Seven days ago, my father passed away peacefully in his sleep while lying next to my mother. They had been living with my brother in northern California so they could take care of my baby niece. I rushed up to be with them, not stopping at home to get appropriate clothes or a portrait of my dad. We had to go to Macy’s to buy a shirt and tie for him even though he has dozens at home. The funeral home went through the mandated itemized list of expenses so we would know exactly how we were spending our money. There is a $20,000 casket that we did not opt for. Embalming is priced at a fortune-bearing $888. My brother and I read through the paperwork before passing it to our mother to sign.
The funeral service was intimate and honest. One of my father’s friends, a 75-year-old, traveled overnight by Greyhound bus to pay his last respects, then took the bus back almost immediately after the service.
I wasn’t sure I wanted an open casket, but I’m glad we had one. In his last few months, he liked to tell people not to bother visiting him until it was time to see him in his tuxedo. As it turns out, he actually had a tuxedo jacket for us to put him in. He looked handsome and at ease in it, and we didn’t regret buying him a new shirt and tie, despite how he would have protested the extra expense.
I touched his chest and his smooth, cold cheek and gave assurances to him. “Don’t let your tears fall on the casket or your Pau will worry about us,” my Mae said.
My niece, Momo, is five months old. Does she notice that her A-Kong, her grandfather, is missing? I snuggle her warm body close to my chest and hide my face in her Einstein hair. She smiles at me, burning away my sorrow with her joy. Doug calls her a “tornado of life.”
I tell my Mae that holding her makes me feel better. “Imagine how she made your Pau feel,” she says.
Today, the seventh day after my father’s passing, we attend temple to make merit for him. It’s hot and muggy. A rooster in the San Gabriel Valley neighborhood crows. Just outside the kuti, bamboo springs tall and green. Feels like Thailand.
Preparing for the 7th day ceremony, we wonder what food we should bring. It is traditional to prepare something the deceased loved. “Make that ginger chicken. Your dad loved that,” my aunt says.
“He loved making it for other people, not for himself,” my Mae replies.
When we tell people he passed peacefully in his sleep sometime in the morning, they say, “Oh, the Chinese say this is good luck for you. It means he left every meal for you, his children.”
We sit in a long line that snakes out the door to pass tray after tray of food to the monks. Mae and I sit together, and I shift several times to keep my legs from falling asleep. As I lift one burden from her arms, another takes its place immediately, the dishes moving from savory to sweet. Nearly everything is homemade, and I see dishes I haven’t tasted in ages. An aunt has made her renowned sakoo sai moo, translucent tapioca sacs filled with a sweet pork and peanut filling. Skeps of kanom jeen noodles pass along with melamine bowls filled with fragrant green curry laden with bitter cluster eggplant. Tapioca and mung bean cakes are blanketed in an aromatic, grayish sand of sugar and black sesame. Trays of cored rose apples and uncapped rambutan pass alongside mini-muffins and donut holes. Styrofoam cups of ruam mit, a dessert whose name means “friendship”, look colorful and cool.
For the first time in a week, I can feel my appetite being called.
After the chanting, people file out to pile their plates high. Some people fill two plates to take home, pouring o-lieng iced coffee into emptied water bottles. It is a little uncouth, but perhaps it’s just as my father would have done if my mom weren’t there to chide him.
We are back at home now. It is at once bereft of him and full of him. I ricochet between wanting to save scraps of paper he wrote on and rushing to throw out his old razors from the bathroom.
I know the physical things don’t matter. He will always be in my hands in the way I hold a knife. He is in my suitcase in the Chinese-puzzle way I pack it tight. He is in my kitchen in the way I cook for others to make myself happy.
Pau left this world as he lived in it, treading lightly but bearing his family on his shoulders. I am so grateful that I came back to LA and got to spend the last year of his life near him. I am grateful for Momo, for the unmitigated joy and tenderness she brought out of him. I am grateful to have been shaped by such an honorable, generous man.
My mom’s friends swarm around her, place her in the center of the flock’s formation. They speak freely of death. This is what we pray for, they say, an easy, fearless end that doesn’t leave a burden on our children.
My brother said it best:
Those of you who met him probably remember him for either the food he cooked, the stories he told, or both. If you have the time and the inclination, please take some time to share your favorite meal or your favorite story with someone who would enjoy it.