One year after the earthquake that devastated central China, the author contemplates the connections between the quake, Chinese history, and his father’s death.
The disaster takes care of everything. (Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster)
On the night of May 11, 2008, more than eighty thousand people died in Sichuan while I slept. On the television screen, I see girders twisted, cars smashed by falling walls, streets torn up and buildings reduced to rubble. The earthquake was a magnitude 7.9. A six hundred megaton explosion—forty thousand Hiroshima bombs. Whenever there was news about China, my father and I would like to watch it together. We looked forward to the Beijing Olympics. But four months before the earthquake, at 7:30 a.m. on January 5, 2008, I woke up and noticed a strange silence. My first thought was, “He had a good night. He stopped coughing.” My mother called me to their room. I shook him. His head flopped against the pillow. He wasn’t breathing. I called 911.
An earthquake slip pulse can intensify in amplitude or weaken as it propagates; it can…even jump to neighboring fault segments that are spatially noncontiguous… Earthquake ground motions are analogous to music in that they contain a range of tones, low-frequency… and high-frequency… (Susan Elizabeth Hough, Earthshaking Science)
The devastating power of earthquakes is recorded in the earliest Chinese histories. The Bamboo Book Annals, a history composed on bamboo strips, states that “Taishan quaked in the seventh year of King Fa of Xia.” The Sichuan earthquake was caused by the sudden rupturing of the Longmenshan fault in the mountains northwest of Chengdu. The pulse traveled over a hundred miles in five seconds, ripping up the earth and causing landslides, toppling buildings, and splitting apart bridges and dams.
Mianyang, Sichuan, China. 2008. Photo by Wayne Liu.
The volcano trembled in another ether,/ As the body trembles at the end of life. (Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens)
Jacques Derrida, in The Gift of Death, notes that when we tremble, we exist in the space between a shock or trauma that has already taken place, and a future that we cannot foresee. Something has hit us—we don’t know what, from where or why—and we don’t know whether it will continue, stop, or hit us again. We live within “a double secret,” between an event we can’t comprehend and the anticipation (and ignorance) of when or how it will reoccur. Trembling is the experience of “another mystery” coming on top of “unliveable experience.”
In ten years, my father had three angioplasties and half a dozen hospitalizations. Once he collapsed in the kitchen. Another time he fell down in the bathroom. Each time he was brought to the hospital and tethered to a web of catheters, feeding tubes, and monitors. There were long hours in waiting rooms, worried phone calls and prayers from friends and relatives. Yet each time he was discharged, returning home more frail.
“I’ll be the first to go,” he once told my brother and me. “Take good care of your Ma.”
California has more than a 99 percent chance of having a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in the next thirty years. During the Northridge Earthquake in the San Fernando Valley in 1994, over five thousand six hundred school buildings suffered structural damage.
“His books,” my mother sighs as she cleans the spring after my father’s death. “What are we going to do with all his books? You and Paul don’t read Chinese. Who’s going to read them?” They stand in tall wooden bookcases behind my mother’s favorite chair. I am afraid that they might fall on her during the next earthquake while she is watching Dancing with the Stars.
This year has been a terrible one for disasters. A month before my father died, fifty-eight thousand gallons of oil spilled from a Chinese tanker in San Francisco Bay, damaging the coastal ecosystem and killing thousands of seabirds. The birds died from hypothermia—the oil drenched their feathers, making it impossible for them to regulate their body temperature. Two weeks later, Southern California experienced its heaviest storms in years. Wind gusts blew through the canyons and passes, waves pounded the beaches, and the rain fell in sullen drumbeats. The eucalyptus tree in our back yard fell down.
On December 24th, during the last holiday the four of us would spend together, we were getting ready to go to my cousins’ house for Christmas dinner. My mother made dumplings. My brother worked on the computer. I watched the storm forecasts on television. My father was in the living room, sleeping on the couch. When we woke him, he was weak and short of breath. I wanted to stay home with him. “Just get him in the car,” they told me.
Sichuan belongs to the cradle of Chinese civilization. The Annals of the Kings of Shu (Shuwang Benji) records the feats of five ancient kings dating back to the twelfth century BC. Duyu (“Cuckoo”), the fourth king, taught the people how to farm. He married a woman who sprang from a well and on his deathbed was turned into a giant cuckoo. Bieling (“Turtle Spirit”), Duyu’s successor, floated up the Yangtze as a corpse, then came back to life.
In ten years, my father had three angioplasties and half a dozen hospitalizations. Once he collapsed in the kitchen. Another time he fell down in the bathroom.
My parents lived in Sichuan during the war. My father worked for the British Consulate in Chongqing as a press officer. He wrote articles about the Blitz and the Cairo Conference, and coined the Chinese expression for “radar.” In the evenings he took my mother to see Gone With the Wind and Fantasia.
When the air raid sirens blared, they ran to the mountains and hid in caves.
On our way to my cousins’, I argued with my brother. “We should take him to the ER,” I said. “But then you have to wait three hours,” he said. My father’s hearing aid was off. My mother said nothing. “Don’t blame me if he has a heart attack,” I thought. I turned on the windshield wipers.
The one who is saved and the one who is lost have the same arms and legs. (Georgio Agamben, The Coming Community)
As I click through the images of earthquake victims on Flickr, I mentally classify them into five categories: 1) People who are alive and well and have found temporary shelter in makeshift camps; 2) People who are standing amid the ruins—of factories, stores, homes and schools. Some of whom wear surgical masks to protect themselves from dust and airborne bacteria; 3) People who are wounded, many of whom are lying on stretchers with bandaged heads and broken limbs. Others, such as the elderly, are carried on backs or in arms. Still others are pinned under debris; 5) The dead. Those who have been extracted from the rubble lie covered in plastic. Others remain half-buried.
Then there are the children. Over ten thousand children died, crushed by collapsing school buildings. Amid the rubble, one sees heaps of tiny corpses or a single red kerchief or a shoe.
The service was at 11 a.m. A viewing preceded the service. I came in late because I had parked the car. The room was festooned with floral wreaths bannered with Chinese verses. A computer projected pictures near the wall. The casket was displayed in the front of the room. My father’s body was completely still. His hands lay motionless by his side. I remembered them moving—when he wrote characters in cursive, or spoke or practiced t’ai chi.
The morning after our eucalyptus tree blew down, we called some workmen to saw it up and carry it away. As I helped them clear the branches, I looked up and saw my father gazing blankly through my parents’ rain-spattered bedroom window.
The earthquake shook the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China. When the Emperor was buried in 210 BC, an army of eight thousand terracotta soldiers was sealed in the tomb with him. They lay undisturbed until 1974, when peasants happened upon them while digging a well. Near the entrance were skeletons of the Emperor’s workmen and concubines.
Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC, at the age of forty-nine. My father died in AD 2008, at the age of ninety-three.
We arrived at Christmas dinner on time. My father was able to walk from the car to the house very, very slowly, stopping to rest every twenty feet. It was cold and drizzly. We kept him warm with the grey wool sweater my mother had knit for him, his blue nylon jacket and his black cotton cap. We sat him at a special table that my relatives had set up next to the foyer.
My father was born in 1914. The dynastic system, which had ruled China for 2000 years, had collapsed three years earlier, and China was a fledgling republic.
He ate little, but seemed to enjoy the meal. He especially liked it when my cousins’ grandchildren came to talk to him. He loved children; it was a disappointment to him that he had no grandchildren of his own.
“Don’t get too close to him,” I said to six-year-old Wendy. “You have a cold.” She coughed.
His shoelace was untied, and I tied it.
Medical Aspects of Earthquake Disaster
Asphyxia from dust lining and obstructing of air passages
Walling and roof material burying and suffocating victims
Extreme pressures of materials on the chest preventing breathing (traumatic asphyxia)
Impact of buildings materials or other hard objects resulting in skull or thorax injuries
Multiple fractures of spinal column
(Andrew Coburn and Robin Spence, Earthquake Protection)
Eight days after the earthquake, China observed a three-minute silence. Office workers, soldiers, motorists, policemen, Olympic athletes, farmers, nurses, artists, store clerks, coal miners, attorneys, prostitutes, monks, airport workers, government officials, and schoolchildren all stood in silence at 2:28 p.m. to honor the dead.
My father was born in 1914. The dynastic system, which had ruled China for two thousand years, had collapsed three years earlier, and China was a fledgling republic. That same year, Charlie Chaplin made his first film, Henry Ford sold two hundred and forty-eight thousand cars, and World War I began. Taiwan and Korea were Japanese colonies. Mao Zedong was twenty-one years old.
On the website we designed in his memory, there are images from every stage of his life. Cumulatively, they tell a story, like a handscroll painting unrolled section by section. We see the baby, struggling to stay awake on my grandmother’s lap in a photographer’s studio. The university student in Beijing, hair combed straight back, rimless glasses, feline eyes and a faint mustache. The young immigrant with his new wife on the deck of the San Francisco-bound U.S.S. General Gordon, face aglow with adventure. The teacher at Yale, chanting classical Cantonese poems in a lecture hall packed with hundreds of students. And finally the old man with the thin white hair and wizened face, at the desk where he sat every morning at six to dip his brush in ink and write. As these images dance across my computer screen I reflect that his life is composed of light and shadow, like hexagrams with solid and broken lines.
We left the party early to put him to bed. “I can’t breathe,” my father said. “Don’t worry,” my mother said, caressing his face. “We’ll bring you to the doctor and the hospital if you aren’t feeling well.” Outside, the wind whipped the trees and the rain fell in sheets. We never took him to the hospital.
My father loved nature. When we lived in Connecticut, he would take walks and bring home pinecones, leaves, and colorful pebbles and stones. The leaves of our maple tree turned crimson and gold and orange before they fell one by one to earth, gradually leaving the branches bare. We raked the leaves in our yard together every fall. We gathered the leaves in a wheelbarrow and burned them in our backyard. The fire would crackle, and sparks and flakes of ash would swirl as smoke rose in the air.
After the service, my father was cremated. His ashes were placed in an urn. The urn containing his ashes bore both his names: 黃 伯 飛 Parker Po-Fei Huang. When I brought the urn to my mother, she kissed it.
There was much to be said in favor of storms/ But you seem to have abandoned them in favor of endless light. (John Ashbery, John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987)
Scientists speculate that the earthquake may have been triggered by “reservoir induced seismicity,” caused by the completion of the Zipingpu dam in 2004. The reservoir, which lay five hundred fifty yards from the fault, held three hundred and fifteen million tons of water and exerted twenty-five times the normal tectonic stress. The dam showed giant cracks after the quake. The Chinese government has barred any further investigation of the site.
Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with the idea of immortality. At the age of forty, persuaded there was an island of immortality in the East, he launched a children’s crusade in 219 BC. He chose thousands of children throughout the empire to search for the island because he thought that only the young would be able to survive such a long and arduous journey. They left with great hope and fanfare. But none returned. There is no record of what happened to them.
People tend to lose lung capacity as they age, making it difficult for them to cough productively. After pus forms in the aveoli, it can spread to the bloodstream or into implanted medical devices, such as a replaced valve or a pacemaker. (Kara Baskin, “Pneumonia vs. the Elderly”)
On New Year’s, the roads were closed because of the Rose Parade. And the storms continued. We called his cardiologist’s office, but only got an answering machine. We got through the next day and made an appointment with Dr. Fine for January 3rd.
That day, the storms finally cleared, yet many broken branches and blown-over garbage canisters remained on the streets. When we got to the doctor’s office, I pushed my father’s Getgo swiftly through the doors and into the elevator. Fifteen minutes later, my whole family was in the examination room with Dr. Fine. “You don’t look too happy,” Dr. Fine said to my father. I read him the list of symptoms: coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain.
My father mumbled, “The shower… head feels cold… can’t breathe.” Dr. Fine pressed his stethoscope against his back. “No fluid. That’s a good sign.” He felt for my father’s pulse. “His heart is racing,” he said. He pondered. Hospitalize him? No, changing his medication was enough. “What about the cough?” I asked. “Yes, what do we do about the cough?” He wrote a second prescription. He told us he was going out of town, but we could call his partner. I asked: “Any warning signs?” He brushed my question aside with an exasperated sigh—my father had “multiple chronic conditions.” I thanked him and pushed my father toward the elevator.
A few days before the earthquake, a column of toads was seen migrating in Mianyang, near the epicenter. In Mianzhu, a million butterflies took wing.
Over fifteen million people were displaced, five million of whom are homeless. The government, breaking with its previous practice, welcomed outside relief agencies and put out an international call for tents. The risk of aftershocks and floods made the situation even more urgent.
State television earlier reported that an eighty-year-old partially paralyzed man was pulled alive from the rubble on Friday, two hundred and sixty-six hours after the main quake hit….he had been trapped under a collapsed pillar of his house. He had survived after being fed by his wife… (Reuters).
The evening we saw Dr. Fine, my father was extremely weak. It took my mother and me forty minutes to bring him from the bathroom to the bed and another half an hour to give him his medicine. He could barely speak. “Temperature,” he gasped, and my mother pressed her forehead against his. “You’re okay—you don’t have a temperature.” I touched his hand. It was cold. I felt his ankles. They were swollen. I pulled a blanket over him. “I hurt here,” he said, pointing to an area just below his chest. Then he needed to urinate. He pointed to the plastic bowl on the floor. I picked it up and put it under his penis and watched the yellow stream pass from his body.
The morning after the earthquake, I think of plates shifting. Of how a process set in motion millions of years ago can suddenly erupt and cause a catastrophe.
When the police came, they sealed off the bedroom with yellow tape to prevent the body from being tampered with.
The men from the mortuary arrived at our house. I leaned over and kissed my father once, on the lips. The lips were cold. “Don’t do that,” my mother wailed, her face wet with tears. “Just let him go.”
“Congestive heart failure,” Sherwin B. Nuland writes in How We Die, “is the direct result of the scarred and weakened myocardium’s inability to contract with enough force…. [The blood]…backs up into the veins…resulting in swelling, or edema, of tissue… the kidney and liver are thus prevented from performing efficiently…the heart becomes enlarged…the excessive fluid dams up and floods the lungs…Severe air hunger rapidly supervenes, the gurgling, wheezing respirations begin, and finally the poor oxygenation of the blood causes either brain death or ventricular fibrillation…from which there is no return.”
“But it isn’t your training,” the therapist tells me. “How could you have known? It was his cardiologist who made the decision not to hospitalize him, not you.”
“Ben,” a note arrives from a friend, “Your email sounds tormented to me, a deep sadness disguised as anxiety about what could have been different. Everyone was doing their best in a terribly difficult situation, and even moving him to the hospital might very well have been too strenuous for him at that point… The longing to have been able to save the life of the man who gave you life and taught you love must be deep indeed.
I’m so sorry to hear how much pain you are in. With love.”
The morning after the earthquake, I think of plates shifting. Of how a process set in motion millions of years ago can suddenly erupt and cause a catastrophe. Of how solid rock can liquefy and the structures surrounding us can crumble into ruins. Of how millions of people can become tragic actors on a global stage, their grief digitized into pixels. And how ten thousand couples can lose their only child and one son can lose his only father.
The ancient Chinese imagined the cosmos as a vast square of earth with four giant pillars holding up a round sky. According to Questions of Heaven (Tianwen), written in the fourth century BC, the goddess Nu Kua, who created human beings out of yellow earth and mud, also repaired the cosmos following a catastrophe in which the pillars collapsed. By doing so she saved the world from extinction.
On my father’s desk are his pens and notebooks. They are still—never again to know the hands that held them and composed essays and poems in swift graceful strokes. My mother won’t put them away, although it has been six months since he died.
“I’ll be the first to go. Take good care of your Ma.”
January 4th. I am preparing for bed. My mother is asleep, but I hear my father wheezing and gasping. Why doesn’t he stop coughing? He’ll choke on his own mucus. I wonder if I should call 911. But the doctor said he has no fluid in his lungs. If he was prescribed cough syrup it can’t be that serious; Mom forgot the cough medicine, that’s all. I’ve never heard of anyone choking on their own mucus. I listen to him heave through another ten inhalations and exhalations. If he can breathe ten times then he can breathe through the night he’ll be okay he’ll just fall asleep and the medicine will kick in he doesn’t need to go to the hospital… I bunch the pillow against my ears to block out the noise and turn out the light. Just this once.
And Master K’ung said
“There are three ways of learning.
The first is reflection, which is the noblest.
The second is imitation, which is the easiest.
And the last is experience, which is the bitterest.”
Ben Huang was born and raised in Connecticut but now lives in Pasadena, California. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the University of California, Irvine, he has taught literature and writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Southern California; and Mount St. Mary’s College. He has had short fiction published in Ploughshares and is currently working on a novel, Silk Mirage.
To contact Guernica or Ben Huang, please write here.