Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Grandpa's Funeral

by Chua Kok Yee

My grandpa passed away this morning, and now I am late for his wake.

Slowly I trudged towards the temporary awning that occupied the narrow street in front of my aunt's house. There were large white lanterns hanging on two opposite top corners, both adorned with Chinese characters with my grandpa's name and age. Despite my poor command of Chinese I could read the character of our family surname, and the numbers 'six' and 'five'.

Underneath the awning were a few rows of plastic chairs and three round tables draped in white cloth. The tables were occupied mostly by elderly guests, engaging in idle conversations while munching away on groundnuts. Sporadically, there were bursts of lively chatters that countered the supposedly solemnity of the occasion.

About ten members of a local Buddhist sect were chanting inside the house compound. Their chorus of incantation filled the night's air with a sense of calm sadness. It's a haunting tune that penetrated deep into the soul like a melodious spear of sorrow.

At the entrance of the living room, the huge black-rimmed picture of my grandpa smiled at the visitors from the altar. The golden urn in front of the picture was filled with joss-sticks, its smoke shrouding the altar in a thin white cloak. There were a few plates of fruits and vegetarian food offerings around the urn, all sprinkled with specks of dark ashes. My grandpa's wooden casket was behind the altar, occupying the middle of the living room. Its lid was opened, offering a final window for the mourners to bid him a farewell.

My mother and the rest of the family were standing in front of the altar in rows of three, holding a yellow booklet in their hands. An elderly monk in yellow robes said something to them, and they began to flip the pages of the booklet. Those who found the particular pages began to chant the Buddhist incantations; their hoarse voices disturbing the harmony of the sect members'.

I was contemplating joining them in the ritual when I saw him.

He was sitting at the back row, alone and isolated from the other guests. Wearing a white long sleeved shirt and a pair of beige pants, he looked as if he was going to the school where he washeadmaster for the past twenty-five years. His grey hair was neatly combed to the back, revealing the prominent forehead on his square face. His slanting eyes were hidden behind the thick glasses of his black-rimmed spectacles.

I walked over, and sat next to him.

He looked intently at the proceeding near the altar, without any hint of acknowledgement of my presence. Perhaps he was enjoying the unintentional comedy of my young nephew, who was obviously lip-synching the incantations as he could not read Chinese. Maybe he was trapped in the deep wall of his own thoughts. Or probably it was presumptuous of me think that he could see me just because I could see him. For a moment we shared a room of silence amidst the droning chatters and incantations.

"It's nice for you to come by," he turned his head and gave me a warm smile. There was a blissful calm in his voice which discomforted me. I was more accustomed to his loud voice, always with a hint of anger, which often sent fear into my heart when I was a little boy.

"Sorry I am late," I apologized.

"It's OK. A few minutes doesn't make much difference now, does it?" he replied.

There was a plump guy sitting in front of us, and he turned around to throw a puzzled glance towards our direction. I returned to him an assuring and comforting smile, but anxiety was already written on his pale face. Abruptly, he stood up and made his way to the crowded tables at the front row, clumsily knocking down a chair in his haste. Although most people do not have the gift, or curse, of vision beyond the living world, they still could sense it at an instinctive level.

"Hahaha, that guy was one of my students. During his younger days, his friends used to mockingly call him Fearless Lim. I guess some people never change," he chuckled at the plump guy's antic.

"Can't blame him. It took me years before I finally stopped being afraid," I put out a defense for Fearless Lim.

"It must have been hard for you. I always knew you're different ... special since you're young," he continued.

"Really? How did you know?" I asked. Not many people knew of my gift, and even less would understand it. Even my mother thought I was either lying or delusional when I told her about it. Even today she still does not believe me.

He paused for a moment, as if he was pulling out pieces of words from the recess of his memory.

"Your eyes. I've been a teacher for over twenty years, and seen thousands of kids growing up. But I have never seen anyone with eyes like yours."

"You have the oldest eyes pair of eyes I have ever seen."

I did not say anything, contented to let my raised eyebrows to implore further explanation. He took another long pause before he continued, "I could see that you had an old soul, even when you were just a young boy. I remember one day when you were about nine or ten, I looked into your eyes and i thought to myself; this boy had seen way more death and suffering that children at his age should."

I remained silent, letting his words to slowly caress my soul like a cold night breeze. I never knew that he understood the burden of the gift that had chained a shadow of gloom to my soul. His words, even if it was a bit too late now, felt like pillars that helped to hold off some of the weights in my heart.

"Why you never tell me this when…" I paused to reassess my choice of words, before rephrasing my question, "Why you never tell me this before, grandpa?"

"Perhaps the living is not granted with the clarity of the dead."

In front of the altar, even among the grieving members of the family, my eldest aunt was a picture of wretchedness. Her usually radiant face was now haggard and tears were streaming down her cheeks from her puffy eyes. Her voice was hoarse and dry as she recited the incantation between her sobbing. Grandpa pointed towards her and turned his face towards me.

"Do you think she's crying for me, or for herself?" grandpa asked me.

"Of course for you," I said, knowing well that was not the reply he wanted. It was an easy question that demanded a difficult answer.

"Maybe. Or she could be crying for herself. Her tears could be out of the regrets for things not said or done, while I was still alive and she had the chance to."

After a long, heaving sigh he continued, "My point is, we often realize the important things only after it's too late."

My grandpa and I sat in silence again, lost in our own mist of contemplation. At the crowded table a few metres in front of us, Fearless Lim was stealing glances in our direction as the colours of fear, doubt and confusion took turns to paint his round face.

When Grandpa spoke again, there were tears welling up in his eyes, "I should have done more for you. At least I could tell you that I understand your burdens. Perhaps it would have made some difference, and you would have not done it."

"It's OK, Grandpa. That's all in the past," I tried comfort to him, despite being stabbed in the heart by the truth in his words. I could have been walking on a totally different path if he had been there for me. Any word of comfort from him, or anyone else, back then could have been the barricade that held me from falling into the abyss of depression. A long, suffocating depression which eventually drove me to suicide at the age of twenty two.

The sobbing at the altar had become louder, at times even drowning out the incantation. A few friends were consoling my eldest aunt who was weeping hysterically, while the other family members were struggling to maintain their composure. My Grandpa flinched uncomfortably at the scene, as if every tear rained a needle onto his heart.

"Maybe it's time for me to move on," he told me as he stood up. There was a flash of reluctance in his teary eyes, which was swiftly replaced by a gleam of steely resolve.

He clenched his hands onto mine, "I'm glad that He sent you."

"It's an honour for me, Grandpa."

Together, we walked towards the blinding, pure light.