This being Thanksgiving time, I’ve been thinking about my family. Specifically my son, Jack, and grandson, and something that happened to Jack and me a long time ago. Let me just tell you this story, not so much about the backyard but about Thanksgiving, if you see what I mean.

Jack and I traveled to China together in August 2000. He was 9, I was 47. I had speculated for decades on what the year 2000 would be like, and never imagined this.

Anyway we spent a week in Beijing, soon got sick on the food, and then flew to Shanghai, where I set up shop to teach American literature at Fudan University. The Chinese people were very friendly and attentive to us at first. They knew our minds would be boggled for a while, though most of them did not really know what that meant. Their experience told them we would be acting more peculiarly at first than we would after we got adjusted — when, they were quite well aware, we would still act peculiarly but no longer like we were drunk.

How is China different from North America? To say that the food was unfamiliar is to graze only the very surface of a deep tarn of profound otherness. We had lived for two years in Bulgaria and thought that culture, situated as it is in a sort of no-man’s-land between Asia and Europe, was profoundly different from America. But compared to Shanghai, the Bulgarian city of Blagoevgrad seemed not much more different from Portland than Troy seems from Bangor. Cyrillic letters look different from Roman, but they can be deciphered because they signify sounds in the same way. A Chinese word, on the other hand, is as different from an English word as the moon is from the sun. The thoughts, expressions and social and psychic energies of China are virtually inside out of ours.

So during the first week in Shanghai-world, Jack started school. A van picked him up every morning at the gate of our building in northwest Shanghai, trundled through back streets and past the Bund, then onto a connector highway carrying him and his schoolmates to the Shanghai Changning International School. He got settled into this routine pretty quickly, though changes like this for a kid can go beyond scary into the range of traumatic. But Jack had already lived in Bulgaria, walked around in worlds as different as Firenze, Athens, Cairo, Timisoara and Istanbul, and had spoken Bulgarian. He was always an excellent traveler.

About a month into our Shanghai adventure he reported to me that he noticed blood in his stool. So we tracked down a Chinese-American doctor who said it was probably a side-effect of culture shock, primarily adjusting to new food and water. But we should let a Western doctor take a look, he said, and advised us to go to a children’s hospital in Hong Kong for a colonoscopy. Jack was quiet and patient.

We called his mom, Bonnie (who was to join us in January), and told her what was going on. He was talking to her on the desk phone in the red-furnitured, red-draped living room of our little apartment in the Fudan University Foreign Experts Building. She asked him what he thought we should do. He was looking at the floor, holding the phone to his right ear. His cool bravery was startling.

“It’s my health,” he said calmly. “Let’s do it.”

In the middle of October we flew to Hong Kong, briefly visited the doctor, a peremptory Scotsman with fake kindliness, found our hotel in the Causeway Bay area and spent a fitful night waiting for the bowel-cleansing drug to kick into action. It never did until we got into a taxi just before dawn. The children’s hospital was located nearly at the peak of one of those high, conical Hong Kong hills. As we wound back and forth up those steep hills in the early morning darkness, Jack quietly endured the emergency, controlling his body and his state of mind.

The children’s hospital was a relatively old building, probably built in the first half of the 20th century. We checked in, and soon a nurse took Jack off along the painted woodwork and hardwood floors to the OR.

I sat waiting in bleak fluorescent hospital lights with more anxiety than I had ever felt to that point in my life. Forty-five minutes later, they wheeled him out. His face was ashen and he was still asleep. The doctor reported there was nothing to report.

The nurse, a kindly middle-aged Chinese man with big glasses, put Jack in a bed in the recovery room. This was a large open room like a school play area with several beds, low bookshelves and crates of toys. A large picture window looked out over the bay far below. The sky outside was gray. Wind was blowing rags of fog through gnarled tropical trees.

It was very quiet in the large room with the hardwood floors. Sometimes voices echoed far down the hallway. One other child was sleeping in a bed across the room.

I sat by Jack’s bed and watched him sleep with an IV feed in his arm. Soon this was removed, and over a little while Jack went from asleep to groggy to sick to alert. The nurse was extremely kind to Jack and to me.

These hours in the recovery room in the children’s hospital in Hong Kong are burned so deep into my memory I expect I will remember them in other lifetimes. The worn hardwood floors, the smell of old varnish, the shelves of picture books and toys, the quiet, the hillside trees worn-looking in the gray foggy wind, a plate of thin, dry, kindly offered toast, and Jack lying in the bed, sick and weak but slowly brightening, completely patient and completely brave. I already loved him more than I ever loved anyone in my life, but those hours swelled to another level of sky. Sympathy and protectiveness, awe, admiration and love never known to me before saturated the very minutes themselves. And the mystery is how it all stays alive in you, for years, thankfully. Everything I know of Jack resonates off those hours in Hong Kong.

Late in the afternoon we got a taxi back to the hotel. The sky cleared, the sweaty Hong Kong autumn heat returned, and Jack wanted to walk around in the teeming narrow streets, so we did.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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