On the drive to the crematorium, I sit in the passenger seat and look out at the towering buildings as we head away from the bustling city into the barren countryside. We pass by the farmers in their little houses, their faces shrouded in the cold by scarves and hats. When one of them lifts their head to look at us, I don’t say anything, but I swear it’s your face that looks back.
On the drive to the crematorium, my aunt gives me coins to toss, under bridges, at traffic lights, on the sides of roads. She tells me they’re for you, so grandpa has money to spend in the afterlife. We talk about the sound the coins will make as they hit the pavement, the street sweeper who will unknowingly collect them, all sorts of nothing to distract us from our grief. I want so desperately to picture that mythical Chinese beyond, but all I can see is you waiting for me in the tiny kitchen of our apartment with outstretched arms.
On the drive to the crematorium, I close my eyes and imagine that I’m a little girl again. The whole world stretched out in the park in front of our house. Me, refusing to go home, and you, laughing even though you were supposed to be angry. Your smile never changed, but back then, you were strong enough to carry me home. During the days, we’d go on walks with grandma, and during the nights, we’d watch the English movies I picked out. You didn’t understand a word, but the happiness on my face and my hand in yours was enough. Later, when the sickness started taking you, I’d sit by your bed for hours. My heart heavy in my chest as I’d watch you toss and turn in your sleep and the numbers flash on the monitor besides you. You never asked for anything, no larger bed, no sleeping pills, no painkillers, just to hold my hand and see my smile.
On the drive to the crematorium, I remember the times I said goodbye to you. The first time, before you got on the plane back to China, and I pleaded, 你不能走, 我还没长大呢 (you can’t leave, I haven’t grown up yet). You promised to see me again, and I heard your voice quiver, but you turned away so I wouldn’t see the tears in your eyes. The final time I saw you, you held my hands tight and told me, 我亲爱的宝贝都长大了 (my baby’s all grown up). This time, you didn’t turn away, and your tears fell onto our hands.
On the drive to the crematorium, I think that maybe my mom won’t cry at all. I’m wrong. She cries during the ceremony, she cries when we get home, and she cries for months after. She tells me, I can’t imagine how cold he must be all by himself in that stone place. I tell myself to be strong for her, but on nights when I remember your voice, I cry just as much.
On the drive to the crematorium, I think I make peace with your death. It’s not until a year and a half later that I actually do, the day I have the dream. You are standing across the river, dressed in the special clothes we burned for you in the ceremony. The sickness is gone from your face, and you look as strong and healthy as my first memories of you. I hear your voice in my head, asking, 你还想我吗? (do you still think of me?) I want to shout, is the sky blue? Is the night long? Does my heart ache when I wake up in the mornings? But before I can, you smile, lift your hand up to wave, and walk away. The trees and the mountains seem to reach their arms out, embracing you, welcoming you to the rest of the universe. My face is wet when I wake up, but the tears remind me that you’re never really gone. You’re still here, in my dreams, in the faces of everyone in my homeland, in the curves of my hand that you have touched. In the empty grass plains, in the tall gray buildings, in the sunlight streaming into my room at dawn.
老爷, I won’t bother you anymore. I’ll let you get to enjoying the beauty of it all.
“The Drive to the Crematorium” by Isabella Tong and the artwork titled Sudden Fiction by Yasmeen Abedifard appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Isabella Tong is currently a student at UC Berkeley studying political science and film. This is her first time writing fiction, but she has previously written for websites such as Taste of Cinema and other such publications. She hopes to continue writing in the future and thanks the BFR for this opportunity!
Yasmeen Abedifard (She/Her) is an Iranian-American 25 year old Bay Area Native and a recent M.F.A. graduate in Visual Arts from Cornell University. Her work is centered around storytelling mediums, such as comics, storyboarding, and animation.