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Transcend Collection

Next Story: Dominique


On celebrating life and loss

I knew when I said goodbye to my dad that it would be the last time I saw him.

My dad was a fourth generation Chinese-American who grew up in Oakland, California. In many ways he had a hard life; he experienced significant hatred and racism. He was even blocked from joining the Boy Scouts because of his ethnicity. So instead, he dedicated himself to working really hard at his passions so that eventually he was better than everyone else. For example, he worked out until he was the strongest guy, so that no one would pick on him and beat him up. This mindset became ingrained in him and he instilled it in me and my sisters, too. He was born in 1938, and was 50 when I was born. Despite being older, he was a master at many things and very active; a modern dancer, owner of the Mel Wong Dance Company, a professor and artist.  When we were younger, my father would say things like, ‘if daddy dies, you need to do well in school, get straight A’s, make money and don’t fight with your sisters’. My mom also encouraged us to be financially independent, and specifically, to never depend on a man. 

I was raised in a spiritual household. My father had an extraterrestrial experience when he was younger. He was awoken in the middle of the night by a bright light and surrounded by incredibly powerful energy. A voice told him that if he came to the window he’d possess great powers, but he was too frozen in fear to move. From then on, he would feature symbols of the afterlife and the cosmos in his artwork. He was also deeply interested in Buddhism and practiced daily meditation. All of this culminated in his dancing, where he’d incorporate the energies of a higher power flowing through him. After he died, my mom became even more spiritual and in touch with the non-physical world. She’s always been a proponent of mind, body and spirit and the belief that your thoughts can create your reality. Ultimately, this means that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s something tragic like losing a loved one.

I never suspected my dad would have a heart attack, but I believe that both him and I sensed it was coming. I was 13 when he dropped me off at a friend’s house for a sleepover. I recall getting out of the car and realizing that I hadn’t kissed Daddy on the cheek, which is something in that moment I told myself I should always do. For whatever reason I was compelled to  walk back out in the road and I watched his car drive off. He died the next day.

I never suspected my dad would have a heart attack, but I believe that both him and I sensed it was coming.

After my dad’s death, I did everything I could to numb my grief. I partied endlessly throughout high school, nearly every night. It wasn’t until I entered college, and my body was covered in eczema from all of my suppressed emotions, that I took a break from partying. By that point I had been diagnosed with ADHD and began taking adderall. The combination of my upbringing, the adderall and my desire to be self sufficient drove me to cut everything out of my life that wouldn’t help me accomplish the latter. 

I pursued an engineering degree, not because I loved it, but because I knew that it would enable me to have a stable financial future. I worked endlessly to be the best in my class and joined a prestigious general contracting firm upon graduation. While I have a lot of respect for the firm, construction culture meant that I was working 14 hour days on average and I never had weekends for myself. I kept my head down and shut out everything that was creative and restorative until I became fully disconnected, ultimately losing my true identity.

Then, in 2019, I lost my best friend Jenny. We both grew up in Santa Cruz and despite being older than me, she joined her younger brother and I at Cal Poly for engineering, a couple years after us. Growing up in a family of engineers, engineering was second nature, but she was always curious about what else was out there. Together we would dream up what else we could do instead of engineering and construction. She had so much energy and enthusiasm about her -- some of the characteristics that I loved most. 

Always being one for adventures, my friend went ice climbing one day with another friend in Mammoth Lakes. While climbing, there was a rockfall that killed both of them instantly. Losing her was such a shock and I still hadn’t fully grieved for my father. I struggled to exercise, gained weight and slipped further into misery at my profession. After a while, I realized that I loathed what I was doing. I had spent over 10 years suppressing my creativity, working around the clock, only putting my job first, missing out on times with loved ones and if I kept going down that path, I would lose myself for good. Although I had worked so hard to get to where I was in my career, was perceived as very successful from the outside eye, and although it was beyond terrifying to make a change, it was time for me to start a new chapter.

Since college physics, I’ve come to embrace the law of conservation of energy in regards to what happens when you die. The law states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only converted from one form of energy to another. Thus, those who die are still all around us, you just have to pay attention. It wasn’t until my best friend’s death that I really tuned in. I remember being so upset about her death and then all of a sudden this hummingbird flew by me and landed on a telephone wire to sit with me. Each day it would come back and sit with me through my grief and I knew it was her. It took me years before I could connect with my dad, likely because I’d spent so much time shutting out my sadness and trying to ignore it.

My mom would always talk about signs she noticed from my dad, and I even had witnessed them while visiting my childhood home, but never on my own. I’ll never forget the first time that I connected with him by myself. I was talking to my mentor about quitting my job and leaving the construction industry. Something landed on my hand, so I flicked it off without looking. Glancing over, I saw a grasshopper sitting next to me. I went to walk inside and froze. I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘is that a sign from dad?’ So, I went back outside and the grasshopper just sat next to me throughout the entire call.

When I went inside I rushed to look up what the grasshopper symbolizes. In addition to luck and prosperity, the grasshopper signifies only moving forward. It felt like my dad was giving me permission to move forward and leave my job behind. Even recently, my mom, husband and I were closing on the purchase of a cabin. While we were signing the papers, we heard this loud boom at the window. On the window we saw a giant grasshopper. Once again, my dad was saying hello and sharing his excitement to keep moving forward.

The most connected I’ve ever felt to those who have died was when I was close to experiencing my own death. In the fall of 2020, I went backpacking with my husband. As we drove up the mountain, we saw a mama bear and her cubs sprint across the road. The mama just stopped and stared at us in a way that told me something was wrong, but we kept driving. Upon reaching the trailhead, we realized that a fire had ignited nearby. Little did we know then, that this would be one of the top four largest recorded fires in California history--the Creek Fire.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘is that a sign from dad?’

We began caravaning up the mountain to escape the fire. Once we reached the top everyone began coordinating, but I couldn’t even speak because I was so afraid. It hit me that we might not make it out and we could all die. You could see the flames licking the night sky through the trees. I asked my loved ones, those who had died, for guidance to get us out safely. Ironically, I’m not scared of death because I don’t believe life ends when you die. Instead, I was afraid of having my life cut short when there was still so much that I wanted to do. Thankfully, after three hours of off road maneuvering, running into a local who “thought” he might know a road out, taking a chance and driving through a river, we were able to escape and get off the mountain, away from the fire. The entire Fresno area had been evacuated, so we had to drive 2 more hours until we could find an available hotel.

I’m not scared of death because I don’t believe life ends when you die.

The next day, my sister Kira, and her fiance came up from San Diego to be with us at home. As a network chiropractor at Twin Waves Wellness Center, my sister worked on me to help release all of the terror that was inside. Her body work helped me process everything and I ended up sobbing uncontrollably and screaming the most blood-curdling shriek as I let go. The process reshaped a horrific and harrowing experience into something beautiful. Afterward, we all had so much adrenaline that we jumped in the ocean, got mai tais and celebrated being alive and being together. That night, while we were on my deck looking at the stars, there was a big and beautiful shooting star that fell for what seemed like ages. With my dad’s love of the cosmos, I knew that it was the sign I had asked him for during the fire. My mind instantly jumped to this Enya song (the only artist that we both ever agreed upon) called “Fallen Embers”. I ran to look up the lyrics and they go like:

Once, as my heart remembers
All the stars were fallen embers
Once, when night seemed forever
I was with you

Once, in the care of morning
In the air was all belonging
Once, when that day was dawning
I was with you

How far we are from morning?
How far we are?
And the stars shining through the darkness
Falling in the air

Once, as the night was leaving
Into us, our dreams were weaving
Once, all dreams were worth keeping
I was with you

Once, when our hearts were singing
I was with you

The song completely mirrored my experience in the fire. As we listened to the song, almost every verse ending with, ‘I was with you’ I knew that was my dad telling me he was with me during the entire harrowing event. I was with all of the people who had passed on. The Creek Fire solidified two beliefs: your loved ones are watching over you and you only have one life to live. Don’t just put your head down and work, work, work just so that you have a big salary and material things--life is too short to be unhappy. Fill your heart up, connect, love, do what makes you happy and laugh endlessly.

Thank you for reading this story from the Transcend Collection.

We donate 10% of revenues from our Transcend affirmation candle to The Loveland Foundation, an organization committed to showing up for communities of color in unique and powerful ways, with a particular focus on Black women and girls