My father’s skin was quite dark, but it still couldn’t hide the scars on the bridge of his nose and on his brow. He had big eyes with long lashes, but the whites of his eyes were yellow. Acquaintances said he had problem with his liver. They were right.
My father’s liver was gradually eroded during his life-long battle with alcohol.
I don’t know when and where my father took his first sip of alcohol or what drink it was. My mother told me the drinking started from the late 1970s, when he was left in Shanghai by his parents, who came to Hong Kong for a better life.
Without the guidance of his parents, my teenage father dropped out of school in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. He just drifted in society.
He was rich and rather trendy then, thanks to the money and clothes sent by his parents from Hong Kong. Wearing his long hair, with a pair of large sunglasses and well-tailored floral-pattern shirts, he strutted proudly on the streets. Sometimes, he carried a transistor radio - like a child showing off a new toy.
At night, he and his friends flocked to restaurants, eating, drinking, talking and flirting with girls - having fun and sometimes a drunken fight. My mother said my father’s favourite drink was Baijiu - the Chinese distilled liquor which generally contains over 50 per cent ethanol. He could drink half of a bottle at a time. His drinking abilities were envied by his friends.
I don’t know much about my father’s relationship with alcohol before I was born, but I do know about it afterwards. When I was 10 years old, my mother divorced my father because of his poverty and violence after he had been drinking. My father tried hard to take care of me and my sister, although he did not have a job. During the day, he was sober and cooked for us. But when the sun went down, my father would become trapped in a world of darkness.
In our narrow half-underground apartment, the air was so humid that mushrooms could grow. In the dim light, my father sat at the corner, against the old furniture he bought with my mother when they got married. He used a plastic cup filled with cheap rice wine. Alone, he would sip from the cup. The 21-inch television would be on and my father would begin to murmur. He was alone, although he had an invisible friend – a bottle of alcohol. I could hear my father talking to the bottle - discussing his glorious past, his unfaithful wife, his careless children and his inability to cope life.
“Alcoholics use alcohol in an attempt to make peace with their sense of the relationship between past, present, and future,” Norman Denzin wrote in his book The Alcoholic Self.
I try to use the books on alcoholics to understand my father, but I find I can never fully comprehend him. I am like lots of other children who can never completely understand their parents either. What I do know is emptiness engulfed him; he could never escape, so he could never stop trying to escape through alcohol.
I moved out of my father’s apartment after I graduated from university. I wanted to live independently and escape his despair.
Last March, I got a call from my mother, saying my father was in hospital. I was not surprised, because he had fallen and been injured after drinking several times, leaving many scars. But I had not realised the seriousness of his condition until I went to the hospital. He had a cerebral haemorrhage.
The main blood vessel had exploded in my father’s brain, damaging 80 per cent of it. His chronic alcoholism had caused hypertension, which brought on an unexpected cerebral haemorrhage. The doctor said my father had died because his brain stopped functioning, but his heart still worked because of the drugs he had been given. Over the next three days, his organs died one by one: lungs, liver and kidneys. We watched the cardiograph fluctuating. Then my father passed away.
It made me question many of the things that had happened during his life. If only my grandparents hadn’t left my father? If only he hadn’t dropped out of school after the Cultural Revolution? If only he had had more job opportunities? If only he had been more positive about life? If only we had communicated with him more? If only we had realised alcoholism was so serious? If only there were more organisations treating alcoholism? If only there were better policies to restrict alcohol consumption and sales in China? My father’s life could have turned out differently. And many Chinese people who have also died from alcoholism could have been saved.
Last June, we found a good place to lay my dad to rest. We buried him in a peaceful countryside. I poured some Baijiu in front of his grave.