly, losing his vitality. He dozed in front of the television, his legs stretched out like logs, his feet bloated with fluid. He struggled to get out of his chair and then he would rely heavily on his walking stick. He walked short distances with enormous effort. The cancer in his lungs was depriving him of oxygen. Depriving him of interest. He gave up on things that used to matter. He grew his hair out and looked like Einstein. One day he looked at his fingernails, gnarled and blackened by the radiation treatment, and he said to me:
‘They’re getting better aren’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The bad parts are growing out.’
We were all stretching hope. My father knew it was only a matter of time. He knew the enemy well because he was a pathologist.
“Hating to hurt others, he had spent his whole life holding back information.”
“Hating to hurt others, he had spent his whole life holding back information.”
Omens of sacrifice were warning us from every direction. I saw the signs in the mug that slipped from his hand one day, shattering as an exclamation mark. His favourite mug of thirty years, smashed, just like that. Then his much-prized Omega watch, which he had worn since he was a young medical student, stopped dead one afternoon, just as the hands came together on the half-hour. My mother tried to get it fixed in Hong Kong. The jeweller told her it was a superb watch, but they didn’t make parts for them any more.
It was all proving prophetic. I saw the signs in the front garden when the pump for the fishpond stopped working. The water thickened overnight like soup. Dead goldfish floated to the surface.
We had one of the worst storms ever. Lightning had struck the oldest tree in my parents’ garden, splitting it right down the middle, like an axe had fallen through it. ‘Murder,’ I shouted in my head, as I looked at the ravaged trunk.
Then a chicken went missing again. My mother admitted liability.
‘I forgot to lock the pen,’ she said as we watched the two remaining silkies, traumatised by their ordeal, hop cautiously about the lawn. ‘It’s terrible how forgetful I’m becoming.’
‘When were they taken?’
‘I heard a loud squawking at four in the morning.’
I stifled a gasp. That dreadful Chinese symbol of death, the number four …
Drugged by morphine, my father was now nauseous virtually every hour of the day. He ate little and vomited up everything, even water. He was as thin as a skeleton and his clothes hung baggily over his shrivelled limbs.
One afternoon he beckoned me lightly and I went up to him.
‘What do you think of this?’ he asked and pulled out a pad containing two fine sketches.
‘My dream kitchen,’ he explained proudly. ‘This is the bird’s-eye view. And this is how it would look from the living room.’
My heart raced with a mixture of admiration and emotion. My father was a wonderful cook but in all the years of raising his three children he had not seen the need to spoil himself with a kitchen he deserved, preferring to make do with what he had.
‘What’s this door?’ I asked.
‘The door to the cellar.’
I smiled in spite of myself. With our spirits considerably brightened, we decided to go downstairs and measure up the space for the proposed renovations. We took with us tape, pencil, paper and calculator and spent a good while with the measurements. My father marvelled at the closeness of his mental calculations. When he got back upstairs to his favourite chair, he was breathing hard but his was face exuberant. His dream was going to be realised after all. He could never have predicted it would turn out like this. He sat up all night refining his sketches.
A week later, he was taken to hospital.
‘A mild dose of pneumonia,’ said the doctor, when he had finished the examination and settled himself next to my mother. The sombre note reverberated in the room for a while before he leaned in and spoke again.
‘The cancer has spread to the liver. I’m sorry. Terribly sorry.’
Some little time later it was Christmas. A warm, still day. The birds chirped in the trees and my father took a seat at the edge of the patio to look out at the garden he so loved. It was when he was picking quietly at his plate of food and all around him the voices were eddying and the glasses were clinking that his true nature came back to me. Hating to hurt others, he had spent his whole life holding back information.
He was brought up by his mother and his grandmother. He hardly knew his father, who was away in the army. One of his sisters was married out as a child and another sister had died at childbirth. He had two younger brothers and a cousin who lived with them but her true identity was concealed for twenty years. She was my father’s half-sister.
At the onset of the civil war in China, people in my father’s village began vanishing. Fearful rumours were circulating but the villagers sealed their mouths, as a rash word or a hasty act could be followed by annihilation. Troubled by the sinister developments, my father’s mother secretly arranged papers for an escape. But only one person would be able to leave. As the eldest son, my father was chosen. He was then thirteen years old. He never laid eyes on his mother again. She was killed in the Cultural Revolution, shot in the back of the head with a single bullet. Days before, her second son was beaten to death by the Red Guards. She was caught when she tried to help him. They made an example of her by strapping her to a board and parading her through the streets for all to see with a dunce’s cap slapped on her head. When she could walk no more, they forced her to kneel on broken glass before shooting her.
My father wrestled alone with the weight and the depth of his suffering. He knew that no matter how far he travelled or how high he soared, the tragedy of his people was embedded in him. He tried to do what he could for his surviving younger brother when he was released from a re-education camp. But by then they had been cut off from each other for more than ten years. I don’t know what they talked about but they corresponded regularly for the next thirty years. Perhaps they only wrote about the things that could easily be discussed, while living separately, each to himself.
As Chinese New Year approached, I had an irrational wish to alter what must be. I went about sprucing up the garden and putting up auspicious signs to welcome in the Year of the Rooster. I gathered up all the symbolic ingredients for the big family meal. Moss hair for good fortune, red dates for progeny, gingko nuts for long life.
I placed a quaint porcelain rooster figurine near where my father sat one afternoon.
‘It will give you luck,’ I explained.
He smiled at my antics. ‘You little fool,’ his eyes said.
But he played along and listened to my explanations of the hidden commentaries of the zodiac. When I had finished, he insisted on getting his hair cut to welcome in the new year.
‘That would be too much for you.’
‘Rubbish!’ he snapped, and sweated and gasped for air as he put one foot in front of the other.
It was no use my protesting. He simply had to go there. The whole exercise of getting out of the house to the hairdresser’s took a great deal out of him. When he came back, moisture was glistening all over his brows but his eyes were gleaming. He had retained his dignity.
Then came the slurred speech a few days later. My father said the strangest things, as if he was losing his reason. He alternated between being very talkative and being gloomy. One day he started watching cartoons. At first I thought I was imagining things. But no, he was reverting to his early childhood. My brother, with his medical knowledge, suspected a stroke.
‘Daddy, you have to go to hospital,’ he said very gently. But my father’s face remained blank, unsurprised.
We remained standing around him, full of suspense. I could see it was on his mind as his eyes stayed glued to the television set. After a pause, we heard: Can’t I go tomorrow?’
I put the cutting of a branch of red bougainvillea in a glass of water.
‘From the vine you gave me,’ I said
‘How beautiful …’
He closed his eyes. I sat by the bed and watched him sleep. His eyelids kept fluttering open, as if they couldn’t shut properly and his eyes rolled in all directions. His pain conveyed itself to me. The beam of light that came through the split in the curtain induced me to brood. I was hardly aware when the nurse came in and hooked an oxygen tube around his ears. She told me he was having trouble eating. Towards the end of breakfast he had mistaken the spoon for a straw.
Death was pulling him away.
Suddenly he woke. His mind was full of wandering. He whispered to me, ‘Those two need to be bathed.’ He was referring to my sister’s children. Then he said he needed someone to help put his things away. He thought of other unfinished business. Day and night were getting crushed together. The next day a fever descended on him. It escalated then mercifully subsided. When he had recovered his lucidity, he couldn’t stop crying.
‘I’m bedridden. I can’t walk, bathe or feed myself …’
I didn’t know what to say but felt defiant. ‘You’ll get home,’ I said. ‘We’ll make sure you get home.’ But I knew my father would never return to his Chinese village.
“I had an irrational fear to alter the profound centre of what must be.”
That afternoon he wanted to get a grip on himself, to make use of his hands again. He asked for his shaver. Propped up against two pillows, he carefully went over his cheeks, his chin and his throat. When I handed him the mirror, he began to sob.
He was in two minds; he didn’t see any point in staying, but he didn’t want to go just yet. He told me his brother in China had written to him.
‘He wants to see me,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think it’s necessary.’ Then in the same breath he asked me for pen and paper.
I watched him write his last letter. Knotted frown, shaking hand, all strain and obstinance. His Chinese characters, usually so splendid, were now small and scrawled, as if wrung dry.
He was in a great deal of pain. They gave him morphine. He slept. His hands shook and rattled. Suddenly he opened his eyes.
‘What are you all doing here?’ he said, lowering the air piece around his nose. ‘I’m all right.’
He closed his eyes again, mumbling all the time. We sat on either side of the bed, grasping his hands and feeling his body temperature rising. We put on his favourite music as a last little pleasure. His breathing was heavy but steady. The whole night he roared like a lion. The nurse on duty was drawn to look in.
‘What a strong heart,’ she said, incredulous.
But I saw all the signs. His gums were rotting. Banishing thoughts of decay, I held his hand more tightly. I was hardly aware when the last breaths came — slower, softer, more imperceptible, more delayed.
Then came a pause so long I was unable to bear the weight of the emotion. Suddenly I was terrified. ‘No. Not now!’ But the screams in my head were drowned out by a howl so beseeching I almost lost my footing. He slouched forward. Then all plunged into silence.
Such tears came to me I could not control myself. I cried like any daughter deeply distressed. But it was more than that. It was the cry of despair that I would no longer be whole again. It was grief, pain and emptiness all rolled in one overwhelming entanglement. Bending over my father’s face I wanted to tell him how much I loved him and how much I needed to do with my life. But nothing was utterable. Nothing at all.
We were busy for the next five days preparing for the funeral. My mind did not have time to wander. There were hundreds of mourners. People had to stand. I shook hands with everyone. Many faces I had almost forgotten. Everyone looked older. I inhaled the smell of flowers and wondered what I would have given to see my father for a moment. People came up to the front to place a carnation on the coffin while my nephew played a piece on his violin. ‘A beautiful service,’ I heard again and again, when the mourners began filing out of the chapel.
We had refreshments of dainty sandwiches back at the house. The place was packed. The pair of silkies wandered around the garden. I was asked questions and I answered each carefully. Everyone was sympathetic. Gentleness itself. When they began leaving, I stole into the toilet to be alone.
We had a private cremation a few days later. I drove early to the house to help out with last-minute things. Dressed in black, my mother was silence itself. Her eyes were swollen from crying.
‘One of the chickens died,’ she said at last, looking up.
‘Died! What happened?’
Apparently it had been weakening over the past few days and my mother had been giving it tablets to fight the infection.
‘When I checked last night it looked so much stronger …’ She stopped to bite back the tears.
The silky was cremated along with my father.