In Life and in Death, a Secret kept

Oh Yew Cheong, 1928 — 2010

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye –

This past weekend I was back in Penang for my great-uncle’s funeral. As the older brother of my grandfather, widowed and childless, his world revolved around his four siblings, their children and grandchildren, and his wife’s family. And even though I had been hauled against my will to Penang on a weekday so that I would arrive in time for the wake, I later found, for the first time in my life, that I was glad to have been there for it.

Death is a very strange thing. People  spend the wake and funeral talking about the deceased’s life, dredging up any detail of their lives that they can remember, no matter how insignificant they may have seemed, inadvertently revealing secrets that had been kept for years, and sharing as much as they can to keep the person’s memory alive. And amidst mourning the loss of someone they had known and loved and celebrating the life they had led, the question eventually creeps out: How well did we really know this person?

I knew him as my grandfather’s older brother, who had lost his wife at a young age and never remarried. I knew that he treated my mother and the other children of his siblings like his own, and that my brother and I were the closest he had to having grandchildren. I knew that he walked from his house to the town every morning to buy breakfast for his ailing brother-in-law, whom he lived with, and their maid.

But I never knew him. I never knew that he had adopted a daughter, who now lives in the U.K. with her husband. I never knew that the room in his brother-in-law’s house that he lived in had been the center of  his world, with all his worldly possessions, including a very old photo of his wife, in it. I never knew that he had been an accountant, and that he read J.D. Salinger and Lord Tennyson. I never knew that he kept a door in his closet locked at all times, and I never knew that nobody, not even his own family, knew why or where he kept the key. All I knew was that he was a good man, who, even in his last days, made sure that his two younger sisters — the last of his siblings — and brother-in-law were all cared for.

So as I watched and listened in those last hours before he was laid to rest, I saw the pain this loss brought to my great-aunts and my mother, and I wondered if they were mourning not only his passing, but also his life, for all the things that they had known and not known about him. I wondered, but I doubt I’ll ever know.

Be in peace.

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