What Matters

This morning I attended the funeral of my great aunt, my paternal grandmother’s youngest sister. I was not super close to her, though over the years, whenever I visited Taiwan, I would occasionally have lunch with her or visit her house with other relatives. She was the first person to take me to Eslite when I came to Taiwan almost ten years ago, because she knew I liked books and wanted to show me the giant bookstore that was open 24 hours.

I don’t know a ton about her life except that as was sometimes the custom in old days, her father adopted her out to his best friend when the friend and his wife were having trouble conceiving. Thus, she grew up with a different last name than my grandma. Growing up, I thought she and my grandma looked a lot alike, or that she seemed a younger, more delicate version of my grandma.

Going to the funeral, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t feel close enough to her to shed any tears, though I did feel sad and regretful I hadn’t made more of an effort to get to know her. But it was watching her husband, who is basically deaf at this point, stand and bow to her and start sobbing uncontrollably, that undid me. I thought to myself how this woman, who was unknown to me in most ways, was the most important person in this man’s life. He was frail and hunched over, his hair sticking out everywhere. His children held him up even as they kneeled to bow to her body. As they passed by her coffin to look at her one more time, the daughter whispered words to her mother while my great-uncle sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. They tried to pull him past the coffin but he wouldn’t budge. He kept looking back and crying. He wasn’t ready to leave, because he knew to leave would be to leave her forever.

Every person in this world, no matter how unknown they are to the rest of the world, means something to somebody. My great-aunt was sick often in the last years of her life, and I hope she feels peace wherever she is at now. Although I didn’t know her well enough to feel deep grief over her passing, my heart aches for her husband, who was unconsolable, whose life is forever altered. I ended up crying at the end of the funeral, because his anguish felt so palpable to me. I hope he too, can find peace for the rest of his living days, but I know these kinds of losses are permanent holes, these people irreplaceable.

The last time I saw my great-aunt was a couple of months ago. My father, cousin, and I went to her house. We brought some cakes that I was pretty sure she wouldn’t eat. She was bedridden and in pain so we sat in her bedroom while she lay flat in her bed, her husband seated in a chair in front of her. We made some small talk — I don’t know about what anymore — while I gazed and looked at the pictures framed and hung around the room. Her wedding portraits. Both she and my great-uncle looked so young and full of life. So happy and full of wishes and promise.

Life is fleeting. In the end it doesn’t matter how hard we worked, how famous we have become, what we have achieved professionally. In the end what matters is that we loved and were loved. That there is someone by our side who can’t bear to leave, can’t bear that this glance is the last glance they will ever have of you.

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