"It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by"
As Tears Go By (1965) by The Rolling Stones
What constitutes a person? Is it the body or the mind? Is it that person's belongings or deeds, his dreams or beliefs? Is it what she thinks of herself, or what others think of her? How long does a person or the idea of a person persists after death? Innumerable men and women, people with life stories and feelings as complex as yours and mine, have passed from the world and from living memory - their names worn by rain from the face of stones, their actions the feeblest echoes from the past. It's like they were never here to begin with. Given enough time, even the greatest person in the history of the world will die.
A wise person once told me to close my eyes and recall the strongest, most cherished memory from my childhood, and to hold it in my mind. He asked me, "Can you see it clearly? As clearly as if you are there right this moment?"
Yes, I said.
"You weren't there at all," he told me, smiling with a smugness that was not at all unpleasant. "Every single atom that was part of you back then has been replaced many times over. What you think is your thoughts at that time, all your experiences and memories - they aren't yours."
On Thursday, I received words that my great grandmother have passed away. It happened at 7:00 in the morning, and she was 94. I am writing this now in my bedroom which only became mine a few short years ago. It used to be hers. My bed now is where hers used to be, in the exact same spot. My desk took the place of her wardrobe - and pictures of my girlfriend standing on this desk mirrors how that big, sepia picture of my great grandfather used to stand on top of that wardrobe. In a corner is a little table with a white top which does not seem fit into design scheme of my bedroom at all, or even the time period for that matter. It is the only clue of the room's previous owner. This bedroom possesses almost two decades' worth of living in, of ingrained familiarity counting from the day she first moved into this house; all but gone under a fresh coat of paint and new furniture.
The room was given to me because she was moved to a home after a stroke because we are all ungrateful fuckups. No, that's not true. She was moved there because more than half the day, this house is empty. Both my grandparents still work. Besides my grandparents, I am the only permanent occupant of this house, but I was studying in India at the time and only returned less than a year ago. Still, the home was near enough that my grandmother could walk there pretty regularly to see her. I don't really know how much my grandmother loved her mother and how her death made her feel; she only talked to me twice since Thursday - once to hand me a white T-shirt to wear to the funeral tomorrow. She looked and sounded weary both times.
My great grandmother's death is the first death in this family since I was born, and this is going to be the first funeral I will ever attend. I am not counting the death of my father's mother because, frankly, I never knew her and only met her twice, nor my great uncle's because he was a dick (also, I never really knew him either). My house is literally crawling with relatives at the moment, and I have not spoken a single word to any of them. I prefer holing up alone right here, in my bedroom. Or her bedroom. Is anything really anyone's? What constitutes a person, really?
Between the period of time my great grandmother had a stroke and Thursday, I only visited her twice and I admit that I did not - and do not - see the point of doing that. She couldn't recognise me at all, mistaking me every time for my mother's brother. That's what happens in senescence, in the forgetful evening of our lives; the newer memories are the first to go. You'll forget you grandchildren before you forget your children. Me? I am her great grandchild, her first. I lived with her my entire life, from the day I was born till the day I left for India. Whatever relationship I had with her, whatever memories we shared... those live on only in me now. It's a strange feeling to have, thinking of it that way.
My great grandmother had a headful of white hair ever since I could remember, though I admit that there isn't a lot I can remember of her now. I remember her laugh, deep and chuckly. I remember how she used to grumble to me about my grandmother's habit of grumbling to herself as she works. I remember all the times she asked me to dial numbers on the telephone for her because she couldn't do it nimbly enough herself, and she had these little cards, each with a single telephone number written in a very large hand on it. I remember that it was my duty to play the video-tapes of Hong Kong drama series we rent for her every night because she did not know how to work the VCR, and every time an old-timey actor or actress she knew appears, she will say their names out loud in delightful recognition. There was an armchair which she will sit in every night to watch the TV, and when I was littler, I would sometimes set up my little folding table in front of her and make her play cards with me. And she would nag me every time I don't finish every grain of rice on my plate. She always say, in Cantonese, "Do you know how hard it is to grow a grain of rice?" I finally came up with a retort to that while I was in India, but I never got the chance to use it.
And no, I'm not sad that my great grandmother have passed away - at least, there's no sadness I am aware of - but writing this, I realise for the first time that I do miss her. The old her. Before she had that stroke and became a husk of the person she used to be. Again, what constitutes a person anyway?
She had told me many, many times that one day when she finally dies, she wants to be buried next to my great grandfather - my great grandfather who I only knew from those old, yellow photographs. She spoke of him very often and very fondly; of their arranged marriage, their vacation in Hong Kong, and their morning walks to the beach - a beach which no longer exists even at the time when she first told me about it. Those are her oldest, most cherished memories. Those would had been the last memories she forgets.
They don't grow just one grain of rice at a time, Ah Tai. Good night, and good bye forever.
Your Eldest Great Grandson,
k0k s3n w4i