Grandfather Died Today
By Jing Hwan Khoo
Jing Hwan Khoo is an NYU student from Malaysia, majoring in Philosophy and Computer Science, and minoring in Creative Writing. He likes to think about stuff and sometimes he makes them into a story when he thinks they aren’t half bad. He also does web development so that he has “a real job”.
Edited by Wan Yii Lee
Grandfather died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I couldn’t be sure.
I sat by the front door of grandma’s house, a steel basin of blazing fire in front of me. One by one, I dropped pieces of joss paper into the fire. The front door was open. From time to time, my relatives filed in in fours or fives.
The joss paper was supposed to be for my grandfather. It was believed to be the currency of the afterlife. There was also a pile of paper items in the front yard: a three-story paper bungalow the height of an average person, two paper dolls, a paper mini-BMW, a few sets of paper clothes and even a paper iPhone. At some point, all these would be burnt as offerings to grandfather. It was believed that he would receive them in the afterlife. Even the Buddhist afterlife was a consumerist one.
Grandfather had been sick for quite a few months. He got one of the classics — lung cancer — two years after he quit smoking, no less. But then again, he had been smoking for almost sixty years so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. There was nothing we could do. At the age of 73, he was too old and frail for a surgery. The anesthesia would’ve, to quote my cousin, “put him to sleep forever.” So we watched him shrivel. His pot belly caved in. His limbs dried up like twigs. We all watched as he slowly died. Except for grandmother. The adults decided not to tell her. They thought it best to spare her the months of agonizing wait for the eventual tragedy. The price, of course, was the heartbreak to wake up one morning and see your husband for over fifty years dead. But then again, she must’ve known. With grandfather bedridden and weak, it was impossible not to notice.
For months, my mother spent her time juggling between sending us siblings to schools and tuitions, and taking care of him. Every time she came back from grandfather’s house, there would be news, sometimes good news, but mostly not. He hadn’t been eating. He’d vomited. He’d been short of breath. He’d been raving, delusional. Bad news came in saturation. So much so that when it came time for the last of the bad news, I hadn’t realized it.
The doctor had given my mother a tip: Place a steel spoon under my grandfather’s nose, and if the spoon fogged up, then he was still breathing. That morning, there was no fog, my mother told me.
My mind had simply registered that information like I registered any other bad news about grandfather. It’s getting worse, was what I had thought. But I didn’t realize that it was so bad it couldn’t have gotten any worse. My mind had simply refused to make the connection that the absence of breathing meant death. It wasn’t until two hours later that it dawned on me, when we went to my grandfather’s house.
That slab of a wooden coffin in the living room was hard to miss.
It sat in the middle of the living room, facing the open front door towards the street. As per custom, the funeral would be held for seven days. The front door would be left open. All the lights in the house would be kept on. People would take turns keeping vigil over the funeral. A tent had been set up in the front yard over a few tables and dozens of chairs laid out à la restaurant. A caterer had set up her pots and pans in the backyard. It would be her task for the rest of the week to feed all the visitors who came to pay their last respects.
The coffin was elevated on a rack and surrounded by incense, offerings and flowers. Right behind the coffin, looking over it, was the altar of the deity Guan Gong. The coffin’s lid was on, but on the lid was a small hatch that was left open. Within it laid a face. Eyes closed, serene. A sharp nose. A jutting chin. High cheekbones. A bald, egg-shaped head. Growing up, I had always thought that my grandfather looked like Professor X on TV.
Two days before my grandfather passed away, my cousin and I visited him. It was the single day when he looked the most healthy. His face looked less like a wax replica. He ate more than half of a bowl of porridge. Out of nowhere, he started telling us his life working in a factory as a kid. He told us about his job folding cardboard into boxes, about how he had later turned to selling drinks, then to rearing livestock, how he met my grandmother, how people then survived on sweet potatoes and nothing else, and how he once hid in a drain to escape Japanese soldiers.
But now, the consciousness that once hosted these memories was gone. That person was gone. Within the coffin laid a body, but it was no one’s body in particular. The title ‘grandfather’ now only referred to an absence. The man in the coffin was no longer my grandfather. He was no longer the man who rolled his own cigarettes, blasted Hokkien songs on his radio, roamed the town on his old rickety bike, filled the fridge with ingredients for hot pot during Chinese New Year, and called me Pan instead of Hwan because he was missing all his teeth. Now, he was nothing, a negation that any talk about him could not avoid. From today onwards, he existed only by his absence.
The coffin was the center of the universe for the week. The living room, flanked by the bedrooms and the kitchen, was usually wide and open. The couch, the coffee table and the TV took up only half of it. The other half was where people hung out and where kids played tag. But now, that other half was occupied by a gigantic block of wood. To navigate around the house, one always had to go around it. To be anywhere in the room was to see it in the periphery of one’s vision. To do anything was to see it in the periphery of one’s thoughts. Everything we did, ate, or said came with a tinge of death.
I don’t remember the first time I learnt about the idea of death. Maybe it was from my elder brother. The idea of my inevitable demise certainly sounds like the kind of thing he would tell me and leave me shaken and scared for a whole afternoon before I’d put it to the back of my mind and bring out my Legos. But in all seriousness, how does an existence come to grasp the knowledge of non-existence?
The first time somebody around me actually died was when my best friend lost his father. We were nine years old. His father had had a heart attack, which led to a car accident. I didn’t know which one killed him, but it didn’t really matter. We knew his father. He was a good man. The kind of man that makes people go, “He was a good man.” Just a week before that, a few of us had been over at his house, playing his Playstation 1 and eating his mother’s soybean pudding. His father had bombarded us with jokes that had us rolling on the floor. He was an insurance agent, but there are some things you can never insure against.
The news found us in our math class. By then, he’d left. For the rest of the class, fractions and decimals seemed like the most trivial of things in the world. Everyone was quiet. People cried. I don’t remember if I did. I do remember how I recovered from the experience the next day. “So a man died,” I told myself. “It’s going to happen to the rest of us eventually.”
Before his father’s, death was only a hypothetical. Death was only the what-if. Everyone dies; that includes actual people that I talk to, I realized. I often found myself wondering how that would happen. How will death come about for the people I love the most? How will it come about for me?
After that incident, I was a little wiser, though by not much. We all know death. Death is the only truly democratic institution. Death will come at the end of the line for everyone, but until then, in the meantime, there are things to do. Schools to go to, jobs to be done, people to hate. Death is always at the furthest horizon. I know it will happen to me one day, but today is not the day. Today is never the day.
Death is always only a future possibility. One never directly encounters one’s own death. The Epicurean formulation tells us that death is nothing to us. When one is alive, death is absent; when death is present, one is already absent. Death, the impossibility of all possibilities, is also the only possibility that will never ever be actualized. It can only be encountered through the passing away of others.
Consequently, the way we experience death is not by a heart attack nor a freak accident that happen to ourselves. One only ever experiences death indirectly by the passing away of others. Death is a funeral to attend, a gathering of relatives and friends. Death is the caterer serving greasy chow mein to people, the trivial conversations as people stick around long enough so that they don’t appear irreverent by leaving too early, and the peanuts people chew on absent-mindedly when there’s nobody to talk to. Death is a coffin to walk around when you have to go make pee-pee in the bathroom.
What astounded me about grandfather’s funeral was how little it resembled a funeral in my imagination. My grandfather’s funeral was the first funeral I’ve ever been to. Most Chinese funerals in Alor Setar took the same form, I imagined. The white tent in the front yard. The coffin in the front door looking out to the street. Except I’d never actually seen one before.
“Look away! Quick!” My mother would say when we rounded a corner and a white tent came into view. It was supposed to be bad luck to lay eyes on a funeral, especially for young people. I suppose I could look away, although not without a quick peek. But I rarely caught anything. Just a blur of whites and a heightened jolt of adrenaline at having broken a rule. It’s just superstition. Nothing’s gonna happen. But there was always that exhilarating possibility. What if something does?
Somehow, the bad luck didn’t matter anymore when it was your grandfather who died (though in such a situation, one would say one is already having quite a bad luck). Everyone was here. Relatives that I only saw once a year, relatives that I’d never seen, cousins that I only got to play with during the Chinese New Year. No one was crying their heart out like the people on TV. Indeed, the notable lack of tears and snot came as a surprise for me.
Instead, people were talking about schools and jobs and relationships. It was almost as if grandfather wasn’t dead, he just didn’t exist in the first place. What was in the coffin was not just a dead husband, a dead father, a dead friend or a dead grandfather. Whatever one called this thing in the coffin, it was simultaneously the not-me. Not yet. My turn will come. But not yet. But death will always only remain that. A not-yet. It will eventually happen to me, but let’s not talk about that yet. It’s a taboo; it’s of bad taste; it’s disrespectful. Let’s talk about that bitch across the street instead, or the principal who embezzled funds from the school, or the girl that the steel tycoon’s son just wedded. Eventually, we’ll all be dead and these won’t matter anyway but let’s not talk about that now. Let’s forget that there’s a dead man in the house.
I suppose I could drop the joss paper and join them, even if I didn’t understand all the “adult talk.” But where would the fun be if I did? Where would the fun be if I wasn’t acting like a moody seventeen-year-old, burning joss paper in the corner and going down the rabbit hole?
A motivational speaker once had us go through this cheesy exercise in school. On a piece of paper, draw what you wanted your gravestone to look like and to say when you die. Lacking any artistic talent whatsoever and being just a little rebellious, I handled the task with my own cheese. On my paper, I drew only one horizontal line. A non-existent gravestone. An empty plot of land. The implication of the question is clear. We do not actually fear death. In fact, people seemed to be planning it really well. What we fear is the anxiety that the knowledge of death brings about. The scariest thing about death is not that it will happen, but that it might happen before one ever does anything substantial with one’s life.
“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance,” Sartre wrote.
The tragedy of existence is not simply death; it is that we exist out of contingency in a world that cannot promise anything but suffering, and behind all these there is no guarantee of meaning in our lives.
If it seems like we have made any progress with this monologue on death, this progress is an illusion. I am nowhere closer to understanding death than when I started writing this. But it might be plausible for one to say that the hope is not to strip death naked of its phenomenological mysteriousness, but to understand how to live in the face of it.
Editor’s Note: Joss paper is a specific type of paper that mourners burn during Chinese funerals, representing money that the living are sending to the deceased in the after-life. The designs on joss paper range from simple squares of gold/silver to more elaborate Chinese writings and, depending on individual practices, joss paper may also be folded into shapes like ingots before they are burnt. This belief/practice then also extends to paper versions of things like the house, car and other objects mentioned in this story.