by Antonia Lee
The author shares, through one deeply moving example, how caring for aging parents on the mission field can lead missionaries into a deeper understanding of the culture in which they serve.
In silent reverence, his hands gathered the bones from the crematory oven and gently placed them into the small wooden box we had given him for Dad’s ashes. This man, a common worker in a crematorium in western Yunnan, didn’t know Dad, but as we watched him in silence, this worker became our teacher. For the first time since we arrived in China over twelve years ago, we understood a part of Chinese culture that we would never have been able to see if we had not decided to take care of Dad while serving overseas. Our eyes finally got a glimpse of Chinese culture through the death ritual that ushered us into a holy place of understanding far beyond any textbook. Dad’s life and death were gifts of love from our heavenly Father.
Like many others, we struggled over the years with our call to serve overseas as well as our equally compelling call to honor our parents by taking care of them in their old age. We have many friends who have returned to their home countries to care for aging parents and others who have chosen to return for short periods. In today’s world of technology and convenient travel options, creative solutions are possible for many missionaries; however, each has its own set of unique challenges. In our journey, the Lord gave us a creative and unusual solution to a common dilemma.
Our journey to China took many years and countless turns along the way. My husband, Bill, and I became Christians when we were teenagers—he in Rhode Island, and I in New York City. Both of us sensed a strong call to overseas missionary service, although neither of us knew where we would go or how that would play out. Medical school, residency, and graduate schools were all planned for the purpose of serving more effectively overseas. After these steps of preparation were completed, we finally arrived in China in 1995 with our three small children. We left behind our extended families to bring the message of life to a people for whom God had burdened us.
Both our parents were immigrants who moved to the U.S. in search of the American dream. They never imagined their children would leave America to work in low-paying jobs in a country they considered “a step back.” Bill’s parents, who were both physicians, seemed particularly disappointed that their son would not use his Ivy League education to continue in the family business—a family practice clinic. All that education would be “wasted” in China, they said. Bill’s dad however, realized that our hearts would not change, so he gave us his support.
Making a Decision
Bill’s mother died a year before we left for China. We had always understood that Bill carried the responsibility for caring for his aging father since he is the eldest son, or zhang zi; however, we did not understand the tremendous personal implications of this age-old Chinese tradition in our lives. When Dad suffered a stroke in 2003 while we were on home assignment in the U.S., we were faced with two equally significant calls—the call to service overseas and the call to care for Bill’s father. We prayed for months; Dad was the one who finally said he would prefer to return to China with us than stay in the U.S. with any of Bill’s siblings. We embraced the challenge and brought Dad to China in the summer of 2004. Caring for Dad’s needs meant that we set aside a lot of “ministry,” which gave rise to an equally significant ministry.
We didn’t have to explain why Dad was living with us. Our Chinese friends understood the principle of zhang zi. After a few months, we wondered if we had made the right decision, since taking care of Dad was consuming much of our time. What we didn’t know was that the community was watching us. Only later did we realize that our friends were surprised to see us bring Dad to China rather than return to the U.S. as so many others had done. Our friends told us later that our willingness to stay in China and take care of Dad touched many people. We had unknowingly blessed others by making ourselves helpless.
A Deeper Understanding of the Chinese
We rented an apartment for Dad and hired two men to live with him and help him with daily activities. However, we were often still exhausted since Dad needed daily medical care. In our moments of greatest need, our local brothers and sisters stepped in to support us. When Bill had to travel, one of our local physician friends came by to check in on Dad. Others came by to read the Bible to him in Chinese or pray with him. Our friends also helped us navigate through many cultural nuances (like how to boil Chinese herbs and roots) we did not understand. One of our friends did acupuncture on Dad to relieve some of his pain, while others simply gave advice. People streamed through his small apartment to encourage him. We even found a believer from northern China to cook some of his favorite dishes—one of the few delights he could still enjoy.
Dad’s other passion, reading, had been robbed by the stroke, which had also left him with limited mobility. But this limitation opened up other doors of opportunity. Instead of becoming bitter, he embraced the natural effects of age with grace and dignity, which made Bill’s role as zhang zi easier. Bill read Dad articles from The Reader’s Digest and passages from Luke, Dad’s favorite Gospel. Bill’s role as zhang zi also included the unusual distinction of being Dad’s personal physician—which accounted for many disagreements between them about the best medical course of treatment, Dad usually arguing for the least aggressive course of action.
Dad had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ only a few years prior to coming to China, but we weren’t sure how strong his faith was until we saw him live life in China. A few months before he passed away Dad asked to be baptized. A local lay pastor agreed to baptize him at home. In quiet celebration, we gathered to share in a ritual that bound us spiritually and culturally. In Dad’s final days, we prayed with him. He kissed our hands because he could no longer speak. Hours later, in a peaceful sleep, he was taken into the Lord’s loving hands. Our friends graciously gathered around us and walked us through the rituals of death and mourning. They showed us how to wash Dad’s body and dress him for the funeral at the crematorium. Neither of us had any idea how to arrange a funeral, but our friends walked us through the entire process. We had entered into a private and revered chamber of Chinese culture.
God’s Gift to Us
Dad’s funeral was a blend of innocent unfamiliarity and reverent tradition. We were touched when our Chinese friends bowed in front of his body out of respect and when others explained the significance of so many unknown rituals. We are thankful we were ushered into a sacred place of understanding that few of our foreign friends will ever experience. After the funeral, people paid their respects. We stayed with Dad’s body until it was placed carefully into a crematorium kiln. In China, families stay with the body of their loved one until the entire cremation process is completed. Family members gather around a common courtyard while they wait for the cremation process to be completed.
After the cremation was completed, we watched in silence as a worker with special white cotton gloves placed Dad’s last remains into the beautifully crafted wooden box bought for that purpose. In that moment, with our children standing with us, we understood that our heavenly Father had given us this opportunity to take care of our earthly father so that we could gain a greater appreciation of the people we came to serve. The Chinese taught us how to honor a parent, both in life and death.
The procession that followed sealed the lesson powerfully. Our friends gently explained that the final procession from the crematorium is led by the zhang zi, followed by individual family members in distinct order of honor. The zhang zi carries a photo of the loved one along with the wooden box with the bones and ashes. Our son, having the second place of honor, followed close behind. The honor and reverence of zhang zi was a sacred responsibility that in our case was granted by God for our benefit. Months after Dad’s death, we learned that he had told our children that he had three wishes before he died: he wanted to die in China, he wanted to die in his sleep, and he wanted to have us around him when he died. The Lord granted Dad his three wishes, but we received the greater gift.
Making the Decision Yourself
People have often asked us about our experience caring for an aging parent on the mission field. We encourage them to seek the Lord on their decision. This option may not be for everyone, but we suggest three factors be considered.
1. Have a good local support system. Without support from locals, we would not have been able to care for Dad’s physical and spiritual needs.
2. Have a good understanding of the language and culture. Our twelve years in China provided a good foundation of how to find help and get medical supplies/tests from local sources.
3. Have the support of people in your home country. We had brothers and sisters praying for us and others who were mailing us medicine that was not available in China. Without their help and support, we could not have managed.
Every family is different, but for us, our experience united us with the Chinese people in a way we could never have imagined or planned. The Lord gave us the gift of deeper love and appreciation for the people with whom we work and serve. It was a unique opportunity to integrate ministry and family responsibilities in an incarnational witness.
Antonia Lee (pseudonym) and her husband have served in China for fourteen years. Their current work includes community development and education. Their three children grew up in China and helped care for their grandfather.
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