In the middle of all this grief for myself came a chance to grieve for another. My paternal grandmother passed away, the last of my grandparents to do so.
I’ll talk a bit about the other three funerals though. I can’t remember the funeral of Gong Gong (except Mum holding my arm and being very distraught) and when Ma Ma died I had already forgiven her for all the crap she did to my Mum. My Mum was really torn up and asked to sleep in the same bed for one night. I agreed very reluctantly but luckily she got up after fifteen minutes and went back to her own room. I guess it was the thought that counted.
Ah yes, Ma Ma. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead but she probably did a lot of harm to her family. The biggest chip on her shoulder was that her sons never came to visit her and she never EVER let them forget it. Everything her daughters did for her (which was considerable) was as good as nothing. In my mind’s eye I can still remember going to her house and seeing her during Chinese New Year with all my uncles and aunts and cousins around her and her expression was as black as night – kind of like my Mum’s when she got really angry.
In later years my sister and I would call this the Fuck Everything expression – because that is certainly what it conveyed to anyone who was watching. Her sons wouldn’t come to visit her and therefore her life was screwed up and no one could do anything about it – a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one. I have a lot of compassion for her (she was subject to the bylaws of Chinese culture) and my mother and her family, for having to live with that for a long time.
Ah Gong’s funeral was this BIG affair with enough drama and pomp and circumstance to fill a hundred soap operas. Dirty laundry was dragged out in restaurants and family dinners a full five years after the Old Man passed away. But for me all I felt when looking at the coffin was – sinner or saint, rich or poor, we’re all going to go someday. I was never close to the man (despite visiting him maybe over twenty times when he was ailing) and so I just said a simple goodbye in my own way.
So how was this funeral different? Firstly I was a vastly different person now. Standing over the frail body of my grandmother in the hospital ward I looked at her pale and dying face and I felt an indescribable epiphany pass through me. I stayed and prayed by her side for a while and then left. I later learned that she had died not an hour later.
At the funeral itself I was sitting at the back row and suddenly I started crying. A lot. I wept and wailed and got a lot of looks, especially since I was never close to my grandmother. The tears just kept coming. It’s like I was grieving for myself, her, my mother, my father, her ancestors…the entire cycle of abuse that had stolen so much of my life from me. Where had it begun? Where did it end? Maybe this was the last link in the chain.
I had the chance to talk to many of my aunts and uncles with my new perspective during the funeral and that helped a lot. I learned things about my grandmother that I never knew before – that she wanted to be a model, that she was interested in fashion and singing at one point. That at the age of twelve she lost her mother (kind of like me) and had to take care of all her siblings all by herself.
A British soldier wanted to take her hand in marriage and wrote to her father about it (just like in the storybooks I read when younger!) but was turned down because it was arranged that she would have to marry my grandfather because she needed the money to raise her siblings. I felt so sad when I heard that. The soldier’s name for her was Molly and he had wanted to take her to England to be his wife.
I felt a kinship with this woman whom I was directly descended from but yet whom I only knew as someone who never spent a penny (due to the war years, no doubt) who played mahjong (often to the exclusion of everything else) and who abused my father and his siblings. I knew all about wanting to go to another country! In another life she could have been Molly Hastings, or Molly Brightmore, or Molly…who knows.
My life, unbeknowest to me for the longest time, was positioned at the crux of sacrifice, of two mothers who had given up their futures to raise their siblings. Yes, I later learned from my mother that Ma Ma also gave up a chance at a better education to raise her brothers and sisters. Why couldn’t I have been born to the OTHER ones who benefitted from the elder’s sacrifice? My life had turned out to be the same old Asian Tragedy…the eldest sibling sacrificing for the family so that the younger one can go to school and get a job and education.
Pretty noble and virtuous – but that wasn’t what I fucking wanted! My own success stories were always along the lines of middle class kid goes to college overseas and becomes Kickass Game Designer. But yet even as I was forced to stay here I learnt and grew in my own way. As the bus made its way to the crematorium I looked out over the trees and thought that maybe I had stayed for a greater purpose. To forgive everything and everyone.
All my crying made me a big hit with my grandmother’s other siblings, some of which crowded around me and told me what a good and filial boy I was. If only they knew! If only they knew. It wasn’t just filial piety, it was Final Fucking Filial Fantasy.
There was at least one other good thing to come out of the funeral. I made my final peace with Aunty Judy. Things had been improving over the years and she had actually apologized to me in part for her behavior in the past. She and my Dad had also gone for counseling at one point and that had helped. She had also lost her job and gotten depression, which obviously wasn’t good but taught her that what I was experiencing wasn’t just some made-up illness.
After The Handover and my Dad growing half a pair, she also had grown closer to my sister over the years as the latter stayed at her house. She even referred to her as her daughter sometimes. My Chinese had gotten good enough – and her English had improved enough – for us to actually have a decent conversation at the funeral. (with the assistance of Google Translate of course) She wished me well and told me that she believed that I would succeed. Another bridge mended.