Hui Liu still gets the chills when he thinks about the twist on his American dream. It was supposed to include a big warm house and watching his only son grow. Never the cold, lonely chamber on the evergreen expanse of Rose Hills Memorial Park.
Buried there is his 9-year-old son, who died two years ago after an unsuccessful bone-marrow transplant in Los Angeles, a devastating secret the family continues to keep from aging grandparents half a world away.
"If they knew, I don't know how they could go on living," said Liu, a 43-year-old native of Tianjin in northern China now living in Alhambra.
To avoid telling them of his death, "we told his grandparents his vocal cords were damaged after the operation and he could not speak again," Liu said in Mandarin Chinese.
As the only grandson, little Charlie Liu alone could have carried the family name. Until now.
A younger sister, two failed pregnancies and countless prayers later, his mother is with child again--a son. The baby is due on or around Christmas Day. What's more, the child's birth would fall in the year of the rabbit. Charlie was also born during the year of the rabbit. According to the Chinese calendar, that makes the two brothers exactly 12 years, or a full birth cycle, apart.
"It's like reincarnation," Liu said. "When my wife cries in the middle of the night, I would tell her, our son is in your stomach. God is giving him back to you."
The death of a child would devastate any family. Liu's story shows how much harder it is for new immigrants to cope when faced with the additional barriers of language and culture. It is particularly tough on the Liu family because they are part of a wave of mainland Chinese to settle into the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley in the early '90s. With little time to adjust to life on the fringe of the American mainstream, their heartaches rarely bubble to the surface.
"They are learning to live in that isolation," said Jeanette Choi, a program director at Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead, who describes the Lius' stoic reaction to the tragedy as common among new immigrants. "Anything negative they will avoid talking about. So there's no way to even grieve and come to terms with their loss. They live in guilt, regret and self-blame. They don't know how to get help."
Liu's wife, Lan Liu, 38, is still too fragile to touch the subject. But her husband is ready to open up. He thinks it might help his community take a collective step forward and be more honest with its own reality.
"I am a white-hair man saying goodbye to a black-hair child," said Liu, using a traditional expression meaning parents burying children, as he blocks tears with a drenched tissue paper.
Charlie was diagnosed with a deadly blood disorder, aplastic anemia, in third grade, shortly after he joined his parents in Los Angeles.
Like many Chinese families, his parents had left him behind with grandparents while they headed overseas to find work. After toughing it out as clothing retailers in Eastern Europe, the couple moved to Alhambra in 1993, where they ran a small travel agency booking local bus tours. The boy was only 7 when he touched down in the land of Mickey Mouse and happily ever after. But he was already ill.
At first his parents had no idea. Liu tearfully recalls the day he was called into the principal's office and told that Charlie was not performing well in school. Like many Asian parents would do, he scolded his son for disgracing the family by not studying hard.
"We didn't know he was already sick. . . . He couldn't concentrate because there was not enough blood going to his brain," said the father, choking on his words.
Charlie's brave fight for life touched the whole school.
"The first day I met Charlie, he said to me, 'If I don't get a bone marrow transplant I'm going to die,' " said Esther Keshishian, Charlie's fourth-grade teacher at Monterey Vista School in Monterey Park. "That really knocked me for a loop. It really did." She would keep Charlie company during lunch because he couldn't risk going outdoors and being exposed to germs.
Like most immigrant children, Charlie quickly began to speak better English than his parents. While they strained to grasp the gravity of the medical situation through a parade of interpreters, the boy knew more about his fate than any child his age should have to.
"His parents didn't understand a lot of medical language," his teacher remembered. "The doctors were talking to Charlie."
Maybe ignorance was a kind of blessing that kept hope alive while Charlie was in the hospital.
"The mother set up a special bedroom with new furniture and everything else, thinking he would come back home soon," Keshishian said.
At the doctor's suggestion, they decided to have a second child, hoping the siblings could exchange healthy bone marrow. A year later, Charlie held a tiny sister in his arms. The father has a picture.
But the sister's marrow was not a match.