As a child, I never thought death was real; it felt more like a myth, a bedtime story told to make me scared and obedient. I didn't trust or believe in it until I witnessed it firsthand.
Growing up, my parents never took me to a graveyard or a death ceremony; it was considered unlucky in our culture. So, death remained a distant concept, more like a bedtime tale than a tangible reality. Looking back, it's funny how a kid's brain can believe in things that aren't real and dismiss things that are.
My first encounter with death was my grandfather's passing, marking the beginning of a very uncomfortable but also beautiful journey.
Our family might be labeled as "unusual," but then again, whose family isn't? We were cozy and warm, akin to naturalists, with a deep love for nature and animals. We don´t like to eat outside, and we don’t like to spend money.
In the past, my grandparents often took me on walks and vacations since my parents were consistently occupied with work. I resented their long working hours. A part of me wanted to play with them, while another part felt the weight of their sacrifices. However, I found contentment in the fact that both sets of grandparents enjoyed taking me outside, exploring restaurants, parks, and different cities.
My grandfather, a hardworking man since the age of 16, moved to the capital city and became a successful businessman. I admired him, as I did many family members, for their unique qualities. However, as a child, there were days when his strictness irked me. He believed that tears wouldn't solve problems and discouraged us, his granddaughters, from crying. It kind of backfired when I was an adult, as I became a bit of a crybaby. I cried every chance I got, but it did make me feel better, so I stand by it.
My grandpa was the one who built me to be strong. I was such a weak and spoiled child back then. I had asthma and always used it as a reason not to do sports or as an excuse to be sick and tired. Sometimes, when I was just lazy and didn't want to go to sports class, I would use it as a reason, and people would understand it since I brought the asthma medicine. But my grandpa overlooked it. He made me swim, eat traditional medicine, finding many ways to cure it, as he didn't want me to be weak. At first, I didn't like it; I liked being weak. But then, with all of his hard work and my own made-up discipline, I was able to overcome it.
Some time passed, and we did a lot of things together. On my 11th birthday, we celebrated it last as a family, and that is the year when he passed. The day of his death seemed normal, contrary to what I imagined if someone died that day. But who could predict such things? I came downstairs as usual, anticipating our usual Mandarin conversation. We always spoke Mandarin whenever I left the house or went to school. It was annoying for me at first because Mandarin was complicated, and I always forgot my lines. Now, I miss it. But that day, he wasn't there. So I just assumed that he was in his room sleeping late. However, I should've considered it again, as he never woke up late.
As I descended the stairs, I saw my nanny and sister waiting, their expressions a mix of confusion and sadness. Then came the words – my grandpa died. I couldn't grasp it; it felt like a cruel joke, a day no one had prepared me for.
That day went on normally. I went to school, dreading my most challenging teacher's math class. I couldn't eat lunch whenever I knew what class was next. My stomach churned with anxiety as usual. Two minutes before class started, my homeroom teacher asked me to pack my bags, leaving me confused and curious. I thought maybe the universe heard my wishes not to attend class. I just cleaned my table, put back my math books and pencil case in my bag, and said goodbye happily to my friends, not knowing what awaited me. As I descended the stairs, a few questions slipped into my mind about what was actually happening.
The car ride to the crematorium was silent; my mind, a blank canvas. I wasn't eager to see his lifeless body, but then again, who would be? Arriving, I couldn't see my parents anywhere. I really just wanted to jump into their laps and ask if this is some kind of joke. But my nanny just led me to the biggest room in the crematorium, where they decorated and cleaned the place until it was white. A lot of people are standing around, talking and looking, well, "sad." I know some of these people as they were family, but some I didn't. There was this big white casket adorned with beautiful yellow flowers prepared in the middle. The casket was empty, and I was relieved.
Backstage, I found my core family in tears. It was so unusual to see them all with sad faces. My usually composed dad looked pale, and his eyes were red. When he saw me, he hugged me and led me to the death chamber, where my grandfather lay, peaceful and still. He didn't look dead; he looked like he was sleeping, resembling a serene nap on a Sunday morning.
When I saw him under those white thin cloths, reality hit hard. After they put him into the casket, everything with him would only be memories, and I realized that everything with him had come to an end. No more mountain trips, no more favorite street food, no more sports marathons, and no more words telling me not to cry. The harsh truth of human existence: we cherish everything only when we realize it's about to end.
On the day we cremated his body, I couldn't speak. I couldn't express the things I wished I had said when he was alive. Guilt consumed me, but I know he'll stay in my heart. Thanks to him, I am the person I am now.