A Distant Goodbye

Friday, May 15, 2020 / 6:13 PM

At a socially distant funeral, there are no hugs allowed. At a socially distant funeral, tissue boxes are the only thing that can be shared. At a socially distant funeral, you stand in the sun and watch a coffin lowered into the ground by strangers wearing gloves.

You stand six feet apart from your loved ones, stance wide to avoid stepping on another person's grave.

You leave and go home.

* * * * *

My grandparents have always been the heart and soul of our family. On birthdays, we gathered around cake in the kitchen with the 70s-era wallpaper that never changed; on holidays, we miraculously fit everyone around a long table in the living room for dinner.

As the youngest of nine grandchildren on my father's side, my memories of these moments are a little hazy. I don't remember some of the finer details of what we ate or what we watched or what we laughed about, but I remembered observing: I watched the way the adults sat huddled together on the couch, trading gossip. I watched how my cousins interacted and made little notes to myself about the way they dressed or the way they spoke so I could mimic it later. I liked watching ma-ma watch everyone, smiling because the small house was filled with so much noise.

My favorite thing about ma-ma was her smile. She rarely understood what my cousins, sister, and I were talking about, but she still liked watching us. When she laughed, her whole face lit up. Sometimes, yeh-yeh would make a bad joke and she would shake her head but you could still see her lips tug up in a smile. When it was time to take photos, she always reached out to hold the person nearest to her.

She'd wake up early every morning to do tai chi in the backyard. She would tend to her garden and insist we take the vegetables home. She went to church every Sunday, where she was a leader in her community. When we stayed multiple days and nights, there was always at least one night she'd insist we do something fun like get pizza from Little Caesars or go to the sushi restaurant (that is now a Korean restaurant).

And she also did things that drove us a little crazy. Once when I was a toddler, before my mom had a picture session scheduled, ma-ma decided to cut my hair with no warning (the photos still make my mom sigh). When I was 4, ma-ma threw my favorite stuffed animal into the washing machine and Mom spent a long time sewing it back together (I still have it with me). She always scolded me for not eating enough because I ate fast, so I used to wait sometimes until she was watching me and I would purposely eat slow – and then she'd scold me for eating too slowly.

In 2005, I became the last grandchild still living at home while everyone else was in college or off working. The time I spent at ma-ma and yeh-yeh's house revolved around doctor's visits or errands that my mom drove them to and from. Ma-ma and I would sometimes walk around Kaiser while yeh-yeh waited at the pharmacy. (Once, we found a vending machine and she gave me quarters so I could buy chocolate for us to share.) I'd watch yeh-yeh later at Target picking out new kitchenware. Sometimes we'd go to dinner and then go back to their house to watch Wheel of Fortune or the end of Kings games.

I know I didn't always appreciate ma-ma the way I should have. Looking back, I've realized how lucky we all were to have had ma-ma in our lives. A few years ago, my cousin Mel interviewed ma-ma and yeh-yeh about their lives on tape. At the end of it, she asked them what lessons they wanted to share with everyone. "No matter how many generations," yeh-yeh said in Chinese, translated by my aunt, "remember unity. Don't be mad at each other for little things."

I can see ma-ma nodding her head. It's why she loved seeing us gathered in her house, I think: Unity. Family. Forever.

* * * * *

Only 10 of us were allowed inside the chapel. Three of my cousins, my sister, and I were part of that group. We filed in separately. Yeh-yeh sat in his wheelchair next to the casket, peering in every so often where ma-ma lay with her Bible. One-by-one, we approached for final goodbyes amid the flowers and the red roses placed lovingly to the side (she loved red roses; yeh-yeh always bought them for her). We weren't supposed to hug yeh-yeh, but I snuck in a quick hand squeeze (I had received my negative COVID-19 results that morning) and my cousin Nathanie handed him a tissue.

The funeral home employees suggested we FaceTime family members who were standing outside or who couldn't be in town so they could see ma-ma one last time. We took photos through our tears, then sat in the pews and made small talk until it was time to close the casket.

Yeh-yeh was driven in a golf cart to the graveside, where the rest of us eventually gathered. There were a few chairs out, but no tents or coverings to protect us from the 100-degree weather. My uncle and a few of my cousins spoke, sharing lovely memories of ma-ma.

I glanced over at yeh-yeh in the golf cart occasionally, far away from the rest of us. I had made him a sandwich earlier in the day because he'd be missing lunch at the nursing home. He ate it while everyone spoke and then it was time to lower the casket. We threw flowers in, and then it was time to leave.

So many of the customs and traditions had to be put aside, which included gathering over a meal. Over the next couple of days, we gathered in smaller groups. I know when this pandemic is over, we'll find opportunities to celebrate ma-ma's life. For now, I'm grateful we got the chance to be together in some way: together – as family, forever. It's what ma-ma would want.

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