The below is something I wrote for my Intermediate Writing of Creative Nonfiction class back in university. Made minor edits since all I could retrieve was a first draft of this piece prior to the various workshopping my class and I did on it. But wanted to have it somewhere properly documented!
It’s the strangest coincidence, but today is also Eva’s birthday. Of all days to get a random lightbulb moment for me to check my old school emails for this draft…wacky.
I remember that exact moment when the phone rang and woke us all. The sun was already awake, but since it was the holidays, we were all still snug in our bed, avoiding the sharp winter air that sometimes leaked into our living room.
I could not hear anyone in my family opening their doors, and was about to get up, take one for the team, and stop the incessant shrieking of the phone. But then I heard the quiet shuffling of my mom’s slippers across the carpeted floors in the hallway. After a while, the ringing stopped.
I settled back into bed, thankful to have another hour of sleep before I wasted my day away doing nothing in particular. That was how it was every winter holiday during my high school years. I always thought I would make good use of the two-week Christmas break, but I always ended up burning through TV shows or traversing the same places on World of Warcraft all over again.
Before I could sink back into a state of mental nothingness, I heard the hushed whisper of my mom asking “Really?” into the phone. Then I heard soft sobbing.
I quickly got up, only taking a second to put on my glasses. I left my room and headed towards the telephone. When I got to my mom, I was confirmed of the fact that she had started crying.
My sixteen-year-old mind worked it all out: it was a long distance call from my relatives in Hong Kong. My grandpa must have passed away. I imagined my mom’s five brothers and sisters around a phone in my grandpa’s apartment, calling her to let her know it was time to go home and say one last goodbye to their father.
I could not help but start crying, though I knew that was not the role I should be playing. So I whispered to my mom as she continued to sob and listen to the phone.
“It was time for him to go. He’s had a long healthy life.” I said, rubbing her back and holding back my own tears.
I tried to remember my memories with my grandpa, and only one came directly to mind. He had taken me to a library once when I was young. He held my hands as we crossed the streets, and I could feel a prominent bump on one of his fingers. After he let my small hands go, I saw that he had a bulbous skin tag hanging off the side of his ring finger. I think I was eight years old or so during that time and I was horrified. But I still held on to his hand every time I crossed the bustling streets of Hong Kong.
My mom put down the phone, and I continued rubbing her back and followed her as she walked towards the sofa. She sunk down into it, and I repeated that at least my grandpa did not have to suffer from cancer or some other disease. As far as I knew, he was healthy, and at eighty years old, it was most likely he passed away in his sleep.
Looking back, it was interesting that I somehow figured everything out with only cues from my mom’s crying and the few words and phrases that were loud enough to escape the phone and made its way to me. But of course, I did not.
“It’s Eva,” my mom said once her breathing started to slow back to normal again. But of course, those two words brought about new tears that were not caught by tissues.
She must have been ruining her t-shirt with her salty tears, and any that missed the shirt would have fallen atop our faux leather sofa. I should have gotten her something to dry her eyes, but I could not bring myself to move. For the next few seconds, I said nothing.
A million questions attacked my head at the same time, but none of them vocally made it out into the world. How could it be Eva? She was only a few years older than my mom. She was healthy, not plagued by the crippling effects of rheumatism like my mom. She was recently freed from her controlling and irrational husband (though his irrationality and temper was due to mental illness), and her divorce was coming through.
I pictured her happy square-shaped face, a can of beer in her hand, and her cheeks flushed bright red from the drink. Her short hair was always kept well out of her way since she seemed to have never-ending errands to run. She could not just be gone.
It did not sink in, and it really did not have to. I mean, I was an ocean away and since moving back to Vancouver, I was used to not seeing my mom’s sister for long periods of time. She had to still be in Hong Kong, living alongside my grandpa in the apartment, probably making that salad she always made during our weekly get-togethers that used Snyder’s cheesy hard pretzels in place of croutons. This was a cruel prank.
It was not until this past year that I returned to Hong Kong to visit my relatives (and to take up a summer internship) that the reality of it hit me all over again. In the bouts of time when I was away from my second home in Asia, Eva still seemed real and in our plane of existence. But this summer, as I returned to the redecorated flat in the aging district of Mei Foo, I saw her black and white photo sitting on the altar.
She was too serious in the photo, and why was it black and white? It seemed so out of place for her, and she matched the pictures of my grandma and now also passed away grandpa. The three of them sat in their pictures frames on the chestnut table, basking in the red light of a light bulb on the ancestral altar. I felt tears rushing to fill my eyes, and I had to hurry away to dry them since no one else there would understand why I would be so affected from something that happened three years ago. But to me, this was the first time I had concrete proof that Auntie Eva was gone.
When my mom left for the funeral in January of 2011, I was filled with panic. What if I lost her too? I was fortunate enough in my first sixteen years of life to only witness older folks passing away. But before our hair turned properly grey, and our wrinkles dug their trenches on our face, I always thought we would be immune to the silencing blow of death.
Sure, I had seen tragic deaths of those who passed away “too soon” on the news, but I was always comfortably separated by a TV screen or the eggshell white pages of a newspaper. I could not help but think of my thirteen year old sister, and what it would be like to lose her.
I cannot say we are now the closest of siblings. Maybe at one point we were, but that was before I started to grow up and was unable to live in the world of make believe that we both used to share. This fact did not ease the pain of imagining life without her.
How must my mother be feeling? To be told that your sister with whom you had spent your childhood with (some argue that those are the best days of our lives) is gone. Situations that seemed impossible before suddenly played out in my head starring my sister and her demise. My brain conjured up scenes of her crossing the road after getting off class, only to have the bumper of a black car collide against her small frame and squeeze one last breath from her. A shooting in a classroom started by a man in a dirty washed out denim jacket with bulging frog eyes, with my sister being one of the many crumpled bodies that were the result of the crossfire.
Her lack of years in this world no longer correlated to the probability of her not dying. I still get these thoughts nowadays, but the context in which I lose her has evolved. Nowadays they involve her texting without paying attention to a car that had the right of way.
Shortly after digesting the news of my aunt’s death, I went to my sister’s bedroom to wake her up and pass on the news to her. She rubbed her eyes, uncomprehending.
“Auntie Eva? Mom’s sister?” she asked.
After a while, when she finally pushed herself up and put on her glasses, she asked again, “Auntie Eva?”
I think she cried, but I may be wrong. She was always stronger in controlling her emotions than me. But I remember her crying when our relatives told us to write goodbye notes to Eva, and she read my note:
I’ve realized that you never know the true value of something till they’re gone. It’s a common saying but only now do I know how true it is.
Looking back at all my memories, I realize how many of them included you somewhere in the scattered flashbacks. You sending me a book on knitting from Hong Kong; Us at Ocean Park; Us on the cable car; Us in Macau; Us in China; You visiting me at the hospital; Us at Christmas Parties; Us at McCafe; Us at your desk where you worked; Us simply shopping together; Us eating dinner together. The list can go on and never end. I guess what I’m trying to say is that from the big things to the little things, you were always there. Someone like you is unforgettable and truly one a million. I can only think of the things that we could have done in the future but I am very grateful that in our past, we’ve accomplished a lot together. Nothing can rob me of my experiences with you.