On 25 October my grandma passed away and I remember the sun felt peculiar.
Sitting at a computer finishing up my essay, I received a call from an unknown number. It was my father calling on my cousin’s mobile.
“Your grandma passed away just now. She left in peace,” he said with his usual calmness.
I wasn’t sure what to say. The last few days I had been visiting my grandma at the hospital. We all saw it coming.
A bridge of silence between the two phones.
“So, should I come home and have dinner?” I asked, initiating a conversation – wanting to make sure if he was truly calm, perhaps I would hear him choking up with sobbing.
“Yeah. Come back for dinner. Same time, be back at eight,” he replied.
We said our goodbyes like in every phone call, only to ask if I would be back for dinner. Some yeses and some noes without asking anything much.
I hung up and looked around, only to see students buried in their work at their computers. Each keystroke, each insert and backspace counting down to a deadline for an assignment. Counting down and counting down.
At that moment I suddenly realised the world simply does not stop for death; rather, death only accelerates life with torturous speed. Death somehow disguised as the teeth of a wheel, grinding your delicate face. And when death touches you, you mistake it for the polluted air.
I walked out of the dim computer room, my face instantly stung by the blazing sun. Where do the deceased go? For I had never heard grandma say what she imagined the afterlife would be like. Hence, I could not equip myself with sufficient imagination.
I imagine my grandma lingering in the all-consuming sun, watching me. I could not make sense of her rays, whether they were blessing my skin with warmth or roasting me with curses.
Like they say, “I wish she is now in a better place.” A silent better place where her life story is played backwards, each second, each frame. Every frame only to celebrate and commemorate her once infinite youth. Her vitality will soothe her wrinkles and her loosened skin.
The dark freckles on her cheeks will undo themselves and burn brighter than the sun that I was staring at. The sun ray stung me again but brought me back to my presence. I paused to ponder if she is, the sun or just the toxic dust shrouding it, blocking my vision.
The traffic light turned to green, signalling me to walk towards the MTR station heading home.
The metal gate to the flat was left half open to air the place. I knocked on the gate, peeking through the slats—the table, just next to the door, was already set. We had a tiny but sufficient flat.
“I’m coming. Wait a second,” my father shouted from the kitchen. I heard a bunch of vegetables sent to the heated wok, the sizzling sound quickly silenced by the moisture and steam it released. My father opened the gate. I said my greetings to my father, suddenly recalling my grandma lecturing me on manners while twisting my ears.
I stole a quick glance at my father’s expression to see if my greeting him induced any sadness. It was just his ordinary stern expression. He quickly drew his back to the kitchen—the vegetables on the stove top were burning.
It was a dinner for two—my father and me.
I sat at my usual spot as my father served stir-fried broccoli with beef slices. A dish of tomatoes and scrambled eggs with diced spring onion. Small dishes for two people. Just enough.
I turned on the TV and switched to the cooking show. We started eating—never critiquing my father’s cooking, we just ate while we watched the competitors of the cooking show produce their delicate dishes within the one-hour limit but condensed into five minutes of screen time.
I scooped a little hill of rice into my mouth together with some scattered pieces of scrambled egg—pretending it was a delicate dish I was tasting. Often, we turned on the TV, let the judges’ merciless commentary override and fill up the silence.
It was an unspoken agreement between us not to talk about life or anything in general. There’s an old Chinese saying, “No speech while eating, no talk while sleeping”—a Chinese virtue of keeping silent. But the TV was loud.
But my grandma passed away today: how could I succumb to this silence? His back turned to me, with his bowl in his hand, eating in front of the television. I could not see his face.
Was he grieving, mourning? Or was he like me, trying to make sense of “death”? The TV screen had a glitch for a brief second, creating a momentary gap of silence. I envisioned the ghostly spirit of my grandma returning and joining us for dinner. Her blurry limbs now charged with the exact silence that conjured her. She sat across from me, silent like a woman with no name, wielding her chopsticks in mid-air, asking me to return her voice and story. She became only visible to me. Staring at me, she signalled me to ask my father.
“You’ve never told me anything about grandma, really.” That was not technically a question but an accusation borne out of fear. I was suddenly aware of the bluntness with which I caught my father off guard.
“I just assume you know. Like… you feel things,” he quickly responded. I could feel—but only his wish to shut out any “unnecessary” conversation. He pushed a few buttons on the remote; the TV howled louder. My grandma’s gaze was dead set on me, her mouth murmuring something with weak emotion. I could not read her dead lips but I knew she wanted more from me, more from my father, more from her son.
“I know, but how were you raised? Did something happen?” I pursued. Saying this I realised I had nothing but a blank page, not even a random scribble of my father’s history.
He did not stop eating. He then told me a brief story, but he told it in a way that did not give it any unwanted weight and moral.
“Your grandma lived a double life—to her four children, she was the dragon lady; but to your grandpa, she was the subservient wife. The fact that I was the eldest boy in the family meant I was the successor. Your grandparents gave me most of their resources—education, travel, even later when your grandpa died he passed on the fabric company to me. It was the most reasonable thing to do, in a Chinese kind of way. The other siblings’ resentment and jealousy grew throughout the years. They hated me for being the eldest son, for having taken up most of the family’s resources.”
He quickly summarized, then swallowing a mouthful of rice, continued eating.
“Your aunties, uncles are crazies. Especially your auntie Kuen. Even back in the days when girls were not allowed to go to school, I remember your grandpa trying to provide her with an education. But she messed up. She didn’t cherish what was given to her and later dropped out of school and grew more hostile and distant to the family. She got an accountancy job, married someone but divorced three months after they moved in together. She has been single ever since. And she blames everything on me, just like your uncle. After grandpa died, they fought like dogs over you’re his will and heritage. Bunch of crazies.”
“Do you think you are part of the reason Auntie Kuen is now the way she is?”
The question rushed through my lips, and part of my mind immediately regretted I asked it. I was also enthralled because, at last, I was restoring history from my oblivious childhood. A hungry void finally being fed.
My father hesitated with a look of surprise.
“Why should I feel guilty? I said she has messed up. Your mother and I have always kept your crazy aunts and uncles away. There was simply no need to know or to make contact with such people.”
I could feel my father wanted to keep a distance.
I wanted to keep asking, but suddenly I became aware I was interrogating my father at the dinner table, for answers he was trying to hide. Perhaps I was still too young to comprehend things. I wanted to ask if he thought grandma and grandpa were good parents or if he thought of himself as a good father.
Though truth at times hurts but when you set it aside, the wound will no longer hurt but it will still sting you with immense curiosity. A confused curiosity torn between healthy mourning and pure melancholia. Was I doing the “right” thing? To fix the incurable history? To look at the other side of the story and return their voices? Or am I trying to befriend ghosts and enemies or to simply destroy this peaceful silence between what is distant and me?
I wanted to stop asking myself.
After picking up the plates and the leftover food, I tied the black apron around my waist and took a good look at the dirty dishes, almost admiringly. Through the stained pan and wok, one could have guessed what was served at dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I rather enjoy washing dishes for therapeutic reasons. I had a clear memory of my mother holding my hand to remove the gunk blocking the water. “Every dirty thing can be cleaned,” she said, and now I could see the bubbly water creating a gentle swirl.
Strangely I always relate washing dishes to my gay identity—the common gay jargon “it gets better” equates to my mother’s lesson, as if to agree being gay is dirty. To my family, it indeed is.
This dirty big secret stained the plates with red ketchup, yellow mustard, chunks of green celery—left unconsumed, wasted, swirling in the bubbly water. I put my hand in the greasy water and purged the blockage into the thin plastic bag with subtle disgust. For I have a secret story that had been shackled by the white-noise of the cooking show, waiting to burst out at any moment, with pride. It then transformed into a pickled side-dish served along with other dishes as a topic of concern, of love and of friendship. Yet I could only see them flushed to waste by my own hands.
Using the wire brush, I scrubbed the pot with brutal force. “Will truth ever be revealed to me? Will my story ever be revealed, told and retold to my children, to my closest ones?” I thought to myself. The blurry silver moon hung low as I viewed it from the wide kitchen window. Yet I saw the sun.
My grandma was there, tracing the outlines of the globe, veiled by a silky silver fog. She has gained her voice and intelligence over the moon and incarnated into a silent warning. Her grey fog danced a riddle for me to guess. No more guessing! Grandma, what is the answer? What is the moral you are trying to teach?
I untied the black apron and hung it on the back of the door, only to see my father napping on the couch in the living room, possibly dreaming. What was he dreaming about? Seeing the edge of his lips moving, I couldn’t stop myself wondering if he was haunted by grief.
I realised I have always been asking myself these questions that have at last re-emerged and broken the water surface. But at the same time I have so many prepared answers to be questioned, to be revealed.
This is a slightly edited version of the award-winning original, available here. The story won the Most Creative Award in Hong Kong’s Top Story 2016 competition.
Jeff Chow is a third-year student at the Department of English Language and Literature. When not reading, he is busy making puns. [Read all entries by or about Jeff.]