“Ming zaw way,” in the Shanghai dialect means, “See you in the morning.” This was how our family bade each other good night.
For my entire life, these were the last words I would say to my parents before we headed to bed. To me, their “ming zaw way” meant “Good night, sleep tight.” They, especially Mom, spoke the words with warmth and affection, like wiping away today’s troubles and wishing for a new start for tomorrow.
Now, toward the end of my parents’ lives, I wanted one more thing. I wanted to tell them that I loved them. I’m sure they knew how I felt, but it was important to me to say it.
I had never, ever said those words to them. It felt awkward. In Chinese, the child would say words like “honor” or “respect” or “filial piety” to their parents. Not “love.” The nuance of Chinese is sometimes subtle. I was taken aback when I realized that to praise a child as “good,” the Chinese word literally means “obedient.”
I had another reason to be nervous. It wasn’t like our family to change how we did things. We rolled with routine. Here’s an example. Mom packed me the same lunch from third grade until eighth grade: white bread with bologna and mayonnaise, a tomato and white milk. I liked tomatoes but not the “three in a carton” winter ones that tasted like the cardboard they came in. I never thought to complain.
As bedtime neared, I anxiously debated with myself. “Is tonight the night?” “Will I change the script tonight?” But for several weeks, I chickened out when the time came.
Advice from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth finally gave me the courage to speak up. He is a contemporary spiritual teacher. I wrote about Tolle in a previous blogpost called, “Shake It Off: How to Escape From Your Pain-Body.” https://wordpress.com/post/docbookworm.com/107
Tolle points out: “The present moment (italics mine) is the field on which the game of life happens. It cannot happen anywhere else.” He says, “The past has no power to stop you from being present now.” The future has no power either.
Our identification with the past and the future is what Tolle calls the Ego. As I read that passage, I recognized that the story of my family’s rigid adherence to habit was just that, a story in my head, a mental construct.
And that’s not even the best part. It’s also easy to fix. Tolle says, “All that is required to become free of the Ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible.”
Still, it’s one thing to read and another to do. Tolle’s message gave me courage that night, like someone giving your back a little tap as you stood on the bungee bridge. And so I leapt.
Here’s how it happened. When my folks couldn’t live independently anymore, Bill and I had moved them into our home. Mom had suffered from dementia for many years. When Dad had a stroke, losing muscle coordination and speech, they couldn’t manage at home. We had given them our bedroom.
They spent the day watching TV. As the clock neared ten, they got ready for bed. Mom put on her PJs and took out her dentures and hearing aids. She spent five minutes thoroughly applying a face cream. She insisted on the J.C. Penney brand called EB 5. I walked Dad to the bedroom. I helped him change to pajamas, undid his shoes with the right ankle brace, put on his slippers and took him to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Tonight, I would tell them, “I love you.”
I worried about Dad’s reaction. I never knew how much he understood what was going on. Sometimes, his eyes would cloud over in confusion and he’d become uncharacteristically agitated. Both of us would get so frustrated as he never could tell me what was bothering him. After five, ten, fifteen minutes, he would have the grace to give up. He’d give a wave of his hand in resignation, and lie down to sleep.
On that night, we went through our usual routine. I tucked Mom in and she settled comfortably. What a blessing that sleep came easily for her. I walked around the bed to Dad’s side. He sat at bedside. I lifted both legs off the floor and turned him until they were on the bed. I tucked the pillow under his neck. Then, instead of “Ming zaw way,” I said, “I love you.”
Mom gave the warmest, “I love you too.” Dad managed to croak out a version of it. I was relieved, elated, and wondered what the big deal was all about. And I gave thanks in my heart to Eckhart Tolle. Every night for the next three months, until Dad died, I would say to them, “I love you.”
Before going to sleep, Mom and Dad had one more ritual. They turned toward each other. With a little help from me pushing Dad’s back, they each reached toward the middle of the king-sized bed. They kissed. Then they said to each other, “Ming zaw way.”
Tell me: How do you say “Good night” to those you love?