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Globe Magazine

I lost both my parents in the COVID-19 era. How do I reopen my own life?

The news is all about reopening the economy. But for all of us who are grieving, it’s personal too.

Margaret and Thomas Huang were inseparable for 60 years of marriage.
Margaret and Thomas Huang were inseparable for 60 years of marriage.From Gregory T. Huang
Thomas and Margaret were married in Cambridge in in 1959.
Thomas and Margaret were married in Cambridge in in 1959. From Gregory T. Huang

This is the story of an immigrant couple who settled in Boston and started a new life together. It’s an education story, a technology story, a love story. Ultimately it’s a story about loss, and hope, in this strange new era.

My mother, Margaret, died in late January after 10 days on a ventilator, with our family taking shifts in her hospital room. She was loving and courageous, the strongest fighter I have ever known, the emotional heart of our family.

My father, Thomas, died the last weekend in April with my sister Marjorie by his side and the rest of us on Zoom. He was loving and kind, a world-renowned scientist, the foundation of our lives.

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They were in their mid-80s, and it was a long and difficult battle for both. Neither was sick with COVID-19, but the specter hangs over all.

So I can tell you all about X in the age of coronavirus, where X is grieving; starting a new job; wrestling with whether to travel for life-and-death matters; dealing with assisted living, emergency room visits, home hospice care, estate planning on Zoom, then memorials on Zoom. When this is over, I’d be happy never to see Zoom again.

But you don’t need me to tell you how hard this is. You need me to tell you how to keep going.

For a few days, I stopped thinking about jobless numbers, recessions, and how to reopen the economy — all very serious concerns. I started thinking about how to reopen my own life, and my family’s. And to do that, I had to go back to the beginning.

THOMAS AND MARGARET were married at the Blessed Sacrament church near Central Square in Cambridge in April 1959. They had met as undergrads at National Taiwan University when my dad (the geek) sold my mom (the singer) a slide rule. It was a simple service with a few friends. Thomas had come over from Taiwan a year earlier as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Margaret was able to join him by getting a work transfer to a company in Foxborough, and then to a lab affiliated with Boston College.

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They would have four kids and settle in Arlington Heights. Thomas became a professor in MIT’s department of electrical engineering, specializing in image processing and pattern recognition. He loved research and teaching, which he did with humor and flair. Margaret raised the kids, three of whom went to Arlington schools while the fourth (me) sucked his thumb.

They had their first meal as US citizens at the Union Oyster House in 1971. Our dad loved clam chowder, mussels, shrimp. They both enjoyed lobster, which was cheap in those days. And they loved Boston — the symphony, the museums, the North End, the Charles River, the academic community, the livability. They had grown up in mainland China and then Taiwan, so American culture was a big adjustment (hamburgers good, Halloween bad).

In the mid-1970s, they moved to the Midwest. Our dad took a job at Purdue University and later moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That’s where the Boston story could have ended, but it didn’t. Three of us kids came back for school at MIT, me being the last one, in 1990. It was no coincidence that we ended up here — we inherited our parents’ love for the area. Two of us, my sister Caroline and I, stayed for good.

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Our father had a distinguished career, winning many awards, though he was too modest to ever talk about them. He advised more than 100 doctoral students and was a pioneer in signal processing and computer vision. His group made major contributions to the techniques and algorithms behind storing and retrieving digital pictures and videos, making computers recognize objects and faces, and developing virtual interfaces (think Google Street View and Zoom backgrounds).

He never wanted his own company, but his former students now work at Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Lenovo, and other firms and universities around the world. My father always wanted for his students what he wanted for his children: to work hard, be passionate, be themselves, be honest.

Our parents became role models to hundreds of international students and scholars who studied in the United States. They met at conferences and invited students to many dinner parties. Our mom would cook a mix of Chinese, American, and European dishes — steamed buns, noodles, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, string beans, schnitzel. More recently, students would join them for meals at their assisted living center in Illinois.

We’ve received an outpouring of support and remembrances from former students and colleagues. An MIT professor said our parents encouraged her at a time when there were very few women faculty members. A prominent tech executive wrote that he learned to do research from our dad’s open, collaborative style — but he may have learned even more from our mom’s stories at dinner.

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Thomas and Margaret Huang's children, including the author in the front row, in the late 1970s.
Thomas and Margaret Huang's children, including the author in the front row, in the late 1970s.From Gregory T. Huang

THOMAS AND MARGARET WERE INSEPARABLE for 60 years of marriage. They wanted to be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, in part to be closer to their grandkids. We tried to make it happen but they got too sick too soon, and when Margaret passed away, Thomas wanted to be able to visit her grave, by wheelchair.

My siblings and I had to cancel our mom’s memorial service because of the pandemic. We then wrestled with how to have a proper burial for our dad. In the end, we made the difficult decision to travel from our respective homes to Illinois, despite the risks of exposure to us and our families. I took a nearly empty plane from Logan Airport to Chicago and drove the two and a half hours south to Champaign-Urbana.

On a 50-degree day in April, after a Midwestern thunderstorm, my brother, Tom, and I helped carry our father’s casket to the gravesite and watched him be put to rest next to our mother, under an old maple tree battered by the wind and rain. We stood there in our masks and overgrown hair, not social distancing, as my brother-in-law Craig sang “Amazing Grace.”

Then we cleaned out our parents’ room in assisted living, visited their old house, and talked to lawyers. Some things I will never forget: the smell of my N95 mask as we sorted through their belongings; the sound of our dusty old piano at home, slightly out of tune; the deserted terminals at Chicago O’Hare and Logan; the support of my brother and sisters; and strangely, how hard it was to find anyone to haul my parents’ junk away.

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How do we keep going and reopen our lives? The last time I talked to my dad, he was tired but very clear, asking questions, not afraid. He asked about the coronavirus situation in Boston, and about plans to reopen in other states. He saw the pandemic as a rational problem to be solved with science and policy.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. No one does. We make our choices and we live with them. I do know that I can’t imagine not having made the trip to see my siblings, bury our father, and grieve together. Whatever happens with the pandemic, we all need each other; we need to work hard and ask the right questions; we need to be honest and not afraid.

As children, my parents grew up in Shanghai and Hangzhou, China, during the darkest days of World War II. As teenagers, they fled the Chinese civil war, ending up in Taiwan where they would later meet. They lived through things we hope our children will never see — air raids, invasions, occupations, family separations — and they didn’t look back.

They came to this country, to Boston, to start a new life. They worked hard and made an impact. This city and community helped shape who they are, who we all are, and what we can become. We all carry the legacies of our parents with us, and now it’s time to create our own.


Gregory T. Huang can be reached at greg.huang@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gthuang.