This story was originally published in descant 2004, Volume 43, 92-96
Mother was not a happy woman. But missionary families weren’t required to be happy in China, only to spread the word of God and improve the human condition. To those ends, Father held church services every evening and twice on Sundays – blue eyes glinting, rich baritone holding the congregation spellbound – and he insisted that every member of the family spend at least one hour every day in labor intended to benefit mankind.
For Mother and us children, schooling took up the mornings and good works the afternoons. Mother always said, “Seeing your duty and doing it to the best of your ability is the surest way to a gratifying life.” Father made sure that we had ample opportunities for a gratifying life. Our humanitarian efforts involved us in all sorts of endeavors, depending on our ages and the needs of the moment: carrying food to the hungry, tending the feverish in hospitals, sandbagging flooding rivers in spring, teaching girls to sew, putting roofs back on houses after typhoons blew through, building roads and bridges, or whatever else the locals needed. Mother always had a particular empathy for the weak, the oppressed, and the heavily burdened. She and Sarah labored often with the local women in the fields. But she also organized Christian Salvation Services to work with orphan babies and the Holy Word Children’s Home for older children. Once she’d seen to the children, she organized the Expatriate Christian Lighthouse Prison Ministry. But she was always home before Father, overseeing the cook’s dinner preparations and the older children’s music practice.
I often came home from my afternoon’s labors with the men to find Mother at prayer-kneeling by a kitchen chair, perhaps-her thin body drooping gracefully as a willow. She prayed that none of us would be gored by an ox or fall under a plow, that we would not succumb to waterborne diseases in the spring floods or be set upon by bullies in the narrow alleys, that we would not be among the ten percent of appendicitis victims who go undiagnosed and would remain among the half of the world’s population free of tuberculosis, that her purges had freed us of tapeworms and that our head lice would not become resistant to lice shampoo…. As we five children grew, our afternoon works became ever more diverse and far-flung. Mother’s prayers became a brief but frequently repeated mantra asking the Lord for ”traveling mercies.”
Wherever we lived, Mother adopted many of the local ways. In rural villages, she wore the blue cotton pants and jackets of the peasant women and pulled her hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. We ate with chopsticks and learned the local dialects. She adopted the homeopathic medicines of the natives, too, dosing us daily with garlic and green tea for general protection, administering Echinacea and goldenseal and putrid gargles as needed. When Chinese friends burned ghost money-the ceremonial money with a silver square in the middle-on our behalf, to satisfy a hungry ghost from the underworld and thus protect us, Mother did not object. I even suspect that the water Mother gave me to drink when I was so ill with fever contained the ashes of ghost money, for she fought to save our bodies as fiercely as Father fought to save humanity. She never complained about the burden of five children, but after Sister Sarah, Mother abstained from all caffeinated beverages and took other precautions as well.
Believing that education is the basic building block of all civilizations, Father had spent his first several years in China founding two American universities. That done, he moved us from the cities to the countryside. As often as I found Mother at prayer, I saw Father laboring under the hot sun. His wavy hair was bleached to taffy and sweat gleamed on his broad bronze shoulders. At first, that he did physical work astounded the vil1agers, for educated people were not expected to do manual labor. But Father willingly turned his hand to whatever tasks needed to be done. He planted rice paddies, for example, and worked in the cane fields and fisheries. He helped lay a village sewer system and build factories for the production of flower-scented teas and the manufacture of paper from bamboo pulp. Father involved his sons in all these endeavors and others as well, sometimes sending one or another of us in his stead when God called from more than one direction at a time.
Our lives had run in this familiar, pious, productive groove for many years in many provinces when Father offered to help rebuild the dock on the Pougha River. We were living in Fukien at the time, the name of the province meaning “Happy Establishment.” Rivers are of great importance in the Happy Establishment, not only for transportation and irrigation but also for fishing. Hence the importance of rebuilding the dock. Everything would have been fine if the Rev. Jeremiah Claggit hadn’t been apprenticing with us at the time.
Jeremiah had been sent to us directly out of seminary by the Interfaith International Mission Board. Father was well known in church circles as an old China hand, able and willing to mold callow enthusiasm into seasoned usefulness. Jeremiah spoke halting Mandarin but scarcely a word of any of the local dialects, and so it happened that while Father and the village laborers made repairs, Jeremiah stood on the dock, shifting from foot to foot, watching intently, sweating profusely in his three-piece tropical-weight wool suit, and mopping sweat from his brow with a large white handkerchief. The need of a handkerchief was certainly understandable, for our area of Fukien was semitropical and this was August, the height of the hot season. Nevertheless, the local men gave him a wide berth, for white is the color of mourning and handkerchiefs are seen primarily at funerals. As one of the men explained later, “We thought perhaps the foreign devil was putting a curse on our work.”
When Father came out of the Pougha, he had leeches all over his legs, a not unexpected development. Without a word, he sat down on the dock and started methodically removing them from his right leg: identifying the oral sucker, using his fingernail to push the leech sideways and break that seal, picking up the fat end to break the seal there, and flicking each leech back into the river.
Jeremiah went berserk. He ran into a fisherman’s house, skinny arms and coattails flapping. “Salt! Give me salt!” he demanded. But he shouted in English. The fisherman’s wife stared at him openmouthed, then ran screaming out the door. He grabbed the saltbox from the table and loped back to Father on the dock, his long bony head bobbing. He shook salt over Father’s left leg, grabbed leeches and pulled them off, brushed at them frantically, all the while emitting a high-pitched whimper. Jeremiah had been in China only a week. He didn’t know that salting, burning, squeezing, or otherwise annoying leeches causes them to regurgitate, releasing bacteria from their digestive systems into the open wounds. The fishermen pulled Jeremiah off and knocked him to the ground, then carried Father home. We all knew it was going to be bad.
Gangrene invaded Father’s left leg. Every day the doctors came. They left Father’s leg uncovered so that air could get to it. Dark blisters peppered the skin near the wounds and his flesh seemed to have air bubbles in it. The doctors opened the wounds as wide as possible, washing out the foul-smelling gray-brown liquid with cool, boiled water and soap. They removed dead and damaged flesh and administered purges and herbal wraps and such drugs as were available, but all to no noticeable effect. Mother prayed at Father’s bedside morning and night. She prayed for his speedy recovery, for his complete recovery, for strength that both of them might bear whatever was to come. Light shone on Mother’s chestnut hair. Father rested his hand on her bowed head and said, “God’s will be done.”
When the smell of rotting flesh became overpowering, Mother scorched sugar in the room and arranged a tobaccanalia: she laid out dozens of pipes and cigars, hundreds of cigarette papers, pounds of tobacco and more than two dozen substances to add to it: bearberry, chervil, sage, sumac, cornsilk, licorice, dittany, field mint, mugwort, woodruff, rosemary, sweet flag root, sweet gum balsam, wild marjoram, wild vanilla, and probably others I don’t remember. The smokers were wide-eyed at the banquet. Four hundred seventy-three villagers crowded around Father’s bed in shifts, cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos, and pipes in hand. Some puffed daintily, some sucked greedily. All blew and fanned the smoke over Father. The tobaccanalia continued for two days but the stale smoke smell lingered for months.
Disease comes to a crisis on critical days-on odd days and the fourteenth day after being struck. A week after the gangrene set in, the surgeon amputated Father’s left leg halfway between his knee and his groin. Fearful of addiction, Father refused opium, so the doctor gave him medicine derived from cobra venom for the pain. Many of the villagers thought Father would die. The venom of the king cobra is so deadly that one gram of it can kill fifty people. Mother said, “We are true believers,” and quoted Mark 16: 18: “They shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” She bathed Father’s brow, changed his dressings, prepared herbal teas and strengthening broths. “You must eat. You must regain your strength. The Lord’s work is not done,” she said. For a time, Father stared at the ceiling, said nothing, and refused all food and drink. But eventually Mother convinced him to take tobacco which, fortunately, contains enough nutrients to sustain life for a time. We knew a minister back in the States who ate two packs of cigarettes in an hour and died of nicotine poisoning soon after. Perhaps Father acquiesced in the hope that the tobacco would end his misery. But Mother gave him only small amounts, at intervals throughout the day.
Jeremiah prayed mightily for Father’s recovery, too, seldom leaving Father’s room. “There is no stench strong enough to drive me from your sickbed,” Jeremiah intoned solemnly – usually just before or just after throwing-up in the washbasin. But what the stench failed to do, the sight of Father’s stump, swathed in bloody bandages, accomplished with alacrity. Jeremiah wept for two days, bemoaning his unfitness for missionary work. Both Mother and Father tried to comfort him. “Anyone might have done the same,” they said. But Jeremiah remained despondent. After three days and nights of tears and prayer, he declared that God had revealed his true mission and that it lay in Missouri. As good Christians we tried to be appropriately distressed by his departure, though many villagers were openly happy to see the heels of ”that foreign devil.”
A funeral can be held only on an auspicious day, so we waited more than two weeks to bury Father’s leg. During this time, as was the custom, we set up an altar in the street next to the house. The villagers brought stacks of flowers and gifts of tinned food, beer, and boxes of MSG, as if it had been Father himself. But because it was Father’s leg and not Father, the family wore gray ribbons rather than black pinned to our clothes.
We’d heard stories of festive funerals, mostly in the cities, even bigger than wedding receptions, with electric organ flower cars, people employed to cry, and beautiful young women in skimpy costumes hired to dance – and strip – in a celebration of life. After chanting, singing, and stripping, there’s a parade through the streets followed by a big feast. Guests bring white envelopes stuffed with cash to help pay for the party. The funeral for Father’s leg, however, was very traditional, very conservative – and very solemn. We boys wore white robes, with white hoods over our heads, and stood in a ring around the casket holding a white rope to keep out bad spirits. Sarah, also wearing a white hooded robe, gave each person attending the funeral a small box, handkerchiefs for the women and small towels for the men. Afterwards, we children joked about the crying towels-but no one joked during the funeral itself.
Before he lost his leg, Father sometimes visited the local prostitutes. Perhaps he was trying to convert them to Christianity. “Even these poor fallen sisters can be saved by the grace of God,” he said. In any case, he must have treated them well, because all seventeen of them came to the funeral for his leg, bringing a blanket of five hundred white chrysanthemums, for which Mother thanked them with solemn dignity. The Christians present sang “In the Garden” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” After the prayers and hymns, the swaddled leg was wrapped in the chrysanthemum blanket and laid to rest in the hollow of a ginkgo biloba tree.
Father didn’t visit the prostitutes much after he lost his leg. After dinner and evening services, Mother would lay his prosthesis on a bed of antiseptic herbs, consulting villagers for the best local alternatives to barberry, persimmon, sassafras, birch, and wormwood. He declined to hobble about the streets on crutches and spent the evenings reading aloud from the Bible and writing lengthy inspirational pieces for Christian magazines and newspapers back in the States about his life as a missionary in China. Mother sat always by his side, attending to the family mending or writing letters.
As Father’s vigor waned, Mother helped write his sermons, which gradually focused less on hell-fire and sacrifice, more on forgiveness and love. Although she continued her own good works with the village women, she also managed Father’s day, scheduling his visitors, his rests, and his meals. She forbade the house to the prostitutes. By the time we all left China, the gingko had enclosed Father’s dead leg in an organic sarcophagus. And Mother seemed to be a taller woman than I had realized.
Retired now, back in Virginia Beach, Father is a man without a mission. He walks by the ocean in the coolest parts of the morning and evening, when he can wear long pants in comfort, and drinks in the air conditioned bars in the heat of the day. Mother continues her good works, improving the human condition by counseling the wives and children of military personnel stationed there. She often draws parallels between the nomadic existence of military families and the rootless lives of missionaries. Over time, she’s started praying less and smiling more. But I don’t remember that she’s ever been really happy.