When I was seven or eight, my grandfather passed away. I remember my father going back to China to visit him, flying across the world from our little town of Normal, Illinois to catch a glimpse of my grandfather’s dying breath, to feel the heat of his smile once more.
I remember seeing my father cry for the first time in my life when he came back. I remember my family, disjointed and punctured by sharp breaths that stood in for a question that nobody dared to ask. Death is such a greedy thing — it takes and it takes from the living, leaving us to clean up its mess.
When my grandfather died, I was playing the piano. My mother walked into the room and took my hands off the keys.
“Grandpa’s gone,” she said.
She wrapped her arms around me, and after my initial shock, tidal waves of mourning crashed through me, beat against my body, until I began to cry — to cry long, shaking gasps.
When I cried, my tears were not weighed down by the same gravity as my father’s tears that fell half a world away; for him, my grandfather’s death was like a universe being swallowed up by the sun. For me, my grandfather was but a couple of distinct memories saved in my mind, pressed between pages. He was the man with creased, milky skin and kind eyes, who gave me a little green purse with sequin flowers when I was six, the very purse that I toted around and stuffed Barbies in.
When I think of him, his face swims in my vision, blurry and snipped from photos I have seen.
When my father thinks of him, he remembers China and the village he grew up in. I imagine that what swims before his eyes is not just his father’s face, but also the sharp clarity of love.
When I cried, I loved. But it was not the same love as my father’s. My father’s love is bumpy, with tired grooves in its surface. Run your hand across it too fast, and you’ll get splinters in your palm. For he loves my grandfather wholly, without filter or remorse. I love him smooth. Well-rounded, light, and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.
When we picked up my father at the airport, I had to be reminded to be respectful of his privacy. I think back to that day, how he walked to the car, with a brown book grasped firmly to his chest, his back hunched. “Hi,” I said weakly, when he opened the car door. He nodded, and then closed the door behind him. There was a certain quality about him that was worn, filed down to very last grain. I had no other words to say to him.
The rest of the car ride was silent. By the time we had pulled into the driveway of our little townhouse, gravel crunching under the wheels, my father said nothing still. When we unlocked the front door and entered our home, my father moved immediately to prepare and mourn in the only way he knew how: through a ceremony.
His choice in mourning was odd. Funny, even, in a bitter sort of irony. My father is a man reshaped by assimilation and learning to exchange his immigrant past for American horizons. He came here, his fingers entangled with my mother’s, both children of China stepping foot into the Western world. When I envision this, I like to picture them with wild, untamed hair and a gleam of irrefutable spirit in their eyes. It is a beautiful way to think of them.
Yet my father was always the one rooted more firmly in American ways. My mother still retained some of her homeland, wrapping it around herself in a protective shawl. She never gave up her mother tongue. Not my father. When I was a child, I remember hearing him mumbling English words under his breath when he read books. He would repeat words over and over until he could pronounce them right.
And yet, when he returned home from the airport that day, he decided to mourn for his father in the same way that our ancestors would have: through the weekly burning of gifts.
My mother explained this to me in the kitchen, hovering over a counter and peeling an orange. “Bao bei, in Chinese culture, when somebody dies, we honour our dead. We help them transition to the afterlife through gifts, gifts like red paper money,” she said, brushing the soft rind aside and pulling the orange in half.
“By burning the gifts, they can reach your grandpa in the afterlife,” she explained.
“Okay,” I said, nodding. “How long are we doing it for?”
“What your father needs.”
When night fell, we took a metal bowl, gifts, and a lighter to the backyard. To begin our first ceremony, my father took the first sheet of paper money from the bag and flicked on the lighter. The flames licked hungrily at the fibres, beginning at a corner and curling its blackened edges in. He threw the paper into the bowl, and as the flickers of orange and yellow engulfed the sheet, we continued to feed the crackling fire. Soon, floating embers filled the air around us.
I held my breath. I was terrified by the thought that I might accidentally swallow scraps of a world I did not belong to, as if the blackened paper of the afterlife could forever settle like ash in the bottom of my lungs. The stars seemed brighter than they’d ever seemed that night, sprawled across the Illinois sky like pinpricks of heaven shining through black felt. Of course, the stars are bright there every night, but I wanted to believe that there was something special about that night, something given to the memory of my grandfather.
Under the cover of darkness, the glow of the fire illuminated my father’s face. I remember looking at him and seeing silent tears streaming down his cheeks. I wondered who the man before me was. I remember wishing that I could understand his emotions, hold them as if they were my own, if only for just a moment.
I wanted to run my hand over the splinters, feel his raw love for myself. But grief is a quiet activity. It is a singular one. We may all partake in it, but during the ceremony, my experience took a different shape to my father’s, and my mother’s another shape from ours. In the backyard, the single thread holding my family together was our physical existence in that moment. On that night, we were both strangers and family in a single shard of time.
That time came to a close when the last dying flickers of fire extinguished into embers. We were still for a moment, breathing in the grassy Illinois air mixed with grey smoke. My mother broke the quiet, shuffling around and stooping down to pick up the ashes that blew out of the metal bowl. I helped her, touching the crumbling sheets that didn’t survive the trek to the afterlife. And I thought to myself that, down here, it’s just paper. Just burnt ashes. Not a man’s heavenly ticket.
My father just stood there, motionless. When he finally looked at us, his red-rimmed eyes brimmed with an uncaged intensity. He pulled me to him suddenly and hugged me tightly, crushing me against his chest. I could hear his heart thumping. And after he pulled away and walked back inside, I could still feel his tears pooling on the top of my head.
We performed this ceremony for months, following the same patterns from that first night. Slowly, my father began to cry less, sometimes just staring into the fire, the orange and red dancing in his black eyes.
Though I am not a spiritual person, after those nights, I’d like to believe that when the day comes, I will be. That I, too, will be able to find peace in the ashes. Because what I discovered those nights was that our ceremony was an expression of grief and of love, that burning red paper was a cathartic release. It is the symbolism behind the paper and fire, black skies and tradition that brought my father peace and drew my family together.
The ceremonies tapered off slowly. I can’t pinpoint an exact cause for this — appointments cropped up, groceries were needed, rescheduling became postponing. Life got in the way, I suppose, the way it always does.
But no matter what those nights in the backyard meant for us as a family, they were also meant for us alone. For my father’s sake. For remembrance, and celebration, and reconciliation. I believe this to be true. Because, mourning the dead — that is never for the dead’s sake. It is for ours.
My father’s silence finally eased too. Years later, after we made the trek from Illinois to New Jersey, the first conversation we openly had about my grandfather was in the parking lot of the Millburn Deli. It was a particularly stuffy summer day, and my father looked out of the windshield as he spoke, his gaze trailing off to a point beyond my sight.
“He was different from other men,” my father said. “He was kind to my mom. He was good to us.” His voice trembled and he paused, his grip tightening on the paper bag full of sandwiches. “He loved you, you know? You meant everything to him. I just wish he got to see you more. It would’ve made him happy.” He wiped his eyes, clearing his throat as his voice softened.
“He was the kind of man who was the last person off the bus,” he continued. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say? He was always the last person off because he’d wait for everybody first. He was that kind of man. He helped people, he saw the world as a place to be helped. That was your ye ye.” He turned to face me, his clear-eyed vulnerability smoothing the wrinkles on his forehead, reducing the bags underneath his eyes. “That was your grandpa. That was your blood.”
I still grapple with that idea, to this day. Because I’m trying to understand what that means — family, blood, belonging. I’m trying to understand what it means to hurt together, to be a unit that moves together, knows each other, and loves one another. I’m trying to reconcile that with a past that has isolated us, through a pain that is singular, a mourning that is lonely. And I’m still trying to understand why that is and how exactly we can learn to truly know each other and recover. How we can wring the hurt out of our souls.
I do not have these answers, but for now, I can be patient. I will wait until I do.
And I will grasp what I do have tightly.
I think back to the black night skies and sprawling stars. I can see the thin ribbon of smoke curling toward my grandfather’s ghostly cheek, tempting the moon to try to swallow it whole. But it is the silence that marks it. It is the vacuum of sound that I remember these nights by. It is the profundity of entire fistfuls of grief and love and melancholy that change a person’s character.
It is a portrait of my family that is permanently etched in my mind, of us standing under the heavens and waiting to heal.