The Forward March of Life
by Alena Lin (Singapore)
Audio: "The Forward March of Life," read by Ashley Tan
One year has elapsed since the last family reunion. It was when you last saw your paternal grandfather. Grandpa.
You will never see him again.
He lived a good and long life, so the funeral is not so much an event of tears but a joyful celebration of life, a time for the family to catch up. In the last two months, his health rapidly deteriorated. Your father drove seven hours to accompany Grandfather in his remaining days.
Grandpa lasted two more weeks.
Two days ago, when gleeful morning sunlight peeked through your curtains, mommy knocked on your door.
“Your grandpa has passed,” she said. “We are leaving tomorrow for his funeral.”
Her cheeks were rigid, stretched out by the solemn dip in corners of her lips. There is a faint glisten to her eyes, a glisten that tells you she has cried.
To be candid, you feel sad, but not moved to tears. We all knew his imminent death was coming.
Still, you scold yourself. What is wrong with you? You cried when Dory found her parents but save your tears now? Will you only weep when your mother dies? Heartless girl, you are.
And to think when you were little, you knew your grandfather to be a tall, respectable and kind man—kind enough to give you thick red packets on Chinese New Year.
He would tell you to work hard. Hard work is the most important, he preached. Hard work is how your father grew up to be so successful.
And when you were little, you listened to him and his elderly wisdom—wisdom which often seems like the consolation prize after a long, tiresome life. So, you entertain his will to impart words of wisdom. Keep him happy—he’s certainly earned it. He feels powerful, perhaps, as if he knows more than you because you are young and still naive.
But you know more than he credits you.
Your mother told you all of it. You know that the two helpers your grandfather hired five years ago were not fired. They ran away. Overworked and sleep-deprived, the two planned their escape and left no trace when the house awoke.
You also know that four years ago, the woman who started living at grandpa’s house married him. She was forty-eight years younger than him. An old friend brought her to Grandpa’s door. He thought she was beautiful, and she needed money. At least that’s what your mother implied.
Although your paternal grandma died before you met her, you’ve heard great things. She woke up at 4:30 in the morning to sweep the floors of their convenience store. Every week, she worked hard, churning out kaya spread from scratch.
Your grandfather never mentioned her.
Your mother details the happenings at the adults’ table. Grandpa brags about how wonderful his new wife is. Pretty, kind-hearted, and hardworking.
Mummy scoffs. Praises his new wife but can’t spare two words for the mother of his children?
Yet, she wept silently in her bedroom in the early morning. Despite his shortcomings, your grandfather was kind to her.
She never spoke ill of him again.
Now, at the funeral, the cousins are camped out in the squeezed bedrooms. Four per room. Two people on night duty, feeding a hungry flame with joss paper—afterlife money. Tradition.
Your aunts look at you and squeal, “Wow! So tall already! Last year at my shoulder, now at my chin!” They say it as though it’s an accomplishment—as though you made yourself grow taller with that hard work your grandfather valued above all else.
You smile and say thank you, even though it barely feels like a compliment.
Beneath the shade of temporary event tents, tables balance large, metal basins of stale food.
With plates of food in hand, you are forced to greet vaguely familiar faces. Family friends, second cousins, neighbours. And your father’s cousin’s daughter’s godmother who makes it clear she last saw you in your diaper.
You screamed when she held you. Apparently.
Suddenly, you realise how terribly cruel life can be. You will never be five years old again, carefree during better days. Once you grow taller, bigger, and older, you can never reverse time. Perhaps, when you weather with age, your spine will compress with the weight of your years. You’ll become shorter, and smaller—but never younger. By then, will any vaguely familiar face be alive to describe how you towered over them at sixteen?
Days of unrestrained screaming in your diaper live only in the memory of these half-strangers.
You will never live back the time your grandfather pushed a thick red packet in your small, eager palms. You will never live back the moment you emphatically wished him happy new year, prosperity, and good health. The moment lives only in your memory, like a film only you have seen.
Maybe this is why people sacrifice sleep to burn paper. Traditions are our culture and history, an essential part of who we are. Loved ones who have passed away live only in our memory. We carry on traditions to remember, and to remember is to keep people alive.
Alive, despite the forward march of life.
And one day, when the novelty of growing taller and taller each year wears off, you will need to impress with hard work. And wear off, it will.
The adorable, brutal honesty of toddlers would offend if the words exited your mouth. Screaming in diapers would raise eyebrows and concerns.
You’ll need to get impeccable grades, attend a prestigious university, and become an unhappy doctor so your novelty will never wear off. Or else, it will be “when are you getting married?” and “last year you were skinnier” for the foreseeable future.
But you realise what your grandpa said about hard work is true. Without hard work, your novelty wears off.
Maybe you’re happy.
But you will be forgotten.
Living only in the present. Never in memory.
Alena Lin, 16, is a Chinese-Singaporean currently studying in Singapore. She is a lover of cinema, books, food, the environment, and this quote from the 1995 movie “Before Sunrise”: “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something.”
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9/24/22, 2:13 PM
Was this inspired by flights over Iceland?
9/24/22, 10:04 AM
Amazing. I love it.
9/23/22, 7:34 AM
This is just so good!!!! "The air has been poisoned' I love how you describe things! Congrats :))
9/23/22, 7:32 AM
Love the message! The way you prompt the readers to rethink over 'is anything free' is so effective and the ending is...gorgeous.
9/23/22, 7:30 AM
Gosh, Antara...this is really beautiful! I love your use of language, and the anecdotes were so effective!! Congrats so much :))
9/22/22, 9:30 PM
I love it! Especially the part where you say if humans can control the world, they can control themselves too!
Keep up the brilliant writing!
9/22/22, 5:22 PM
Poignant and so beautifully written!
9/22/22, 5:19 PM
I love the flow, this is gorgeously written! Great piece!
9/22/22, 5:17 PM
Life really is all about the little things and you wrote about them in a beautiful way!
9/22/22, 5:16 PM
This is a lovely piece, Keren-Happuch! It provokes such a magical and dreamy feeling.
9/19/22, 5:47 PM
Oh my god, the part about changing the mindset given the pre-existing beliefs drilled in by those around us... Even we often hesitate to have these conversations at times amongst friends as this topic is seldom more than a subject of twss jokes. You put it into words brilliantly!
9/17/22, 6:46 PM
this was thought-provoking! I particularly enjoyed how you connected existentialism to the topic. it provides a different perspective.