Friday, August 28, 2009

The Butterfly Effect

The following is a somewhat sappy tale, but it's entirely true and, I figured, worth mentioning.

About a month ago, my student's grandfather died. He was 92 and had lived a good life, so while his family grieved, they were also heartened that he lived to such an old age and was in good health for most of it.

He lived in a more traditional time when men ran the household and brought in money, women married young and kept house while popping out babies and children were firmly controlled by their parents up to and often after their own marriages. Daughters were not always wanted, and were often given away to infertile families as open, semi-official adoptions. Some were sent to live with other families with the understanding that they would be raised as daughters (or maids, depending) until they could marry the son of the house. That's exactly what the old grandfather did with his three daughters; he sent them away to live with other families so as to concentrate on raising his sons. The daughters knew where they came from, though, and often came home to visit.

They visited again when the old grandfather died - one a professional swimmer married to another athlete, the other successful in the banking industry and the third a homemaker in name, but everyone knew she was the brains behind the family business. The old grandfather's own family business happens to be fishing; my student was sent to study and work in business while his brother, it was decided, would continue in their traditional industry. They were not typical fishermen, however - they were in the toro tuna business. Toro is one of the highest quality tuna fish in the world; it's used for sushi and sashimi and is widely considered a luxury good. What I mean is, while laying in his casket, the grandfather may have looked weathered and saltwatered from years of fishing, but that casket and the flowers and other funereal gifts surrounding it were quite lavish.

In China and Taiwan, people often believe in something called tou qi - or the seventh day. On the seventh day, it's said, the soul of the departed returns to earth. That soul, apparently, is embodied in a butterfly - hence the famous opera "Liang Zhu" or The Butterfly Lovers.

On the seventh day, just before the funeral, the entire family including the three adopted daughters was in the family's ancestral home in Yilan in an area that does not have many butterflies, even though Taiwan is well-known for being packed with butterflies in general. According to my student, a butterfly flew in through the window and alighted on the grandfather's body - setting aside my own queasiness from the idea of keeping a departed loved one in the house for seven days - that was apparently something big. The butterfly then took off, touching the heads of everyone in the room and the grandmother, now a widow, twice before leaving again.

Astounded, the family had the eldest son throw fortune blocks to ask - Was that you as a butterfly? Yes. Did you come back to say goodbye? Yes. Are you happy now? Is everything OK? Yes. Yes. The family's sadness lifted, if just a little bit.

My own student told me he hoped he'd get to be that old, and vowed to spend more time with his aunts.

Just the other day, at another company, when I asked my student how his weekend was, he looked grief-stricken. Apparently a well-known sales rep at that company, his close colleague, had succumbed to pancreatic cancer and her funeral was held over the weekend. There were both Buddhist and Catholic ceremonies, as she was Buddhist but her husband is Catholic. During the rites, her two daughters began crying "Mama! Mama!", not realizing she was gone. That made everyone begin crying; the woman had been in her mid-30s and had only just begun to build the life that the old grandfather had. Many of the attendees were her colleagues, so the death threw a shroud over daily office life.

I saw the same coworker a few days later after another weekend had gone by; he's the sort who works hard and gets ahead, often skipping activities with his family, even on the weekend when he's off attending conferences and symposia.

"When I was home yesterday," he said on that Monday morning, "a butterfly flew in my house."
"Oh really?"
"I thought about it and remembered those two sad girls cried at N-----'s....her...."
"Yes, funeral. I thought even though the Buddhist person who called her ghost said she was OK, I think maybe she misses her daughters. So I said to myself I shouldn't do that. I shouldn't work so hard and spend less time with my wife and kids. When I am die, if I am die early, I want my family to remember spend a lot of time with me. Now I will work hard, but not work SO hard, and try to have more weekend days with family. Tonight I want to finish my work by 7 so I can go home and eat dinner with them."

I know. Sounds completely fabricated, like something out of a contrived short story. It's not - these are two stories told to me by two different students.

No comments: