Cheng’s debut memoir offers a tribute to her father and life lessons about loving a stoic person.
When the author’s father was diagnosed with the final stage of colon cancer and faced surgery, she and her adult siblings, May, Sam, and John, rallied around his hospital bed with support. They witnessed his responses to the pain and ravages of cancer, and Cheng came to understand that her father’s reserve had been his way of protecting his children: “Father used to hide the pain in front of us to avoid us growing sad.” The bittersweet gift of his illness was to release him from the bonds of stoicism. Curiously, Cheng’s mother, as portrayed here, seems to be an indifferent caretaker of her husband, which hints at aspects of their relationship that the book doesn’t explore. The author states in the preface that she wrote the memoir to remember her father and share what she learned from her experience. To that end, she aims to honor her parent, dispel myths about silent, strong fathers like him, and prove that such distant dads need love despite their seeming invulnerability. Cheng’s journey offers readers a glimpse of contemporary Chinese culture, including family-centered festivals such as Chinese Tung Chee and Chinese New Year, herbal remedies thought to be legitimate treatments for cancer, and the belief in the healing power of mahjong. Readers should be prepared, though, for explicit descriptions of bodily functions and surprising hospital events, such as when a nurse shows the family a plastic bag holding her father’s removed organs. Cheng’s message is also sometimes obscured by phrases that require deciphering: “Peremptorily, we were sentimentally forcible-feeble.” More often, though, the not-quite-right phrasings have a certain charm: “Inexplicably, life will be somehow decorated with backfire. And such is the backfire that will, in a way, make our lives more legendary.”
Patient readers will warm to this memoir’s message to love one’s distant dad before it’s too late.