Chen Fangyao passed away two evenings ago, September 17, 2016. He was just a few days short of his 91st birthday. Chen is survived by his son, two daughters, and four grandchildren but, to his frustration until the day he died, no great-grandchildren. This was primarily due to one particular grandson’s abject fear of growing up and assuming adult responsibilities, but let’s get into that another time.
Much earlier in his life, Chen was a professor of Classical Literature at Shanghai University of Engineering Science, a fact of which his grandson was woefully unaware while he downloaded campy TV romcoms for Chen to spend his precious hours watching. Unfortunately Chen spoke little about his earlier days in his later years, as multiple strokes in the mid-aughts had robbed him of his speaking faculties.
He lived through the last World War, the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening Up, and a recent modernization that saw his country transform into a nation utterly unrecognizable to what it was as recently as 20 years ago. His father was killed by the Nationalists, and his stepfather by the Communists. During a sordid era of Chinese history when academics and scholars were routinely imprisoned, he taught the classics to college students. Yet for over a decade until he passed away, Chen was unable to share any of those experiences and his thoughts on them to anyone.
His youngest grandchildren barely knew a grandfather who could talk. His eldest, on the other hand, simply lives with the regret that he’d never bothered to ask when he still had the chance.
Chen’s last moments were unkind to him. Every labored breath was a chore, and he had run out of energy to keep taking them. Every time he fell asleep, he stopped breathing, and his family and caretaker would vigilantly shake him and yell into his ear until he’d wake back up with a frustrated groan. It was sleep deprivation torture masquerading as an act of love and familial responsibility.
His final moment, regrettably, was spent alone. His son was running an errand, his eldest daughter was taking a nap, his eldest grandson was dawdling after a late lunch, and his caretaker had just stepped outside to grab a bowl of soup. This gave Chen just enough time to fall asleep, and no one afterwards could wake him.
As movie quotes about ancient civilizations would have you believe, there is only important question to ask about Chen Fangyao upon his passing: Did he have passion? Of all the members of Chen’s current family, he would be the most resounding Yes.
Even in the last two-plus years of his life that he spent living in a hospital bed, he wasn’t afraid to laugh, to cry, or to throw a fit and smack somebody with his one remaining good hand. He loved his family, but he wasn’t afraid to completely cut out people he’d been close to for decades. He lived with a passion, and he drank with an even greater one, a trait that he notably passed on to a few select descendants, for example, one who still blacks out and makes an ass of himself at company office parties, even though he’s way older than his coworkers, not going to name any names, just going to leave that one out there.
Chen’s passing is neither a mystery nor a surprise–it was long foreseen by those closest around him–yet it is a tragedy nonetheless.
When I came to Shanghai to visit my grandfather in the hospital almost exactly two years ago in 2014, I thought it was going to be the last time I’d see him alive. Instead, I got to spend every week with him for the next year and a half. Yet when I moved to Beijing, he became very ill, and when I took a little longer to get back from lunch, he died. Obviously, it’s egocentric to believe one’s presence could significantly delay the inevitable, but there is a distinct feeling here of turning around to find something that has always been there no longer being there.
I regret the moments I didn’t spend with him when I could’ve, and I regret the moments I did spend with him when I could’ve done more. I knew and feared all this when he was still here, but there’s a despair in the finality of this moment. I spent every second with my grandfather fighting against these regrets, but now I have no choice but to accept that all I did is all I’ll ever do. There’s nothing more to say or share or finish next time. It’s done. We move on.
So as not to conclude on a fool’s self-pitying soliloquy, let’s put the attention back on Chen Fangyao. His physical form is gone, but he lives on in his children, his children’s children, and hopefully one day those children’s children as well. However, he also lives on through the students he taught, the friends he touched, and the family he loved. Chen lived 91 grueling and intense years, a longer lifetime than most, surely replete with both regrets and fulfillment, and now, finally and mercifully, with his work done, he may rest.