Some Facts in Halifax

April 10 2022 was just five days ago. My dad passed away exactly fifteen years ago. “FIFTEEN YEARS AGO?” I asked aloud, not comprehending how time passed so quickly. What have I achieved since that fateful night? I held Pa’s hand for a long time, as I watched the laboured breaths of the dying man weakening by the hour. There would be no tearful laments, no cries of anguish or wails of regrets. Those in the small room knew to remain calm, and allow our patriarch a smooth transition to the next world, wherever that destination would be, if at all. The Buddhist chants being played on the cassette player had a soothing and calming effect in the room. Unknown to the others present, inside my mind, the permanence of death felt jarring to me as I contrasted the teachings of the Philosophy about the impermanence of life. Anicca taught me that everything changes in life, nothing lasts forever. I suppose that is the universal truth. Even death is impermanent – Jesus proved it. Today, being Good Friday, is a timely reminder. Rising from the dead on the third day, his resurrection was a promise of hope for mankind. Miracles do happen. The one thing that still bothers me about this story was the sacrifice. God forbade the sacrifice of animals yet sacrificed His only son to save us. Luckily, the sacrifice of the Holy Son was for only three days. Being all-knowing, He would have known that too. A short sacrifice that we all can stomach. A permanent sacrifice of a child would have been too difficult for any father. I knew when Pa took his last breath. The final release from all the suffering, the years of being bound to his bed, the ignominy of being totally dependent on the nursing staff who did everything for him including wiping his bum. Pa was an independent man, a self-made and self-taught man, a dignified man. The nurses did their best for the residents in the nursing home, of course, but usually, there was no way of protecting their dignity when they were incontinent or if they needed their faeces dug out from their butt holes or if they needed to be lifted up or down from their beds like cattle in an abattoir. The last breath was a release of all the pain and suffering for Pa. Finally freed of his burden. Equally, that could have easily applied to me, although I never saw my father as a burden. Never!

Five days ago, we met at the Zhulin Buddhist temple in Ottoway to pray for our patriarch. I was introduced to a lovely girl from America. Catherine, a nephew’s girlfriend, found the whole proceedings quite liberating. In what ought to have been a ceremony steeped in tradition and customs, there were none. Most of the relatives refused the offer to burn joss sticks except for our matriarch who did not think observing the time-tested tradition of praying with joss sticks was detrimental to the environment. True to form, I was wishy-washy; in my indecision, I asked for one joss stick to pay my respects to Pa. Seemingly in my mind, that was a fair compromise between the modern-day ESG concerns and the ‘ancient’ practice of praying to the departed or spirits with joss sticks. After all, the joss incense or deus incense had always been the aid or portal to spiritual communication with deus, latin for God. A couple of the attendees were Christians, and they refrained from not just holding a joss stick but also from entering the temple; they sat on a bench outside the temple whilst the rest of us went inside to pray. Apparently, the couple viewed that paying respects to Pa would be interpreted as worshipping our ancestors, a no-no in their church. Catherine, a vegan, was surprised that the proceedings lasted only a few shakes of the joss sticks by Ma and a short solemn moment when the attendees had their own private conversations with the departed. The announcement after the prayers was also surprising for Catherine. Most buddhists do not eat beef, the origin of that adherence came from the influence of Hinduism. A vegan, she was looking forward to a vegetarian lunch at the temple but no, lunch would be pho beef noodle soup at a popular joint nearby.

During lunch, Catherine said that she was originally an Aussie but her family moved to Colorado when she was a child. She spent about two years in Joffrey Ballet School in New York honing her skills as a ballerina. I suddenly saw her poise and posture and remarked that I could see she was classically trained. “America. Never a dull moment, in New York especially,” I said with a forced smile. “Really? Nothing exciting happened to me in New York,” Catherine replied. I told her my first visit to America was flying on the inaugural Airbus A380 flight from Adelaide to Los Angeles with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. From LA, they flew to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the 2009 G’Day USA. Still youngish-looking then, I had neatly cropped short hair and a clean shaven face. Pleasant but dull and nondescript, I was rudely interrogated at the arrival desk at the LAX airport. “What is the purpose of your visit? bellowed the burly Customs officer. Do I look like the Taliban, I asked myself. Why am I being treated like I am unwelcomed in the Land of the Free? “I am having a short holiday here, sir,” I said softly. Too softly. “Do not make me ask you again. Why are you here?” the officer asked in a stern voice loud enough to attract the attention of another officer who hurried over as a back-up for any potential excitement. “I am travelling with the orchestra,” I tried again. Bad mistake. I was forced to explain what orchestra and what instrument I played. “You do not play any instrument? SO, I ASK AGAIN. WHY ARE YOU HERE?” the petulant officer used a voice that treated me like I was a schoolboy caught for truancy.

Eager to have our first Chinese meal in almost a week, The Mrs and I visited Chinatown on our first morning in New York. Our pace quickened as the aroma of roasted duck reached our hungry nostrils. As we were about to cross the road to the side where the restaurants were beckoning, a sharp piercing whistle shrill filled the cold January air. The pedestrians in front came to an abrupt halt and all we could hear was a loud commotion. “DO NOT CROSS THE ROAD,” yelled a man with authority. “Quick, quick,” The Mrs called out and tugged at my icy-cold hand. I had left my fine leather gloves in the bathroom after I detoured to have a last-minute pee. “STOP! STOP!” yelled another. All the cars on the road had stopped moving, both ends of the street blocked by wailing police cars. Cops were rushing out from their vehicles and running to our side of the pavement. “Scuse us, scuse us,” The Mrs said as she tried to push her way towards the front of the crowd. She could not get very far, as I refused to be tugged along. So, she jumped to see above the heads but her efforts were quite pathetic. She was never athletic in school, what made her think she could jump any higher fifty years later? So, she crouched down low to catch a glimpse of the action through peoples’ legs. “Many cops! It must be a movie being made,” she said excitedly. “Oh good! Maybe we will appear in it. How exciting!” I said wildly. And then, we heard the loud gunshots. POP! POP! POP! They sounded real! The Mrs saw piles of bank notes on the ground near her. “Oh no,” she said with a sudden fear in her voice. “There’s blood everywhere,” she continued whilst recoiling herself to hide behind a big guy. Minutes passed and the cops hollered at all of us to move along. “Walk across the road please,” a strong voice yelled out. As I stepped off the pavement, I could see red splashes on the ground. “They are not blood but ink,” I said to The Mrs, using my years of watching CSI to impress her. It was apparent then that it was not a movie being filmed but a foiled bank robbery in which the anti-theft device exploded red paint all over the banknotes, rendering them useless to the robbers.

Our next visit to America was a quick stop-by in New York for our son’s concert in Carnegie Hall. The momentous occasion was not lost to me, by then an old man. It was April 2018. The 11th anniversary of Pa’s passing was celebrated with a concert in the hallowed venue. I was sure that Pa was there with us. I knew Pa would have been so proud to witness the fulfilment of his prediction. When he was alive, he often said his grandsons would become famous one day. “Their fame would spread to as far away as America,” he said about his grandsons when they were still young boys. In the morning after the concert, my son surprised me by taking us to Tarisio, a most reputable auction house that specialises in selling fine stringed instruments and bows. He knew I loved visiting lutheries and watching luthiers at work. In London, he took me to Florian Leonhard’s shop where we tried out quite a few exquisite instruments, each valued in the millions and Brompton’s, the leading auction house for fine instruments in Europe where they had laid out rows and rows of instruments about to be auctioned off that week. I had read about Tarisio’s great collections in Strad magazines that I subscribed to, so we walked at a very fast pace, sometimes even outpacing some locals. I felt like a kid being taken to a lolly shop that morning. Because of my son, I was treated like a VIP. “Biscuits? Coffee?” as the dapper young salesman in a tailored suit invited us into a room where a few instruments were already waiting for us. What the salesman didn’t anticipate was that I couldn’t play the violin at all. Not only that, I did not dare to tune the violin either, so pricey was it that I trembled when asked to hold it. Seconds later, I broke a string. Please don’t ask me why or how, it might have been a rather used string. In trying to rescue the string as it flew off the bridge, I knocked over the plastic cup of piping hot coffee with the bow. It would not be the least surprising if that incident was the first and only time for the esteemed auction house to experience such a debacle.

With the greats, Mischa Elman, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals looking from above.

In New York, I grabbed the chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art – twice, but even so, I failed to see all that I wanted to see. The second-day pass was mostly wasted as my travelling companions and I had lost the whole morning stranded in our Airbnb apartment which flooded overnight from a blocked toilet. The stench was awful, all the towels and linen available failed to soak up the brown water that had flowed into the kitchen and threatened to invade our bedrooms. We dared not contact the building manager as he had already asked us the first time we stepped into the lobby if we were renting it from Airbnb. There were large ugly signs on the front door of the apartment and on the lifts warning anyone illegally staying in the tower would be evicted under the anti-Airbnb rules of the community. The owner/manager of the unit did not respond to our frantic calls for help all night. So, we stayed in our rooms, unable to even get a drink from the kitchen. Our reluctance to get our feet wet with brown water and the growing sensation of panic from a full bladder added to my angst. It was almost mid-morning before the manager of the property turned up with a team of cleaners. The Mrs had dozed off in boredom. I had ventured into the bathroom on tip-toes and peed in the shower cubicle as a last resort to save myself some embarrassment. I heard an ear-piercing screech from our bedroom. The Mrs had woken up to find a big black man standing by the bedroom door. Swishing at the brown water with my feet, I rushed and challenged the stranger. “How did you get in here?” I bellowed. “With my keys,” he said without a hint of irony. He was the manager we had been waiting for.

A cleaner overheard me discussing with The Mrs about asking for a discount for the inconvenience and lost time. “In New York, you do not ask for a refund or discount,” the burly cleaner said. The Mrs reminded me of the incident two nights earlier when we were chased down an alley by two angry waiters who complained about the ten percent tip I had rewarded them with. “Fair enough,” I said. “We can’t argue with people who may be carrying guns,” I added.

The other reason to be in New York was Francis had always wanted to make a trip to Halifax. He studied there in his teens and had always wanted to show his wife, Anne, where he got his Engineering degree. Francis had often described how spartan his life was in those days, how he used to freeze his food on the window ledge outside his bedroom window on the first floor. He and his brother could not afford a fridge during those student days. Anne, who is The Mrs’ sister, listened to his stories wide-eyed and felt with great pride whenever her hero retold his stories of great sacrifice and suffering in a God-forsaken place like Halifax. Yes, I say it’s a God-forsaken place as that was where most of the bodies and wreckage of the Titanic were washed ashore. We even visited the cemetery where they were buried. The one tomb that tugged at Anne’s heart the most was that of Jack Dawson’s whose story will live forever after being so brilliantly told in James Cameron’s romantic movie named after the unsinkable ship.

When we arrived in the wee hours of the morning at Halifax Stanfield Airport in Nova Scotia, we were all bleary-eyed, not from the two-hour flight but from the ungodly hour when the tiny plane took off. You know I am the type who hates flying, especially flying in tiny planes. Once we flew in a tiny three or four-seater plane. I sat just behind the pilot and could see what he saw and that was immediately after seeing a Bible in the open compartment next to me. It was the first time in my life that I was scared to see a Bible, as if a bad omen was about to happen. The scariest moment was at lift-off when the sight of the ground racing at such high speed coupled with the loud shaking of the cockpit was terrifying. We took off from Townsville in Northern Queensland to look at the sixty thousand hectares of land we were asked to assess for a distant relative. We said no, but he bought it anyway. I digress. The tiny plane that took off from New York carried no more than a dozen passengers. Very tiny. Very scary. I was the first to step off the plane and after a long walk on the tarmac, I was the first to arrive at the Customs desk.

“What is the purpose of your visit here?” a friendly voice asked. Ah, much more welcoming, not an interrogation. I liked Canada instantly.

“Oh, I am here for a holiday with my family. There are four of us. The main reason is my brother-in-law has long dreamt of showing us where he used to live here and the university from which he graduated,” I replied in detail, seeing there was no one waiting in the queue. The officer smiled, and said “Enjoy your holiday,” as he handed my passport back.

Next to arrive at the desk was The Mrs. “What is the purpose of your visit here?” the same officer asked. (There was only one officer) I was standing just a few yards away and could hear the whole conversation. “Oh, I am here for a holiday with my sister. There are four of us. The main reason is my sister’s husband, Francis, has long wanted to show us where he lived here and he is very proud of the university from where he graduated. His bedroom was on the upper storey and from the outside window ledge, he used to store his frozen food. We are here to accompany him,” The Mrs replied in greater detail. The officer smiled, and said “Enjoy your holiday,” as he handed The Mrs’ passport back to her.

Francis was behind two other passengers. When his turn came, he was asked the same question. “What is the purpose of your visit here?” asked the officer. “Ah, so you are Francis,” he remarked as he looked up from the passport he was examining. “Oh, I am here for a holiday with my wife, and her sister and the husband. There are four of us. The main reason is I have always wanted to return to Halifax. This is where I grew up and got my Engineering degree. I promised my wife not long after we married that one day, I would like to return here and show her where I lived and how I survived the harsh winters. I am very proud of my university, you know,” Francis said to the officer. The officer smiled, and said “Welcome back. Enjoy your holiday,” as he handed Francis’ passport back to him.

The three of us waited a long while, but there was no sight of Anne. So, we decided not to wait any longer, the wiser action being to go ahead and collect our luggage. After securing all our luggages and making sure we had not left anything behind, we saw Anne huffed and puffed as she hurried towards us. “What happened?” Francis asked her. “I had to run back to the plane to find my phone,” she said. “and oh, the customs guy was so rude,” she continued. “How come?” I asked in disbelief. “He asked me why I am here, and before I could answer, he said, “Oh I know, I know. You’re Francis’ wife and you’re here to see where he used to live and admire his university,” the officer said as if he knows my whole life story,” Anne said in exasperation.

Some facts in Halifax

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