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Chapter Twenty Five

After leaving Dean’s Hall, A Li walked back across the campus to face the ogre. She had been in Dr. Murray’s office in the Molecular Sciences building a few times and had dreaded each visit. His workplace was small but imposing. Reprints of articles he had authored in scientific journals filled an entire wall of shelves. Diplomas, honorary awards and pictures of the great doctor with important politicians and scientists covered the space behind his desk. Mementoes of his travels around the world rested on his desk. Plastic knick knacks from pharmaceutical companies filled a small table. A Li always struggled to find her voice in these surroundings. She knocked and opened his door wide enough to stick her head inside.

“A Li, good morning.” Dr. Murray was working on his laptop. “What can I do for you?”

She expected him to ask why she wasn’t at work in the lab. “Good morning, Dr. Murray. I am here to tell you…I must return to…to China tomorrow afternoon. My father is…sick…he has…a heart attack. I must go home. I am sorry, my work…will…uh…” Her English was failing her. Every word seemed wrong. Could he even understand what she was trying to tell him?

He stopped his work, was silent for a moment, looked up at her and said, “Your father is ill? Then you should be with him. Family comes first, research comes second.”

He spoke in an even pitch. In Chinese, tone and emphasis told everything. A Li couldn’t determine whether he was sympathetic, disappointed or angry.

He glanced at the calendar on his desk. “Today is Wednesday, the 16th. If you are gone more than a week, we will…”

The old man was estimating how her absence would affect the timelines of the other research projects. A week was no time at all. Pa Lags might need her for a longer time. She might have to comfort him in his last days. It could be a month, it could be longer.

He pushed his glasses to the top of his head. “I know you must think I’m very harsh, but I do value what you are doing. I understand that your father needs you now, but just remember that I need you here in the laboratory as well. Your work is important. We’re doing critical research and it’s behind schedule. Everyone’s input counts.”

A Li waited for him to say something more, perhaps express a wish for Pa Lag’s recovery.

“Send me a message as soon as you can and let me know when you’re coming back.” He held her gaze for a moment, then turned back to his laptop. “Have a safe trip.”

A Li backed out of the office. That was it? That was all he had to say? Did he ever do anything but think about his precious research? She wished Dr. Murray a short reincarnation as an insect struggling in the beak of a hungry bird.

Outside the Molecular Sciences building, A Li tried again to call A Ma. Her hand trembled and her fingers tripped over the buttons on her cell phone. On the fourth try, she managed to punch in the correct string of numbers and after a few seconds of silence, her mother answered.

At home, it was almost 5 a.m. Friday. A Li listened to her mother’s tiny, sad voice, so far away on the high plateau in Zhongdian. A Ma had been awake all night, worrying about Pa Lags and waiting for the hospital to open so she could go to his side.

“The news is not good,” A Ma said. “Pa Lags suffered a massive heart attack at home. He fell down the stairs from the second floor.”

A Ma was crying and A Li strained to hear what she was saying.

“His hip is shattered. They fear he has a serious concussion as well. He is semiconscious and they say he is in critical condition.”

“Where is he?” A Li asked.

“He is here in Zhongdian. There is no intensive care unit, but the doctors want to stabilize him before they risk moving him to Lijiang. I don’t trust them—they know nothing and they are stupid. I don’t know what to do. I am so worried. A Li, please come home immediately. Pa Lags needs you. I need you. Who knows how long he will live?”

“I will be there soon. I am flying to Beijing tomorrow and I will be home the following day. I will pray for Pa Lags. A Mei will pray for him also.” A Li began to cry. “A Ma, do you have money? A Ma...” A Li heard the long-distance silence. “A Ma?” She tried to call again but was unsuccessful. She prayed she could reach Pa Lags’ side before it was too late.

Honorable Pa Lags – I am coming. A Mei and A Li will soon be with you. Please wait for us. We love you.

A Li stood in the middle of the campus, trying to decide her priorities. She had 24 hours before her departure, and so much to do. It would take hours to organize her research data and prepare a detailed outline of the status of her work for the lab manager. She had to pack her belongings and talk to her host, Professor Chen. She also needed to leave messages for her other professors and her few friends.

Her thoughts returned to Tanay. Could she leave without seeing him again? There were things she had wanted to say to him, but now it no longer mattered. She decided it would be best if she simply left him a message of goodbye.

A Li sat down on a bench under a jacaranda tree. She felt powerless to help her father and her anger and frustration began to rise. Her status as a minority from the TAR was the cause of most of what was wrong in her life. She could not join the Communist Party and it loomed in front of her like a wall she could not surmount, blocking her path and making her life more difficult. She was jealous that she could not enjoy the status and economic benefits of a Party member. She was angry because her family had no money and knew none of the influence peddlers or power brokers who could help Pa Lags obtain the healthcare he deserved. There were places in China where Pa Lags would be comfortable and have a chance to survive, but everything in China was now a matter of money and connections. Some Chinese were beginning to enjoy the kind of privileges and well-being that Americans had enjoyed for years. There were modern hospitals in cities like Guangzhou and Beijing where the rich and well connected received the best of care, but Pa Lags was relegated to the decrepit health facility in Zhongdian.

It was not right. It was not fair. Now aged 67, Pa Lags had suffered a hard life, living through the birth of modern China. He was seven years old in 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army launched the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and established what became the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. He endured the havoc of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. In 1966, Pa Lags’ life was turned upside down again when the Cultural Revolution brought violence, investigations, denouncements and the creation of reeducation camps where millions lost their lives. Tibetan monasteries were ransacked, universities were closed, intellectuals were sent to do manual labor, propaganda replaced learning and the Chairman’s favorite phrase was, “The more knowledge a person has, the more likely he is a counterrevolutionary.”

Pa Lags’ name as a child was Bright Sun, because he loved learning. In 1967, after he had struggled to become a science teacher, the Red Guards dragged him from his classroom and beat him. They sent him away from his new wife to a remote farm where he spent the next 6 years studying Chairman Mao’s books, reading his letters of self-criticism to the other workers, listening to military music and affirming his faith in communism and his love of the motherland. In addition to undergoing a political reeducation, he suffered physically, spending hours each day planting rice in ankle deep water. While he was away, his wife nearly starved to death and sold their few possessions to survive.

When Pa Lags returned home in 1973 at the age of 30, everyone said he looked 20 years older. His health was ruined and his body was frail. His hair was starting to thin and turn gray and he had deep lines in his face. Pa Lags and A Ma were impoverished and struggled to rebuild their lives. They tried to have a child for years and then gave up all hope. It seemed like a miracle in 1982 when A Ma discovered she was pregnant and that they would have a family after all.

After the birth, Pa Lags, once again a teacher, struggled to take care of his baby daughter A Li, and build a secure life for her. Above all, her parents wanted their beloved child to be happy and to grow up without the anxiety and tumult that had plagued their own lives. They pushed her to become a top student—a good education was the greatest gift they could provide for her. A Li tried to meet her parent’s expectations, but life in China was hard for everyone and sometimes it was difficult to be optimistic. The pressures from her academic efforts added to the stress. She often retreated into a fantasy world where her imaginary sister was a great comfort.

Now, near the end of his sad and difficult life, Pa Lags lay in critical condition in a rural hospital with only basic medical care to sustain him. The family’s health insurance would barely cover the cost of his heart attack. If he survived, the cost of surgery, medication and care for his other injuries would consume what little money they had managed to save. If he died, or was unable to continue his work as a teacher, they would be penniless. The only good news was that they had deposited a quantity of their rare Bombay Blood for just such an occasion.

Pa Lags had done everything he could to help A Li with her education. It was her duty to repay him by becoming a great success. Lately, she had begun to feel like a failure and wondered if she was on the right course. All she had accomplished so far was to burden her parents with the debt to the government for her college and graduate education. A Li made an important decision. In 24 hours, she would be on her way to Beijing. First, she had to spend a few extra hours in Dr. Murray’s lab.

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