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..: stories

..: Tales of the Travelling Mourner

1991. Cypress, California. He passed away in the bathroom of their one story home. A massive heart attack, he collapsed with nobody to say goodbye to him. Just the awful multi-thump of a body hitting the porcelain and the ground. It's the kind of sound that is so loud and large it can only be a body. His wife rushed into the bathroom, but by then it was already too late. His younger daughter, typically outspoken and lacking in self-control, screamed hysterically. Both of them were screamed. The man in their lives was helpless, and was dead. Or was dying. Why don't you call 911? Why don't you? I can't hear what you're saying. What will we do? Why is he so heavy? Please dad, please wake up. Please husband, wake up, I still need you.

The oldest daughter arrived at the hospital hours later. Alone. She hurried into the hospital. The answering machine told her which hospital to go to, but nobody said anything about her dad's condition. From the screaming and crying she heard on the recording, she knew it was bad. She found her family. Her mother, opened her mouth, about to console her with the right crafted words. But it was her sister who she heard. "Dad's dead!" was what her sister blurted out. That's how she heard the news. From the hysterical thoughtless sister. Hearts sank, people collapsed into themselves, onto each other.

The next day, the family started to argue. First, about whether or not they should tell grandma; her oldest son was dead, certainly she would be able to bear it. But she was coming to town tomorrow. Let's not tell her. Let's tell her after the funeral. Let's tell her he's in a coma right now. From a stroke. No, she's smart, she'll figure it out. No, she can't bear it. And then the family argued over the ceremony. Certainly he was Catholic. No, he wasn't really. He needs a traditional Vietnamese ceremony. No, the rest of the family was Catholic. He should have a Catholic ceremony.

The Saturday of the funeral was hot. A small tent was set up, with some folding chairs. A large hole had been dug. Some words were said. The coffin lowered. The massive earthmover started up. It's engines deafening. It pushed dirt into the hole, covering the box. The earthmover's operator had a blank expression. Once the hole was filled with dirt, he used the back end of the machine's shovel to pound down the earth. It moved us beneath our feet. It caused several women to faint. Onto and over metal folding chairs, and more hysterical weeping.

I couldn't wait to leave.

1995. The Grapevine, California. Her father was driving home from a class reunion. He fell asleep on that straight, dark stretch of road going over 60mph. His SUV went off the road, and rolled several times.

His oldest daughter called me the next day. "I can't go to work. Please tell Gale. He passed away. We can't get any information. We keep getting the runaround. How can this happen?"

She arrived to her first day of work about a week late. Her desk was next to mine. What she didn't know was what we did at this company. We defended SUV manufacturers whose vehicles had rolled over and injured or killed people. As part of the job, we routinely watched crash test footage. Every angle, every speed, on crystal clear LaserDisc. The crashes were violent, slow-motion, beautiful. Glass and particles exploded across asphalt as metal gave way without resistance. Was that four rolls or five? I can't tell.

"Perry, they didn't give us any information. We found out the most about his death from the Korean newspapers, of all places. My dad is very well known. I am furious that the police told us less than the reporters. Why should we have to find out this way? When they found the car, they said that one of his favorite sermons was in the cassette deck. He was listening to a sermon when he fell asleep."

Gale was sympathetic. She arranged for her grieving employee to meet with the manufacturers of the SUV her father was driving. The company did some investigating, and set up a meeting to show the results. Gale and she took the short drive to their offices. The legal team came in and placed photos on the table. They cried together for some time. Turns out Gale's brother was also killed in an SUV rollover. The lawyers left them to weep.

When they got back to the office, Gale sent her home early. The one time I had ever seen her show compassion.

Secretly, I always thought she had used the moment to establish a business connection with this SUV manufacturer. It was one of the few Japanese manufacturers she didn't already work with. I don't know.

1996. Taipei, Taiwan. Dad's mother had passed away. I remember Grandma. She was overweight, had thick glasses, and was never nice to me. She was an awful eyesore, and as a young boy I didn't like her. Once, she locked me out of the house when I came home from school. She didn't like me either.

Dad and I flew to Taipei. From the airport, the cab took us to the funeral facility, a massive campus of mourning buildings nested at the base of a large green mountain. A series of smokestacks came from a large building at the far end of the complex. We drove around back. The entire alley here was filled with small altars in tribute of the recently deceased. Flies made homes on the rice bowls and other food left there. We burned a few stacks of fake money in the fire. Our relatives took us to their home, which was on the bottom floor of what must have been a 30-story run down apartment. This was Dad's little brother. I'd never seen him before. He looked a little like Dad, but not really.

The funeral was a few days later. We went back to the facility. Over my suit, I was dressed all in white. They had hired a Taoist priest who showed up in a silver-grey suit, cigarette in hand. Our funeral was to be held in a cold room about the size of a classroom. The chairs were bolted to the ground. The front of the room had a large table, covered with flowers and fruit. In the corner, a small disinterested band of musicians made bland electronic and traditional noises on their equipment. Dad said it was time for us to get the body. I followed him and the family behind the table, behind a curtain, and through a door that led to a large hallway that joined all the rooms like this one. In the hall were many tables with wheels. The director led us down the hall, where we passed members of the a marching band. They had brass instruments and drums, and were lounging in the hall, waiting for the next session. We turned the corner, and the group of us were under florescent lights, standing over the automatic floor sensors. On both sides of us, the sliding doors automatically opened, and then closed, alternating our views into those rooms. The rooms were where the bodies were. They were all there, some in the walls in cabinets, some laid out on cardboard on the floor. None of them were disrobed, or covered in sheets, like you see in the movies. They were laying there, wearing the clothes they were brought in with. Pools of liquid were under my feet, and stench was everywhere. What was taking so long? I want to get out of here. They found the body, which wheeled by me a little too closely. We halted in the hall's staging area. The marching band assembled ahead of us, single file. And then there was music. Loud, New Orleans style funeral march. We moved down the hall, back towards our room. We arrived, and I stole a glance at Grandma. She was so thin now. I would not have known it was her. They put her in a gown, and Dad's sister applied bright red lipstick in a sickening way on to her lips. They left the body there behind the curtain, and we returned to our seats for the ceremony. The priest directed us to bow as each person came up to pay their respects. On and on, words spoken and we bowed. For about an hour and a half.

Dad went behind the curtain to pay his last respects. I saw him take off his glasses, and he put his arm around his sister. It was the first and only time I had ever seen him cry. I wondered if I should hug him, or stand close to him. But I didn't. I was an outsider here, I thought.

Hours later, we took the body to the building with the smokestacks. The incinerators. The coffins were lined up like big boxes waiting at checkout registers. Each coffin had a large framed picture of its occupant. Next to Grandma's box was the picture of a pretty young woman. We left the box there, and came back in a few hours. We waited behind a counter, and a man emerged with a container. He poured bits of bone and black ash into the urn Aunt had brought.

More ceremonies over the next few days. Then Dad and I toured the city, and then the island. "I grew up in this house," he would tell me. "This was where I went to high school when I moved to the city. That's the library I would spend all my time at. And that's the museum I visited, but it didn't look like this." I tried to imagine him sitting there as a young man by the pond, reading or watching girls pass. No images came to mind.

We left Taipei, travelled South to the mansion where he spent some of his youth. I recognized it from some old photos, but never realized it was set back behind an alley just steps from a busy main street. I always pictured it to be in an open field somewhere. The mansion was dilapidated. A large portion in the back had been demolished. The oldest brother had bought out all the other siblings, and lived there occasionally with his wife. They had destroyed the building in order to dissuade the government from taking the structure from them by force; the mansion was one of the few of its kind in Taiwan that was made from brick, and so used to be very valuable. We stayed there the night. That night I woke up and urinated into a plastic bucket. Crawled back into bed, and pulled the netting back over.

The next day a cousin picked us up in his Accord. Took us to Sun Moon Lake. When we arrived it was late, and we checked into a hotel. Dad and I had separate rooms. It was the first time we had slept in separate rooms since arriving in this country, I think. I slept well. We toured the lake the next day. Ate at a lakeside place that only sold shrimp and thin cans of Pepsi. We went out to Aboriginal World, one of Taiwan's few amusement parks. There were a dozen or so separate re-creations of authentic aboriginal villages found around Taiwan. And many shows. And a small tram took us around.

On one of these days, I visited my mother's father, who had been sick in bed in his home for several years. I had spent a lot of time with him when I was younger, and he was a strict but loving man. A doctor by profession, he demanded quite a bit from his children. Typically my dad, he cut our visit as short as possible. Grandma tried to serve us food, and had even prepared some things. The house was small, and I spoke briefly with Grandpa. His hands were so soft. He held my hands as he gingerly spoke kind words to me about how I should live and how glad he was that I visited. We probably only stayed about 5 minutes total. I don't know how Dad could spend so many hours touring and vacationing with me and only a few minutes here. I didn't understand it. This was going to be the last time I would see Grandpa alive, we both knew it. Why did we have to leave so quick? Grandma followed us out to the car, wished us well. Nobody hugged or anything, and so I didn't hug her. Oh how I wanted to hug her and tell her I would miss her. But I didn't know the words. I was useless.

Dad and I visited the Middle City, and saw my Aunt. She and her husband had recently moved back to Taiwan, as was the trend with many of those who had taken their children to the States and had grown tired of making a living there. We stood there on the street, in front of a medical clinic that was undergoing renovation. She had just purchased it, and was going to set up a clinic for her husband here. He was a doctor when he left Taiwan so many years ago, but in the states he ran small food shops in malls, and later a shoe store. I vaguely recognized this clinic as Grandpa's, from the last time I was in Taiwan, when I was five years old.

We travelled to the East side of the island, accessible only by airplane. Toured the gorge that was the main attraction of this side of the island; lush green mountains cut through by a river that was pure jade in color. The water was bright turquoise; looking up you never saw the tops of the mountains, just the thick cloud layer. It was another world here in the gorge. Hundreds of Taiwanese men died here blasting the road away so we could drive in here and enjoy the beauty of this place. We drove about an hour into the gorge. According to the map at the visitor center, we were only about half-way in. It kept going and going.

The final week of our stay, we travelled south to the bottom of the island. Dad was speaking throughout our visit -- on television, on radio, in parks. He was a major voice in the Taiwanese human rights movement. He had friends everywhere. The final night in the southern city, we ate fish at a military compound. I got food poisoning, and found myself spending four hours in a Taipei emergency room. In Taiwan, they don't give you paper towels or anything to clean yourself with. I was vomiting and in so much pain. The gave me meds so I could vomit. But we had to catch a plane the next day. On the plane they gave me meds so I wouldn't vomit. And so it was like that for the thirteen-hour flight home. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn't.

1996. Middle west region, Taiwan. Grandpa passed away a month after my return from my last trip to Taiwan. Mom had travelled ahead, and was already in Taiwan. When she learned that I was coming too, she called and warned me that this was no vacation. "You are coming to show proper respect, not goof around" she told me coldly. I agreed, and reassured her. I arrived in Taipei in the afternoon, alone. Waited about an hour for someone to greet me there, but nobody came. It was my cousin Tony and his dad that found me. We boarded a bus for the middle west region. The city was called "Middle City" in Taiwanese. I was reunited with mom at the clinic, now run by Uncle and Aunt. Jason and Jerry were there too. These were my closest cousins. We had grown up together in California, and had come to faith together at the small same churches. We made our way out to Grandpa's shrine. His was large, surrounded by little foods and incense. Mom had specifically told me to pray when we got here, and so I did. It was awkward; I knew Tony wasn't a believer, but Jerry and Jason were. I led the prayer aloud. It was quick and sad, but sincere. The next few days were waiting. And then the time was right for the funeral.

Grandma would not come that day. It was too much for her. She was the strongest I had ever seen her. She was not going to any of the ceremonies. She wanted to stay home alone. And so she did.

We found Grandpa at the morgue, which was really just a couple of warehouses. He was there, laid out on the ground next to a few other bodies. Mom and her little sister dressed him with extra pants and a new shirt and coat. She put a thin belt around his waist, and a bright tie around his neck that said "world's best dad." They surrounded his body with layers and layers of soft pink tissue paper. We sang a few hymns that Mom had picked out. We had a small ceremony there in the quite hall outside the morgue, and closed the coffin. It was then that I noticed the coffin was bright orange.

A funeral car pulled up, and took his body to the facility where he would be cremated. We made our way into the facility, which was much cleaner and newer than the other I had visited just a few months earlier. It was quieter, more peaceful. They rolled the coffin onto a conveyor. A man opened the door to the furnace, and lifted off the orange coffin to reveal a simple wooden box, where Grandpa's body lay. His incineration would happen in just a few moments.

"We love you!" my mother screamed loudly, in English. She fell on her knees, her hands caressing the box. Her sisters collapsed to the ground as well. So did her brother. They were crying out in Taiwanese, and my mother spoke every other hurried sentence in English. "Thank you for being a good father. We love you. Thank you so much." She and her siblings said everything they needed to in those last moments, and then the box was rolled into the furnace. She and her siblings dressed all in white, at their knees. The cousins and I, standing over them, motionless.

The larger ceremony was in a church. The equivalent of a Presbyterian church. As family, we sat up near the stage. The large framed photo of Grandpa was perched up near the altar, precarious. Mom had asked me to play a few songs, and so Jason and I strummed some borrowed guitars. "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" and another song. Our cousins translated the English to phonetic Mandarin to sing along. We played with pieces of cardboard as guitar picks.

Jerry pointed out an old man in the fourth row back, near the middle. "That's Grandpa's old friend. They've known each other since kindergarten. I saw a lot of people visit Grandpa, but he only laughed when this old friend came to visit him." The old guy's smile was wonderful.

The pastor asked the family to stand. All of us were in the choir box, and we stood. I looked into the congregation, there were so many people. And there was Grandpa's old friend. He was holding his hat over his heart, the only one standing in the congregation. By standing he was calling himself family, and deserved to be on the stage here more than I did.

2001. Santa Monica, California. We received word that a coworker was killed by a bus while crossing the street in Taiwan. She was pursuing a teaching opportunity there. I was the second in the company to hear of it. When you tell people news like that, people are so quiet, and respectful. Mostly, we are quiet. In those moments of silence, I feel so much peace. Those times are so comfortable to me.

..:.. ©1997-2003 RageBomb