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The Chief Mourner

by Brenda Yun

On saying goodbye

When you say goodbye to an ancestor it is the Chinese tradition to bow to
him three times. On the first bow, you are supposed to honor heaven and
earth; the second, your family; the third, to peace and the passage of
time. As each family approached Gung Gung in his casket, we did this together. Closing my eyes as I did this, I tried to remember the meaning in
each bow, desperately searching for the purpose that, as a Chinese
granddaughter, I should know. Instead, each bow made me feel empty,

I didn't know how I had arrived at this place. I felt unworthy of bowing before this man. I wanted to make things right by coming here, but my actions and emotions felt so wrong, inappropriate, purposeless.

On the plane ride to Columbus I wrote a letter that was later burned and included in Gung Gung's ashes. Unlike the other letters that were written on nice Hallmark cards and sealed tightly in a fresh white envelope, mine was on notebook paper, written in pink pen, and folded into an origami heart shape. It had been a week since I heard the news about his death and, still, I hadn't arrived at any sort of peace. There is still only regret for me now-of what I could have done, should have done for Gung Gung. There is so much he could have given me if I had only allowed him in. I poured my soul onto that notebook paper. I cried for the entire hour-long flight. In mid-thought, mid-sentence, I looked out at the clouds. When I was a child, I believed that when people went to heaven they lived on the clouds and looked down to watch over us. Looking out that morning, in mid-flight, I didn't see Gung Gung - not at all. There wasn't even a little reminder of him there, not even as I looked down through the clouds' opening. Gung Gung wasn't there. It felt lonely on that plane. I felt like I was the one who had died and the world below was turning, moving on without me. I thought about Gung Gung as I wrote my letter but, even more, I thought about how I hadn't opened myself to the wisdom that only he-living-could provide.

Looking out the small watermelon-shaped window of the plane I paid homage to my Gung Gung - that great man whom I had always kept in the fringes of my life. I remembered his small, delicate frame but the great pride with which he carried it. I remembered the love of his four daughters that protected him and kept him safe. I remembered how desperately he wanted to share his stories and vast memories of his rich life. There is a great deal that Gung Gung and I have in common. We are both fragile-looking yet strong inside.

We are both surrounded and comforted by those who love us. We both want others to listen, to understand who were are and where we come from. I arrived in Ohio that November morning hungry and tired. On the ride from the airport to the funeral home my father bought breakfast for me - the famous biscuit and gravy from Bob Evans's, a chain restaurant in middle America. "It was my favorite growing up," Dad said. I had to remind myself that he had spent his first few years in America here in Ohio, attending Ohio State University. When I try to imagine my father in college, I recall the few photographs of him. He wore thick, dark-rimmed glasses back then, his hair was thick and black. He is still quite like how he used to be except his glasses have metal frames and his hair is almost all white. I forget that he had to learn English in college because his accent is cleanly American now. Just as my breakfast was cleanly American that morning, it's easy to forget that I am innately part of another culture that is much more traditional, much more meaningful. It's as if these two distinct parts of me - the American and the Chinese - are oddly indistinguishable. Just as there is no trace of Chinese in my father's voice, there is none in mine. I often think the only thing Chinese about me is my face. Is that enough?

"Did you write Gung Gung a letter?" Dad asked me as he drove the car. Ohio passed outside the window like a flat, endless road to nowhere in particular. How had Gung Gung survived here for so long? Some 50 years?

"I did." I took the cover off the cup filled with gravy, tore off a few pieces of biscuit and swirled them in the soupy stuff until the bread was soaked.

"Dad wrote a letter in calligraphy," Mom remarked. She passed an envelope to me in the backseat. "Can you recognize some of the words?" I opened the letter inside. The paper was thin like rice paper and white. There were five columns of characters neatly painted on it. My father had written a poem for Gung Gung, a four-line poem. I read aloud from left to right, recognizing about every other word.

"She knows more than the other cousins," Mom responded. A typical Mom response, comparing my abilities with the others. The only problem with Chinese is that you have to know all of the characters to grasp the meaning. I could only pick out fragments of the whole. "You have to read the Chinese way, from right to left," my dad pointed out.

No wonder I couldn't understand the poem. I was reading it backwards. Dad translated it for me. It talked about Gung Gung's Manchurian ancestry and his love of Peking opera, golf, and art. I had to hold my tears back as I tried to remember these things about Gung Gung, but to no avail. I wept silently, so Mom couldn't hear me. I wanted to be strong for my mother, mainly, but also because I was never the strong one. I was always the one needing others' strength: Dad's advice on work, Mom's financial generosity, Irene's moral support. I wanted to be someone they hadn't seen before-the loving and emotionally stable daughter and sister, granddaughter, niece and cousin - the Brenda that was there beneath the surface, but rarely came up for air. That Brenda doesn't cry, she doesn't show pain or sadness, she perseveres. She can defeat any monster, win any battle. I squirmed in the back seat trying not to let my parents see the sadness that trickled down my face and onto my black shirt.

We arrived early to the funeral service. This was only my second service, but the first service with an actual body and casket. It was a private event - only with close family members and friends. Gung Gung lay stiff in his casket in the front of the room. I peered at his emaciated body. His eyes were closed and his mouth formed a subtle smile. It had been three years since I had seen him last and still - at 91 - he looked young, at peace.

He was dressed in a dark blue jacket and red necktie. His legs were covered by the bottom half of the casket. His hands, at his side, were bony and discolored, a mixture of white and pink, due to pigmentation problem that had been worsening in the past year. I had anticipated his death, yet hadn't fully prepared for it. In fact, I was half way through a memoir about our relationship before this happened. Now, when I read over that unfinished narrative, I am angry at myself. Why do I continue to write my thoughts to myself and not share them openly with the people I love? What is there to fear? Do you have to say the words directly so they can take on their true meaning?

I leaned in over my lifeless Gung Gung. There was a small pin on his lapel from Mount Rainier; he must have bought it when I saw him the last time in Seattle before my cousin's wedding. I whispered what I wanted to say - words that I never said while he was alive: "I love you." It was a soft whisper so no one else would hear it. I hoped it wasn't too late, but felt like it was - like the words were empty, that they didn't take form, that he didn't hear me, didn't know.

My mother approached then, silently. There was a kind of lifeless expression on her face, partially of disbelief. I could tell that the week leading up to this event did not suffice in her coming to terms with Gung Gung's death. Never in my life have I seen her cry. She has always been a saint in my eyes, always carrying her emotions inside, never wanting others to know how much she truly cares or how vulnerable she can be. Her walk always reminded me of Gung Gung. Small steps, hips hopping, feet turned out - like a graceful kind of waddle. Mom looked at her father for a few minutes silently. Dad took some pictures of the scene, then nudged me closer to her, encouraging me to comfort her. I put my hand on her back, her black leather jacket was still cold from outside. She surveyed his body silently, thinking quietly about this man before her. This man who had passed on so much and who has now passed on, leaving behind this: several lives missing him, wishing he could have lived forever. Mom had gotten a haircut since the last time I had seen her a few months ago. Other than that, she hadn't changed much. That's what I love so much about my mother - that she's my constant, loving and beautiful, child-like yet focused. She was quiet, tired in thought.

The awful silence. Beige wallpaper in the square room. One square Kleenex
box. The 15 rows of chairs facing the coffin. The body. Still. The body. There. White-yellow tint of the ceiling lights on black clothes.

Chinese faces. Green couches occupying one side of the room. The awful silence. Silence that shouldn't be there. Regretful heart still beating. Winter jackets hanging in the corner closet. Apple scented candles.

Wicker basket with handwritten letters. Pachelbel's Canon on repeat. The melody. Over and over. The awful sound. Darkness found only in that windowless room. Curtains by the coffin that put him on display. Her old face, hunched over on that old body, weighing down that crooked cane.

Black hair. Salt and pepper hair wading in a black sea. Minds silent in contemplation. Drifting off to unknown depths of despair. The awful silence.

How does a family say goodbye to a member who, to them, was immortal? How do you console one another when you are simply trying to console yourself? When there is not a body to touch, is there still a soul to talk to? The strength that I had promised to convey, the persona I wanted to present, was no longer with me. I cried so much that day that I actually grew physically parched. On our way to lunch I said to my sister, "I've never been this thirsty. It's like my body drained itself of water with tears." Irene nodded in agreement. My parents, in front, thought briefly about this remark as well. All four of us silently reminisced the man, the source, of our tears. Maybe they too felt that pang of regret for things undone and unsaid. Maybe I am not the only one that is humbled. We drove along Ohio's suburbia, miles of growing shopping centers, parking lots filled with American-made cars, and dry flat land. The sun was out. It was warm inside the car; it wrapped around me like a tight blanket.

"It's so flat out here," I said. "This place needs some mountains and a body of water," Irene continued. We drove the rest of the way in near silence. Deep in thought, I remembered this was where my parents' romance had blossomed. Decades ago, this was the place where Gung Gung had hired Dad to drive Mom to and from school everyday. This vast stretch of flat open land was, in a sense, my beginning. I couldn't help but question how far I had strayed from this place of my origin.

After lunch, we followed the hearse to the crematorium, driving, once again, down yet another stretch of straight, flat highway. I even fell asleep on the unusually long car ride there. I dreamt of places I had been other than this place. I dreamt of Maine, Boston, Boulder, Hawaii, abroad. These places lulled me into a deep sleep, removing me temporarily from this scene of mourning. Cars lurched toward a far off destination where Gung Gung's body would meet its end. It is hard to believe that I will never be able to see his face again, in person. Somehow, photographs don't do him justice.

The crematorium was in the middle of the ghetto, an unfitting destination for the man inside the wooden casket. To get there, we drove along a decrepit main street, the stores on both sides had dirty windows.

There was a pawn shop on one corner. Then it was down a set of back alleys to the parking area, which essentially fit four cars and faced the graffiti-covered gray wall of a building. The building's exterior looked more like a poorly-tiled homeless shelter with a cement chimney sticking out from the middle.

I kept asking myself as my sister and I escorted our parents to the entrance, how had I arrived at this moment? It just didn't fit, this place. It didn't deserve to swallow up my Gung Gung's ashes.

Fourteen family members milled around the dank, shabby waiting area. Popo sat at the far end of the room, the other cousins standing by her. I observed from my own chair ten feet away. I guess I was always the observer, never doing, just part of the scene. My sister showed Popo her engagement ring. Popo said softly, "He wanted to be at your wedding. He tried hard to stay here so he could be there." I wonder now if Gung Gung was waiting for me as well, if he had always been waiting.

A few minutes passed and the 14 of us were then escorted into an adjacent room. We formed a circle around a large metal furnace. Like a large self-contained fireplace, it looked ironically cold. Popo stood facing its gaping mouth. I stood in the middle of the arc. I nudged my sister and as we watched Popo wave goodbye to Gung Gung, who was already tucked tightly beneath his casket. The large flower basket that my father's parents had sent for the service had been brought from the funeral home here now served as the only brightly colored accessory in the room as it lingered beside the furnace. The man operating the machine asked if we were ready.

We all turned to Popo. She nodded, then waved one last goodbye before Gung Gung was placed inside the belly of the furnace. With a quick push of a button, Gung Gung's body was burning. As the machine hummed loudly, tears strolled down my face. I pulled a Kleenex from my back pocket, already damp from earlier. My sister squeezed my other hand tightly.

I believed it yet couldn't believe it: Gung Gung, the patriarch of this large family, father of four daughters and grandfather of eight - was gone.

We went through Gung Gung's belongings later that day. He kept his stuff in the basement which, as I remembered, was like a dark, cavernous prison - not at all suitable as a painting studio, work space and storage area, but that was what it had become. It had been at least five years since I had last been down there and the place even more cramped with art supplies, scrolls, framed and unframed paintings, manual typewriters, books in both Chinese and English. Here was Gung Gung's hidden museum.
Artifacts stuffed in boxes, photo albums with pictures dating back to the early 20th century. The oldest picture was a family photograph of my Popo's mother and siblings. There were four girls and one boy, all were dressed in fine Chinese qi-pau's and their black hair was tied tightly back. They sat on chairs next to one another and looked straight at the camera, sitting erect and proper. It was clear they were a well-to-do family. Another fascinating find was a detailed map of one of Gung Gung's workplaces when he served as the secretary to the Chief of Staff at the Army headquarters in India. The Army facility was drawn by memory, and Gung Gung even accounted for the trees and where his desk sat in the room where he worked. We also found a full family tree that dated back to the Ming dynasty. My mother had told me a long time ago that we are the offspring of the emperor's third concubine. I came across a small, framed advertisement of his that said, "Learn how to write Chinese name. I am happy to teach Chinese characters and painting." All his life, Gung Gung was eager to share his adventures and wisdom.

The deeper I rummaged through his things, the more ravenous I became. It was as if I was possessed for those few hours, trying to understand this man, wanting for him to understand me. Somehow, I believed that if I could sift through each artifact, I could still show that I knew him and loved him. My father helped me thumb through each of his paintings, which were rolled up in scrolls. I was eager to find the ones with insects and large flowers. My mother reminded me that Gung Gung was good at painting birds, so I took some of those, too, for good measure. I grabbed, I took, I felt like I was stealing some things that I didn't deserve but they were mine now, nonetheless.

While it seemed my other cousins were happy with a few souvenirs, I emerged from the basement with a box full of paintings, books, scrolls, and cards. They are still in a box right now, sitting by my desk. I have yet to make use of Gung Gung's belongings. They were, after all, his things. I feel guilty for taking so much from him and giving so little.

My mother did cry that day, this much I know but did not witness. While the grandchildren were claiming Gung Gung's possessions in the basement, Popo and the daughters cried together a few blocks away at the youngest daughter, Aunt Jocelyn's house. When we arrived a few hours later, Popo was sitting by the kitchen with balled-up Kleenexes strewn on the dining table. All four puffy-eyed daughters were already busy preparing dinner.

"I miss him," Popo had said softly to my mother at the service. She buried her face in my mother's shoulder as they shared a tender embrace. There are still traces of her Chinese accent when she speaks, a lingering of her old soul - left behind on the other side of the world almost 50 years ago.

"I miss him, too," I said to myself. I still don't understand why I miss him so. Sometimes, at night, my eyes wide, searching the darkness, I look for Gung Gung. I said goodbye to Gung Gung three times that November day. The first, when the pastor asked us to bow our heads in silence and read the Lord's Prayer. The tears welled up so solidly that I couldn't read the words on the paper. The second goodbye was when I left my heart-shaped letter on his chest. The third, when his body burned in the crematorium. I still say goodbye to Gung Gung before I sleep every night; I hope I say goodbye to him in my dreams too. I hope he helps me sleep at night, but sometimes, I feel like he keeps me awake. He asks me, "Don't worry about me, Brenda. I am all right." I say to him, "I hope I make you proud some day." In my mind, he is not proud of me yet.

I love him. That much I wanted him to know before he died. Did he know? Was I able to communicate that - show that? Did he see me among the gifted and accomplished other grandchildren? On a drive to Yosemite after my sister's college graduation, I broke into tears after overhearing Gung Gung tell Irene, "I am so proud of you, my granddaughter." We were traveling in a tight van, driving over the San Francisco bridge and while we had a destination, I felt like I was going no where. The water below us seemed like the most appropriate place to be. I have been treading the waters of this traditional Chinese family for so long. I have been moving in place. Is it too late to redeem myself, emerge from these waters?

Gung Gung was the only progenitor that could have managed to bring his four daughters to America to start a healthy new life in this land of promise and opportunity. So, as I search for a proper beginning for this memory of him, can there be an end when I feel as if I've only just begun? I want him to be proud of me too. Is it too late to prove to him that I am worth continuing his legacy?

Chief mourners are not the unfeeling ones, the ones who don't write, don't call. They are not the self-consumed ones, the healed. They are the ones who are still healing, anticipating every breath, savoring every exhale. They are not the cold ones who stand in dank corners unmoving and unmoved. They are the ones who want to feel warm even if they've been cold so long, that warmth is only an idea. The chief mourners are the faithful ones - the ones who can set aside difference and anger and allow black to seep through their pores and salt to crust on their cheeks.

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Articles in this Issue

Bela Lugosi's Legacy, by Eric Nuzum
Days of Overblown, by Albert E. Martinez
The Chief Mourner, by Brenda Yun
Cleveland 1954, by George Sparling
Those New York City Faces, by Randall Dana
Engraving, by Russell Streur
Theater, by Austin Bunn
Assyriology, by David Damrosch
September 2007


Brenda Yun is a travel and freelance writer, writing center director, and high school English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii. She enjoys traveling around the world and, when home, walking her pug Iris. "Saying Goodbye" is part of a larger memoir that deals exactly with loss — more specifically, three losses in her life: the loss of a boyfriend, friend, and family member. This is her first published nonfiction essay.

Where loss is found.

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