Think about an occasion where you are required to dress up, to greet and nod politely at people that you do not remember, to pretend to have emotions that you do not feel and be expected to confront unexpected ghosts from your past. What do you think of?
A family funeral.
(Unless of course, you make a stupid decision of attending an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, which to this day remains one of the most regrettable decisions in my life.)
On the day of Ma’s funeral, I was standing next to a big white sign with her smiling face, and words that said:
“In Loving Memory of Lee Fah Wong, wife of Michael Coleman, mother to Sara Coleman, Nathaniel Coleman and Melanie Coleman, grandmother to Riley Teo
(26th May 1947-1st August 2015)”
I was also the first family member to greet the inflow of guests and the recipient of all condolences and related messages.
“Ah-Jie, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. She was such a nice woman. Do you remember me? I’m your Auntie Jacintha, you used to play at our house when you were younger. I know Lee Fah loved white roses, here are some that I have ordered for her.”
“We are going to miss your mother at our line dancing classes. Your Auntie Fong, especially. They were such good friends, like two pods. Wait, I think the saying is two peas in a pod.”
“Sara, please let us know whether there is anything we can do. Do you want me to bring you cakes? The ones that you and Mel liked when you were little girls?”
“Oh, Sara, your poor mother! She is so young too. And what happened to you? Why have you put on so much weight?!”
And each time, I nodded my head, smiled politely and let them hug me to make them feel better, even when all I wanted to say was:
“Thank you but no, I don’t remember you.”
“Auntie Fong? Wait until you hear what she says about her!”
“Yes, please bring cake. Any cake.”
“Really? I was just going to ask you the same thing! I don’t remember you having the face of a dried prune.”
My head was throbbing. I felt like a sledgehammer was making its way through my skull. I had had less than thirty hours of sleep in the last five nights. Every night when I closed my eyes, I saw her face, the one from that evening, wondering whether there was more I could have done more to prevent her early death. Did she really have a heart problem which I was not aware of, because I did not see her enough? Then flashes of images from our younger and happier days would flood my mind, and the pillow that I was lying on would inevitably end up being soaked in tears.
To make matter worse, the day of the funeral was hot, my black dress was a size too small (the little lady with the wrinkled skin was right, I had put on weight in the last year) and the funeral was held at Ma’s house. Fifty guests, six immediate family members, all cramped into the small space that was her house and her back garden. All less than 500 sqm of space.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked Mel three days ago, when she mentioned the venue for the funeral. “It’s going to be 37 degrees of glorious West Australian summer temperature that day.”
“No, I‘m not, but it’s what she wanted. She had it written down in her will.”
Mel had been appointed as the executor of Ma’s will, which came as no surprise to me. Ma had always referred to her as the intelligent and responsible one. Ma had also set aside a certain amount of money to be spent on her funeral, which did not include the hiring of a venue. Discussion closed.
“Guests? Who do we have to invite? What about the program?” I asked. “I have a friend who works in printing. He can help out.”
“Here’s the list,” Mel said, pushing a list of fifty names in front of me. The names were categorised under various groups – Pa’s relatives, family friends, very close friends, friends from line-dancing, friends from pottery, friends from fine arts and friends from church.
“Who are these people? I have not even heard of most of them.” I took a second glance. “And church? Since when did she go to church?”
“I think there was a short period of time about five years ago. She must have made some life-long friends.”
“Do we need to invite everyone?”
She shrugged. “Again, she had them written down.”
“What about flowers? Chrysanthemum?”
“No, white roses. Several bouquets of them. And a casket spray of white lilies. I can order them. There is a florist down the street from our place.”
“I thought she would prefer some Chinese tradition. Don’t we always have chrysanthemums at Chinese funerals?”
“Well, she said that she wanted roses and lilies.”
“She wrote that into her will?”
“Not her will. There is a list of things that she had passed on to me in case this day should come.”
“Really? What was she being so prepared anyway? Did she have some kind of illness that I didn’t know about?”
Mel shook her head. “No, she didn’t. Healthy as a fiddle, for all I know. But she had been prepared ever since Pa went out with the heart attack.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“There are a lot of things about her you don’t know.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Can we just focus on getting this done? I have to take Riley to speech therapy in an hour’s time. And tomorrow there is a team meeting that I have to get to in the office so I won’t be able to see you in the morning.”
“Speech therapy? For a two-year-old? Is that really necessary?”
“Sara, he can’t even pronounce some basic words, OK? Besides, Riley’s my son, so please back off with the judgement.”
“OK, OK. Sorry,” I mumbled.
Mel and I had been spending a lot of time together over the last couple days, working through what needed to be done and planning for Ma’s funeral. We had not spent this much time together in the past fifteen years, since I moved out of the family home (the same one where the funeral was going to be held). I could not say that I had been missing it.
“Any guests flying in? Do we need to arrange transport or accommodation?” I asked.
“The only one I can think of is Nate, if he’s coming at all.”
“Well I called him the night Ma passed away. I expect he would come. No one from her home town?”
“Not that I can see on the list.” She paused. “Where’s Nate going to sleep? Is that woman coming too?”
“I don’t know, he didn’t say. I assume that they will be going to a hotel.”
As it turned out, Nate did fly in from Melbourne the night before the funeral. Now, at the funeral, I looked across the room to where he was standing awkwardly in a corner as guest after guest walked up to him with their condolences. I tried to look at his eyes, to see whether there were signs of redness. Are you sad at all, Nate? Did you shed any tears when you found out that she was gone? I could not tell. There was some puffiness but it could have just as well been from jet-lag.
He did seem taller than I remembered, although I knew that was not possible. It might have been the suit and the Djokovic-style haircut that made him look so. He definitely looked more handsome, and more like a man than the boy I remembered him to be.
His partner Rei was sitting down next to him, her face expressionless, fanning herself with the funeral program that Dan, my friend in printing, had helped us pull together over the last two days. From time to time she would take out the compact mirror from her handbag and stare into it, presumably to check that her impeccable make-up was not running in this oven-like condition.
I had not had a chance to speak with them much since they arrived. I made a mental note to invite them out to dinner tomorrow night, once the last of the formality was over and the sledgehammer in my head had been retrieved. Maybe at that new hotpot place in town. I think he mentioned that she liked Chinese food. Real Northern Chinese food, he added, not the type that you would get from a Hong Kong or South East Asian restaurant.
“OK, everyone, can I please have your attention?” a voice rang out loud and clear, as I was still contemplating whether hotpot or traditional Szechuan cuisine would be the way to go. The voice came from the funeral celebrant, Robert something or another. “We are going to start our ceremony soon. If I can please get you all to find somewhere to sit, or stand comfortably, as I understand that there may not be enough seats for everyone.” He had a deep and soothing voice, like that one would expect from a radio host for a jazz channel.
Mel found Robert through Google search. He described himself as a celebrant with many years of experience in the performance of non-religious funeral ceremonies that centred around the life of the deceased loved one, which was exactly the type of ceremony that would suit Ma. His Google reviews were great (4 stars), although I did tell her that the assessments were questionable since the reviewers were not, and would never be, the actual recipient of the services.
Having said that, I had been thus far impressed with Robert. He seemed to take his role of funeral celebrant very seriously and with a lot of pride, advising us of tips that he had gathered through his many years of experience, like where to seat the guests, how to deal with children, how to deal with very sad people, how to monitor the mood, what type of music was appropriate, and so on. He also assigned each of us a role so that we would feel like we were part of the process. Mel, of course, was assigned the role of delivering the eulogy, which was fine by me. I was never much of a public speaker and just the idea of speaking in front of people made me feel sick, even if it was at my own mother’s funeral.
My role was to greet and direct the guests, and then after the ceremony was over, to show them where the refreshments were, and explained what they were, if asked (there were bound to be some questions since we decided to serve the guests with some of Ma’s favourite Malaysian kuih). I felt that this suited my skill sets well. Robert must have thought so too. Funny that a man who had only met us a few hours could already spot the strengths and differences between my sister and I. As for the son and de facto daughter-in-law who just flew in less than twenty-four hours before, they were not assigned any role. Their only responsibility was to show up.
The ceremony itself was short and concise. It started with an introduction and reading by Robert, followed by the playing of Ma’s favourite song Rose, Rose, I Love You (“Mei Gui Mei Gui Wo Ai Ni”) and a eulogy delivered by my dear sister. Mel looked very elegant in her Audrey Hepburn style vintage black dress. She used phrases like “warm and caring friend and mother”, “larger than life”, “funny”, “a vibrant blend of Eastern and Western cultures”, “loved everything with colours”, “no one cooks soups like her”, and finishing it all with “We love you and will never forget you, Ma.” I could only agree with half of what she said, but I could not fault her speech. It was well composed, sprinkled with just the right amount of sadness and humour, exactly something that you would expect from Mel. All throughout she spoke clearly and eloquently, whilst occasionally dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a tissue at well-timed pauses.
After the eulogy Robert closed the ceremony, and guests were offered the opportunity to walk up to the casket to say their final goodbye’s (we ultimately decided on a closed casket because there was too long a lag in between time of death and the funeral and given the summer heat, her body was decomposing quicker than we thought). Some guests took this opportunity, others just went straight to the refreshments. I hurried over and took my place by the refreshments table.
As I stood there, silently swearing at the sun while smiling and nodding at each a guest who walked past, I felt a nudge at the back of my leg.
“Oh hi little buddy,” I said, looking down at my two-year-old nephew. He looked up at me with eyes that reminded me of Mel’s. “You lost?”
“Are you looking for your Mama? I’m not sure where she is. She might still be busy.”
I looked around and spotted Patrick in the backyard, talking to a couple of people and spreading his arms out animatedly as he did. Typical Patrick. Always looking for the opportunity to socialise in any environment.
“I think Papa is busy too. Do you want to hang with me for a while?”
He nodded, looking confused. I smiled at him and picked him up in my arms.
“Oof!” I said with surprise.
He must be at least two kilos heavier than the last time I held him, and he looked very adorable in his little black suit and bow tie. How did something so adorable come from my uptight sister and her pompous husband? And poor little guy. He had no clue what was going on, who all these strange people were and why they were here. I wondered if in the years to come he would remember once having a grandmother who loved him.
Oh yes, how she loved him.
“Are you Sara? Lee Fah’s eldest daughter?”
I turned around and came face-to-face with an older woman. Her skin was fair and the firmest of all the other older women I had met at my mother’s funeral, and her hair was beautifully held up in a bun on top of her head. Even at her age one could say that she was attractive. She looked to be of Asian descent, but spoke with an Australian accent, unlike a lot of the other ladies that my mother spent time with, including my mother herself.
“Uh, yes, I am.”
“You look so much like her.”
I smiled politely.
“Beautiful ceremony,” she continued.
“Thank you. Mel did most of the planning.”
“Sara, I don’t think we’ve met before but I am your mother’s good friend, Linda. Linda Fong. I’ve seen your sister Mel a few times when she picked your mother up from line dancing class, but not you.”
Auntie Fong, I thought in my head.
“Oh yes, she has mentioned you a few times,” I said. I could not help but steal quick glances at the bottom half of her slim body, which was cladded in a tight dress, as I imagined those buttocks and thighs that used to be covered in very short pants.
“Yes, yes, we hung out quite a bit. I am very sorry that this happened. This really comes as a shock to me too. She seemed so healthy.”
“Yes, that makes two of us.”
She paused and looked around awkwardly, as if to make sure that there was no one standing within close proximity who could hear our conversation. Then she leaned in close.
“Look, Sara, there’s something that your mother had asked of me to do when she was still alive, in case this happens. I just did not realise that it would be so soon. Can I speak to you in private?”