We were looking forward to 2008 being a great year for the Lee family. Cousin Peng had announced that he would marry his longtime fiancée, Marilyn, on January 8—an auspicious date according to Chinese tradition. With the year starting on such a bright note, we believed that more glad tidings would follow.
True to expectation, as the extended family gathered from all corners of the world in Peng’s spacious Bayswater flat in London, there was much cheer in the air. We were the typical family from Hong Kong whose members are spread all over the world—Uncle George and family in Vancouver, Aunt Shirley in New York, Cousin Peng in London, Uncle Paul and family in Sydney, Cousin Patti in Singapore and Gran and us in Hong Kong (of course).
Unfortunately, Gran could not join us at the wedding in London. She was 97 and living quietly in a nursing home in Shatin. The 12-hour plus plane ride would have been too arduous for her. However, due to the wonders of modern Internet technology, we were able to include Gran in the wedding celebrations. My brother, Jeremy, who is an IT pro, had trained a staff in Gran’s nursing home on the intricacies of the Internet before leaving Hong Kong. Hence we were able to hold a skype conversation with Gran before and after the wedding ceremony, and even during the boisterous wedding dinner in a Soho restaurant. Everyone thought that it was really cool for Gran to be “present” in this way. The diners greeted the appearance of Gran’s toothless grin on the restaurant’s LCD monitor with cheers and a huge round of applause. Her glib pronouncement that the Lee family would surely have a new addition before the year ends caused uproarious laughter amid another round of happy applause.
The 3-hour long wedding celebrations was carefully recorded and edited by Uncle George’s son for posterity. Gran was thrilled when we showed her the video. Her face was aglow with joy.
Despite her years, Gran had kept up with all that her children and grandchildren were doing in their lives and careers. She had always kept her personal collection of family photographs which she would lovingly and proudly show to anyone who visited her, spiced with anecdotes of who was doing what where. She could go on and on especially about her grandchildren’s achievements. She had such a lively mind and had long learned to live with her physical limitations. Two years ago, she even decided to become a Christian after several visits by the nursing home chaplain. The family was a little taken aback since she used to be ambivalent to religion, but it was an answer to our prayers.
Although we were apart geographically, the family was very close. Each son, daughter and grandchild would make time to come back to visit Gran at least once a year. During the rest of the time, the family kept in touch via phone calls, emails and Facebook entries. Being the only family still living in Hong Kong, we had the privilege to physically catch up with whoever comes by. I always thought: Lucky us!
However, during the hot summer of 2008, we received a phone call from the nursing home that sent a chill down our spine. They had found Gran unconscious that morning. Jeremy drove Mum and Dad to the home while my sister and I were told to go to school as per normal. Normal? I hardly felt normal that day and could not concentrate during lessons. Immediately after school, I rushed to the nursing home and was ushered to Gran’s bedside. She was lying there, looking so peaceful in contrast to my muddled feelings. I loved Gran a lot and had always been fearful of the time when she would leave us. I looked at Mum and Dad for consolation, but their eyes were red and puffed up; their lips were tight with pain. I had never seen them like this before. I felt wretched.
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Mum told me that everyone in the family had been informed and they were each making arrangements to fly back to Hong Kong. As she said this, we heard the heartbeat monitor go “beeeeeeeep.” It sounded so final. My sister had just arrived then and she burst into tears, knowing that she was too late to say goodbye. I howled too. A 14-year old boy howling away like a baby. I could not stop, not until Jeremy hugged me tightly. I stopped my bawling, but was unable to stop my whimpering for a long time.
The funeral took place a week later when all the family members were present. It was done simply in the nursing home’s chapel. The nursing home staff made the necessary arrangements for us. We were grief stricken. Goodbyes to Gran were said, mostly silently, as each recalled fond memories of times we had shared with her. Emotions were mixed. Some took the fact that Gran had lived to be 3 years short of a century as a blessing, but others felt cheated of the 3 years. It was weird, this idea of whether a glass was half full or half empty. Are we entitled to live up to a nice round number? Or do we go when it is time to go, no matter how inconvenient or undesired? Whose decision was that anyway?
Even before we could settle back into life without Gran, we received a phone call one evening in late September from a terribly distraught Aunt Lily in Sydney. Cousin Jimmi had just gotten his driving license and went out for a test spin with Uncle Paul. Their car was smashed by an out of control van from the opposite lane and Jimmi was killed instantly. Uncle Paul was in a critical condition in ICU. Could we help?
Dad agreed to fly to Sydney immediately. Cousin Patti also flew back to be with her mum and Aunt Shirley soon joined them. It was a whole week before Uncle Paul could be moved out of ICU. The doctors had assured us that Uncle Paul would make it, albeit slowly with a long road to recovery. He had not yet been told of his son’s death. In the meantime, Dad helped to arrange Jimmi’s funeral at one of Sydney’s funeral parlors. Soon, the rest of the family arrived with the exception of Cousin Peng and his wife who was seven months pregnant and under strict orders from her doctor not to fly.
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The funeral was a somber one. I was struggling with feelings of injustice and anger. Cousin Jimmi was only 18 and had just started his first year at the University. It was hard to come to terms with the loss of such a young life. How could this have happened? I found myself wondering if it would have made more sense if Uncle Paul had died instead; although this would not have made it any less painful. Who has the prerogative to decide who should have died in the accident?
At the Christian funeral service, I felt a deep sense of déjà vu when the minister began to recite from the Bible, quoting the author of Ecclesiastes:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
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This passage had been read at Gran’s funeral service too but it did not have the same poignancy as at Cousin Jimmi’s. How strange it was. There was much weeping in the parlor as the service went on. But I also saw the clenched fists and tight expressions in my brother’s and cousins’ faces. Like me, they were feeling angry and wretched. How could Cousin Jimmi’s life been snatched away just like that? What if it had not been him in the driver’s seat, but Uncle Paul?
Cousin Patti talked about this emotional struggle when she gave the eulogy. How did one choose between one’s dad and one’s younger brother? For Aunt Lily, her husband or her son? One could wish the accident had never happened but that would be just wishful thinking. At least they had Uncle Paul with them. That was something to be thankful for. There was much nodding of heads and blowing of noses among the many friends and relatives present.
When we returned to Hong Kong, I was reminded about those verses from Ecclesiastes. It tells me that only two things are certain in life—birth and death; and both are not within our control. Life is to be lived meaningfully if it is to be lived at all. Whether it was for 18 years or nearly 100 years, both Gran and Cousin Jimmi had lived lives that mattered.
I learnt later that Cousin Patti had decided to quit her job in Singapore to move back to Sydney where her family needed her. Uncle Paul had been moved to the rehabilitation unit to receive therapy care and was improving each day. He would be home in time for Christmas and the New Year.
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As the air began to turn chilly in Hong Kong, we received another call. This time, from London. Apparently, Cousin Peng and Marilyn’s baby was becoming rather big. They were feeling apprehensive about the birth and anxious for the baby. Then in the morning of November 26, Cousin Peng sent a text message: Marilyn had just given birth to a baby boy, 3.6 kg, after more than 8 hours of labor. A photo of the baby was attached and sent to everyone in the family. We received the news with great delight. More phone calls took place and Marilyn regaled Mum with details of the labor and birth. The family had not experienced such excitement for a long time.
On Christmas Day, my family was all at home and we gathered around the computer waiting to hold a skype conversation with Cousin Peng. The video call soon started and there they were: Cousin Peng and Marilyn holding their new baby. Little James was one-month old, looking feisty and chubby. It seemed like he was smiling at the camera. They were looking so happy and proud of this little boy.
Cousin Peng was telling us all about his feeding antics and bath-time play. Suddenly Dad recalled aloud what Gran had said about a new addition to the family before the year ends. We were silent for a few moments as each dwelled on the year’s events: Marilyn becoming part of the family, the loss of Gran and Jimmi, and now the addition of little James. Mum summed it up with a smile, “Although we have lost two, we have also gained two. Our memories of Gran and Jimmi will forever be in our hearts, so our family is now larger, and not reduced.” That sounded so much like what Gran would have said! I felt as though she was right there with us.
These words from Ecclesiastes came to my mind:
“a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance”
Yes, surely the time has come to laugh and to dance. It has been an eventful year for the family but we have been blessed with much love and grace.