Losing someone close to you in your life is incredibly hard, and coping with that loss, or even the mere concept of death, is hard – especially for a child. The personal narrative below, Paper Shirts, details my flashback to my 12-year old self, when my grandfather (waigong) passed away due to lung cancer.
At some point during my childhood, my daily life began to revolve heavily around rhythm. There was a beat – a flow, a sense of order that you needed to sustain. If that rhythm – that sense of order, were broken, then there would be chaos. Continuity was the consonance, the C and E, the do and mi. Change was the dissonance, the C and D, the do and re. I liked harmonies, I liked staying the same, and I had an order to the things I did every day: Wake up at 7. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Change. Eat breakfast. Go to school… This routine would continue to the next day, and the next, and the day after the next, and on and on and on.
This rhythm I had in my childhood changed enormously when news of my grandfather’s lung cancer hit our family. We had expected that something was wrong when he talked about having sudden “heart-strains” and “chest-pains” occur randomly the year before. We had urged him to make an appointment with a doctor to get a medical check-up. But he refused. Exactly 3 months prior to my 13th birthday, and 7 days prior to Christmas, my grandfather died on the 18th of December 2015. With his death, a new rhythm was created. A new beat for us to follow.
Beep. 07:00 a.m. Wake up. Wear black. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Don’t forget to put on your armband. Take three incense sticks. Light them. Kneel before his photo. Kowtow three times. Place the incense into the urn. Don’t cry. Did you kowtow three times yet? Good. We can go get some breakfast now…
When news arrived about my grandfather being in the ICU, we had caught the earliest flight from San Jose to Hunan. He had 2-3 days left to live. After moving back to the States, visits with my grandparents were reduced to none. Other than the occasional phone call, and the usual conversation about grades and life in the States, there had never been enough time to bond with my relatives who lived practically a world away. It was six o’clock at night when we had finally arrived at Hunan. Compared to the sunny Californian skies, the night sky in Hunan was dark and freezing. Upon landing, we drove to the hospital immediately.
Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
My heart thumped loudly within my chest. Everywhere around me, people were crying – Why? It was cold. Why didn’t I say something to him when I still had the chance? There was a ringing in my ears – whether the sound had actually come from the frenzied beeping of the heart monitor instead, I wasn’t sure.
The room is too bright. Is it already night out? I stood in the corner of the room and watched the scene unfold before me. It shared an uncanny resemblance with the Chinese dramas I had once joked about with my brother – you know, the ones with those overly dramatic scenes where the grandfather dies – there’s always going to be the classic, wailing grandmother at their bedside. Check. With that came the daughters who would try and soothe their mother. Check. Then came the other adults who stood around his bedside, trying desperately to hold in their tears. Check. There would also be the children, who looked around with wide eyes, still haven’t fully comprehended the situation yet. Check. And, of course, the nurses and doctor who would rush into the room, recheck the pulse, and record the date and time of death onto the clipboard that had been hanging down from the patient’s bedside. Check. They would then push the patient, who lay in eternal slumber, out of the room and into another. Darker. Colder. The oldest daughter would then pull out the funeral outfit she bought for her father weeks ago. Weeks ago. Because, his death is inevitable. Because, the protagonist of the funeral has to be the center of attention. Because, unlike the dramas, the movies, the shows – there were no miracles. Death is death… And there’s no coming back from death. The nurses started changing the patient into his new outfit – a classic, Chinese-styled red magua, embroidered with golden dragons and clouds.
“Don’t look.” My brother murmured, standing beside me. “If you look, you’re admitting to the fact that he’s dead.”
“He is dead, D, that’s why we’re here.”
“Well… Remember that story waigong told you about me when I was still a kid? You know, way before you were born. The ancient times.”
“The story about him watering the garden with a hose?”
“And I stepped on the hose without him knowing.”
“And he brought the hose up to his face.”
“And I stepped away from the hose.”
“And the water splashed him right in the face.”
“Yep. Those were the good times, weren’t they?” he chuckled.
Plip. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I let out a small laugh, earning a scowl from my mother who stood a few feet away. Biexiao, she mouthed, don’t laugh.
“That’s why he’s still alive. In here.” He said and tapped the side of his head lightly. “He’s still living in our memories.”
Fsss. Fsss. Fsss.
It was the February of 2007. I watched with wide eyes as waigong’s hands moved quickly from one corner of the paper to the next.
“Make a fold here. Flip it around, fold it diagonally this time, and open it up like this.”
The pieces of square-shaped paper that once lay on the table had now transformed into a group of different animals: a frog that bounces high up into the sky when you push down lightly on its back, a crane that flies when you pull on its tail, or a flower bud that magically blooms when you blow air into it. I was sitting in my grandparent’s home office, next to my waigong, while the other adults pestered my brother about his test results and grades outside.
“Meng-meng, did you get any of that?” Waigong asked, holding out his new creation for me to see.
“What? No! Of course not! That was way too fast!” I whined, stomping my tiny, 4-year old feet against the wooden floorboards. “Can you show me again? Please?”
Chuckling, waigong took two pieces of square-shaped paper from the pile and placed one in front of me. “Let’s fold something easy this time. Together.”
“Why? I’m already 4-years old! I’m smart enough to make an origami crane.” I said while I puffed out my cheeks and folded my arms together to make him understand my frustration.
“You’ll like this, come on.” Waigong laughed and started folding the paper. “Fold it diagonally, and then fold it in half. Open it up. Fold the insides together, like this… and… We’re done!”
With waigong’s help, I completed the last few steps and stared at the final product blankly.
“A paper shirt! You can fold and decorate these to make clothes for your dolls.”
“This is awesome! Can you teach me how to make pants next?”
“Waigong, Meng-meng, it’s time for dinner now!” One of my cousins shouted, pushing the door open.
“Ah. We’re coming!” Waigong patted my head apologetically. “Sorry about that, Meng-meng, we’ll just have to find another time to do this…”
Beep. 02:00 a.m. I sat next to my brother in front of the bonfire outside of the funeral home. Take three sheets of paper money. Fold it in half. Throw it into the fire.
“Hey, D? You know what’s funny?” I said, turning away from the fire to face my brother. “We haven’t come back here in 3 years, and I haven’t seen all of our relatives gathered together in one place in like… 10 years? And now that we’re finally back, and everyone’s together, it’s because waigong’s dead.”
He nodded. “Can I ask you something, Michelle?”
“Why didn’t you say anything to waigong when you had the chance? Before he passed away? It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it.”
I bit my lip and stared at the flames in front of me. “… I don’t know. I really don’t know, D. I just… I really wanted to say something to him! But I couldn’t do it… I couldn’t bring myself to talk.”
“Okay.” He nodded again and tossed a few more sheets of paper money into the bonfire. At this rate, waigong’s going to become a trillionaire in heaven. “So, what are you folding?”
I looked down at the small piece of folded paper I had been unconsciously fidgeting with and threw it into the bonfire.
“It’s an origami dress shirt. For waigong. Gotta have something to wear up there.”
“Oh.” He cracked a small smile. “What about the pants?”
“Never learned how to make them.”
“Ah. Should be fine, though. I’m sure waigong wouldn’t mind.”
Together, we watched the paper shirt slowly burn and dissipate in the bonfire. We watched the fire curl and dance around the paper shirt. We watched the fire fully engulf the shirt, the pure white shirt, and we watched the paper twist and seethe in pain. Sss. Ssss… We watched the paper disappear, and we watched the smoke of the fire slowly drift off into the dawning sky, bringing our gift to the recipient – our waigong. We watched the cloud of smoke dissipate, and I wondered about the stories that he never had the chance to tell us, and the stories we never had the opportunity to tell him. I wondered about the words I never managed to say to him before he was gone. I wondered if a simple “goodbye”, or a “we love you”, would have been better than nothing. I wished, that if he was still here by our sides, I could have the chance to tell him to teach me the way to fold a pair of origami pants. I wished, that before he had left this world, I could have the chance to tell him a simple: “Haojiubujian. Long time no see.”
In my personal narrative, I played around with the point of view by using both first and second-person perspectives to tell my story. This helps add interest to my narrative by referring to the reader, and it helps establish a change in the rhythm within my narrative. For example, my third paragraph changes from first (second paragraph) to second person point of view: “Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Don’t forget to put on your armband…”. This paragraph was used to demonstrate and describe the change in my life, and to establish a rhythm to the text with the repeated use of short, broken sentences. The use of first person also contributes to the narrative by describing the situation and developing myself as a character, for example: “It shared an uncanny resemblance with the Chinese dramas I had once joked about with my brother – you know, the ones with those overly dramatic scenes where the grandfather dies…”. I also used some of my internal thoughts (emphasized by italics) to intensify my internal conflict: “Everywhere around me, people were crying – Why? It was cold.”. The order of the sentences used at this part of the narrative is in a bit of a mess – creating a sense of confusion, which allows the reader to infer that the character isn’t thinking straight at the moment.
Throughout my narrative, I also used many literary techniques to develop myself as a complex character and describe the situation, for example: contrast (“continuity was the consonance, the C and E, the do and mi. Change was the dissonance, the C and D, the do and re”), repetition (“Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum”), and onomatopoeia (“my heart thumped loudly within my chest”, or “the frenzied beeping of the heart monitor”).