It will be ten years in June since my dad died of cancer. It’s now been six days since my grandma died of the same disease. The feelings are still raw for me, but not as raw as for my mum and her brother and five sisters. It all happened so quickly, which seems to be increasingly common now – “My estimation is that she has a few weeks left. I’m really sorry” says the consultant. A few weeks?! That’s barely enough time for the reality of the situation to sink in before the necessary discussions around funeral plans and final wishes.
It did give Lisa and me the chance to take the day off work and drive a few hours to visit her and grandad. It’s so hard seeing an already physically frail person become even more so due to the cancer. But she was strong. Like, stubbornly strong. She would make her way to the bathroom upstairs unaided. She did it one small half a step at a time. But she did it. I can understand a particular Chinese dialect, Hakka, because of her. I never did learn to speak it. I guess I felt like I had to raise my voice to do it, and I was a quiet kid growing up. But she could understand me in Cantonese anyway, and that was good enough for her.
One of my fondest and most peculiar memories of her was when we were in the garden. She caught a spider and then offered it to me. I had no idea what she wanted me to do with it, but I don’t think that if I had known it would have changed my answer, “Eugh argh eeeek aaaah”. (That’s in English by the way.) She then pulled all the legs off it, and plopped the body into her mouth. I think it took me a while to get over the shock of what I saw. I don’t remember what happened next. It was all a blur after that.
Another time, at grandma’s house I remember I desperately needed a number 2. (Have you ever head the phrase turtle head in that context? I’ll let you figure it out). Grandad must have been in the bathroom because there’s no other explanation for what I did next. I remember just dropping what felt like a log right in the middle of the kitchen floor. Grandma came in and of course freaked out and shouted at me. Remember she was speaking Hakka so it was extra loud. I don’t remember what happened next. But perhaps I was just getting her back for making me watch her chomp down that spider. The most likely explanation, though, was that I was just an innocent six year old boy that needed a little poo.
Unfortunately, the consultant’s prognosis wasn’t very accurate. But you can’t really blame him. The human body is so individual and unique, no two people are created alike. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of factors that determine a person’s lifespan. Such is the beautiful creation of the human body. So from weeks, it turned into days. And then she breathed her last.
I shared the last hour of her life with her. She was unresponsive at this point, so I just lay my hand on her and thanked her for her love and for the legacy she leaves behind. I gave thanks for her life and her love. The hardest part for me wasn’t her death itself, but wanting to know whether she came to know the God that knows and loves her. I prayed for her. My mum had tried to share the gospel with her, but she was hard of heart when it came to believing in Jesus. And so, when her body gave up, as her husband, her children and her grandchildren mourn and grieve, I’m asking God, “So what happens to Grandma now?”
Some members of the family are following a Chinese tradition – Chinese paper money will be burnt in the belief that the properties of the items being burnt, in this case money, will be transferred to the afterlife for the spirits of the deceased to use. The tradition has been updated over time, whereby any item or paper replicas of items can also be burnt, including passports to be able to travel, TVs to watch, books to read, and even food to eat. It seems clear to those that take part in this ceremony, then, that they know where grandma is (the afterlife), and fascinating in fact, that the living can still affect the dead in such a way. But as I observe the planning and the discussions around this, I can’t help but feel like there’s a big element of hoping that this works, rather than the assurance that it will. Tradition by its very definition isn’t necessarily based on truth but originates from some special significance or symbolic meaning. I encourage you to respect the traditions of those you love, but at the same time to acknowledge the significance of what taking part in certain traditions means to you. Sometimes it may not be as important as a life and death issue. Sometimes it is even more important than that – an after-life and an after-death issue.
May grandma now be in a place that is forever free from pain and suffering. A place where she loves and is loved for all eternity.