Box Fan

I grew up in the deep South, where the summers were long and hot and sticky. The heat clung to you like a second skin, one that you wished you could shed. The endless days of summer always overstayed their welcome, but once the heat finally started to recede and the cooler days of October arrived, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. Hot, humid nights gave way to the slight chill of autumn. No longer did the bed sheets stick to you like the skin of an onion. The whine of the box fan was replaced by the sounds of the world outside winding down for cooler days ahead.

The big oaks that had proffered shade from the glaring summer sun transformed into fiery flames that brightened the countryside. Oranges and yellows rippled through the trees and peaked just as the fall breezes grew in ferocity. Leaves glided to the ground or danced in the wind as they fell to the earth. The crackle of leaves beneath your feet provided a soundtrack for the season, a sure sign that the dog days of summer were gone for a few months at least.

Cornfields and gardens, once teaming with life, lay dormant. Wilting stalks swayed in the breeze waiting to return to the earth for the next planting season. Pumpkins basked in the glow of the sun, piled up in the bounty of the harvest, and adorned the doorsteps of those celebrating the season.

Snow rarely visited us in the South. Winter meant brown grass matted with frost, which crunched beneath our footsteps like clumps of ice spilled on the patio during those long, hot summers. Naked trees swayed in the wind, gnarled branches reaching for the sky like elderly outstretched hands. Branches infrequently fell to the ground lying in a bed of dead leaves until they too succumbed to the entropy of nature.

Winters, shortened by the latitude, gave way to glimpses of spring. Daffodils sprung to life and the roiling gray clouds of winter parted for the deep blue of the season of revival. March winds rolled across the hills gently swaying the trees as they came alive again. Green returned to the grass, flowers bloomed, bees buzzed, and the harsh chill of winter left behind a gentle warmth. Occasional showers burnished the renewal. A sense of potential pervaded every living thing.

Like a flywheel first spinning into motion, the season took hold. The daylight lengthened and the sun strayed higher in the sky and kept its repose longer. The warmth gave way to a persistent heat that made the shade of newly-adorned trees all the more welcome. Breezes fell still. The air, once dry, became saturated. The hot sticky mess returned sending all but the most ardent sun worshipers into the arms of air- conditioned spaces or the whir of the box fan.

Aftermath

Thank you for reading. This is the final post from the memoir. Not all of the chapters were posted here for many reasons. This story was written mainly for me but for my kids as well in hopes that some day they’ll read it and understand me at a deeper level than most kids understand their parents. That’s all I can ask for. 

 

“I’ve got a bad disease, but from my brain is where I bleed.” – Red Hot Chili Peppers

The RV roared to life at the intersection ambling forward through the last cross street on the way out of Yellowstone National Park. The sky brimmed with white-gray clouds still clinging to an overcast day, but up ahead in the distance, I could see rays of sunlight breaking through as if they were pointing to brighter days ahead.

Tiffany sat quietly beside me in the passenger seat reading her book as I piloted the behemoth vehicle through the park on our way back home. The kids sat in the back engrossed in their own little worlds – a book for Grace and some mindless iPad game for Troy. I couldn’t help but smile after we had spent a week losing ourselves in the wonderful nature of Yellowstone. We’d had the time of our lives visiting the geysers and hot springs and watching lumbering bison cross right in front of us. We had camped in the RV in the heart of the park with minimal connection to the outside world.

Dad had been gone for over a year, and during that time a melancholy sense of being had fallen over me. I kept it mostly to myself not wanting to be a downer to Tiffany and the kids, but in those moments when I was alone and my thoughts drifted to Dad, the sadness was overwhelming. Sometimes, I’d have to go on a run to get away from everyone, driving my legs deeper into the depths of some forest path to escape the grief, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to shake the sense of loss and loneliness. Dad’s death had left me unmoored.

Emerson and Thoreau had found meaning and inspiration from nature, and likewise, the trip to Yellowstone had given me a new appreciation for the wonder around me. Dad’s death had dampened my creativity leaving me morose and rudderless. I struggled to remain positive, but something about watching the sun set over a river in the middle of all that grandeur while my son tried to get a close-up picture of a bison made me positively happy again. I realized the obvious at that moment – my life was wonderful beyond words even if Dad was no longer physically a part of it. He would always be a part of me.

I took a deep breath as I drove under the awning marking the exit to Yellowstone. The sun grew brighter. The sense of a wonderful summer adventure engulfed us. For a moment, I was a kid again playing with my brothers while Dad looked on laughing at our antics. But I wasn’t. It was my turn to take the path he had taken, to raise my kids and watch them grow up to be on their own. They would one day realize that our time together is also limited.

Looking back over Dad’s life, I tried to make sense of it all. I struggled with the fact that he was but another in billions of people who had lived and died with only a handful of people remembering him. He had been happy for the most part in spite of those many years when he wasn’t. He loved Mom, his boys, and his grandchildren. He tried to make the best of the worst situations, and he failed in some cases. I loved him not because he was infallible or perfect but because he wasn’t. Our flaws make us decidedly human and give us the capacity to love and be loved.

Despite the difficult times, Dad never passed up an opportunity to laugh. Often at Mom’s expense, he’d send us all laughing with some comment or story. We’d watch cartoons together and pick up an annoying line and proceed to drive Mom crazy. In many ways he was like one of us boys, and in the best moments, when it was just the five of us, laughter would reverberate through the house because of him. I think I missed hearing him laugh the most.

Dad spent his entire life on the outside looking in, which fueled his overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the world. One of his favorite quips was “I can’t win for losing.” He had that sense of defeatism before he ever even gave the facts a chance. He’d been beaten and chastised by a world that was seemingly stacked against him, a working class man stuck in a monotonous and dreary play that would not end in his favor. I never could wrap my head around his view of the world until the end.

I, too, felt that sense of being the odd man out, but I’ve categorically resisted the urge to let it overwhelm me. I tamped it down because I knew I’d never go anywhere if I succumbed to it. Dad was always there to remind me of who I am and keep me from getting too far ahead of myself. He didn’t do it purposefully. He did it inadvertently, probably for the most part unknown to him. I could see in him elements of myself. The same tendencies that plagued him haunted me too. I am his son.

In the end what matters most is the family around you. I’d been unreasonably lucky in that regard. Words cannot describe how much I love Tiffany, and our children round out the perfect little family. I didn’t have Dad, but I still had Mom and my brothers. We couldn’t all be together, but we were always connected. I had many great memories of Dad, and that picture of him from that last Christmas had assumed its place above my chair in my office. Dad was looking over me every morning. It was my turn to be the father I needed to be, and I am going to do the best I can. For Dad.

The Long Goodbye

“I lit a fire with the love you left behind,
And it burned wild and crept up the mountainside,
I followed your ashes into outer space,
I can’t look out the window, I can’t look at this place,

I can’t look at the stars,
They make me wonder where you are…” – Grace Potter

The Whipple procedure had given Dad more time, but it always seemed borrowed or perhaps stolen. After the round of chemo following the procedure, he resumed a fairly normal life, slowly regaining his strength. By no means, did he return to the same old Dad. He lost weight and seemed frail. Bones protruded from his shoulders, and his legs, never meaty or muscular by any means, literally looked like chicken legs, but we were happy, even if only for a little while, to have him back in reasonable health.

For much of the length of 2014, we held the false hope that Dad just might beat the cancer. His doctor visits yielded positive results with weight loss being the primary concern raised by his caretakers. The cancer seemed to be at bay. We took a collective breath.

I took my family to visit him a couple of times that year in the summer and again at Christmas. He loved seeing his grandkids. He had waited so long to have grandkids that he couldn’t wait to play with them no matter how he felt. Even in his most miserable moments, the grandkids made him smile, and maybe, reminded him of a time when he too had so much future ahead of him.

I told the kids that their Papa was ill and that he had cancer, but I didn’t characterize it as a moment of impending death. I didn’t want their last memories of their paternal grandfather to be sad ones. I wanted them to have happy ones that they would treasure for the rest of their lives. I had loved mine and had so many fond memories of him that I desperately wanted that for them even though they never got to see Dad that much.

By the time we visited at Christmas, Dad put on a strong face, but I could see the pain. Nothing had revealed itself yet as problematic, but I suspected that he wouldn’t make it another Christmas. I asked my good friend Keith, a superbly talented photographer, to swing by at our Christmas gathering and take some portraits of Dad. I wanted to capture him in those moments even if he didn’t really look like how I thought of him. Keith took a series of photos of Dad alone and with us boys, the last family portrait we’d ever take. I had tens of thousands of photos in my collection, but those two of Dad, alone and with the three of us, became my most treasured.

By the time the New Year rolled around, Dad started having problems. A visit to the doctor revealed that the cancer had returned and spread. He went back on chemotherapy, but he grew progressively weaker. Danny’s reports grew grimmer every time I talked to him. The specter of death loomed. He seemed like he was in a free fall and there was nothing any of us could do except hope against reality. I’d known this was coming, but nothing, no matter how much warning I had had, prepared me for Dad’s demise.

By Mom’s birthday in early April, Dad ended up in the hospital in dire condition. I flew to Atlanta to be with him expecting it to be the end. Seeing him laying in the hospital bed like that, a shell of his former self, took my breath away. He had deteriorated quickly since I had seen him at Christmas. He wore the agony on his face and spoke in a raspy whisper. I could barely keep my composure around him, but the last thing he needed was for me to break down. I had to be strong even in the face of losing someone I loved so much.

In a seminal moment, one that will forever be seared in my brain, I spent the night with him at the hospital. His room had a little cove with a bench near the window, and I tried to sleep there, but all throughout the night, Dad moaned and writhed in pain. The sound still haunts my memories of him. The nurses tended to him all night trying to make him comfortable, but at that point nothing short of knocking him out worked. He couldn’t take care of himself. They had to clean him up multiple times throughout the night. The thin curtain that I had pulled between the bench and his bed did nothing to hide me from the terrible sound of my dad slowly dying next to me.

After that night, all I wished for him was peace and a pain-free existence. Even if he lived, his would be a life of abject misery. I didn’t want him to die, but I didn’t want him in that kind of pain either. Those opposing wishes battled inside my head.

The next day offered a level of respite that I hadn’t expected. Dad didn’t look better, but he stabilized and became more coherent and aware of his surroundings. We could talk between the moments he drifted off to sleep. His brothers and sisters came to visit along with my cousins and other family members. It felt like a family reunion, and there was a great amount of comfort in having everyone around him.

In between the family visits, I sat by his bed. When he slept, I read a book or worked on my computer. When he was awake, I talked to him as much as I could. The funny thing was that neither of us were great conversationalists. I preferred quiet solitude and so did he, but in those moments, we talked as much as he could because we both knew our time together was coming to an end. We pretended that things were normal (How are the Braves going to do this year?) and swooned over his grandkids (That Gracie sure is smart!), but in a few instances, when the stark realization of death scared him most, he became uncharacteristically serious.

It was during one of those moments that he said the one thing that stands out most to me, the one thing that I hear in my head even now. “I did the best I could.” That’s all he said, referring to how he raised my brothers and me. He looked at me, weak and struggling with the pain, and I told him that he did. He did great. I squeezed his hand but remained quiet, the lump in my throat too big to let me speak. He drifted off to sleep and all I could do was hold his hand.

That week, as hard as it was, got better. The worst moments passed and Dad, although still bedridden, seemed to regain some vigor. He sat up more as the week wore on and there was a false sense of hope that permeated the family. Maybe this was just another episode in the journey with cancer. By the end of the week, Dad looked well enough for me to return home to Seattle, so I left him behind despite my misgivings about seeing him for the last time.

When I returned home, I called him and Danny every day. Dad got well enough to be discharged to home hospice care, but before he left the hospital, I had a Facetime call with him in what would be the last time I would see him alive. He looked so much better than he had the week before that I almost believed that he was going to pull through, but that wasn’t in the cards. Cancer tortures its victims like that, gives them hope and then pulls the rug out from under them.

Dad’s progress eventually stalled and his health resumed its decline. He remained in his home heavily medicated to keep him comfortable. Other organs started malfunctioning, and the home nurse warned Danny that the end was imminent. I hastily made reservations for my family and me to return to Atlanta. I hoped to get there before he passed to say one final goodbye. I never made it.

I hadn’t slept well the night before our flight as I eagerly wanted to get back to Dad. We arrived at the airport for a very early morning departure. I fidgeted at the gate hoping everything would be on time. I still had my phone on waiting for any updates from Danny. As they called our zone for boarding, I took a deep breath. I’d be out of touch for five hours, and I could only hope everything would be fine, but as I walked down the jetway, Danny called. Dad had died. The long journey had come to an end.

Stand By Me

“When the night has come,
And the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we’ll see,
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid,
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.” – Ben E. King 

For Dad’s seventieth birthday, we threw him a surprise party. We invited his brothers and sisters and their families to Danny’s house and he walked in unsuspecting. Dad never liked to be the center of attention, but he seemed to relish that everyone was gathered to celebrate his big milestone. I enjoyed seeing him with his brothers and sisters, and as expected the conversations were lively and engaging as they always were when his family gathered. I’d always loved his family because they were kind to us even in the worst of times. Sometimes, all you need is kindness.

The years were starting to show on Dad even though he hadn’t received the cancer diagnosis yet. He was overweight and ambled under pull of gravity thanks to persistent back pain, which he attributed to years of working on the assembly line at Ford. His lack of activity didn’t help. Nevertheless, he enjoyed his party and his grandchildren. We took many pictures with him. Little did we know that those pictures would be the last ones we’d take under normal circumstances.

Since I lived on the other side of the country and Jason lived out of state, watching over Dad fell to Danny. When Dad was healthy, Danny simply kept an eye on him and Mom, but after his diagnosis, Dad’s care took a serious turn, and Danny shouldered the load. At first, he kept track of Dad’s appointments and stood in to get the word directly from the doctors so that he could keep Jason and me up-to-date. I appreciated having him there because Mom’s interpretation of the sometimes arcane terms the doctor’s used left me scratching my head. I’d have to call Danny for the real story no matter how frightening the reality was.

In movies and TV, cancer diagnoses seemed deterministic and exact, a decisive moment that often had grave consequences, but in reality, Dad’s diagnosis was halting and uncertain. One moment the doctor painted a positive picture – it may not be cancer – and in another he’d say we’d have to wait weeks for an answer to determine the severity of the situation. I thought time was of the essence in these situations, but it slipped through our fingers like so many grains of sand. In fact, for much of Dad’s life with cancer, we were left waiting and waiting until the heat of the moment forced us into action. Most of the action fell to Danny.

My attempts to find a job closer to Atlanta failed for the most part leaving Danny holding the bag for Mom and Dad. Mom, always gripped by an overwhelming anxiety, struggled to deal with it all. She took care of him the best that she could, but Danny stepped up and delivered for Dad in ways that can only be described as heroic. He made sure Dad got to the doctor and kept tabs on his care. Later, when we moved Mom and Dad closer to Danny’s house, he’d be over at their house more than he was at his own despite having two young boys to take care of himself. That left his wife, Joanie, alone with two young kids. She supported him unfailingly, and I could only be thankful that they were willing and able to support Dad during this time.

We never imagined a time when our Dad would be weak and fragile, but it came quickly and shocked us all. The man who once could put us in our place with just a quick quip had lost his voice in the family. The man who had once dove into a pool fully clothed to save me from drowning could barely dress himself. That stood in stark contrast to how I thought of him.

In one of my visits to see him, I went with him to his chemotherapy treatment. Although the facility was nice and well-lit with natural light, it couldn’t belie the morbid nature of its function. A few other patients reclined in the chairs along the walls as the toxic chemicals dripped into their arms. Dad sat down, looking tired even though it was the middle of the day, and the nurse hooked him up to his drip. We chatted after the nurse left him alone while the bag that hung above his head emptied into his arm. At one point, Dad nodded off, his head lilting toward his chest. I stopped talking and just watched him. I knew my time with him was limited. If the cancer didn’t kill him the wear and tear of the treatments would. The lump in my throat grew unbearable, so I stood up and walked out of the room for some fresh air. I couldn’t tolerate seeing him like that.

The ticking clock echoed in my head every time I called home. I called him most days and felt a sense of relief when he answered even when he sounded weak and far off. I talked to Danny many times a week to get the full story of his condition. Some days seemed better than others. Cancer plays everyone for the fool; it provides a glimpse of hope only to yank it away as if life is some cruel joke. Danny lived the ups and downs much more than I did. Whether he wanted it or not, he had a front row seat to the death of our father, a heartbreaking play that everyone knew would end badly. How he held up given all of the things going on his life I don’t know, but I will be forever grateful for all he and Joanie did to make Dad’s last 18 months of life comfortable or as comfortable as one can be when being eaten alive from the inside.

The three of us, my brothers and I, had learned long ago that we could stand strong together or we could crumble apart. We’d seen first hand what would happen. By necessity, we circled the wagons around our parents, and despite the misgivings we had, we held strong. Danny, the middle child, had always been the strongest, the extrovert, the life of the party, while Jason and I were content to sit on the sidelines brooding with whatever preoccupied us. When it came time to stand by our dad, Danny didn’t hesitate to deliver. It’s in those moments in life that we learn who we really are.

The Rule of Three

Just as life appears darkest in the moment before things turn around, the opposite holds true as well. Life appears brightest in the moment before all hell breaks loose. Such was the case in the fall of 2012. I’d been back from China for about two years, and despite the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with my job that I had felt since returning from China, I had no right to complain. My job was good, if not dull, and Tiffany and I enjoyed being back in the Pacific Northwest where we relished the clean air and the endless outdoor activities.

Tiffany and I also celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary that fall, and we did so in style leaving the kids behind with her parents to take a trip to Las Vegas just like the good old days when we were childless and had a lot more energy. Although I’d been back to Vegas in the intervening years, Tiffany hadn’t been back in over seven years, so it was fun rediscovering Sin City with her again. For the first time in six years, we had a vacation all by ourselves. Flying out to keep the kids was by far the best anniversary gift that her parents could have given us.

Despite all that had gone well that year, I was itching to move into a different role at work. I wanted something more akin to my China role, but nothing like that existed at Microsoft’s headquarters at least not at my level. Every role at the HQ was a small link in a long chain. I felt underutilized and disappointed that senior management didn’t see the wealth of experience I had earned in China.

I started searching for another role within the company in earnest that fall and found a potential suitor in one group that desperately needed my skill sets. The group, which had a terrible reputation because of inept leadership, had recently grown in prominence in the company based on the emerging strategic importance of hardware. Close friends at the company had warned me to stay away from this group, but I had successfully waded into unwelcome waters many times before and had come out fine. How could this be any different?

Boy, was it different. It was a complete fiasco, a cluster-fuck of exponential proportions. By three months in, I regretted the change and realized that I had experienced an epic fail in my own judgment. My manager, a clueless, arrogant scat-brain whose own career was failing in slow-motion, was determined to find someone to scapegoat for his own incompetence. He found a willing accomplice in a Machiavellian sidekick, a snotty Brit with a cockney accent that sounded more pernicious than knowledgeable. I hadn’t even been in the role a year before my manager was replaced, but I ended up reporting to the Brit rather than one of the intelligent members of the leadership team.

I felt no sympathy for the prick manager, but I also knew my days would be numbered reporting to the no-good Brit. At that point, I decided that it was time to move on from Microsoft. Not only had the company failed miserably in integrating me back into headquarters, but it had failed to capitalize on the investment it had made in me in China like it had many of its other expatriates who had returned and subsequently left the company. Me, being a fool, had stayed at Microsoft out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, while many of my expatriate colleagues left for much greener pastures. I should have followed them out the door soon after I checked my passport at border control on the final return trip to the U.S.

The disappointing stalemate in my career at Microsoft was but the first of three not-so-good things to happen after that brief high point the previous fall. The old saw proclaims that things come in threes, and in this case, they did, a bunch of no-good, no-how events that would make for the first significant rough period in my life since high school.

As I jousted in the Battle of the Incompetents at Microsoft, a medical checkup on Dad revealed a spot on his pancreas. After weeks of waiting, we received the most unfortunate diagnosis – pancreatic cancer. A biopsy later confirmed that it was malignant, which meant Dad had to begin chemotherapy immediately to halt its progress. Already suffering from ill health due to smoking and his stubborn refusal to do much beyond walking between his bed and the couch, the diagnosis seemed to be the death knell for him.

I was beside myself, perpetually worried that Dad wouldn’t wake up one day. Every time my phone rang and the display showed Danny’s number, I steeled myself for the worst, and for a time, the news seemed to lean the worst possible way, but Dad caught a temporary break when his doctor informed him that he was a candidate for the Whipple procedure, which is an invasive surgery that involves removing a large part of the pancreas and surrounding tissue to eradicate the cancer.

I flew down to Atlanta to be with him when he had the surgery leaving behind the job that I fully loathed. I had already been looking for a job outside Microsoft and decided to target Atlanta in hopes of spending more time with Dad while he battled the cancer. He looked terrible. The chemo had done more harm than good, outwardly-speaking. He looked all of his 71 years and more, hunched over and bedraggled. In order to have the procedure he had to give up smoking, something he’d done for fifty plus years, which made him jumpy and irritable. He barely tolerated being confined to a hospital bed despite the fact that he had confined himself to his own home for much of his retirement.

I felt a sadness in it all. My father’s mortality put my own in sharp relief. This was how it ended, a limp into the final days neither enjoyable or welcome but more time desired in the worst possible way. As I watched him struggle to stay awake in the hospital bed while I sat next to him, I couldn’t help but feel sad for him. His was a life of perpetual struggle, a tragic battle against demons seen and unseen. I wanted him to live longer to make it better. I wanted him to know that he was loved and that he had many things to be thankful for in spite of it all. He said as much, in his own way, in a moment of clarity when we talked and I could see the fear (or was it resignation?) of death in his eyes.

In between his wakeful moments, I reflected on our lives, searching for those treasured moments that meant the most to me, but I couldn’t help but return to the less-than-charitable years when our lives were chaotic and uncertain. I had resented him for those years. I had been relentlessly critical of him for the flaws that made him human, like everyone else, but age and the realization that life can break people in ways I had never imagined had rendered me silent. The most important thing was that I loved my dad, and I didn’t want him to die.

After much painful waiting following the surgery, Dad received good news that the procedure had been largely effective in extracting the cancer, and while he had to continue the chemo for a while to ensure it didn’t come back, he received a clean bill of health for the moment, but the storm clouds had simply moved to the furthest reaches of the horizon. They’d come roaring back later.

Meanwhile, I returned home to Seattle, hopeful but carefully so. My job limped along as I continued my half-hearted search for another role. I had a few interviews, but like dating, I found it difficult to find a good match, so I remained at Microsoft for another year before the third terrible thing came along – a layoff.

Microsoft had fumbled around for the greater part of a decade and lost its way. The Board appointed a new CEO and he proceeded to undo the years of disastrous rambling that had plagued his predecessor including wiping out much of my hapless group. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs including me. I had other options within the company, but neither were appealing to me, so I decided to take the severance package and walk away in my frustration with the company. I landed another job within a few weeks.

Despite finding another job quickly, the layoff triggered memories of 1979 when Dad had been laid off from his job. The trauma of those years had stuck with me my entire life and will likely follow me to my grave. Those years had broken Dad, destroyed his confidence and clouded his already pessimistic view of life. He had never fully recovered from those years, but I was determined to not let that happen to me. However, for the first time, I understood. I understood how it must have felt for him. I gained an empathy that had been lost on me up until that moment. I could clearly see how life could drag him down from behind and devour him much like a hungry lion poaches a weakened zebra from a fleeing herd. I wanted to tell him that I understood, but why drag up the past when the present was so precious.

Da Wei

My years of travel ignited in me a desire to experience the world on a whole different level. During my countless trips I had met many Americans who lived abroad, some for many years, and I aspired to have a similar experience myself. It never came to pass at FedEx, but when I landed at Microsoft, I saw numerous opportunities around me. While I didn’t immediately seek expatriate assignments, I expressed my interest to anyone who would listen, a persistent habit that eventually paid off.

In October 2007, with Troy barely 15 months old, Tiffany and I packed up the kids and boarded a plane for Beijing to begin a new life as expatriates. Neither of the kids had ever been on a plane ride longer than six hours, and Troy had only flown once in his short life, so we had no idea how he’d handle the 11-hour flight to Tokyo plus another four-hour jaunt to Beijing. To say we were nervous would have been an understatement. We’d been lucky that the kids were good fliers thus far, but we dreaded the thought of being the couple on the plane with the crying baby, especially on such a long flight.

It turned out that Troy handled the flight better than the rest of us. He slept the whole way, stretched out across our laps, while Tiffany and I slowly succumbed to the exhaustion brought on by sleeplessness and the impending jet lag. Being the ever-prepared momma bear, Tiffany had enough food to feed the entire airplane and enough toys and trinkets to entertain them all as well. When they were awake, the kids weren’t bored or hungry. If Troy showed any inclination to becoming the grumpy old man that he sometimes mimicked, Tiffany stuck a cracker in his mouth and he dutifully chewed himself back to sleep.

We landed in Beijing at night to a mostly abandoned airport save for the passengers that snaked their way to the immigration lines near the terminal. I held my sleepy little boy while we waited in line, and he felt all the heavier given the sheer exhaustion that wracked my body. The stress of such a big life change also weighed on Tiffany and me. Neither of us spoke Mandarin. I had only been to Beijing twice in my life; Tiffany had never been. She had trusted my instincts when we made the decision to move there. I knew I’d either regret that decision or be relieved depending on how the following months played out.

Two Chinese men, one who spoke broken English, greeted us at baggage claim. They had been hired by the relocation service to take us to our temporary housing. They marveled at how big our luggage was and tried their best to communicate with us, but we were mostly reduced to gestures and awkward smiles. Tiffany and I lingered in the fog of exhaustion despite the assault of a strange place and strange language on our senses. It was overwhelming being functionally illiterate (even the signs in pinyan were useless to us), but at that moment, we just wanted to sleep.

On the way to the temporary housing, the driver got lost in what would become a recurring theme in our lives in Beijing. It seems no one who lives there knows where anything is, especially taxi drivers. Our driver initially pulled up to a run-down building with a glaring red neon light that looked more like a place you’d procure drugs and hookers than one for a young family to live. After much gesticulation and verbal histrionics, he delivered us to the correct place, a clean, gated high-rise on the east side of the city just inside the Fourth Ring Road.

Although it was late at night, the complex had bell hops who helped us get our luggage from the car and up to our room. Normally, I refused such help, but given how tired I was and the fact I wanted to get the kids and myself to bed quickly, I let them have at it. They, too, remarked on how big our luggage was. I thought it strange, if not a little annoying, but I came to learn that in a country where many people don’t have much, we were wealthy no matter what our actual situation was from our own perspective. It was the first of many perspective-shifting moments that came to define our lives in Beijing.

I started my new job shortly after I got the family settled, leaving Tiffany alone with the kids on the other side of the city for long stretches of the day. Luckily, my job became the one respite for me from the chaos of Beijing. There I met many fellow expatriates and friendly locals who would become dear friends during the course of my three years in Beijing. My Chinese staff dubbed me “Da Wei,” which is a transliteration of my English name. I learned a lot from the ladies on my staff including much of the broken Mandarin I practiced in my time there.

Tiffany and I settled in an expatriate community just outside the Sixth Ring Road northeast of Beijing where she met other moms and spouses who were similarly left behind while their significant others worked in the city. That community in Beijing Riviera made our time there bearable for Tiffany who never really acclimated to the country, but always the trooper, she stuck with it for three years. She formed her routines and became a pro at navigating the community and the city beyond. She loved the shopping experience in the myriad shops that dotted every crack and crevice in Beijing. She could haggle with the best of them exclaiming “tai gui le” (too expensive) with such conviction and melodrama that I often wondered who was this woman I had married.

My experience in China was remarkably different than hers because I traveled around a bit with my job. I made regular trips to Tokyo and Shanghai and several times a year I’d travel to parts unknown in China. Cities like Lijiang, Xiamen, and Tianjin became familiar to me. I saw a side of China that Westerners rarely see. I saw the real people of China and learned about their culture without the filter of Western perspective, which, unfortunately, often hypes the negative stereotypes associated with the Communist regime. What I learned was something that I already knew in my heart of hearts: we’re all the same at our core. We all have hopes and dreams, want to love and be loved, and want to live a fulfilling life in a way that suits us. When you strip away the categorizations we apply to the world around us, that’s all that’s left, and my time in China reinforced that for me.

That’s not to say the authoritarian government can be dismissed. It can’t. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I, someone who had a preternatural disdain for any authority, government or otherwise, ended up living in a Communist country for a short time. I hated the idea that the government controlled what websites I could visit, so I purchased some proxy software and promptly circumvented the controls. The thought that some government bureaucrat could somehow determine what’s best for over a billion people was, and still is, laughable to me, but I have to give China credit where it is due. They got shit done. They fail on a lot of counts (e.g. pollution) like all governments do, but they have pulled over 300 million people out of poverty in three short decades. That is commendable no matter the political philosophy.

There were times when it seemed the assignment would last forever, but in the end, it was so short. I enjoyed the week-long holidays for Chinese New Year and Golden Week (first week of October). Tiffany and I took the kids to Australia and Singapore on a couple of those long weeks. We ventured out into all parts of Beijing becoming de facto tour guides for our family that visited. Some of our proudest moments were when her parents, her brother, and one of my brothers came to visit. We’d been to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace so many times that we knew all the good spots to avoid the ever-present and crushing crowds. We made life-long friends, many of whom we loved like family.

In the end, after we had packed up for the move back, I put the kids in the van as Tiffany trailed behind taking one last look at the house we had lived in for three years. She’d struggled to like living in China, but despite that, she was sentimental at that moment. Tears welled in her eyes. Grace and Troy were practically babies when they came to China. They were moving back as young kids. A lot had transpired in that house. Many happy memories that we both treasured – that first Christmas, so many birthdays, the start of school. China had become part of us as much as we were part of it. The great adventure was ending. She stared at that house for a moment while the kids waited in their car seats excited to be going on another plane ride. I put my arm around her while she looked at the house struggling to keep her composure. She smiled at me, put on her sunglasses, and walked out of the courtyard for the last time.