Sunday, August 31, 2008

Emma

Emma, our beloved dog and what we considered to be the fifth member of our tightly-knit family finally came to the end of her life's road today after a decade of gracing us with her presence. She's been gone but some hours and she's already very sorely missed.

I got a phone call from my father a couple days ago that Emma had been having health problems the last couple weeks and that they just found out it was cancer. They did an ultrasound and found masses on many of her major organs and that the prognosis was very grim. To make matters worse, fluid was filling up inside and making it difficult for her to breath. She was vomiting all the time and couldn't keep any food or water down. I immediately booked a flight home so that I could say one last goodbye to her.

I arrived today to find her panting and barely able to move; her condition had worsening at an alarming rate. Then I learned that my parents had decided that today would be the day we would put her down. I wasn't prepared -- it was so soon.

We all spent time this afternoon with her, showing her in our own ways how much we loved her. I spent the time sitting with her, scratching her behind the ears where she loved it most, and keeping her company while reading a good book, our favorite pastime together.

And then it was time.

The entire time I couldn't really convince myself fully that this was the right thing to do. Should I be more sure of the data? If Emma were a person, would I be more careful, try harder, not give up? Then I looked look at her gasping for breath, clearly thirsty yet throwing up any water she drank. If she was walking yesterday and like this today, I could only imagine how terrible tomorrow would be for her and how little hope it would hold. We were out of time.

If there's one thing in life I truly learned today, it's that when it comes to morality there is no black and white, right or wrong, and therefore, no correct answer no matter how badly I want there to be. It's something I've understood academically but only now do I understand the full crushing weight of this truth. There's nothing like ending a life you care dearly about for what you believe is their own good to paint the world in suffocating gray.

My father and I placed Emma on her favorite rug and lifted her into the car. We took her to the vet while my mother and sister stayed behind. The entire time Emma was weak yet alert. I could see in her eyes that she was her good old self: intelligent and alert, yet I knew she was trapped in a failing body. That's what made it the hardest for me. I couldn't believe there was anything wrong with her. Why did we have to do this thing?

After some paper work we had some time alone in the room with Emma. My father said his long goodbyes to Emma and left the room. The vet gave me the option of staying with her when they would do it or to leave. It didn't take a heartbeat for me to opt to stay. If I was to impose on her this fate, this ultimate betrayal, I couldn't hide from her behind a door. However, shame and responsibility were only a part of it. What was most important was that I wanted to be there for her so that she had a familiar face, a familiar smell, and a loving warm touch to be with her until the very end.

Emma lay on the table, sniffing and looking around, looking at me... the vet asked if he could do it then and I gave the word, "Yes." Her head lowered, her eyes closed, and then she was gone.

-----

The first time I met Emma, she was a bratty little Samoyed puppy accompanied by her much more well-mannered sister. I remember the woman selling the puppies had come to my mother's school to show the dogs and have us pick one. While Emma's sister lay calmly under an office chair, Emma was sticking her nose everywhere and squeezing under and around every piece of furniture in the office.

We remembered that the dog book recommended picking an active puppy, so my mother and I chose Emma though I had my misgivings at the time. I didn't think she would turn out to be like our previous sweet and regal dog, April, and that we were in for an exciting time.

It turns out I was right. My mother wanted to name her Daisy, but after a week of observing her mischief and participating in vigorous wrestling matches with her, I didn't think that name suited this little lady. She reminded me of none other than Jane Austen's Emma: intelligent, strong-willed, mischievous, slightly manipulative, yet greatly loving and endearing, and she stayed true to her namesake until the end.

Unlike our previous dog April, we let Emma in the house daily when we were home and in this way we grew even closer in communication and understanding of each other. She quickly became a member of the family in our hearts and minds and it was almost as if she were another human in the house with her own quirks, likes, and dislikes.

The language barrier between man and dog is usually bridged in only one direction: man teaches the dog his language. Emma, however, had too many opinions to let us have all the say in the house. One of her strongest opinions was that she should be taken for walks daily. At first when my mother would ignore her for too many days in a row, Emma reacted like most dogs and overturned plants, dug up the trash cans, and caused a general mess.

Over time, Emma's communication developed a nuance that we found intriguing and rather endearing. If my mom started skipping walks, she was sure to find one single piece of trash dead center on Emma's rug in the morning. It was always exactly one piece and always exactly in the middle of the rug, like a minimalist art work. This was the first warning shot. If ignored some more, she would place another piece of garbage on her rug after the first was cleared. After a couple warning shots, Emma would escalate and knock one plant over and repeat until she got her walk. It got to the point where once, I saw Emma's message, pretended I didn't notice it by leaving it there to buy myself more time, and then walked her as soon as I could, fearing loss of flora within the house.

Of my fondest memories of her are her greetings every time I flew home for a visit. I was away most of her adult life visiting no more than once every couple months, but that in no way dimmed her joy at seeing me return. I'd show up at the front door, turn the key, and step inside. Emma would jog quickly to see who it was, see that it was me, and I would instantly have a large white ball of fluff careening across the slippery tile floor towards me, tail wagging with huge smile and uncontainable excitement. In the early days, I'd even have to ignore her for the first couple of minutes because if I bent down to return her greeting, she'd wet herself in excitement.

These greetings were always immediately followed by a raucous chase and long wrestling match in the carpeted living room. The Emma-Albert homecoming wrestling match became a recurring spectacle for my family and any visitors fortunate enough to be present. It was something I eagerly looked forward to every time I flew home. What was especially endearing for me was that my mother said I was the only person Emma played that with. She apparently never forgot those fun wrestling matches we had when she was a small puppy.

There was one particular homecoming that I will remember forever. I'd just flown home, gotten out of the car, opened the door and stepped inside as usual only to find that there was no careening white fur ball. Where was Emma? Ten seconds later, I saw her trotting around the corner a ways down to investigate the noise at the door. Apparently, I'd shown up just at Emma's dinner time because she had a large block of dog food in her mouth that she was moving to her eating place before I interrupted. Emma looked up and caught sight of me, stopped, and stared at me with her hazel eyes for a full second. Then I saw a look of recognition spread across her face. Her jaw literally dropped and the once-treasured chunk of dog food fell forgotten to the floor with a dull thump. Her face lit up with joy and she came bounding up to me tail swinging wildly while trying to lick me silly with her pink tongue.

Our goodbyes were much less eventful, but sweet nonetheless. At first my departures went unnoticed, but eventually she figured it out and when I brought all my bags downstairs, she would hang around anxiously until I left for the airport. I considered this to be my sendoff, her love for me.

Today it was my turn to return the favor.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Live from Hong Kong -- Part 2

It's strange, but I thought before coming to Hong Kong that it was one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world and therefore, would have things like ubiquitous cheap or free wireless internet. What I found was that there was indeed ubiquitous internet, but that it cost an arm and a leg, on the order of 50 cents a minute. It seems the US isn't the only place where communications carry a high premium and are run by large monopolistic corporations. Ironically, the only time I've been able to find decent internet access here is at the airport (I'm about to depart). Here's it's free and fast.

My preconceptions of Hong Kong were based on rave reviews of friends who've visited and the fact that I've heard people refer to it as the social and economic center of Asia. I imagined a cross between Singapore and Taipei, basically a large and fun westernized metropolis but distinctly Asian in character.

What I got was, in a way, exactly what I expected, yet that extra zest of "Asian-ness" was noticeably missing. Hong Kong feels like New York City of the Asian world and is distinctly Western. The myriad of saturated colors and flavors of what might have been an organic Eastern city have been tempered, refined, and quantized into an aesthetically pleasing yet limited palette.

The most blatant example is the Temple Street night market I never went to. How could something I've never been to indicate anything? Walking it by day, I had high hopes. It was very Chinese -- narrow messy bustling streets with strange smells abounding. Well, I never went to it because it wound down at 11:30pm and closed at 12am. What kind of night market closes at night??? I've never even seen when the Taipei or Beijing night markets close because I've never been able to stay awake that late!

Fortunately, natural geography plays a critical role in keeping Hong Kong from becoming just another large city in the world. The heart of the city lies on Hong Kong island which basically amounts to a smallish yet steep and magnificent mountain jutting out from the sea just across from the mainland. It's lush and green sides fall quickly toward the city built on the narrow shore and into the ocean. Therefore, it's a short trip from the highest peaks into the fantastically built city, and then to the soothing ocean filled with boats of all shapes and sizes. It's incredibly dynamic.

The buildings themselves are an incredible sight: tall, graceful, and awe-inspiring yet tasteful. I've seen too many cities fall into the "mine is bigger and louder than yours" trap. Think Shanghai where the buildings are huge, purple and pink, and gaudy. Or New York where the contest has been going on for so long that the city has turned into one large concrete cube. Hong Kong is an architectural work of art. My favorite building is what I call the "bamboo shoot building." It's the tallest building in Hong Kong and normally a building this size risks looking like a huge garish spike in the city. Yet this building is organic and gentle despite its size and compliments the green mountains behind it. It really looks like a bamboo shoot with tapering segments and a rounding top growing out of the soil at the foot of the mountains.

Alright, more next time -- my flight is about to take off.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Live from Hong Kong

Seven years ago, I was in Beijing when there was a special news report on television: Beijing had won the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games. I remember announcers crying, fireworks exploding, and all kinds of celebration and mayhem. I also remember thinking how fanciful it would be, if seven years in the future I returned to China to watch the Olympics. In the intervening time between then and now, I'd given little thought to this idea and dismissed it as something that would be nice to do but too difficult to arrange.

Since then, I've picked up my ultimate pastime, horseback riding, which would ultimately prove to be my ticket to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

It turns out that my riding buddy, Tanya's, father is a member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and acquired tickets for all of the Olympic equestrian events in Hong Kong for her and all her friends (including me). And so, last year, quite disbelievingly we arranged the trip that I am now privileged to be on.

It never really felt quite real until that first day when I walked along the Kowloon shore and looked across the harbour at the world-famous Hong Kong skyline. The trip that began with this breathtaking view of Hong Kong would ultimately lead to the climax: cheering on the US equestrian jumping team as they rode by on their hard-earned Gold Medal victory lap.