I woke up in a hotel bed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, checked my phone. There it is, on my screen
My breath was gone for a second. The next thing I knew, I burst into tears. My head went blank, an overwhelming amount of sadness and shock came over. I was in disbelief but I also knew it’s true.
Actually, it wasn’t a surprise. David was diagnosed with cancer a few months back and I learned about it accidently while visiting him in his home of Tecumsch, Michigan, the USA. I was concerned for months. I prepared myself for the worst.
David and I met when I was in my third year of college. I got a summer job teaching an English summer camp, and was paired with a foreign teacher. That was David. He was in his 60s at that time. He was an interesting elderly person, I thought to myself. He loved learning about other cultures, thought it was wrong that society expected women to shave their legs. He loved taking candid pictures and put his foot in it, like it’s some kind of signature. He had a journal that he kept, and sometimes he asked me to write a few words in it, or sign it. David was so overweighed that he always had this stick with him, with pictures of his beloved in his family and things that he valued. He was a harsh judge when it came to American politics and was a vocal humanity supporter. Most of all, he was a kind and caring person whose actions brought so much light and courage to others.
So, we became friends that summer.
I call him Grandpa David.
When the summer camp ended, we spent a couple of days in Chengdu and parted our ways. The year after, he came visit me in my university in Beijing. I was on the campus radio team and I invited him to be my guest speaker. When my class had a graduation trip, David came with as well.
College life soon became a chapter written and the new chapter began. One that was so much harder. It was a decade of experiencing love and heartbreaks, uncertainty, hopes, confusion and excitements. All these big moments, David was there saying two things:
You are a brave young woman and you will get through this.
There were so many times that I cried on the phone talking to David. He was such a good listener. He always made me feel that I wasn’t as much of a loser as I thought. Grandpa David supported me through some of the worst moments in my life.
When life was going well. He genuinely was happy for me and always says: I am so proud of you! So proud that he would leave long comments on my Facebook update and tag everyone he knew. I don’t always know if what I do make any sense, but David’s happiness reassured me that it does.
He’s a big advocate for mental health. He’s lived through many episodes of depression himself. Because of that, he was able to support me when I started experiencing depression and was completely at loss of what’s going on.
In my eyes, he’s a hero. It’s never easy to live a life with depression. He had many episodes in his and he marched on. I have lots of respect for old people just because they have made that far despite of all life’s challenges. I have lots more respect for David for always being himself, and never gave up.
I finally went visit him last year, 2019, in his home town of Tecumseh, Michigan, the USA. He was 78, and still the same person that I knew. Well, half of the size than a decade ago, but it’s still him. I landed at the Detroit Airport and there he was, with his sister Mary, coming to pick me up with a cute sign with my name on it.
It’s a small town where there’s only one main street. I stayed with him in his humble apartment. He’s a man with a very simple life. He didn’t think its necessary to buy a new pot, or a soap holder, or a bathroom mat. I went to the Dollar General and got them for him. he thought it was so unnecessary, but later he told me “I really enjoy the new things you have gotten for me. They do make a difference”. That made me smile. I love going to Dollar General just look at the items that people use here and how interesting that was to me. David joked about wanting to throw a rope on me to drag me out of there. Simple man as he was, he went get a bed in his spare room because I was coming to visit. He asked me if the mattress was comfortable. It warmed my heart.
My days there were wonderful and full of happy memories. We went to McDonald’s just because I wanted to do the drive through. So we did, twice! Because the first time, we forgot to pick up the food. It was one of the best trips I had in my life. Everywhere I went with David, people seem to have heard of me already. If they have not, David made sure they did by telling them our stories in China and my little adventure of mental health, in the bank, at Mc Donald’s, at the icecream shop, the vintage shop, yoga studio, the furniture shop. He was so proud of me that I wonder if I actually live up to it. I choose to believe him though, because he would tell me that I should!
He took me to meet many of his brothers and sisters. I loved going to sister Mary’s for tea and brother Don’s to visit his family of 2 grandkids. I tagged along with his big family and went to a grand kid’s musical play one day in town where all the kids dressed up in costumes and played instruments. Sister Mary, David and I also went to the library for the ghost hunting presentation one night. I am serious, it’s a profession! I know!
At the age of 78, Daivd still had a great sense of humor. One day, we finished lunch at a restaurant and went back to the car. He drove out of his parking spot, and 1 min late, parked the car in the other part of the parking lot. “here we are.” he said. I looked at him confused and he said, this is the furniture store (which is just 2-3 stores away from the restaurant). I laughed so hard! I don’t think anyone else would do this but David. He’s got a funny soul. However, I did make David walk too. It’s Halloween time in the US. I persuaded him that we should get out of the car to check out all the Halloween decoration at each house one by one instead of driving 50 meters each time. He gave in and did say that it’s a good idea to walk. We had a nice artful walk where we played with cats, danced at someone’s lawn, photographing at someone’s house, and etc. It was a nice fun day.
He also brought me to his vet to vet peer support group, which he was so excited about. It was important to him, so it was to me. It was a weekly meeting that he went to at a hospital. I got to meet the retired vets, who were curious about me, and what I was doing in China. I, standing there, was full of gratification, to be able to see these men in their late years, coming together supporting one another. David had always been active in supporting mental health. He always said he’d like to come back to China and participate in CandleX events, and also help to raise the awareness. I thought why not getting David started then. We had a spontaneous interview with him and his brother Don on mental health and released these videos late last year.
It was the same morning that we went to hospital for vet-to-vet support group that I learned David had cancer. He happened to have an appointment that day too. I was shocked. The doctor found cancer in his lungs and was still diagnosing what stage of cancer that was. David didn’t seem to be sad, scared, or frustrated. The way he mentioned it was so light, like he was telling me it’s just a cold. I stayed with him for a few more hours there. I sat with him in the doctor’s room, while the doctor was giving him more information about the cancer. I was so unprepared and did not feel the impact until we were driving back. As I was sitting in the car, watching trees passing by, my tears came down. It might be the last time I saw David; I was thinking to myself. David didn’t talk about the cancer. I did not ask. At some point during my stay, I asked him, “have you ever thought about what you’d do with your ashes?” David said he’d like to have them mailed to his friends around the world and get them spread there. I smiled, that is him talking.
The rest of the days, we were living it like another day. We went to some shops, restaurants in town. Oh, we did go to prison. I know! He got into trouble, which led to an errand local prison. At the age of 78, somehow he managed to get into trouble like a teenager.
Five days were short. David and sister Mary drove me back to the airport. My heart was so full of love and appreciation. I could not imagine a better visit than this. When we arrived at the airport, David said he would like to withdrew USD5000 and would like to give it to me to support what I do in China. “that’s why he asked me a few times how much cash I could bring back to China” I was thinking to myself. I thought it was a weird question. My tears came down because my heart was just melt away by his love and support.
I flew back to Beijing and I kept in touch with David. I checked in with him on his treatment, he said it’s going well. But he just didn’t reply as much as he used to if he replied at all. I was worried, but I also knew he would never want me to worry. So I still wrote, in short sentences of my life updates. He gave me a thumb up in return. Late December, he replied to my messages and said he would reply a few hours later. That was the last message I got from him.
It took me almost a year to finish writing this. Life has always been so full. It’s like swimming, we are mostly just padding on the surface of water. I miss Grandpa David. Yet, it feels like I need time, courage, space to go back to our stories and write them down. Every time, I type, tears of sadness, joy, love, inspiration and amazement came up. It’s like a deep dive into the ocean. David was an amazing person who lived such a full life. His life is the message that we can live with depression and still find joy, meaning, love, and be the inspiration.
Now I am friends with his big family in Michigan, sister Mary and her big loving family of three generations, brother Don and his big family. We are in touch and it always makes me smile to see their life updates and hear from them on Facebook! See, this is what a man can do, building connections and meaningful bonds among people. This is still David in action.
I miss you and I will now go to bed. This is when you would say
HAGS (Have a good sleep) and Namaste
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