Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mr. Li

The email came out of nowhere, asking me if I would be able or interested in helping out at our local hospice. My connection to the hospice is beside the point; they simply asked if I could come to the inpatient care center and draw with a man who had been admitted there. He was from China, had been here in Des Moines but became too weak and ill to return home when his visa expired. The rest of his family (I was told) had returned home, but he could not go. Nor did he speak English. The staff had been resorting to Google Translate to communicate with him. He had told the staff that he would like to draw with a fellow artist.

I agreed and set the following day, Tuesday, to come to see Mr. Li. When I arrived I found Mr. Li emaciated, very weak, but sitting up in bed. Luckily, his daughter was there and helped us communicate a little. Mr. Li was indeed an artist, as was his father before him. He had trained in watercolor and pastel in college but had spent his entire working life as an animator--essentially a cartoonist--making cartoons for Chinese television. His father had been a fairly noted watercolor painter, according to his daughter. Alas, though I hoped to see something of Mr. Li's work, he said none had been exported.  I showed him a few examples of my paintings and drawings, using my smart phone, and he seemed to enjoy that.
I had along a sketchbook or two, some pencils and charcoal and so on. I asked him if he would like to draw but he said he would be happy to see me do some work as he was not feeling very well. Accordingly I drew Mr. Li and gave him the sketch. It's graphite on toned paper, about 5x8. He was surprisingly serene as we talked and I drew.

He and his wife had come to Des Moines from their home in Beijing to see his daughter and her new baby. Because of the one-child law in China, she was their only child, and this was their only grandchild. Knowing he had cancer (he had been under treatment for 4 or 5 years, it seems) they took the chance and came to Iowa. Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated enormously while they were here so that now he was too weak to travel. Clearly mortally ill, he was calm and accepting. Seldom have I known a person so desperately ill who was also so obviously at peace. Mr. Li was a Buddhist.

After finishing and signing the drawing, I gave it to him. He seemed pleased, and asked if I would return so I promised to come again on Friday. It was Tuesday. He smiled. He died the following evening.
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