I’m OK with being imperfect. But I’m not OK without trying. So I had to do it.” Richard Lui, in conversation with Craig Melvin on NBC’s Today show on Monday of this week. Lui, a long-time NBC journalist, has just written a book, entitled, “Enough About Me,” that chronicles his seven-year pilgrimage of care-giving to his father, along with his mother and siblings. After the family realized the stress of the physical and emotional toll on other mother, four years into this journey, the family decided to put their ‘father-husband’ patriarch into a long-term care facility.
First Richard would fly from New York to San Francisco two or three times a month, a ten-hour trip door-to-door, in order to take the shift from 11p.m. until 5 a.m. His employer, NBC, gave him permission to cut back his hours so that his own journey into ‘selflessness,’ something his father, a pastor and then a social worker, had modelled throughout his life.
From the Today account, Richard is quoted: “He was just really honest with his sickness. He was very open to vulnerability which I thought was great lesson to me personally, because that was not the same Stephen Lui (his father) that I knew growing up. And as he went through this process early on, before his started to forget stuff, that was what he was showing me….I think he taught me to thing about who I am, as I’ve talked to you about this caregiving journey. And it’s led to a book that I would have never thought of even starting…in the book I really show how I have basically goofed up over the years, and how I can be vulnerable too because being vulnerable in part of being selfless….We make a conscious decision about every 15 minutes. And if we can just once a day, ‘I’m going to get lunch. I am going to call somebody.’ How do I add selfless motion to that? So I would say, once a day, think of doing something a little different.”
About his father’s current condition, and his attempts to ‘connect’ Richard is quoted as saying: “He can’t hear, so I put on some amplifier headphones on him and I would get the microphone. And I said, OK, this is Richard, do you remember me? I’m your son? If so, blink once.’ And he goes, (blink). Craig, another one of those moments where I am just like, I don’t know what I was doing before or the last 10 years….Obviously, we’re using video calls, pictures and the times that I’ve been able to visit him I’ve had to do it through a glass window (during COVID-19). And I ju9st hope every single time when I’m looking at him, waving at him, that he’s OK, and that he knows that I’m there.”
To a journalist, timing is very important, and to Richard Lui, his Asian heritage is under severe attack in America, and beyond, in the wake of the pandemic. Commenting on this overt bigotry and racism, Lui says to Craig Melvin in the Today interview, “We have seen, unfortunately, during the viral pandemic, folks that are not considerate of others. We have seen people that when we talk about racial strife, looking at the color of a person’s skin, and deciding to treat them less than human, because they can’t see that they are very human. That’s selfish. We have seen shootings and individuals that are using hate and violence…it is a time for us to figure out how to stop all this stuff.”
Richard Lui’s story, both of caregiving and the transformative experience that has had on his own life, in opening him to acknowledge, and to accept his own vulnerability, and even his own selflessness, as a gift and a blessing, and also of his perception on racism against people of colour, provides a fitting and dramatic frame for where we are in the world at this moment.
All of us fear getting old; all of us fear falling into a mental chasm such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, and all of us fear doing so alone. At the same time, millions of stories akin to Richard Liu’s are springing up through the anxiety, the depression, the fear and the inescapable mortality that has been clouding the waves of public information since the pandemic began. Stephen Lui’s courage, forthrightness and frankness about his own impending decline have been an inspiration to his son, and, somewhat paradoxically, in and through the process of caring for his father, he has come to an even greater “insight” that has made him ‘wonder’ about his previous life.
That paradox has been shining, through the veil of our tears, and our sadness as, even when taking a walk in a public place, we are noticing barely perceptible smiles as the eyes of complete strangers meet, for less than a second, in acknowledgement of each other, of the moment we are living, and of our common human vulnerability. And those nano-second smiles cross gender, generational and social lines, in a way many of us have never experienced. Very shy people, including young men and women currently engaged in academic studies, are casting a brief glance of ‘connection’ even in the midst of a brisk and chilling wind, warming the hearts of all they meet.
For men, especially, vulnerability is not an experience many find even tolerable, let alone freeing and life-giving. Richard Lui’s story, however, puts the lie to that stereotype. And it is a binding, fossilizing and paralyzing image that many men firmly believe they must uphold. They do so, however, at their peril, as well as the ‘peril’ of those in their family and in their workplace. In remaining locked in a mind-set of invulnerability, of strength, of imperviousness, of repressed affect, (no matter the degree to which this leg-iron pinches) men are robbed of one of the most sensitive features of our full potential: our deeply caring, empathic and even intuitive understanding of the pain and suffering of the other, whether or not we give ourselves permission to ‘show’ that side of who we are.
“Think of who I am” is a phrase from Richard Lui, that, taken as applicable by other men, can and will pry open the locked safety-box (how ironic is that?) of our masculine heart, and the opening may well shock us, as we enter into that thought process. It will not be a brief moment, but rather a path that extends deep into the forest of our memory, our associations, our accomplishments and failures, in the density of previously untrod paths, of rock out-croppings previously ignored, or denied, avoided for many reasons not always part of our consciousness.
Richard Lui’s journey into self-discovery, is not, paradoxically, narcissistic, and must not be seen to be such by other men, who, at the moment are timid about opening that door. Enough About Me, paradoxically, is about shedding that warrior armour, not permanently, or even in shame or rejection. There are times for its legitimate deployment, yet it need not be a permanent “suit” protecting us from the invasion of others who might get to know us, (horrors!) and also preventing us from getting to know and respect and honour who we really are.
In honouring and shedding light on Richard Lui, in and through his father’s illness, and also in and through his recent book, we offer his platinum model, not only of care-giving of elderly and declining parents, but even more importantly the model of that surrender and sacrifice for and to another, as a, perhaps one of the best, path toward self-consciousness, in the full sense of that concept.
Imagine if we all had to wear a small sign around our neck, declaring, “I am __________, do you know who I am? as a literal and also a metaphoric act of vulnerability and connection in a world that can be said to be in danger of withering on the branch of the tree of deep and authentic relationship. That picture, borrowed from Richard Lui, evokes memories of broken, fragmented, disconnected and desperate conversations, mostly about planning for action, with others in both professional and personal exchanges, in which we all have felt, and thereby believed, that we were simply “unknown” …and the irony may well be that we, ourselves, were unconsciously engaged in a process of protecting ourselves from being known, because we thought, believed, perhaps ever were trained to “act responsibly” and productively, and objectively and especially in a detached manner. For many of us, to behave otherwise, is, or was, or worse, may continue to be, to shatter our public image of strength, durability, professionalism and credibility and gravitas.
David Suzuki, just having turned 85 this week, in a conversation with Andrew Chang, after warning that climate change is more threatening by far than the pandemic, reminded Chang not to forget “first you are an animal”….as if to remind us all that we are far more basic, unrefined, perhaps even unpredictable and certainly vulnerable that we might like to consider ourselves. Perhaps Suzuki and Lui have more in common that would, at first appear. Perhaps, getting to know “who we are” in the full complexity, both the conscious and the unconscious, is an invitation we need to accept if we are going to begin to act as if our often-chorused cliché about “all being in this together” is going to have the kind of meaning and impact its potency carries. Just as Suzuki has opened the eyes of the world to the wonders of nature, so too is Richard Lui opening his and others' eyes to the wonders of who we are.
We all wish David Suzuki a very happy 85th, and many more (including adding to the already completed 60 years of his internationally acclaimed ‘Nature of Things’ program originating on CBC) and we wish Richard Lui and his father and even deeper connection in these dark days inside the long-term care facility and around the globe.
And we thank both of them for the candles they have lit and the hearts and minds they will continue to light, in what many consider an impenetrable darkness.