by: Tiffany Yu
A reminder of the fragility of life, and of the connectivity of kinship that yearns to define us…
I’m staring at bushes. Dead bushes, to be exact.
It’s Easter weekend and all I’m seeing on Facebook are pictures of cherry blossoms. I made it back to Maryland to observe the Chinese Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day. Mom makes us kids do this every year. I looked it up. Apparently it’s a holiday to remember past ancestors.
I see these bushes once a year because that’s the only time I make the journey out here to this unmarked location in Virginia. I wouldn’t be able to find this place if I wanted to. Mom drives. I sit in the back and stare out the window. I did see a few cherry blossoms on our way. Does that count?
Anyway, the bushes are dead. Like, really dead. These stupid bushes we paid someone to plant for you are dead. This year, they are beyond repair. Brown, brittle, scorched.
These are the bushes that surround your gravesite. The place we buried you all those years ago. Our shrine to you.
I didn’t notice or care much for the bushes until today. In the past, there wasn’t much to pay attention to because they were alive and green. I’m a little surprised that I feel so angry about them now that they’re dead. Maybe they died because no one cared about them. I guess I was hoping to not have to be so angry about dead bushes. I’m angry because I didn’t appreciate them when they were alive. At least yellowing and dying would have been better than dead. Mom says “upkeep” was in the contract she signed for this place. Seriously, we’re spending money on dead bushes? Do we really need more death in this place?
Should I feel sad and not angry? Should I be thinking about you and not the bushes? I’m not entirely sure. Once a year I make these visits and now that they’ve become so routine, do I feel anything anymore? I’m not sure I ever really felt anything.
I was nine years old and I can’t remember anyone telling me you had died.
I can remember a lot about the events surrounding your death. But I can’t remember your death. It was Thanksgiving weekend, the day after your birthday. Did we do anything to celebrate? We must have. All of these things that should have been positive memories, I can’t remember now. Maybe I was too young? Maybe I didn’t think they were as important at the time?
I was sitting next to Peter in the backseat and behind Melissa who was in the front. You were driving. We had just dropped Mom off at the airport and were on our way home. Something happened. We were approaching the fork in the road on the highway and instead of going left or right, we went right in the middle, into a grassy ditch.
You were having a seizure.
This was a familiar scene that happened once before, when we were back at home. You were on the ground and everyone was rushing around you with blankets and towels, making sure you didn’t injure yourself when you fell to the ground. Was this a one-time thing or had this happened before? I was there too, a passive observer uninvolved in the scene, like I was watching from backstage. It didn’t feel real.
So here we were again, except this time, I was in the car too with Peter and Melissa. We sat in jarring silence for a few seconds as we watched the seizure overtake you. Someone had hit pause on this scene. Time stood still in that instance and my hand latched onto a singular thought. I went into autopilot. Left hand, seat belt. Right hand, handle next to the window on the roof of our Toyota. That should be enough, right? What was happening to you? Was someone going to end this scene soon? Then the next spasm came. Your foot slammed the gas pedal and we sped out of that ditch and across the empty highway. The scene ended abruptly with the blur of some trees.
Was that it? Was that when you died? I don’t know. Honestly, I was too scared to ask anyone to confirm.
When I woke up, it must have been late because all I wanted to do was sleep. I was in a helicopter. There was a man hovering over me who kept forcing my eyelids open. Maybe he was nervous that if I closed my eyes long enough, that would be the last time.
So much for celebrating your birthday. I want to remember balloons and cake but the reality I’m left with is a Toyota beyond repair.
I can’t remember if I had to go back to the hospital after your funeral. I had broken two bones in my left leg that left me in that place for three weeks and in a wheelchair for months afterward until I could walk again. At your funeral – the first and only one I’ve been to up until now – I didn’t know how to act. Should I be sad? Should I be crying? I started playing with Peter’s walker until Uncle told me to stop. I just wanted to distract myself from acknowledging the reality that you were gone. There was a time during the funeral when we all said our final goodbye’s to you. Someone wheeled me up to your coffin, and I saw you lying there as though you were sleeping. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know what to say. All I said was, “Hi Daddy, it’s Tiffany.” What was I supposed to say? I think back to that scene often. I wish I had said more but I’m still not sure what I would have said instead.
You are very much a part of this story, Dad. But losing you wasn’t the only part.
I’m not sure if I remember much about you anymore. In the chapters that followed this story, you were forgotten. You lost your title role as a main character. It was like you were an afterthought. I felt like I had much bigger battles. You weren’t in my life anymore. My disability was. My “funny” arm.
It was the first thing I thought about about when I was relearning how to write with my left hand. It is the first thing people notice when I extend my left hand in greeting. It is the first thing that I think about when I’m asked to do something that suggests the need to use both hands. I’m defined by my diagnosis – my brachial plexus injury – and it has been the chip on my shoulder for the better part of the past eighteen years. It has been the source of a lot of my self-loathing and angst with the world.
I was so angry. I hated everyone and everything. Their lives were so much easier. You had a bit of a temper, too. So much so that I was scared you might take your anger out on me. Maybe I held on to this anger because it was my way of feeling connected to you. But I don’t want to be angry anymore.
I used to feel this tremendous guilt that I should feel a certain way about you. That losing you should evoke more pain and sadness. I mean, you are my dad. I look at photos of us from when you were alive and I’m grateful that those moments were captured. But I can’t recall the memories associated with those moments. They don’t feel like my own.
I was telling a friend about the bushes tonight and he told me that you would be impressed with the woman I have become. He said, “Poppa bear would be proud. At least, I think any father would be.” I’ve been thinking about this. If you saw me today, would you be proud? Would I care?
I’m sorry we didn’t have more time together, for us to create something, anything of substance that I could remember. But I don’t really feel anything – positive or negative – and I think I’m ok with that. Our relationship just is…or was. But regardless, you will always be my dad.
If I learned anything from this experience, it was about the fragility of life. It’s a reminder I need often, so I thank you for that.
I remember this one time we were at Price Club and you found some cookies leftover from one of the sampling stations. They were sitting at the top of the trash and you grabbed the unopened container to share with us kids. Everyone was staring at us, but you didn’t care. You hated when perfectly good things went to waste. You would have been angry about the dead bushes, too.
Tiffany Yu is the Founder of Diversability, an award-winning social movement to rebrand disability through the power of community. She is passionate about fostering community to empower people of all abilities to dream bigger and do great things. Her writing has been featured in Fortune Magazine, Business Insider, Disability.gov, Levo League, and more. You can follow her on Twitter at @ImTiffanyYu.