Beauty Plus Pity: excerpt of a new novel by Kevin Chong
You tell me—how should I feel? I told you. I feel a little better than I did yesterday. And yesterday I felt better than the day before. Just a little. Of course it’s no miracle—”
“I don’t understand why you talk like that.”
“Like what?” he said with a gentle smile. We could go on like that forever, my old man pretending not to understand me.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” I said, with resignation. “Maybe then they’ll be discharging you.”
Before I could leave his room, he called out my name. “I couldn’t finish breakfast this morning. Too much food.” He held out a chocolate-chip bran muffin for me, which I put in my pocket and took home for Claire.
My father had a private suite on the fourth floor of the hospice.
When the elevators doors opened, there was a teenaged girl standing there. Later on, I would realize it was Hadley. I remembered her because she stepped back at the sight of me with what must have been some sense of recognition, but at the time I was embarrassed because I’d felt rebuffed.
A couple of days after my conversation with my father, he was making plans for his own death. My mother and I didn’t know what accounted for this change of outlook, but we felt something close to relief that he had given up any pretence of a recovery. He sat up in bed and explained his wishes.
“Listen, I want to be cremated,” he explained to us in English, so he was sure I understood. “I want my ashes taken to Hong Kong and placed with my parents’ remains. When my ashes are returned, you can do something over there. Malcolm hasn’t been back since he was a kid.” He looked to me, then back to my mother. “Please, I don’t want any kind of ceremony. It’s too much trouble.”
“It won’t be any trouble,” my mother insisted. She’d spent her high-school years with relatives in Oakland and spoke much better English than my father, and, at fifty-five, was two years younger than him—a short woman with closely spaced eyes, delicate features, and a copper complexion. She stroked my father’s forehead, swiping back a lock of hair as though he were her child. She looked gaunt in a grey sweater and dark, skinny jeans. Her own hair was long and greying, and worn up, one chunk flashing in the air like the tail fin of a whale before it descends into the sea. “Why do you think it’d be any trouble?”
“I don’t want people to waste a perfectly good afternoon weeping over me,” he said, switching back to Cantonese. “Back me up, Malcolm.”
I mumbled noncommittally as my mother removed her hand from my father’s head. “This isn’t about you,” she said. “This is about giving us a chance to express our grief. Right, Malcolm?”
Again, I mumbled indecisively. “Besides, everyone will be there.”
My father chuckled until he hurt himself and winced.
“What’s so funny?”
My father’s face settled into a frown. “I don’t want any ceremony. Those are my wishes. Respect them.”
We didn’t say anything more about it and spent another half-hour in his room silently until we decided to let him rest. “He doesn’t have very long,” said my mother. She was a high-strung woman who’d long grappled with depression, but since my father had been sick, she’d become more assertive, practical, self-possessed.
“We need to get started on the funeral preparations. I don’t care what he says.”
Before the elevator had reached the ground floor, my mother was already talking about flowers and catering. Although I didn’t speak up in front of my father, I had to side with my mother on this point. Why was he so insistent on not having a ceremony? What kind of man would want to pass into the void and not make sense of his place within his own family—who seemed to keep the best of himself away from his own wife and child?
Apparently, my father was that kind of man. And, upon my mother’s insistence, I was the one responsible for delivering his eulogy.
Soon afterwards, I was called to dutifulness. First, I had to pick up my Aunt Mirabelle, who flew in from Toronto with my teenaged cousins Anson and Gavin. (Uncle Don, her husband, an oral surgeon, had too many impacted wisdom teeth to wrench out.) The next morning my Second Aunt, Paula, arrived from Hong Kong.
Both my aunts attended to my mother’s wishes—vetting floral arrangements, hissing street addresses into their cell phones, tracking food deliveries—unlike at family gatherings in the past, in which they vied for my father’s attention with joyless velocity. Mirabelle’s sons, snivelling robot-flinging adolescents when we last met, were now sized for rugby and guarding velvet ropes. On the day before the funeral, I found their company a cozy distraction. After we’d been out for dim sum, Anson—a nearsighted, disquietingly shy second-year university student—planned to visit a former classmate who’d dropped out of school to play bluegrass and plant trees, activities he seemed to find enviable. Gavin, who was a sixteen-year-old suburban imp with a ferrety smirk, wanted me to take him to a hash bar. Disregarding his request, I dropped him in front of a Starbucks.