'Wherever we go, we go together,' father says
As Tony Yuhao Yang crossed the floor of Convocation Hall to accept his degree on Wednesday, he looked into the crowd at his dad and the empty seat beside him.
That's where his mom, Anna Hongtao Jiang, would have been sitting. But she died of cancer earlier in the academic year. The family reserved a place for her and displayed her portrait with an upright iPad.
“All I was thinking on stage was, ‘Don’t break down, don’t break down,’” Yang said. “It was one of those moments that was both happy and sad.”
Throughout his university education, Yang said, he relied on his mother whenever the stress of assignments, group projects and exams got to be too much.
Jiang had hoped to see her son graduate, but her gall bladder cancer was too advanced by the time she received her diagnosis last summer. She died on Nov. 6, a few months shy of her 50th birthday.
In her final days at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, her son’s future was at the top of her mind.
“If I could have, I would have stayed there with her, but she would never let me,” Yang recalled. “She gave up that time left with me just so I could finish school.”
This was the family’s second time in the hall for a graduation. In 2004, Yang had sat in the audience with his mom and 1,700 others to watch his dad, Bill Bin Yang, accept a degree in computer science. Yang, who was seven at the time, admitted he slept through much of the ceremony.
“Definitely she was proud of Tony’s achievement,” Bill said, after watching his son graduate. “That’s why I think she was supposed to be here.”
Bill Bin Yang and his son Tony Yuhao Yang at Convocation Hall on June 7, 2017. They brought a photo of Tony's mom, Anna Hongtao Jiang, who died of cancer last year (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)
“All the things that she wanted, I’ll keep striving for”
Bill met his wife in university in China in 1988. They married three years later and moved from the province of Guangxi to Canada as a family in 2000.
“Wherever we go, we go together,” he said.
Tony followed in his father’s academic footsteps, taking computer science at U of T Mississauga.
After graduation, he plans to fulfill the promises he made to his mother: to be a good person, not dwell on the past.
“All the things that she wanted, I’ll keep striving for,” he said. “If there’s some semblance of an afterlife, that would give her peace.”
The family’s decision to save a seat for Jiang touched people attending convocation Wednesday, including two student ushers who hugged and consoled each other in the hallway.
“It’s reflective of what we do at convocation in general,” said usher Abby Dela Cruz, a neuroscience, psychology and women’s studies student. “It’s ceremonial and celebratory of the accomplishments of the students – and all the people who helped them get there.”