General

Unfinished Letters

How are you my friends? It has really been a while since I last wrote you a letter in this series; and I would understand if you think I have stopped the series. Records show that I wrote three in 2006, compared with 12 in 2005, and 11 in 2004. This would be the first in 2007. Moreover, the recent letters were mostly written while I was traveling. Well, I have actually been around more often than before, which could be the reason why I have not been writing.

My desktop computer got infected. It could not receive or send emails. At first, I thought it was the fault of the service provider; sometimes it happens, I thought; and I survived for a day by reading my messages from the service provider’s webpage. Then I realized how stupid I must be: if I could read my emails from their webpage, the fault could not be theirs, but could only be mine and mine alone. So I took my desktop to my IT friend and dusted my laptop which I had not used since my last trip.

When I said my last trip, I meant my last long trip, which was August last year when I spent about a month in Europe, first in Spain, then in France. My last letter – No. 77 in the series – was dated 16 August 2006 and uploaded from France.

As soon as I downloaded to my laptop the outstanding emails on the server, I noticed a file in my document folder named “Letter No. 78 – Letter from La Fontanille.” I opened the file and found that I had hardly written anything.

There had been a few similar cases before when I would write a few paragraphs, then stop for whatever reasons and forget all about it. I would then start writing another letter afresh, only to discover the unfinished letter later. I had also pieced together a few unfinished letters as one. But this one is classic – it has nothing except the title.

La Fontanille is the name of my friend’s chateau in France, where I stayed for ten days between a pilgrimage with the Jesuit priest and a retreat in Plum Village. I had meant to share with you this scenic place, its history and environment, the serene atmosphere, the vast expanse of nothingness or green fields, the country life, the architecture of the chateau, the private chapel, the swan lake which was so named because it was home to two swans until they died, not of natural causes, and after which was frequented by wild ducks, and so on, all within only 11 hectares of land. I had taken pictures and made some notes. It would have made good reading if I had written on it shortly after I came back.

But I never got round to writing it, and I wonder why. I had planned to write about my Plum Village experience too. Indeed, some friends had volunteered me to write an article for a book which would soon be published to mark the visit of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh to Hong Kong in May. They have given up on me. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh of course is a poet, a Buddhist monk, a Zen Master, an author and a peace activist. I would tell yo more about this great man some other time.

I can give myself many reasons why I have not written anything more on my last trip or on my Plum Village experience, but they would be as meaningless and as empty as whispers in the wintry wind. I looked at SCMP’s Thursday headline about the lady who died leaving billions and couldn’t help feeling the emptiness she could have experienced in her last moments. Was she happy? Did she think she lived a fulfilled life? Would she have liked to see the tower named after her completed sooner? Did she have unfinished business? What would be her legacy? What and how would she like to be remembered as? No one would know the answers to all these, not unless she had discussed these or related issues either openly or in confidence with those whom she cared for or who cared for her.

I went to a few funerals recently and was particularly touched by two. I would skip the names and significant details to preserve their privacy.

The first was a gentleman in his seventies who had never married, even though he would not dispute rumours that he had a family in UK. He lived by himself on a government pension and was looked after by his four or five nieces who were very close to him. I have known him for some years through a lunch group. He was always well groomed, quiet and well spoken. The convener of the lunch group knew about his sickness and had visited him two or three months before he passed away. He did not think that his conditions were too serious at the time and it appeared that he was getting better. It therefore came as a surprise, a rather rude and unpleasant one, when I read his obituary in SCMP. I called the convener who had found out the same through the same route and we decided to go to his funeral. I went for the vigil too, where I met the nieces, one of whom I recognized as a teacher in my son’s school. There were very few visitors. Indeed I was the only non relative. After the funeral, the nieces insisted to have tea with us (me and the convener) and it was like a wake, except on a rather small scale. The point I want to make is this. Here is someone who had been leading a quiet, orderly and simple life, who did not expect going so soon and hence had not left a will. His nieces tried to look for names of people from his phone and notes but couldn’t find any names they recognized.

The second friend is also a gentleman who lived by himself. I have known him for many years, since I was an undergrad. We did so many things together. I have known him as a very talented, sensitive, sincere and real person who is true to himself, his profession and his clients. He never got married. One night, a long time and common friend called and told me he passed away in sleep. He was in his early sixties. His funeral vigil was special. He had a number of siblings and most of them were there. They had written personal and touching messages about him in a pamphlet which also included a number of messages – equally touching and emotive – from his clients who were all praises about his professionalism and selflessness. I looked around the place and recognized the names of people I knew from my university days. Here lied a man who set very high standards for himself, who could have achieved high rank and fortune but had chosen integrity and professionalism, and who must have lived respected and died regretted. I ran through my mind to recall our last meeting and could only remember vague images of us going for a wine tasting or something like that, but what I would never forget was a time that only two of us knew when he empathized with me a moment I was almost in complete shock and despair. Indeed, he was a friend in need.

I have started this letter for no particular reason other than a wish to let you know that I have been well, even though my son has by now been away for almost a year. Some of you would have heard that this is totally unplanned for both of us, but the fact remains that I have been on my own throughout this period; and in my weak moments I dream of myself not being noticed should any calamity befell on me. I ended up with a collection of thoughts taken from a number of unfinished or unwritten letters.

These days, the phone hardly rings, and when it does, it would mainly be unsolicited or unwanted ones, from estate agents wanting to acquire my flat for cheap, from banks wanting me to take out loans at what they call ridiculously low interest, and very often, from girls with sweet voices offering hotel cards that would enable me – they say – to walk through their restaurants like kings and have meals for next to nothing.

I have considered discussing my situation with my children with a view to asking them to make regular contacts with their only parent in Hong Kong, lest no one would find out should any untoward happen to him; but I think it is best not to interfere with the plans of the children. In any case, I would visit them in June to attend my daughter’s Commencement, this time as a Vet.

I hope to talk to you again soon; and I wish you a happy and mindful Easter.

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