It’s time to write another column and this is a hard one for me. Once again I’m not sure how to start so I will just take a deep breath and begin.
Yesterday Dad died soon after I’d visited him at the rehabilitation facility. A short three days after his birthday, he took his last breath with his birthday balloons still attached to his bed. I’m sure by time this column hits the press, my emotions won’t be quite so raw. Or maybe they will. Time will tell.
I want to thank all of you, dear readers, for the support and kindness you have shown me when I first wrote about Dad’s stroke last summer and then again earlier this year when I penned another column about his hospitalization for pneumonia. Your support has made it easier to take the time I needed to be with Dad, even when it meant closing up shop. It has made it easier for me to look toward the day of returning to work. It has made it easier for Steve and me to maintain the Tea Room even during the hit and miss times of late when my priority has been Dad and my family.
Last fall, I felt I needed do find something to help take my mind off of business as well as family and personal matters in the evenings – not that I needed to add more clutter to the house. I picked up a new avocation, a hobby. Remembering how much I enjoyed doing them as a child, I started doing “paint-by-number” paintings and I found it very relaxing. No decision making, no worrying about oven temperatures, no discussions with medical staff. Just match the number of the paint with the number on the canvas and before I knew it, time and space stilled around me and I was deep into painting.
I shared the process of my painting with Dad. He was elated when I first told him I was painting, as he dabbled in art as well. He said I could use his paints and brushes and anything else I needed to complete my paintings. I reminded him that I wasn’t actually painting, like from my soul, that I was using a kit. “It doesn’t matter,” he responded. “It’s still your art and if you are enjoying it, that’s even better.”
After I completed several paintings, I wondered if there was a company that could take a photograph and turn it into a paint-by-number kit. A quick search on the internet told me there was. I had taken a picture of Dad mid-November when he was on what seemed a strong upswing of recovery from his stroke. He had returned to his room after a physical therapy session and was sitting in his wheelchair. His smile and the light in his eyes showed he was very present in the moment – and happy. I sent the picture to the company and was so excited when the kit they developed for me arrived in the mail. I couldn’t wait to start painting.
When the painting had progressed enough so it was obviously a portrait of Dad, I showed it to him. He was surprised (how do they do that?) but very pleased. He continued to enjoy the progress reports on my work.
About two weeks ago I was close to finishing it, but for some reason I couldn’t. I’d come home and sit down with brush in hand and paint jar open but I just couldn’t flow into the painting. Instead of relaxing, I found that I was stressing. So I stepped back.
Yesterday before I went to visit Dad I had a sudden flash of insight. I think somewhere in my brain I came up with the thought that Dad’s life was connected to his portrait. I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t want it to end. I wondered where I had come up with that emotional conjecture, then out of the blue I vaguely remembered about 20 years ago being in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In the lobby is a huge bronze bust of President Kennedy. I recalled a guide telling me that the artist had made the bust look unfinished on purpose because the President’s life had ended before it was complete, because he hadn’t finished his life.
My father lived a very full and a very long life. There is never enough time for those of us who live on when a loved one dies. I will cherish every hour and minute that I spent with Dad during the final months and moments of his life. I am sad. I am also grateful for having such a wonderful father and to have had a rich and deep relationship with him. So, I think in the near future I will be able to pick up those paint brushes and finish the painting of the wonderful man I loved with all my heart.
My brother Damon and I are often on the same train of thought, even when we haven’t said a word. The day Dad died, Damon, Steve, Mom and I went to the Tea Room and sipped on tea, nibbled on quiche and cookies. We shared reminiscences of Dad. I knew I would write about him and in my mind I rummaged through my many memories of cooking with Dad, thinking of his favorite dishes, of his skill and elegance in the kitchen. I was trying to figure out what recipe to use, what would honor and exemplify him. Damon caught my eye and said, “The recipe should be Cockle Shells.”
Yes, it should.
In southern China and Hong Kong, macaroni soup is a staple. A homestyle recipe, it’s one of our comfort foods. When we were growing up, Dad made it frequently and instead of macaroni, he used small shell pasta and called it Cockle Shell Soup. It was one of his go-to meals up until the day of his stroke. Whenever I was in a Chinese restaurant and saw macaroni soup on the menu, I always thought of Dad and his take on the recipe, his Cockle Shell Soup. I thought of him in the past on such occasions, as I do now, as I always will.
Enjoy Dad’s recipe for Cockle Shell Soup and thank you again for being of such real support to my family and me, and to Steve and our Tea Room. Dad may be gone in one very real way, but I know his spirit will linger and live on in China Alley along with our ancestors and in my mind and heart forever.