An upstairs cupboard in my house holds three cardboard boxes filled with letters from my friend Garvin Wong. For the eighteen years of our friendship, beginning when I was in my thirties and he in his fifties, we exchanged hundreds and hundreds of letters. His were typed on an old typewriter that could have used a new ribbon, mine were printed out from computers, first by dot-matrix and then on lasers.
Before I was a published writer, frustrated that no one seemed to want to read what I wrote, I used to print out my stories, copy them at Kinko’s, and then leave them lying around town in laundromats and coffee shops. One of my sisters gave one of them to a late-night talk radio host in Manhattan who read the story on air and then gave his listeners my post office box address. The box was soon flooded with letters, one of them from Garvin. Something about that first letter, typed on his ancient typewriter, moved me, and I wrote back.
Garvin was a quarter-century older than me. He lived his entire life in Queens, most of it in the house he grew up in and where he cared for his parents until they died. He was a dentist and he worked in his uncle’s Chinatown dental office. He also volunteered at a free dental clinic and worked at a pediatric dental clinic. He loved children. When he found out I had three small children, he began sending them gifts: T-shirts, little trinkets he thought they might like, special Chinese candies. Each year on the lunar New Year, a box of red-bean paste cookies would arrive. He knew how much I love ginger, and every few months ginger, in multiple forms, showed up on the doorstep: ginger candy, dried ginger, ginger cookies, ginger tea. Garvin was a native English speaker but he also spoke Cantonese, and I understand rudimentary Mandarin. We used to celebrate our love of Chinese by sprinkling it throughout our notes, the characters for love, peace and ginger chief among them.
Years went by. Garvin met my whole family and began to spend Thanksgiving with my sister Holly in New Jersey, where every year he brought his own carving knife to her house, carrying it on the subway, so that he could carve the turkey. It took him an hour, so precise was he, and she nicknamed him “Carvin’ Garvin.” Whenever I was in New York, he would arrange an elaborate meal in Chinatown, complete with handmade menus full of punned names for each course (he loved puns and wordplay in general) and a theme for each dinner. Afterward we would wander around Chinatown, stopping here and there so that he could fill his backpack with fresh fruit and groceries. Garvin always wore a backpack, and the backpack was usually filled with empty plastic containers so that he could order lots of food and take the leftovers home for the rest of the week.
More years went by. In one of his letters, he mentioned that someone had offered him a seat on the subway: “I’m getting on.” In another, he said that he thought of himself as my adoptive, second father. After he came to visit us –the first time he had been on a plane in 37 years– he wrote to say that he had seen a pretty flight attendant in the airport and “It makes me wish I were 20 years younger.”
My letters became more frequent; he was old now, and his twice-weekly trips from Queens to Chinatown were harder and harder. He wrote of resting at the top and bottom of the subway steps, and how difficult it was to do things like mop up his basement, which tended to flood. He wrote of how his neighbor Foon watched out for him and helped him with heavy packages.
Then came the day when he called from the hospital to say that he had fallen in his home, and how Foon had found him after almost two days. That he was injured and would be in rehab for quite a time before he could return home. My sister and I got him an iPad so that we could Facetime. We found a wonderful eldercare specialist who helped coordinate care and visits. But in the hospital his never-diagnosed or treated diabetes came to light, and then his foot was amputated, and everything went downhill.
I sent him a letter in which I recounted our life together, the many years we had known each other, the small adventures we had had, the love and caring he had shown me and my family. I told him that if and when he was ready to go, he should know that my love surrounded him. His heart stopped beating a day later. Someone else decided to resuscitate him, but he died alone in the ICU the next night. I was not with him. I wish I had been with him. It haunts me that he died without me.
Garvin’s death brought a sense of loss that I thought I was ready for, but I wasn’t. In the five years since his death, I have talked to him in my mind. All the questions I never asked him, out of respect or because I hadn’t thought of them: Had he ever been in love? Had he, with his liveliness around children, the way he lit up in their presence, ever wanted to be a father? I remembered his last visit to us, when he was sitting across the kitchen table from me and looked visibly tired and old, and it came to me that it was possible, maybe probable, he had never held someone’s hand. That no one had ever touched him that way. I reached across the table and picked his hand up and held it in my own. He said nothing. Neither did I.
Maybe he was much lonelier than I ever knew. Maybe he wasn’t. It troubles me that I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it troubles me that I never asked. It troubles me that even now, in the wake of my loss, I still hold questions inside me for and about the living people I most love in the world. How well can we ever truly know each other? What do we hold in our hearts that we won’t, or don’t, talk about?
In his last months, Garvin told me he had been talking to his father in his mind, and asking for advice. That, unlike his mother, his father had been a comfort to him, a gentle, kind man who always listened to his painfully shy son. Who loved him as he was. This beautiful poem below brought Garvin back to me, along with his father, who died before I ever met his son.
My Father, Long Dead, by Eileen Sheehan
My father, long dead,
has become air
of pipe smoke, of turf smoke, of resin
and shade on the river
buttercup, tree bark
lost from the meadow
places of calm
Become badger at dusk,
deer in the thicket
on the road to the castle
on the turret
Become dark-haired hero in a story
written by a dark-haired child
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