In Memory Of

Day 10, 500 words, 31 days.

Yesterday, I found out that a friend’s father had passed away. His dad had been ill for several years but his death was still sudden for the family.

Today was his memorial service. There was no wake, and his casket remained closed. My friend, a pastor, told us all that this was how his dad would’ve wanted it to be – that we remembered him not as a shell of himself, but when he was still alive and well.

There are some stories I don’t believe I have the right to tell. It is not for me to disclose the personal challenges my friend’s family had to face in caring for his father. Neither am I fit to share how great a man he was, or describe what sort of legacy he had left behind for many.

The truth is, I hardly knew this man. I barely even know my friend – I just met him several months ago after moving here to Penang. I’ve since attended his church service whenever I can and when I do, I would see his father, mother, and sister, seated on the same seats, on the same row, every Sunday.

Many spoke of how full of faith my friend’s father was. It looks as though he remained steadfast in this way, well until the end.

It wasn’t very long ago when I, too, had to give some final words at a memorial service. It was for my grandmother. She passed in November of last year.

Her death felt very sudden for me, though, my family had more time to prepare – however one prepares for such things. For me, it was the shock from having just spoken to her hours before she had gone. She wasn’t able to reply to anything I had said – I only trusted that she knew that I meant every word of it.

Really, part of the pain was in the distance – the removal from all that was good, and hard, in the final years of her life. I had been away several years, seeing my grandmother only ever so often, updating her on whatever was new in my life, without ever being sure how much she actually cared to know. Knowing her, she must have just been glad to see me. She loved me, anyway, and regardless of anything.

In the same way that my friend’s family wanted to honor his father’s memory by urging that we remember him when he was still strong, I too, wanted to hold on to the image of my grandmother as she was before age, and death, finally caught up to her.

The woman I knew lived her entire life, religiously. Yes, she was truly devout in her faith, but it was her dedication to all that she deemed valuable and worthy of time and care that struck me most deeply. She nurtured her garden with the same sort of undivided attention and love as she did her grandchildren. She devoted herself entirely, and unconditionally, to her family as a humble, modest, wife and mother. These were my true memories of her – not those of her bound to a wheelchair, or witnessing her memory fail her, or seeing her have no energy to eat, let alone speak.

To me, she sealed her legacy on this world a long time ago. Her faithfulness just never seemed to waver, long after all the hurt.

I did not know my friend’s father. All I have are a few stories, testimonies of his grace and faithfulness until the end. Someone said it today that we were all there to grieve him because he was so great.

It is true. I know this when I remember having such difficulty getting through my own eulogy for my grandmother. I grieved her wholeheartedly, because I believed we were losing someone whose kindness was unlike any other. Yes, there are other kind people in this world – especially the sort that history loves to revere as its timeless giants. But it matters little unless you felt any of their kindness firsthand. Hers was one that touched me through and through – and this was what felt so hard to lose.

I’ve written this before, and today only reminds me of how true this has since become for me: the gift of grief is in its reminder, that in spite of insufferable loss, we are still, in fact, capable of loving.

Services like today often lead me to reflect upon the kind of legacy I’d like to leave behind, and often leaves me admiring those who have died, having left their mark in unforgettable ways. But at some point today, I realized something else – we celebrate a great life, in vain, if we cannot be compelled to lead the lives we have remaining, better than we had before. If we cannot love better, then the love given to us is lost inside of ourselves, only to be held like a private memory, and not like the selfless gift it is meant to be.

Those who have lived long, and loved well, and finally, lost this battle with the life we’re so intimately, maybe desperately, acquainted with, have given us a final gift – that is, to let our love carry us on.

Remembering “Cheez Balls”

It isn’t really my story to tell, but I’m sharing it anyway, minus the details…

My dad likes to recall an incident between my older brother and our “Lola”, my Dad’s mom. It had to do with a can of Planters Cheez Balls.

A quick note on Cheez Balls. As a kid, this may have easily been the greatest cheesy snack ever delivered in can form. The competition may have been slim, but the gap between first and whatever second was, was staggering. Cheez Balls may have introduced me to the concept of post-snack “finger-licking”. Couldn’t afford to waste the artificial cheese residue on my hands. 

Anyway, my Lola, who had been living in the U.S., came back ever so often and always brought home a Balikbayan box-full (“balikbayan” quite literally meaning “returning to country”) of goodies. The amount of chips and chocolate in these boxes was enough to feed an entire village of hungry children, and probably their parents. But she doted on us quite a bit as any loving grandmother would, and her particular choice of displaying her affection happened to revolve around food. Lots of it.

If I remember the story correctly, it goes a little something like this:

Lola gives my brother this can of Planters Cheez Balls. My brother is, rightfully, ecstatic, and proceeds to rip open the can and stuff his face with the puffy goodness. Our Lola, herself a bonafide snacker, asks if she could have some of the Cheez Balls that she had given to him.

As he would soon regret, he decides not to let her have any. In his mind, there is simply no sharing of his Cheez Balls. But my Dad catches on quickly on his little defiant act, and he’s ticked.

Immediately Dad scolds my brother for his display of Cheez Balls hoarding and forces him to stand in the corner and contemplate his actions. Embarrassed and defeated, my brother goes off to the corner and cries. Eventually, he falls asleep.

It gets fuzzy afterward. The version I remember is that my Lola eventually feels terrible about the whole incident and pleads with my Dad to release him from his “punishment”. My Dad relents at first but eventually wakes my brother up to explain to him why he was so disappointed.

The moral is pretty clear to me now, given that I’m an adult and I don’t mind sharing – though it was probably apparent for my brother even way back then, after the mild humiliation.

Recently, this story struck a different chord in me, though, and this time, it had little to do with the value of sharing.

Or rather, it did, but not in the way I would’ve expected.

In the past few weeks I’ve been wrestling with a bit of a revelation – to me, anyway. It’s still strange writing about it because, acknowledging it brings about a tangled web of emotions ranging from sheer excitement to downright anxiety to genuine fear, to a smidgen of courage, and maybe, hopefulness.

Long story short, though perhaps deserving of another story entirely – I’ve confessed to my wife, to myself, and to a a handful of friends around me,  along with the occasional moment in passing with a stranger…

…that I’d like to write, for a living.

But I won’t get into that whole process right now because a) I’m still processing it and b) I don’t want to forget about my point about Cheez Balls.

The thing about the Cheez Balls story that adds to the humor of it, besides the image of a chubby little kid standing in the corner with cheese residue on his fingers and tears quickly drying on his cheeks, is that my brother somehow had the gall to refuse to share it with my Lola who gave it to him. In his mind, the moment the transfer took place gave him license to claim the can of Cheez Balls entirely to himself – it was no longer to be shared.

And yet, there my Lola was, selfless to a fault, just asking for a little bit, experiencing a harsh sort of denial from her grandson.

I believe that for her, it wasn’t really about the Cheez Balls. (OK, maybe it was, a little bit)

It was about sharing in the experience (the wonderful experience) with my brother – to take part in the joy that is his pure delight for this rare, caloric, American snack. She just wanted that moment with him – taking turns stuffing their hands into the little can and bringing them out with a fistful of Cheez Balls.

See, my revelation is the writing. It’s currently my “Cheez Balls”, if you will. I can’t stop thinking about “story” and plot, and the attributes of a compelling character, and the integrity with which we ought to be sharing about our lives, and our selves.

And yet, I’m having a hard time sharing it – this dream and desire to write, with the very Being I believe to be completely responsible for me to dream freely in the first place.

If I’m to be completely truthful, I want to confess that I haven’t earned anything. I have nothing to show for this little dream that I have other than the existence of a handful of blogs I’ve started and filled sporadically. There’s no knowing how far this whole dream is going to go. I just know that I’ve captured it, and I’m beginning to tend to it, for once. In this strange season of life that I’m in, I’m actually affording myself that permission (and to be more honest still, with my wife’s incredible support) And I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t feel that perhaps, this dream didn’t quite come out of the blue, but rather, that it was given.

To me. By Him.

By a God who I believe, actually desires good for His people. Regardless of whether His people – us – ever acknowledge Him and what He’s given.

I’m clutching onto this dream as if it were only mine to enjoy. But what about the giver? Can He not share in my joy? Will He not stand by me in the inevitable pain of failure that comes with it? Would He not want to see me thrive, and grow, and break, and cry, and get up again, knowing I still have a dream to live out to the fullest?

The Cheez Balls story wasn’t my own actual memory, but I sure wish that it was.

If it were, perhaps, I’d have learned how to really share.