A holiday letter from my nephew Joseph:
Several years ago, my Uncle Kam was diagnosed with a rare, advanced form of lung cancer. One specific night from that period stands out in my memory. My grandmother had just returned from a trip to Shanghai with a large bag full of special paper “spirit bank notes.” According to her, we had to burn all of this “money” to appease the malevolent spirits who had brought on his illness. We drove directly from the airport to my Aunt Margaret’s house. Although it was quite late, several of my aunts, uncles, and cousins had already gathered. Having placed a metal bin in the middle of the driveway, we took turns lighting the bills and throwing them into the blaze. Orange embers drifted away from the flames and disappeared into the dark night air, which was just beginning to carry an autumn chill. As per tradition, when all of the bills had been lit and placed inside the bin, we all went into the house—backs turned, lest the spirits catch us watching them.
Some time has passed since then, and thankfully, Uncle Kam is still here enjoying (and fighting for) his life every day. And in our family there are daily shows of solidarity that, while perhaps a little less dramatic than that autumn night, are no less powerful. All gestures add up to make a big impact, with everyone playing a part, however big or seemingly insignificant. For example, my other aunts and uncles plan and prepare the weekly Wednesday family dinner, relieving Uncle Kam of a sizeable physical and mental burden. My mom visits Uncle Kam nearly every night after work for a chat. And my Aunt Lily prepares and delivers homemade soup from the west side each Thursday. At these times, it seems that the older generation’s commitment to maintaining the bonds within our big, sometimes unruly, family has been well worth the effort.
Frankly, this year has been a nerve-wracking and emotional one for us. In addition to Uncle Kam’s daily struggle, I recall a 72-hour period in which we received, in short succession, news of a stroke, a serious car accident, and an unexpected death in Hong Kong. Although these incidents were each extremely worrying, they ultimately drew us closer together. Messages of support and ideas for action were furiously exchanged in person, over the telephone, via the family email listserv, and on the kids’ WhatsApp chat (if you don’t know what WhatsApp is, ask someone under the age of 20).
Although this year’s challenges have provoked plenty of anxiety—anyone telling you otherwise would be lying—I think they have gradually allowed us to let go, to some extent, and to more fully appreciate those who are important to us. This is no more apparent than in our weekly Wednesday family dinners, which continue to be a regular sanctuary in our hectic lives. In fact, having recently returned home from Korea for a visit, I went to Wednesday night dinner and was surprised at how much everything felt unchanged. Oxygen tanks and motor scooters aside, we still shared interesting conversations, good wine, and, of course, delicious food.
Surely, then, my family’s gathering each Wednesday night is as much a chance to relax as it is to strengthen one another for another week, another month, another year of challenges. Make no mistake, we meet on Wednesday nights because we want to. But more than a mere desire to meet, we do so, week after week, because we have no choice. Indeed, the very act of Wednesday night dinner is no different from that of turning our backs against the (alleged) ill-willed spirits and marching forward. Whatever lies ahead, we must continue on.