They called me on Monday to tell me that my grandfather was dead. Forty hours later I was home, travel-worn and half blind in the harsh light of a tropical sun. Our driver, Krishnan, met me as I emerged from the airport gates.
“Let me get that for you,” he said, stooping down to take my solitary bag. Too disoriented in the light and heat to protest that I could manage on my own, I let him help me bundle my bag into the back of the car. Krishnan put his hand on the boot to close it, then paused.
“I’m sorry about your grandfather. He was a good man.” I nodded, made awkward by the rituals of condolence. We stood, silent and unsure, for a moment. “I guess we better get you home,” he said by way of breaking the silence, and closed the boot with a quick slam. “The whole family’s back and they’re just waiting for you to begin.” Wordlessly, I climbed into the car and we began the drive home.
You don’t realize how much you’ve missed home until you come back to it from a long absence. As Singapore sped by my car window, it seemed to me that every sight along the street bookmarked a specific memory, a catalogue of my childhood captured in the half hour from the airport to my home.
There, the field Father used to take me to every Sunday for soccer, and there the bench where he would sit and watch as I kept goal and abler kids played ball. There, my old high school with its white-washed walls of plaster that still bore the marks of a thousand scrambling boys. There, the tree where I sheltered from a storm and stole my first kiss, my head heady with the smell of her and the sound of rain. And there, the street lamp below my bedroom window, its light a point of reference on the sleepless nights where nothing in my head could stay still, my one unchanging constant in those teenage years of flux. There. Here.
I was already blinking back tears when we pulled up outside my house. A cloud of relatives and family friends descended on me as I got out of the car, a hubbub of somber voices and tearful eyes that ushered me into the house and up to my room, where a funereal suit of black and white lay, neatly pressed, on my bed. They closed the door to let me change and I sat there for a while, listening to their receding voices replete with the slang and accent that living abroad had eroded in mine. It was then, overcome, that I let myself cry.
I cried again as I saw Grandfather lying in his coffin, wearing his death as lightly as he had worn his old robe, mouth half-open as if it had caught him between one yawn and the next. But I did not know if I cried for him or for a home long missed that had, with his passing, become a little bit stranger.
The funeral itself passed me by in a blur of incense and ritual I barely understood. Kneel. Stand up. Bow. Kneel again. Light your joss sticks. Place your joss sticks. Mourn, and watch as your grandfather is wheeled into a kiln and transmuted into the next life with a bout of cleansing fire.
Later that night, when the last mourners had departed, my cousins and I gathered around our dining table to eat and catch up.
“Good to be home?” asked Eldest Cousin, who had come back from his studies London a few weeks ago.
“Yeah,” I replied, helping myself to another serving of food.
Eldest Cousin glanced towards the high-backed chair that sat, empty, at the head of the table. “But it’s kind of strange not having him here. I never really thought he’d actually die, you know – I thought we’d just wake up one day to find Death himself standing in Grandfather’s bedroom, pulling his own ears as hard as he could and trying not to wet himself with fear.”
I grinned, recalling my own memories of Grandfather’s peculiar method of punishing us for our childhood misdeeds.
“Yeah, I hear you. Were you with him, at the end?”
Eldest Cousin nodded. “We all were.”
“Don’t blame yourself. They said not to tell you because you were taking your exams,” Second Cousin said. I thought I could hear a little guilt in her voice.
I sighed. “I know, I know. It’s just… I don’t know- just, I feel like this was more important than whatever grade I’ll end up getting.”
Eldest Cousin gave a resigned shrug. “I thought so too, but I guess the adults had a point. He got bad so quickly that even if we’d told you you’d never have made it back in time.”
“But I could have Skyped, or called, or something! I’m sure I would have found a way.” I gnawed my lower lip in frustration. “I owed him that, at the very least. To have been there with him- to have been home. It’s like, if you can’t even be there at the end, what else is there?”
“It’s just crazy to think that he passed away while I was sleeping in my dorm room,” I continued. “And nothing happened. Nothing changed. No one called me or told me or anything and I just slept right through it.
“I feel like if I couldn’t have been there I should have at least known. To be able to point to something and say: I was doing this or that when my grandfather died. Maybe I couldn’t have been there, but it should have meant something to me… more than, like, a postscript to my tests?”
I thought of my grandfather slipping away between one minute and the next while, halfway across the world, I lay peacefully in bed. I fell silent, overwhelmed.
“I think I understand. I think I would have been pretty cut up if I hadn’t been here,” said Second Cousin. “But what’s done is done. You should get some sleep- we’ve got to wake up early tomorrow to go back to the temple and I expect to hear all about America afterwards.”
“We’re going back to the temple?”
“Yeah. We have to collect Grandfather’s bones.”
The morning, when it came, dawned overcast. The air in the temple reeked of humidity and a coming shower, weighing oppressively on our spirits and our speech. I slouched morosely against a pillar as we waited for the temple workers to collect Grandfather’s remains.
“I don’t see why we have to do this. The whole thing feels rather macabre.”
“It’s tradition,” snapped First Aunt, restlessly fidgeting with her iPhone. “Just grin and bear it, alright?”
“They’re ready for us,” said Eldest Cousin.
We stirred ourselves from our various stages of repose, arranging ourselves in line according to the directions of the presiding monk. Eldest son first. Second son next. Youngest son after. My aunts behind their brothers, arranged according to age. Last of the immediate family were us grandchildren, and the extended family brought up the rear.
We entered a small antechamber, where Grandfather’s remains had been placed in a large black basin. A temple worker handed First Uncle a pair of ceremonial chopsticks which had been ritually doused in flower water. Kneeling reverently before the basin, First Uncle picked out a fragment of bone that had survived the cremation and transferred it to an urn that the presiding monk cradled in his arms. One by one, the adults followed suit, picking apart their father piece by piece and reassembling him in the urn that would serve as his final resting place.
But when it was finally my turn to approach Grandfather’s bones, I was suddenly struck by how silly this whole thing was. His flame-bleached bones looked small and ridiculous and crumbled to the touch, and try as I might I could not imagine that those fragile things had held up Grandfather’s frame. Those were not my grandfather’s bones. They were the bones of a doll or a child. And from a certain angle the basin looked, incongruously, like a wok. It was as if some hellish chef had charred a child’s toy in his dish and then served it up to us in a twisted practical joke. My hand trembled as I picked up a piece of Grandfather’s skull. To those watching it must have seemed like I was overcome with grief. In reality, I shook with laughter suppressed.
Our ride back home began in a kind of thick silence – a silence not like the kind of quiet you get in times of grief or concentration, but a silence heavy with anticipation, when everyone wants to say something but no one dares say it. As we stopped at what seemed like the umpteenth red light, Eldest Cousin finally took it upon himself to break the excruciating silence.
“Did anyone else think that the basin looked something like a wok?”
We glanced at one another, and realizing that our elders were in another car and that we had all been thinking the same thing, we began to grin. Then to chuckle. Then to laugh. We laughed at life, death and everything in between; at our parents, at ourselves, at ritual and at the feeling of being once again under a familiar sky.
We laughed until laughter merged into tears; and from the sound of our laughter and the taste of my tears, I knew I was finally home, where we had buried the bones of our grandfather.