We cleared out our gong gong’s room over winter break. My grandma had already stripped the bed: hollowed it out and reduced it to its bones. His clothes and leftover diapers had been donated to a neighborhood old folks’ home. By his desk, in six uneven stacks, the last of his things lay unceremoniously on the floor. It had been less than a month since he passed away.
My sister and I crouched to our knees and faced the remains. Our task was to isolate the books into two piles: the contents of the first would be preserved by the family while the contents of the second would vanish in the hands of the karung guni, the man who flitted from apartment block to apartment block buying other people’s garbage. We had to be careful sorters. While we were still in school, one of our cousins had found a 50-dollar bill protruding from one of Gong Gong’s notebooks, so cash was at stake. What was also at stake was erasure: a permanent, and possibly unforgivable, forgetting.
We had always known that our gong gong was a fanatical notebook keeper who defaced every surface he could find, scrawling on newsletters, hotel notepads, and even calendars. But we had no idea of the extent until we bent before the monolith of books. I slid a book off the top of the stack and opened it.
Inside lay his handwriting: knotted Mandarin characters that meandered over the demarcated lines. I laid my palm on a creamy page, startled by what I had found. Words we had never been privy to.
Amongst the bronze-colored tapestries and gilded religious icons studding his office walls, Professor Bruce Gordon and I discuss how death was perceived in the Medieval period. This semester, Gordon, who is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the School of Divinity, is teaching a course called Death and Remembrance: The Black Death to World War I. I approach him because I am intrigued by the big-picture questions the course contemplates: How do traumatic moments of mass death alter collective memory? How do religiosity and secularism impact understandings of death? Most of all, how can the living remember the dead?
Professor Gordon’s area of academic focus is the religious cultures of the late-Medieval and early modern periods, so we talk about death through the vocabulary of Western theology. I feel comfortable doing this. My family is deeply Roman Catholic and has been ever since European missionaries descended upon the shores of Singapore and gave us rice in exchange for faith. Gong Gong was cremated wearing his Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion sash, rosary in hand.
European Christians from the Medieval era interpreted death based on their denomination, Professor Gordon tells me. In the late Medieval period, from the 12th century onward, Catholics believed the living and the dead shared an intimate relationship. Catholics subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, a “Middle Place” where the dead are cleansed before seeing God. This purification process is facilitated by the intercessions of the living. The living can devote prayers, requiem masses, charitable acts, and more in honor of the dead. In that way, Medieval period Catholics believed only a hazy line separated them from their deceased loved ones. The dead required the continued prayers of the living to move on.
The course Professor Gordon is teaching this semester is all about memory and commemoration. During the peak of the Black Plague, people died so often that death assumed personhood in popular imagination, eventually evolving into the cult icon that is the Grim Reaper. Nearly six centuries later, during World War I, there were so many unclaimed bodies that bodies lost their individuality. How could these people, whose bodies were never identified, whose bodies saturate hasty graves, be remembered?
“In medieval culture, one of people’s greatest fears was to be forgotten,” Professor Gordon tells me. “There was this form of anxiety that, once they were dead, people would forget who they were. [That they] would not pray for them. Ghost stories were developed during this period. Ghosts were people who were forgotten.”
In the first essay I ever wrote at Yale, I wrote about Gong Gong. In it, I described him as a buoy amidst our tide of activity and childish laughter. I wrote that as he sat, barefooted, in his rocking chair—his quintessential post-dinner pose—a sheet of glass separated him from us and “it was difficult to see how much he saw, or cared to see.” I called him “a fly on the wall, a bystander in the careening of our lives.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen him clearly. The assignment of that essay was to write about a single autobiographical event. I chose to write about Gong Gong’s third and most recent stroke, but I hadn’t even been there when it happened. The news of his fall had been relayed to me, over the phone, across an ocean, after the fact. By the time I knew, the danger was averted and his heartbeat had calmed. I wrote the essay to unhook myself from the guilt.
I am nine, eleven, thirteen. Gong Gong pats my head on his way to the bathroom. He flattens his palm against the crest of my scalp—this being his benediction. I tousle his touch out of my hair the moment he turns on his heel.
I am nine, eleven, thirteen. As we walk to the market, Gong Gong’s feet drag against the sidewalk—each step requires shoulder-sagging, back-congealing effort. I loosely cup his upper arm, producing an impression of physical touch. I fixate on retreating backs and whirring traffic until, at last, I can spring free, detach, release my breath.
I am nine, eleven, thirteen. My mom lobs a tearful accusation at me in the hallway: Are you disgusted by him? I am embarrassed by her volume and insist I am not. How could she suggest something so terrible?
In that first essay, I only faced the possibility of guilt, a future where I’d lost all chances of making reparations. And now, his ashes lie in a metal box in the church basement, and I see that the first essay I wrote in college was never about him.
At 12:25 p.m. on Jun. 3, 1994, Gong Gong wrote a letter home. He was in New York. The weather that afternoon was breezy and pleasant. He joined a tour group for the day, and the ticket (which included lunch) cost him 49 dollars. He was annoyed by his tour guide, who kept chattering nonstop. Although he couldn’t understand most of what the guide was saying, the rambling made him sleepy.
Gong Gong’s letters are extremely detailed. Every letter begins with an inscription of the date, the day of the week, and the time at which he is writing. Every hour of the day, and how he spent it, is accounted for. We are there with him in Baltimore, Sanya, Tokyo. He recounts an incident where my grandma gets terrorized by a monkey. He describes a particularly juicy cut of chicken.
He writes with a voice I have never heard him use. He sketches a diagram of my aunt’s new apartment. He is a frequent abuser of the exclamation mark. He is sassy, ironic, pious. He scatters English in all-caps amongst his neatly-ordered Chinese: CANTEEN, SHOPPING, ICE-CREAM.
In one letter, he is homesick. “Hello, everybody! Without realizing it, it has already been two weeks. During this time, I have really missed you all! Especially my wife—in our 33 years of marriage, this will be only the second time that I’ll be away from you for more than three weeks. This is awful! The first time I had to leave you and the kids [for such a long period of time] was because I needed to support the family as a salesman. When I think back on those days, that time was so unbearable!” I tear up reading it. I tell my grandma, who is buried in old letters as well, that I’ve found something she might want to see. She looks at me; I immediately regret saying anything. Of course she doesn’t want to read it.
Three days into the wake, my mom has a script down, a practised way of recounting how he died. Each retelling begins with “No one thought he would die.” He entered the hospital with a slight fever. The local clinic said he’d be fine. He’d already survived three strokes unscathed. He was a fighter. No one thought he would die.
According to my aunt, his final moments were like something wrenched from a Taiwanese drama. He was sedated. They were chanting prayers to Mother Mary, asking for her intercession. For hours, his heartbeat was steadily at 50. Then, as she turned her eyes to the monitor, she saw the exact moment that his heart stopped. Fifty slid to 39. Thirty-nine to zero. A low buzzing. Silence.
After his cremation, bedraggled and tired on the bus ride back, we talked about regrets. A recurring regret was the ventilator. A few hours before he died, Gong Gong was thrashing, revolting against the ventilator. He wanted it off. Maybe it chafed him. Perhaps it was uncomfortable. But no one released him, so his final words were likely discharged on an errant exhale, sucked into a void by an unhearing cone, which funneled back hot air.
I ask Father Ryan about mourning and when it is sacrilegious. Father Ryan Lerner is the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Chaplain of Yale’s Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel & Center. I ask him, “Since we, as Catholics, believe that there is life after death, and that this life after death is good and glorious, can the process of grieving ever be seen as a lack of faith?”
“It’s human to grieve,” he responds. He guides me to a section of the funeral mass procedure: the Preface of the Dead. “Here,” he points to a line in the book, “we pray for the consolation of those who mourn the dead.” He turns a page. “And here, it says ‘life is changed, not ended.’ This is our belief. Our relationships only change. They don’t end. Your grandfather is still your grandfather. You are still his granddaughter.”
He hands me a scanned copy of the funeral mass to take home. He tells me to note one part during which the deceased is once again blessed with their baptismal rites. I circle it in red and think about holy water, screeching babies, my gong gong being cleansed. Still my gong gong, but unburdened.
“Tonight, I walked a circle around the neighborhood looking to buy durian. I ended up walking home empty-handed! I felt indignant so I took Bus 99 to Jurong East to buy the durian…It wasn’t bad. I ate until I was very full! I ate 18 pieces of durian in one go. I broke my previous record; usually I only need to eat four pieces or five to feel full. As I was eating my durian, I thought of my dad!” My sister sends our mom a photo of this note, which was scrawled by Gong Gong on an innocuous half-filled notebook.
She texts back: “His dad had been dead for so long, and yet he was still thinking about him. I think I will miss my dad, too, for a very, very long time.”
My grandma lined up the reject pile with string and gave it to the karung guni for free. The rest we saved. Who exactly in the family will get to keep them is still uncertain. I hold onto a blue Sanyo calendar he’d never used, marked for the year 2000, for myself. I brought it with me to school. I will write in it soon.