At the tail end of my secondary education, I had this really whacky idea about writing a book about Death.
Yes, with a capital D. The ageless concept of the final chapter of the human condition, anamorphised into countless human, post-human and non-human forms across every religion and culture known to Man. A collector of souls, a servant of God, a Devil’s despatch, a messenger of the underworld, a guide into the afterlife.
Call me an emo kid; goth, even, if such an intrigue into the concept of death and dying counts as a membership card into the subculture of black clothes and eyeliner. The only real reason I thought about it so much was because I never actually had to deal with it up close and personal until recently (pet guinea pigs do not count; I don’t care what the SPCA would say to that, but at 9 years old, no one would know any better).
The idea of the story has stuck with me to this very day, though through the twists and turns through the years, I was never able to properly organise a cast of characters nor storyboard the set of plotlines that would justify the gigantic scope that such a subject matter would require.
Since then, death came knocking on a number of occasions, though the first few times seemed to be just sales calls.
My very first experience with human loss was when I was 14. I was alone at home, my parents out for a company dinner. I was in the midst of a shower when the phone started ringing in the living room (let’s not start musing about Murphy’s Law here). Dripping wet and in my towel, I came out to pick it up. A woman’s voice asked if my mother was home, to which I said no. As the woman proceeded to continue with her next sentence, she started sobbing uncontrollably, saying, “When she comes home, can you tell her her mother has passed away?”
I put down the phone, momentarily stunned, mind emptied with only the thought that I was to announce my maternal grandmother’s passing to my parents. Granted me and my siblings were never close to that side of the family on account of my mother’s estrangement from her family, but I was still unsure how my mother would take the news.
As it was, before long, my parents came home, and I broke the news. The reaction I got can only be described as less than lukewarm: “Oh, okay.”
It confused me. My years of social studies in primary school, of watching tacky heartwarming Chinese serials featuring families of 3 or more generations sharing moments together and respecting each other, infused in me a notion that the passing of a grandparent should really be a bigger deal than just “Oh, okay.” But there it was, and little more was said.
My paternal grandmother’s passing a few years ago, though, was a much bigger deal. It began with all of us at the hospital, watching my dad’s mum in her deathbed, wired up to as many machines as her body had space to place tubes in, chest spawning in sharp gasps more or less in rhythm to each beep of the heart monitor. At one point the youngest of my dad’s brothers went in to have a moment with her, and while adjusting her pillow accidentally shifted her breathing mask. After placing the mask back to it’s position, my grandmother started gasping at a quickened pace for a few seconds, and in the frantic between my uncle calling in the nurses and doctors and my aunts outside the windowed room screaming for their mother, she left.
Of course, my uncle’s perceived mishap with my grandmother’s breathing apparatus was mere coincidence; we were all gathered to witness her last moments of life, after all. Still, what must have been running through his mind as he walked out of the room after my grandmother died I can only imagine must have involved a facepalming among other things.
Strangely enough, I was quite heavily involved in the funeral arrangements; my eldest paternal uncle was recovering from a recent heart bypass, and my dad was second in command in the family, but he wasn’t in his bet state of health and mind at the moment. My mother and eldest sister motioned for me to assist my father, and together we both began co-ordinating and managing the entire funeral, including financial arrangements, wake scheduling, catering, cremation and interring.
For the most part, it was a sobering experience, seeing how great a contrast our family dealing with my father’s mother’s death was in comparison to that of my previous grandmother. Just as sobering was seeing how my father had become a shadow of the man I grew up with; though a colon cancer survivor, he had more recently been diagnosed with heart problems and high blood pressure, and the medication was taking a toll on his energy and mind. In the back of my head I wondered how I would deal with his passing when his time finally came, and to this day I still have trouble grasping the notion.
A few days ago, I caught wind of a friend’s passing through a text message an old classmate sent me. Looking through the condolences posted on his Facebook account, and offering my own through a phone call placed to his brother, I thought back to all the times when Death stood near me, and the sudden emptiness that would wash over me whenever the moment of realization that a life had come to an end. Not a feeling of loss, but a true flatline of emotion, feeling and thought, as though I had somehow partially transitioned into the state of the deceased’s physical shell.
And I still don’t know what to make of Death.