Tomb Sweeping Day
I remember when I first heard the news. A grave Sergeant Timothy, the curious taste of tears mixed with camouflage cream and the pain. In the bunk, my phone displayed 16 missed calls, five messages and a timestamp telling me I had missed Yeye’s (paternal grandfather) last moments by six hours. Traditional Chinese funerals in Singapore seemed almost anachronistic, and Yeye’s death had brought the administrative burden of one to bear upon both his sons. An undertaker and priests were engaged. The void deck converted into a reception area, housed both the altar and coffin. Death was an unfamiliar visitor but we welcomed Him nonetheless.
I spent most of the day leafing through “Kokoro” and entertaining visitors. At night, the males in the family were to keep vigil over the body and renew incense at the altar, but Bofu (uncle, my father’s elder brother) and his son were forbidden from touching the “unholy.” I distracted myself with the Internet as my father lit the first coil of sandalwood of the night. I was a product of my time after all. The sweet, cloying scent crept toward me and waves of nostalgia, followed closely by acute grief, assailed my consciousness. “Christians,” my father muttered.
“Christians,” I echoed.
My father, whom I had always known as a strong and even often stubborn man, was at present reduced to a flickering shadow of his former self. His bloodshot eyes and seemingly gaunt features were evidently reflective of the weariness within. He had inherited the responsibility of an eldest son by virtue of a divergence between his and Bofu’s faith. As the hours passed, I listened to him complain many a time about how divorced from tradition my uncle and his family had become and how they had chosen God over Yeye. I managed only weak nods and murmurs of assent. I was no Christian, but it was unlikely that my father’s own death would ever see such an elaborate reception.
Yeye was an emperor, I used to say. Born in the year of the Dragon, Yeye was an aptly royal source of entertainment to my 7-year-old sensibilities. Giggling, I would prostrate myself before him as court officials did, repeating between kowtows, “May you live tens of thousands of years Great Emperor!” I was reminded of this as I admired the large paper palace commissioned for Yeye. As I stood before the palace mere minutes before the burning commenced, it took on a curious incandescence, street lighting and foil paper conspiring to give it the appearance of a living, breathing entity. Tiny palace maids adorned the steps leading up to the entrance where imperial guards stood. Chinese dragons atop the roofs stared down at anyone who approached as did a pair of stone lions below. All of it felt complete for the send-off save for the anachronistic silver sedan. Yeye was a taxi driver before he retired. I held my breath as I felt a stab of pain with that realization.
Paper ingots were already heaped below the palace. Lit matchsticks were thrown. My parents started adding the rest of the folded ingots. The undertaker decided to help, reaching into the bags of foil-paper. Bofu and his wife stood behind us, watching as the conflagration burst into existence. Smoke and ash danced in the air as I felt tears brimming in my eyes once more. I wondered again what we were grieving over. Yeye had stopped responding to my addresses for about a year now. Had no one else noticed?
At the crematorium, Yeye’s body had just been sent onward on its final journey. I could feel the heat emanating from behind the glass. Yet curiously, I could summon no tears or sobs, only a pervasive sensation of nothingness until the guilt of apparent indifference set in. I stole a look at my father. He was looking down at the ground, face ashen. It was not a complicated affair. In fact, the cremation itself was underwhelming. In a mere matter of minutes, all began to retire from the viewing gallery.
Bofu’s daughter was weeping, her husband’s comforting arm around her shoulders, when my father breaking into sobs, turned to her and began, almost chiding, in Mandarin:
“You remember! Remember how Yeye used to dote on, used to take care of you! All these years! Raising you! Cooking! Sending you to school! Remember!”
All his resentment toward Bofu and his family seemed to culminate in that single outburst. My father stood there, alone, resolute and defiant. He was the last line of defense against an insurmountable enemy, fully cognizant of his own imminent destruction. I watched him there sobbing and my chest felt a familiar constriction. And yet I could only watch.
We shared our love for Yeye, but held different conceptions of it. Duty to my father could not be decoupled from love. Passion without commitment would be of a vapid, meaningless sort, founded on empty words and transcendent impulses. But love for me was unconditional, boundless, timeless and vulnerable, the kind he had never been inclined toward. I walked with my father to the car as the evening cicadas conversed in our place. In the car especially, the silence was deafening. We stared ahead. Without thinking, I spoke.
“When is Tomb-Sweeping Day? Take me to sweep the tombs next year.” My father stayed silent. Watery eyes refusing to meet my own, he reached out to clasp my hand in his.
It was brief.
But it was enough.