Friday, February 18, 2005

The Wake

It has been over a week since Jenny's father passed away. At last night's wake, I saw Jenny's mother and her sisters for the first time since we all gathered in San Jose for the last weekend of my father-in-law's life. We had dropped off the kids with Jenny's friends earlier, which made things much easier for us. Aside from the usual formalities, we said nothing to one another as we sat next to one another at the McAvoy-O'Hara Funeral Home in San Francisco. Throughout the crowded, wreath-lined room, there was sadness that a husband, a father of five daughters, and grandfather to three young boys was taken from them prematurely and had suffered greatly.

I had already been to this particular funeral home, which despite its Anglo-sounding name, caters to the Chinese-American community. Chinese funerals in the West Coast are usually based on Buddhist rituals, performed by group of Buddhist nuns or monks. This means the constant chanting of Buddhist scriptures, burning incense sticks, a roaring fire for transmitting items needed for the afterlife, and food & drink for the newly departed. According to Buddhist tradition, the wake and funeral ceremonies will prepare my father-in-law's soul, until now still living at home, for its journey to Nirvana with the guidance of the Buddhist nuns and monks.

My father-in-law's wake began with almost an hour of chanting in unison by two nuns, as newly-arrived mourners walked up to the casket and bowed three times as a sign of respect. The medium-sized room filled up fairly quickly, and virtually everyone was Chinese. From the beginning, I sensed a difference between this wake/funeral and the others I had witnessed. For one, I knew this man much better than others whose funerals I had attended. And so I thought quite a bit about our intermingled lives these past 6 years, beginning from our first meeting at their house in Oakland to more recent family gatherings in San Jose. Time passed quickly as a result.

The family all bowed and prayed for my father-in-law continuously that night, pausing periodically to burn incense and offerings, offer tea to him and at one point, cover him with silk blankets from each family member, including ones from his grandchildren. Of his three grandchildren, only Russell was present to pay his last respects to his grandfather. His babysitter and Godmother Karen had dropped him off with some 20 minutes left in the ceremony, and I picked him up and waited on the side for an opportunity to allow Russell to see his grandfather one last time.

At the conclusion of the wake, Jenny and her sister Cindy gave prepared eulogies in Chinese for their father. Jenny spoke about the struggles that her father had endured thoughout his hard life. She described the sacrifices he had made both in China and the US in order to provide for his family. Jenny's grandfather had died when her father was only 17, and my father-in-law left school after only five years in order to work to support the family. In the US, he worked as a Chinese restaurant chef, retiring just 4 years earlier when his hip joints had to be surgically replaced after years of back-breaking work.

Cindy's eulogy was actually a letter she had written to her father while travelling home from Beijing a week earlier. Tragically, Cindy arrived home in San Jose only an hour after her father had passed away. Over and over again upon her arrival home, she asked her father why he had to go so soon and why he couldn't have waited just a few hours longer. Though she was disraught about missing this last chance to see her father alive, she read the letter aloud to his lifeless body that morning. In her letter, she thanked him for being a good father to her and her sisters and promised him that they would take good care of their mother.

As Cindy's eulogy was ending, Jenny picked up Russell and we headed up front toward the casket. As we walked towards the casket, Russell spotted several Granny Smith apples on the offering table. Just as he does in the supermarket, Russell tried to grab one of apples on his way past the table, but Jenny pulled him away from the table at the last moment. We gently nudged Russell forward in a bowing motion three times, and then placed him in front of his grandfather. Russell recognized his grandfather and without prompting, smiled at him. Then we lined up to receive the mourners who had gathered with us that rainy night. When everyone had passed, we headed out of the room into the hallway where the rest of family was gathering for dinner at a nearby restaurant.


At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good field report. Especially fair to Cindy, methinks, but have her read it, too. Is "Nirvana" really where the soul goes, if checked clear? I thought it might simply proceed to another life form, a good life form if the prayers work out. (ralph)

At 11:32 PM, Blogger Da Man said...

Buddhist Nirvana is attainable through one of two ways: 1) Living a good and spiritually sound life 2) Chanting/prayer by relatives and proxies after one's physical death. Otherwise, the soul moves up and down the animal kingdom--to a higher life form if the person is generally good, and a lower one for a cad.

At 5:22 PM, Anonymous cindy sui said...

Hi James,
I don't have any problems with you mentioning my eulogy to my dad. I actually arrived home two hours after he passed away.
Funny incident about Russell trying to grab one of the apples. I didn't see that.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Da Man said...

Jenny said it was around an hour, so let's leave it at that.

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