Two years ago today, my grandfather passed away.
His name was John and his story is incredible, though no one important would think so.
He was born to the family of Koh’s. The Koh father went to see a fortune teller, who told him that his son John would bring bad luck to the family. He then brought John, three at the time, to the Lows, as a gift. Here is my son, take him. The Lows did.
In the Lows, John did not have a life to be envied. He was treated as second-class, a worker, a slave. He carried the Low children to school on his back. He did all the household chores. He did not receive an education.
War broke out, the Japanese invaded Singapore, and John was fearless. Everyone was in hiding, and he snuck out to collect bomb shells. He knew what violence was. He knew what fear was. He simply did not care. If he died, he died, he thought.
John was 19. He found a woman he loved, adored, would live by or die for. My grandmother. He went to her house and played the harmonica by the window. Day and night.
“Go away,” she said, “go away.”
They married. They had four children, by the names of Edwin, Karen, Eng Siang, and Karin. They had grandchildren. Their first grandchild was me. I thought they were my parents, because I was so close to them.
“Yeye (grandpa) number one,” I would announce. “Nainai (grandma) number two.”
Yeye came to school every day to walk me home. I was too young to know how much it meant. I thought it was just the daily order of things, and took it for granted.
He was a bus driver. From twenty years old to sixty years old. The same bus route, an hour and a half, to double back, and back again, and again, and again. For forty years. Again and again and again.
One day, Karin and her husband Timothy got into a fight. A very bad fight. Yeye got involved. Timothy threatened Karin and Yeye punched Timothy. Yeye ended up getting injured. He was over 60 at the time. My dad called the police.
I went overseas, in England. I skyped Yeye. He didn’t like the awkwardness of Skype, but he spoke to me for hours. Nonsense, just nonsense. He’d make a voodoo doll of me. He’d fake his death. He’d chop off my arms. Nonsense. I came back for summer. I made him sign a contract.
“I, John Low Buck Song, will not die, until my eldest granddaughter gets married and has her first child.”
He signed it.
2016. I am in Melbourne, sleeping in my boyfriend’s house. My phone is placed far away from me. It rings. I wake, and I listen to the ring, and I know Yeye is dead.
I get off my flight and come home, and I see my house, lit up like a gawdy festival. Tables lined back to front, white lights glaring. My mom is at the gate. I get out of the taxi, and walk into the house. It is all decorated. The coffin is in the living room. I walk straight there, and look at him. There is a pearl in his mouth, between his lips.
“It’s to guide him to heaven,” my mom says.
I don’t feel anything. It can’t be. Two days later, when my sister arrives from England, I break down. He’s dead, I say to myself, this is it.
Nobody wants to speak at the funeral. We are very Chinese. Words mean nothing in a time like this. Instead, I play his harmonica. I found it in their bedroom and my grandmother said it was for me. I play his harmonica slow, and careful, and everyone listens. Everyone is having a hard time. We watch his body roll into the flames, and we say goodbye, one by one. Father, goodbye, says my father. Father, goodbye says my uncle. Father… my aunt breaks down. Father, be safe, I say silently. For he was my father, too.
We go to the galley and take off our socks and throw them in the bin.
They were the socks that we marched with, behind his coffin.
Some days I think I hear him. That’s when he mocks me, tricks me, makes fun. Some days, he’s nowhere to be found. I call out to him, and I can’t hear his voice. Those days are the worst. I miss him so much, and it’s not the kind of missing that will bring resolution.
He will not come back, no matter what.