Let me tell you about the worst thing that has ever happened to me. As the youngest of seven children, I used to lie in bed and worry about the rest of my family all dying before me. My only consolation was my older brother Kwan, who was the closest to me in age. We would go through it together, until the bitter end, and in my over-imaginative mind, I thought that saying good-bye to him would be the worst of all. Then, in November 2009, Kwan disappeared a few days before Thanksgiving weekend.
No one in the family knew what had happened to him. After many frantic phone calls, we discovered that he had flown down to Texas to buy a new twin-engine plane. He was a well-known physicist by profession, but his passion was flying. Nightmare scenarios raced through my head: Had he been robbed while trying to purchase the plane? Had he been kidnapped? Murdered? Finally, I tracked down the airport he had gone to and found some answers. Kwan had bought the plane and taken off, but his plane disappeared off of the radar when he was attempting to fly it home to Virginia.
The kind folks at that small airport were devastated to hear that his whereabouts were unknown. They told me what an expert pilot he was, how friendly, how humble, even though they’d been amazed at his knowledge of aircraft and how thoroughly he had checked that plane before committing to the sale. I wasn’t surprised. When Kwan received his PhD from MIT, he’d gotten the highest scores on his general doctoral examinations in the history of that university. He was extremely precise and excelled at everything he did. Kwan was like a cross between James Bond and Robinson Crusoe, only not quite as tall. So what had happened?
I was certain that if Kwan had bought that plane, there was a very low chance that anything was wrong with it. But I also knew that if the plane had crashed and Kwan had survived it, he would have somehow turned on the emergency beacon. The fact that no beacon had been activated made me very afraid.
By now, it was Thanksgiving weekend, the worst time to try to reach people. However, I finally got through to the right department at the FAA and very soon after that, the Air Force took over the search. I was trying to get as much information as possible about what Kwan had done: talking to police, credit card companies, his hotel, his car rental agency, his cell phone provider. His many true and loyal friends joined us in talking to anyone who could possibly help us find Kwan as soon as possible. If Kwan had crashed and was still alive, time was of the essence.
Every day, I phoned the search and rescue team and spoke with different soldiers who were extremely kind to me, especially when I broke down crying on the phone, which I did every time. The search area was enormous to begin with, but thankfully Kwan had a Blackberry with him on the plane, and even though it’d been turned off, it had signaled a mobile-phone tower in passing. This reduced the search area to 100 square miles in the mountains of West Virginia. It was still a huge expanse but much more manageable than the distance between Texas and Virginia. His cell phone company, T-mobile, provided us with this information, and I’m still a loyal T-mobile user today for this reason.
The Air Force and search-and-rescue volunteers worked tirelessly to find him. Day after day, there was bad weather. Helicopters, small planes and foot soldiers combed those mountains. My other family members raced to West Virginia and drove around looking for him themselves. Finally, about a week after he’d disappeared, the Air Force and search-and-rescue teams found him and his plane. We now knew what had happened. A sudden and unexpected storm had descended, he’d been in the mountains and had no room to maneuver, his plane had nicked a tree and crashed. He’d died upon impact.
Even though I am a writer by profession, I don’t have the words to tell you what this meant to me and my family. I felt as if all the breath had been squeezed out of my lungs, as if I’d been flattened by an enormous fist, as if my heart had been irrevocably broken. I’d had very little death in my life up until then, and I’d never expected it to be Kwan. Not Kwan.
Kwan had been there for me from the very beginning. He was the one who had helped me discover writing. Kwan and I immigrated from Hong Kong to New York together with the rest of my family when I was five years old. We lost all of our money in the move. My family started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown in order to survive, and although I was still in kindergarten, I started working there, too, every day after school. We lived in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn that was so bitterly cold in the winter that we kept the oven on day and night. It was our only source of heat.
One night, I’d come home with my parents after working at the factory all evening. Even though he was still in high school then, Kwan went on to a second job waiting tables at a restaurant after his grueling day at the factory. I was usually asleep by the time he came home, but this night, I felt a movement by my head and I woke up. When he saw I was awake, he gestured at a package he’d left for me. A present. It was a blank diary.
“Whatever you write in this will belong to you,” he said.
When I look back, I’m amazed that he’d had the foresight and wisdom to purchase such a gift for me. I don’t know how he managed to save enough to get me anything at all, since we could barely make ends meet as it was, and that instead of buying me a piece of candy or a toy, he’d gotten me something that would nourish my soul instead. From that moment on, I wrote down my thoughts and feelings, trying to make sense of this strange new world we now inhabited.
Fortunately, Kwan and I both shared a talent for school and we succeeded in leaving our lives in the Chinatown sweatshop behind. He went to MIT after skipping two grades in high school, and I studied at Harvard, graduating with honors.
I still feel tremendous grief when I think about Kwan and his death. It all happened only about a year and a half ago. But now I can also be grateful for many things. I’m grateful to have known him and to have had him as my brother. I’m grateful to all the wonderful people who helped us figure out what had happened in those last fateful days of Kwan’s life. I’m grateful he was able to read my debut novel before he died, and that he knew the heroine was partly based on him. And finally, I’m grateful to have loved my brother so much that his death broke my heart, because heartbreak is the price we pay for great love.
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