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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Four years ago Grandma was diagnosed with melanoma. For a long time, the cancer was contained to the diagnosis itself; we couldn’t see the cancer on her at all. She would go for her daily morning walks, she would tend to the garden, and almost desperately, because she never learnt to drive, she would jump at the chance to leave the house in the car with anyone and go anywhere. But as time passed, the cancer grew and spread. Over the past year the melanoma cells multiplied frighteningly quickly, and tumours occupied her lungs, lymph nodes, and other parts of her body. She became bedridden, bone-thin, and relied on a cocktail of painkillers administered regularly throughout the day. When the hospice staff asked her to rate the pain she was feeling on a scale of 1 to 10, she would say 15. In the two weeks before she passed, new growths had sprung up and warm, cancerous lumps protruded from multiple sites under her skin.

She died at home in her own room early in the morning at around the same time as she used to go for her walks. Grandma spent the time leading up to her death in a sleep-like state, unable to eat or drink. When we spoke to her, a small change in the rhythm of her rattling breathing was a hopeful sign that she was, to some extent, conscious. We felt reassured that she could hear us, although we had no idea if she knew what we were saying.

Now, with her funeral fast-approaching, the fracture in communication that occurred at the end of her life has widened to gulf-like proportions. Me, my older brother, and younger cousins are expected to deliver a eulogy. According to a range of helpful how-to websites, a eulogy is a short speech that will help those mourning to “focus their memories on the person who has passed.” A eulogy “commemorates,” “celebrates life,” “puts loss in perspective,” “teaches us to cope with grief through remembering,” and it is perhaps a good idea to “incorporate humour.” For anyone, writing a eulogy seems like a daunting task, but for us it feels insurmountable.

Death heightens the significance of language. At funerals, we lay words upon words, weaving stories together of our dearly departed. We build a collective memory of them, a shared sense of their personhood that we can remember, commemorate, and grieve over together. I need language to shed my own tears into the pool of shared memories about Grandma. For a fleeting moment I want everyone to know Grandma as I knew her. I want them to know how lovingly Grandma cared for my brother and I all of the nights my parents were away at work. I want them to see Grandma as the gravitational force that would bring our family together for celebrations and stints of collective cooking. I want them to feel awed by Grandma, who remained resilient in the face of trauma, hardship, and poverty in China. Grandma, who bravely left her home for a chance of a better life in the foreign country that was/is New Zealand. Grandma, whose positivity, strength, and ability to adapt saw her through four years of extraordinary suffering.

Words can be so glaringly insufficient. These sparse words sit in stark contrast with the vividity of Grandma that I remember. Words often fail us, and it seems unlikely that we will find the right language to speak at this funeral. The difficulty is heightened by the fact that me, my brother, and cousins, like many other children of immigrants, struggle to speak fluently, let alone articulately, in our mother tongue. We were raised in Cantonese, but once we began attending school English quickly became the dominant language, at the cost of our Cantonese. For me, this wasn’t only because of the sheer prevalence of English-speaking people in New Zealand, but also a direct effect of racism and discrimination that fostered a sense of shame about being Chinese. Cantonese was relegated to disjointed conversations with the older immigrant generation — parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunties. With our Cantonese frozen at a primary-school level, what we say and understand in our mother tongue can be frustratingly basic. My words often come out as over-simplified gloss.

At my Grandad’s funeral three years ago, I commemorated his memory in English to an uncomprehending Cantonese-speaking audience. For my Grandma’s funeral, I want her loved ones to be able to connect with what I say.

The inadequacy of language and its effects spread beyond the context of the funeral. Language barriers paralysed many of the interactions between Grandma and I when she was still alive. I regret the conversations that never happened because it was easier to not talk than painstakingly piece together a semi-coherent sentence. Without the ability to have satisfying and in-depth conversations with Grandma, I feel like I’m left with only a partial impression of who she was, and regret that I didn’t know her better. The same language barrier extends to the intergenerational relationships that I, my brother, and cousins have with our parents. There is regret for the alienation between the younger and older generation of our family, but also alienation from own history, people, and culture. Our struggle with language affects the transmission of a shared sense of identity, joint knowledge, and connection to family history.

At the same time, what counts as knowing someone? Each person is confined to their own body and mind, and language is only a tool for us to lessen the empty space that surrounds the lonely pools of our consciousness. We rely on language to connect; when it fails us, we are reminded of our perpetual isolation. Yet there are other ways of knowing people, beyond the intricacies of talk. Grandma was a constant presence throughout my life, we even lived in the same house. I witnessed and shared in her joys, sadnesses, and pain. The little things like her mannerisms, her likes and dislikes, her routines — I knew those. When she was sick, I helped care for her, helped her eat, dress, go to the bathroom, and lessened her pain. When she passed, I helped prepare her body for the funeral home.

Language can fail us in life and death, but language does not preclude knowing or remembering someone. When she was alive, I felt close to her through sharing moments, living in proximity, and caring for each other. With the absence of her physicality in death, words can be a way to articulate and recapture a sense of Grandma’s personhood, but words are not necessary to remember and cherish. There is a lot about Grandma that we will never know, and things about her we can never fully express — but we have a pool of memories to draw from and feel close to her.

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