“Are you going to the wake?”
I did not want to go. Especially now that I heard that it would be an open casket.
I did not even know the young man in his mid-20’s. He had an enlarged heart without any physical symptoms. He had died suddenly in his sleep. His sister was one of my colleagues who was beside herself with grief. A couple weeks before his death, she was celebrating her birthday with him. Now, she was burying him.
I hesitated. I flashbacked to my first wake experience of an open casket where I felt physically ill to the point that I was convinced I was going to vomit. Why was it called a ‘wake’ when the person was lying there in the casket? Was it for all of us as loved ones to ‘wake up’ to life and living?
I could not do go to this young man’s wake. I just couldn’t do it. I reasoned and made excuses that I did not even know him and I barely knew his sister. They would not care if I did or did not go.
“I don’t think I’m going to go,” I finally said softly.
As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I wanted to eat them up. The wake location was no more than 15 minutes from where I lived. A gnawing pull tugged at my heartstrings over the logic in my head that resulted in my decision to go. My final reasoning: We needed to give more respect to people in living and to life; We needed to give just as much respect in death to the person who had lived their precious life.
The entire week had been hot and humid with strokes of heat radiating from the sun. On the day of this man’s wake, it was a miserable day with the grayest of skies, limp and lifeless trees, and the drizzle and dampness of rain trickling down on to all of us. The number of people dressed in black was countless at the funeral home. They walked and talked on the lawn, inside the funeral home, and probably some other hidden passage areas. Young people. Old people. In between people. Watery eyes. Paper tissues. Massive and colorful flower arrangements. Photos of this young man in every crevice and corner.
I thought to myself, “We start this life with a clean slate, and our parents to welcome us into this world. We end this life with a slate filled to brim, and countless people who come into our lives to bid us farewell and memories made of us. Everything in between beginning and ending is everyone who have touched our lives and everyone who we have touched.”
When it was my turn to pay respects, I stood awkwardly before this open casket. On autopilot, I knelt down before the man I did not know. This was the first time I was meeting him. This was the last time I was seeing him. This was his one last time, and, in essence, this was my one last time with him.
I waited for the waves of nausea to attack me as they did with the first wake I had ever attended in my life, but they did not come. I clasped my hands together in prayer. I wished I had known him. I wished that my first time with him did not have to be his last time.
God Bless Him. May he Rest in Peace.
This was the first time I felt peace and clarity of the fragility and rare beauty of birth and death. How fragile we are with an empty mind in birth that is eventually filled to its capacity in death.
Growing up surrounded by the death of those waiting for a life-saving transplant, I was sure that I had somewhat mastered the acceptance of death. I knew the logic. Yes, death is a part of life. Yes, do not fear death, but death is the unknown and so it is natural for us to fear it. But, nothing prepares us, nothing can soothe us, and nothing can make us fully comprehend death as what we see as the ending over birth as the beginning.
In the 33 years that I’ve been blessed to be walking and enjoying life to the fullest on God’s green earth above ground, I can now count that I have seen 2 bodies wither away before me, attended 2 wakes, 1 funeral, and 1 almost funeral (making this 1/2).
It has been 3 1/2 in total of witnessing death up close and personal.
The 2 bodies that withered away before my eyes to lifelessness in slow and painful deaths were my paternal grandfather and aunt.
My first attended funeral was of my paternal grandfather in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong. It was the first time I caught a glimpse of his body covered in the purity and simplicity of white clothing behind a gleaming transparent glass room. It was the first time I burnt replicas of paper money until the billows of twirling and twisting smoke signals swirled in the air in honor to him and send well wishes in his brand new life.
The 1/2 is in reference to my aunt who passed away from a rare form of head and neck cancer that robbed her of abilities to eat, drink, talk, and, eventually, breathe. It was the first time I experienced a (her) body withering away in my company, yet her mind full of clarity of the acceptance that death is the inevitable of life. Hers was the first funeral I heard about and was told that I was too young to attend. I was 14-years-old.
Unlike many, I felt blessed to be in my grandfather (he also died a slow and painful death of cancer) and aunt’s company and to be their companion when their bodies weakened before me because of the beauty of their fighting spirits, the desire and will to live forever, and the time that we had remaining together. I was not afraid of them or focused on their dissolving and disintegrating bodies before me. All I wanted was to hear my grandfather recite his Chinese poems. All I wanted was to stay by my aunt’s side to read her stories and watch movies with her. As much as I wanted more time with them, I cherished all the time we had left together. It did not matter what form they were in. Those were just bodies, and not their spirits or souls. It just mattered they were here with me in whatever capacity they could be.
A quick death. A slow death. There is no perfect death. There is no perfect life. Birth, Life, and Death are no-guarantee policies consisting of nothing to prepare us, soothe us, or make us fully comprehend death as what we see as the ending over birth as the beginning.
There have been many ‘times’ in my life thus far. There will be many more ‘times’ to come: Birthdays, Funerals, Baby Showers, Eulogies, and Obituaries. There will be cradles and caskets, blown-out birthday candles and incense we light in homage to the dearly departed, cheers for a brand new life and prayers for pain at end of life, first formed and then loose teeth to dentures, smooth skin and wrinkly wrinkles, and endless photos to try capture the outer transformations of a human body without the ability to capture the inner transpirations of a human life.
From all these one last times, I have now reached a time in my life that I do not think of death as an ending or beginning point. I see it as a point place with many more times to embrace, nothing to fear, and everything to sit with and accept. Many view birth as the beginning and death as the ending, but I am seeing that it is everything in between that is truly life and that possess the most significant meaning.
All these times I have experienced. All these times to come. So much realized and understood that it is one last time that makes us value all our times of birth, life, and death all the more.
Lots of Love & Hugs,