By Albert Leung, Staff Writer

The most difficult tasks in life are neither finishing school, nor seeking a career nor finding love. The hardest things, to me, are goodbyes. As time passes, we inevitably have to bid farewell and experience the passing of some of our loved ones. After all, we're all on our way out but just on different schedules.

By Albert Leung, Staff Writer

The most difficult tasks in life are neither finishing school, nor seeking a career nor finding love. The hardest things, to me, are goodbyes. As time passes, we inevitably have to bid farewell and experience the passing of some of our loved ones. After all, we're all on our way out but just on different schedules.

This past April, my maternal grandma, bid her adieu to the world at the age of 81. Despite visiting her at the hospital in Taiwan back web_alberts_grandma_in_sfin February and learning of her dire condition, the reality of her passing was still hard to bear. We knew during that February visit was the last time we would see her. She was weak, couldn't talk and needed to be on a breathing machine. All I could do was hold her hands as I sat at the bedside.

She was my guardian, friend, enemy, lunch date and mentor. As a child, she fed me sweetened rice for lunch despite my mother's displeasure over my cavities. She watched over me until my first day of school. During high school, I'd come home and my grandma would cook me fried rice, ask me refill her prescriptions or we'd go have lunch together. Our relationship was sometimes frustrating and confrontational, but it was always unconditionally loving.

After learning of her passing, I struggled to muster the will to attend her funeral. I was agitated, sad and nervous the weeks leading up to our trip to Taipei, Taiwan, where her funeral was to be held. I felt intimidated that the funeral was to be traditional, adhering to Taiwanese rituals. Never having attended a traditional Chinese funeral, I feared I wouldn't conduct myself appropriately or would make mistakes during the funeral proceedings. My instincts told me to stay home, avoid the event as if her death hadn't occurred. I did manage to come to my senses in the end. I bucked-up and got on the plane.

The funeral preparations had my uncle and godmother working tirelessly because we lived too far away to assist. My godmother, for example, folded hundreds of sheets of paper to resemble gold pieces and nearly a hundred paper flowers that appeared like water lilies. She said her hands were cramped and sore from the intricate work. The paper flowers required 16 separate sheets of paper that are folded, then tied together and slowly unfolded to create the petals. Most of the paper lilies adorned the inside of the coffin. The paper gold pieces were burned as symbolic offerings to my grandma along with joss paper, prayer money, and some of the paper flowers. These burning rituals occur on various days following one's passing and my uncle handled this task alone after work. When my mom, sister and I arrived, we helped fold some gold pieces and three flowers but the majority of the work had already been completed by our arrival.

The night before the funeral, my mom, sister, godmother, uncle, cousin and I were led in prayer by a group of monks. This is a standard ritual which most families coordinate 3 to 7 times for the deceased. The number of times is dependent on whether families web_alberts_grandma_oceanairewant to keep it traditional or shorten the process. We chose the shortened route but were still able to fly in for the final session.

The monk explained that the purpose of these prayers is to ask Buddha to lead my grandma into heaven. Before a gold painted shrine in the funeral home, which included Buddha and other deities, the monk directed us to pray kneeling or sitting. The lead monk knelt at the front of the shrine while the others sat on both of his sides with their instruments. The musical accompaniment included a small wooden percussion block, keyboard, flute, chimes and a drum.

For over two hours the monk recited scriptures and directed us when to bow. The instrumentalists played in accordance. I was one of the few who knelt throughout the entire ritual because the monk said, under his breath, that it would be preferred over sitting. I didn't want to upset the gods after all. Despite a few breaks in the night, my knees, thighs and buttocks ached from kneeling. I had never known that sustaining that position could be so difficult.

The prayer ritual reminded me of my childhood when I prayed with my family. Since I struggled to understand what the recited scriptures meant, my mind attempted to focus on alternative and appropriate thoughts. The thoughts shifted from focusing on the pain in my legs, to memories of my family and finally settled on reminiscing about my grandma's final trip to Minnesota a year ago.

Since moving back to Taiwan in 2002, she had never returned to Minnesota until last year. That summer month was the last time I spent significant time with her. As I knelt before the golden Buddha shrine, I recalled spending her visit chatting, eating at her favorite spots, dining on her most loved foods, and laughing and bickering like family. That night while praying, I rehashed our time together back home. I thought, perhaps, maybe she was thinking about those memories with me.

After completing the ritual, we accompanied the monk to a location where we burned our final significant offerings to my grandma. web_alberts_grandma_sfIncluded was a rice-paper home that looked similar to a puppet house. This item symbolized her home in the afterlife. Also burned was bags of the paper gold pieces that we folded, stacks of joss paper and bundles of prayer money which symbolized money she could use. Lastly we burned two paper deities to escort her to her new home. In a righteous blaze of fire, the materials were all cast into the heavens where my grandma awaited to receive them.

Despite finishing the prayers and burnings late into the night, we all woke up early the following day for the funeral and cremation. Heavyhearted relatives and friends filled the funeral home, many of which were unfamiliar to me. It surprised me to see so many strangers. I thought I knew everyone who would pay their respects to her. I was happy, though, to see the strong showing of support from family and friends.

Members in attendance were announced in groups and asked to pay respects before a large portrait of my grandma, which rested on the Golden shrine. One person would stand in the front while the rest staggered behind them. That individual was designated the duties of offering my grandma food and water as respectful gestures. The funeral directors at the front would hand these items to the forefront individual, who would then bow their heads and extend each offering towards the photo. The other would only bow during these times.

Once everyone had paid their respect, we were ushered into a back room to view the open casket. Nestled in the casket was a shriveled shell of my grandma, nearly unrecognizable to me. Covering her was a blanket and hundreds of the paper gold pieces that we made. Gazing down at her, I thought about how that person in the casket no longer resembled the person who visited Minnesota last year and traveled to California with me for a week.

In the final week of her stay in the United States, my grandma wanted to visit my sister in San Francisco. Together we flew to California, anticipating warm weather and good food. It was my grandma’s first trip to that city and she was excited to see my sister on her own in a place far from home. At the end of the trip, I was to return to Minnesota and she was to fly directly back to Taiwan.

We may have bickered a lot throughout that week but the three of us enjoyed our time together, basking in California's sunny weather. We brought her to Fisherman's Wharf, the cable car stations, China Town, among many other places. She marveled at the city while holding onto my arm as we walked the busy city blocks. The time was short and sometimes frustrating, but it was satisfying to see her enjoy the adventure.

That final week flew by lickety-split and suddenly it was time for me to pack-up for home. When my sister dropped me off at the airport, my grandma emoted in a way that truly touched me.

After getting out of the car, she stood at the curb as I unloaded my luggage. Approaching her, she looked at me in a tearful gaze and patted her heart with her hands. In Chinese she said, “Grandma can't bear... grandma can't bear.”

She grasped me in her arms. Her petite hands clutched me as tight as they could. The same reassuring hands that held my arm as we roamed downtown San Francisco and had affectionately cooked me sweetened rice as a child. Her loving hands which I couldn't let go of after saying my final words of goodbye as she lay in her hospital bed.

I hope that someday we will share another meal, laugh, fight and loving embrace. Until then, I have my memories and that final embrace in San Francisco to always remind me of her.

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