My father’s death hit me hard, throwing me into an unfamiliar state in which I felt a weird mixture of things, all unpleasant, all at the same time. A powerful sadness welled up in me from a deep place I’d never accessed before. I felt a dull ache that I couldn’t localize, as well as an all-embracing numbness.
That was on the physiological level. But I also felt as if I’d lost my moral compass, because my father was a righteous man who was always pointing us in the right direction, always teaching us about the importance of hard work and positive values—lessons that were often inspired by the writings of Confucius. With my father gone, it seemed as if the center of gravity, the organizing principle in our lives, was gone too.
Our circumstances were so pressing, however, that there was no time to wallow in grief, nor was there any real opportunity for denial to take hold. I realized that not only had everything about my family’s situation changed but that I, personally, would have to change too. Right away I felt pressure to start earning some money to support the family. But it was more than that. Without my father to lean on, I knew I had to grow up fast and start making decisions for myself—decisions that would affect the rest of my clan as well.
His death was therefore a turning point for me. I was forced to abandon the Chinese notion, long drummed into our heads, that we could always count on a strong family leader—someone who’d always be ready and waiting to take care of us. The moment had arrived for me to stand up for my own future. While I was doing that, moving on as best I could, I still had a gnawing desire to make my father proud, even though he was not around to see it. His confidence in me had been unwavering throughout our fourteen years together, but I did not always measure up to his expectations.
To my surprise, I started, quite spontaneously, to recite some of the Chinese poems he had introduced me to years earlier—as a way to feel more connected to him. I used to look at those poems in a half-hearted manner, only when asked, but I now took them more seriously and memorized them, just as Father had instructed us to do. Reciting those poems became not only a hobby for me, but also provided some relief for my sorrow, as well as helping me get through other tough times yet to come.
In addition, I began to read some of the philosophical books in my father’s collection, which were by no means easy to comprehend. Furthering my education was not my primary motivation, although that happened as a matter of course. Instead, I was aiming to get a better grasp of what my father liked to think about. In these texts, I found traces of him—threads that triggered memories that in turn had a calming effect on me. I came to these exercises naturally, almost subconsciously. They helped strengthen my ties to my father, even after he had left us.
I had a new attitude toward school too, resolving to try harder and become more focused than I had been in my previously carefree existence. The stakes were higher now, and I did not want to let him or my mother, or even myself, down. Achieving excellence in schoolwork, as far as I could see, offered me the only conceivable pathway to success. I’d have one chance to distinguish myself, and if I failed, there would be nothing to fall back on.
Between the loss of my father’s income and the medical expenses that had accrued over the several months before his death, our savings had been exhausted. There are no social security payments, retirement benefits, or pensions in China. All you have is your salary, and when a job ends—or worse, when an employee dies—usually not much is left. In our case, nothing was left, and we owed half a year’s rent, along with a stack of unpaid bills.
But our first order of business was the funeral. Showing respect for the deceased is a big deal in China. The ceremony we were preparing was intended not only to honor my father in the best way possible, but also to preserve the dignity of our family. My brothers and sisters and I had missed school for several weeks before and after my father’s death. My sister Shing-Yue and students of my father took care of the funeral arrangements, while the rest of us helped out as best we could. First, we needed to find some land on which to bury him. That cost money, of course, and we had to pay the funeral home too. Luckily, my father’s friends, who were reasonably well off, defrayed some of these expenses. That enabled us to purchase a small burial plot in the New Territories region north of Kowloon.
My siblings and I didn’t know much about funerals and basically did what we were told. One of the things we were told to do was to spend the night before the ceremony in the funeral home, which, according to tradition, is supposed to protect the good spirits, or maybe fend off the bad spirits. We were obedient, even though we didn’t know what we were trying to accomplish with regard to the spirits, good, bad, or otherwise. I read all of the poems displayed in the funeral home that my father’s students had written. These poems assumed a particular form called a “pairlet,” consisting of two sentences that are related to each other. I enjoyed reading them because I learned things about my father, and about how other people viewed him, that I hadn’t known before.
The next day, in keeping with tradition, we all dressed in white and kneeled around a picture of my father that was surrounded by flowers. Whenever somebody came to pay their respects, he or she would bow three times and we would bow too. This went on all day. It was a draining experience but also very moving. Although I was filled with sorrow, for some reason I did not, or could not, cry.
From Shape of a Life by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.
Shing-Tung Yau is the William Caspar Graustein Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University. He has been awarded a Fields Medal, a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Mathematics, the Crafoord Prize, the Veblen Prize, and other honors.
Steve Nadis is a science writer and contributing editor to Astronomy and Discover magazines.