When IBS alumnus Chenxing Han went to visit a dying woman in an hospital oncology unit as a Buddhist chaplain, the woman’s wife emphatically said her spouse didn’t want to see a chaplain.
Han agreed. Silence followed until Han asked: “Would you like a hug?
“Surprise in her gray-green eyes. A slow-motion nod.
“I encircle F at first, but upon registering the fierceness of her reciprocating embrace, I squeeze her tight, feeling the rise and fall of her breath, the heave and heart of her sorrow, until she finally lets go, wipes her eyes and sighs, I needed that.”
The story is one of many Han shares in her second book: “one long listening: a memoir of grief, friendship and spiritual care.”
During an April 11 book launch Zoom conversation, Han said her new book is different from her first, “Be the Refuge,” a groundbreaking look into the lives of 89 Asian American Buddhists.
“one long listening” is a deeply personal book, centering on three autumns: in 2014, when Han worked as a hospital chaplain; 2015, when she spent time in Taiwan; and 2016, when Amy Frohnmayer Winn, a dear friend, was dying from complications related to Fanconi anemia, an illness that had taken the lives of Winn’s two sisters.
Han, in an easy-to-read first person present tense style of writing, takes the readers into hospitals where she visits terminally ill patients and in letters she wrote to Winn. The book illustrates how she tried to deal with grieving relatives at the hospital and her own grief about the death of her friend and her Nainai (paternal grandmother).
In the case of the wife who refused to let her see the dying wife, Han went with her gut instinct.
“After the first hug, the wife calls me ‘the hugging lady,’ And that is what we exchange each time we cross paths, not words but hugs, until her wife dies.”
Han began writing what would become “one long listening,” when another friend, who was curious to learn more about chaplaincy, encouraged her to write about her experience.
She said the book ended up being a “love letter” to Winn; the patients and staff at the hospital in Oakland where she worked; to her family and her ancestors. And the book, unexpectedly, ended up reconnecting her to her parents, she said.
The book launch Zoom session was a partnership between the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts and the Institute of Buddhist Studies, where Han was a graduate student and worked as an editorial assistant, marketing and recruiting program assistant, and chaplaincy program coordinator over an 11-year period.
Han is now a writer and educator. She writes for Buddhist publications such as “Tricycle” and “Lion’s Roar”; co-teaches “Listening to Buddhists in Our Backyard” at Phillips Academy Andover; and is a co-organizer of May We Gather, a national Buddhist memorial for Asian American ancestors.
Han was joined in the Zoom session by Dr. Paula Arai, Eshinni and Kakushinni Professor of Women and Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Arai read a passage from her upcoming book, “The Little Book of Zen Healing,” scheduled for release in August.
The passage described the death of her mother. Arai said, “Grief has different seasons, but it doesn’t end.” But, she added, it is also a catalyst for healing and also “opens you up.”
Han has a similar view that grief is ongoing. Arai asked her about her own grieving process. Han replied:
“Unlike some of the stories we read, I don’t know if there’s a beginning or middle or an end because sometimes it seems like we are born into grief and that we die with it.”
But Arai also says you shouldn’t feel guilty about laughing or having a good time as you grieve. Han echoes that in her book, retelling a story she told as part of her eulogy at Winn’s funeral in 2016.
At an evening dance party at a 2010 summer camp, everyone was dressed up and singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to someone who had been fighting cancer for several years:
“Out of nowhere, she (Winn) tackles me with a bear hug so fierce it knocks the wind out of me, and I know she is grieving how he won’t be there to dance with his two daughters next year. And then, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she beams a huge smile — and keeps right on singing and dancing.”