by Melissa Ren

Ah Gong laid in his casket looking like someone else. His skin was puffy, as if bloated from water, and painted with makeup to accentuate his features. Peach lips. Rose cheeks. Taupe skin. Not a single liver spot. I squinted to find remnants of his actual face. His brows remained intact, spiky bushes flicking up at the ends in that familiar way. Not quite a furrow, but a salute. It somehow always made him look angry, even when he smiled. And yet, as I stood here studying his lips strained in a taut line, he appeared complacent, like death was a fine choice as opposed to suffering.

I burned the incense, inhaling the musty scent as it snaked up the air. After bowing three times to pay my respects, I planted the stick on the altar beside the offering of ripe fruit. Ah Gong’s untied shoelace caught my eye. The thought of him tripping in the afterlife seemed like a cruel joke. My stomach tensed. Hadn’t he suffered enough? I tied it at once and examined the navy blue suit he was wearing. He’d never worn this before. Ah Gong hated formal wear. Did we buy this outfit just for the occasion? He preferred elastic waist trousers, a golf shirt, and a vest he wore every day, despite the weather. Who we were impressing with this suit? Was this my mother’s idea? I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth.

Ah Gong appeared smaller than he actually was, and I wondered if he had always been this frail or if I somehow missed this transformation. Someone had placed his hands clasped over his stomach, a gesture he often made when he felt unwell.

An ache swelled in my chest.

After the service, the time came to say goodbye, and I approached the body that once harbored the soul of my grandfather. I bent down to whisper how much I—

My eyes widened. A faint scent of white flower oil lingered on his collar. He applied the oil daily, regardless of ailment, in the small hollow between his collarbones. Images of us blossomed in my mind: playing mahjong on Sunday afternoons, watching James Bond movies, dim sum mornings. A lump clogged my throat.

Upon re-inspecting the suit, I recognized the flower-shaped buttons. A childhood memory bubbled to the surface of Ah Poh hand sewing the buttons for a family occasion. This was his suit. Tears blurred my vision; this was him.

I inhaled a slow breath, filling my lungs with the last smell of him.

Ah Gong.


Image by hartono subagio from Pixabay