The fate of Flight MH370 has now been declared with the barbarity of a text message notifying the families that their loves ones are almost certainly dead.
But when the vanished plane was still a world baffling mystery, there arose a hope against hope that MH370 had not just crashed into the sea; that maybe the famed Chinese calligrapher Liu Rusheng had survived yet another brush with death and shared his remarkable luck with the 238 others aboard.
By his own count, Liu had experienced six encounters with death before he stepped onto the plane in Kuala Lumpur just as March 7 was ticking March 8.
One more close call for him would have made it seven, and those given to magical thinking might have discerned a deeper magic than happenstance in Rusheng being 77 years old and aboard a 777.
As told it, Liu’s life nearly ended before it really began. He had been just an infant when his parents were forced to abandon him repeatedly so as to escape marauding Japanese invaders during World War II.
“Actually, my parents did not expect me to survive. But whenever they came back, they were shocked to see me still alive,” he would attest in a 2006 article posted online.
His coal miner father had been the one whose luck ran out when he was bayoneted to death by a Japanese soldier. Liu himself survived the war only to be nearly killed shortly after achieving one of the milestones of childhood.
“In the second incident, I just learned how to ride a bicycle and collided with a truck,” he wrote. “I was trapped underneath the truck and was dragged.”
The next close call came when he joined friends on a swimming jaunt that must have started out seeming like part of his bounty for having survived the two earlier ones. He came perilously close to drowning.
And then there were the heart attacks—three of them. He suffered the first in 1971 while training in the army, followed by another in 1982, while he was taking a train to Dunhuang.
He had the third one in 1993 when he was at home, and this man who had nearly been killed on a bicycle as a boy had to summon all his strength to pedal to a hospital for help.
Once again, he survived. He did not fail to appreciate fully his continued presence among the living.
“I enjoy and treasure life even more,” he wrote of his repeated returns from the brink.
He quite literally marked his great luck by carrying a rubber stamp that said, “shang cang hou wo”, which translates to “God bless me.”
He certainly was blessed with considerable talent as an artist, proving to have a particular genius for portraying delicate plum blossoms. He also loved to sing and traveled for a time with a theater troupe that entertained at coal mines including those where his murdered father had once worked.
He broke into one of the old “red songs” when he was on a bus with a group of fellow calligraphers from China who were visiting Malaysia at the start of this month. He remained the most vital of 77-year-olds when he arrived at Kuala Lumpur Airport on March 7 for the trip home aboard the Boeing 777.
Just as the date turned to March 8, the boarding began. Liu and his 74-year-old wife, Bao Yuanhua, were among the first because of their age. The others joined them and the pilot informed the control tower that the plane was ready
“Depart 32 Right,” an air traffic controller instructed.
That was one of the airport’s two runways. The plane was soon aloft and not long afterwards entered Vietnamese airspace. The co-pilot’s routine response became famous because it was the last anybody heard from MH370.
“Alright, good night.”
After that, only silence came as air traffic controllers and pilots of other planes tried to contact the plane.
The families must have at first assumed that the plane had crashed and that their loved ones had all but surely been killed. But when it seemed that the plane had taken a deliberate turn before vanishing without a trace there was speculation that it had been hijacked.
With that—however remote—possibility, came the hope that the plane might have landed on some sequestered field and that the passengers might be alive after all.
People began to take note of an article that Liu had posted online in 2006 describing his “six close brushes with death.”
Of course everybody wanted there to be a seventh.
Then on Monday, Malaysia Airlines violated all tenants of decency by notifying the families via text message that the mystery had ended without a glimmer of hope for anyone aboard:
“Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume that MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s prime minister, new analysis of satellite data suggests the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean.
On behalf of all of us at Malaysia Airlines and all Malaysians, our prayers go out to all the loved ones of the 226 passengers and of our 13 friends and colleagues at this enormously painful time.
We know there are no words that we or anyone else can say which can ease your pain. We will continue to provide assistance and support to you, as we have done since MH370 first disappeared in the early hours of March 8, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The ongoing multinational search operation will continue, as we seek answers to the questions which remain. Alongside the search for MH370, there is an intensive investigation, which we hope will also provide answers.
We would like to assure you that Malaysia Airlines will continue to give you our full support throughout the difficult weeks and months ahead.
Once again, we humbly offer our sincere thoughts, prayers and condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.”
A few minutes later, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced to the world that new data showed the plane had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” he said.
With the announcement came the thought of Liu having survived those six close calls dating back to his very first days only to find such terrible luck in the seventh with his plummet into the ocean.
But the rubber stamp that he began carrying after all his good fortune was surely with him. And it applied not only to him, but to the others who appear to have perished on Flight MH370.
God bless them all.