My paint-chipped garage slowly unhinges its gaping jaw to swallow my father’s car whole. Clad in my only fitting black collared shirt and a pair of athletic shorts, I walk down the stairs to meet my dad, still wearing his aloha shirt and black slacks from work. We smile at each other before climbing into his car. The half-hour drive passes by silently until we reach our destination. “We’re a little early, do you want to get a snack to kill time?” “Of course,” I enthusiastically answer. My dad navigates to a nearby 7-11, where I check out with a warm spam musubi and a refreshing can of Thai tea in hand. I don’t want to be disrespectful, so I wolf down both before we return to our destination. My dad laughs at my remarkable eating speed, and I chuckle in response as he pulls into the parking lot. We park across from my mom, who is just getting out of her car as well. We greet each other and then follow the familiar laughter echoing out of the funeral home.
I knew this day was coming long before I learned of my aunty’s passing the previous month. Of course, death can claim anyone at any moment, but I only really thought about it in my own life after my aunty’s stroke a few years earlier. My grandparents would take my sister and me to her house sometimes when my parents had to work. We would spend the afternoon taking her dog on a walk to the market up the street and strolling through the aisles of the small store. I knew she liked to travel, and my dad told me she had been to Japan a few times. She was one of few in our family who actually went back to our ancestral home country, and I regret not asking her about her memories of Japan now. As a young child, I never thought to ask her about her life before I was born. We weren’t that close since and as I grew older I only saw her at occasional family gatherings. I didn’t even know her full name until I saw the nameplate in her hospital room. I always just called her “Aunty K” as everyone else in my family did. “K” wasn’t even her first initial.
She also wasn’t actually my aunt. Technically she was my grandmother’s sister, but I always felt more comfortable just calling her “aunty,” just like my dad’s sister and his mother’s other sister’s daughter and his dad’s sister’s husband’s two daughters, all of whom sit in the metal folding chairs of the mortuary. I bounce around the room to chat with all of my relatives, whom I haven’t seen since the start of the pandemic. They are brimming with questions about my major and my first year of college. My other aunty’s infectious laughter echoes around the room as I talk about my steady diet of dining hall chicken tenders and fries. I don’t tell her — don’t tell anyone — that I ate almost every meal alone in my dorm room. Beneath their masks, I can tell that everyone was smiling, and especially with death looming over us, I don’t want to ruin the mood. I eventually nestle into a seat between my grandma and my dad before the funeral director comes out to start the ceremony.
We skip the eulogy. While the gong rings through my eardrums, the monk recites a Buddhist prayer in a language I can’t even identify, much less understand. We all bow our heads and close our eyes in prayer. I can’t read the musings of my family members’ minds as we sat in silence. At the end of the funeral, we all make an incense offering. One by one, my family members walk up to the podium and move a few incense chips from their box into the fire. We each slightly bow our heads and clasp our hands together in a moment of silence before returning to our seats.
When it’s my turn, I don’t know what I should pray for. After so many hospital visits and silent car rides down the long hill down from the hospital to the city, I had long since accepted that this fate was inevitable. My aunty would want us to be happy despite her absence. And so I am happy, or at least I am as happy as one could be at a funeral. This preemptive grieving had saved me the anguish of suddenly trying to process the void she had left behind in the short month between her passing and the funeral. I turn around and walk back to my seat, facing the rest of my family. Their eyes all point in different directions, some are closed, some aim at the ground and others stare directly at me. Those eyes have seen my aunty’s face long before I was born. I wonder what thoughts and memories churn behind their pupils. But I can at least guess that they too have privately mourned before now, because when the funeral is finished, we all leave dry-eyed.
This wasn’t the first time I thought about losing my family. Ever since ninth grade, when I knew I was gay, I’ve been thinking about the consequences of my coming out. My family and I have come to a nonverbal peace agreement since we’ve grown. It’s been years since shouting voices had endlessly bounced off the walls of the house. In their place, quietness fills up every inch of the house. The stillness of the air seeps into my throat and arrests my vocal cords. But I prefer this silent suffocation to choked back tears. The fleeting silence makes the threat of bereavement loom even more menacingly over my household. I don’t want to risk undermining all the effort we’ve put in over the years, yet I cannot live a lie forever. Thus I grieve the comfort we share knowing that I will eventually shatter this fragile reality we’ve shaped for ourselves.
In the Buddhist faith, death results in rebirth until we can escape the cycle and achieve enlightenment. I find comfort in knowing that we may get unlimited opportunities to keep learning and growing. Although the comparison isn’t one-to-one, if the revelation of my true self does kill our family’s relationship as we know it, I hope that household can be reconstructed and tried again.
MiC Columnist Andrew Nakamura can be reached at email@example.com