My Season of Magical Thinking

Yesterday marked 100 days since my grandfather passed. One hundred days since 8:15AM that morning when our family stood in columns, steady sentinels of his life, waiting for an end none of us wanted to accept. I rely so much on words to express myself, but I remember being at a complete loss for them for so long after.

I never talk about this with anybody, which I why it helps, I guess, to keep a journal.

In Vietnamese, we call a funeral đám tang which carries a double entendre. It also means “to dissolve” or “to fade.” A funeral marks the beginning of the fading or dissolve of that person’s existence. In my mind, I would will this to be less true, or even downright false. But I can’t deny that the things I do remember are solely impressions of my grandfather. None can manifest themselves into my grandfather himself.

Wild geese fly, disoriented, calling out for deceased members of their gaggle. Dolphins refuse to eat for days after one of theirs passes. Elephants return to the site of the deceased, even years after their loss (hence, the term “elephant graveyard.”)

It is natural to grieve. Isn’t it? Humans react in similar ways and display similar psychological changes and disorientation.

The poet Walter Savage Landor writes in “Rose Aylmer”
A night of memories and sighs
I consecrate to thee.

In Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, she chastises Landor for allocating merely one night of memories and sighs to mourn. But I have to disagree in the reading of these lines. To me, a “night” can mean a figurative night, one whose length depends solely on the individual experiencing it.

“Grief is a place none of us know until we reach it…I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole.”

Looking back on these past few months, I already recognize this as being one of the touchstones of my adult life. Whether or not there is any function to that realization, I have yet to find out. I do acknowledge the element of selfishness that piggybacks on grief. Is my grandfather’s death something that happened to him, or something that happened to me? To my family? I have to ask myself that constantly. None of the times I have asked that question has yielded an answer.

Once, when I was driving with my mom, she began talking about my grandfather and in her broken-English reverie described him as “touchful.” My cousin told me her mother often recalls, “He was the most loverly man in my life.” When I hear accounts like these, I realize that we will continue to eulogize my grandfather as long as we live. He will, as they say, stay alive within our hearts and minds.

So why doesn’t that bring as much comfort as it should? Why do those words (he’ll stay *alive* within our hearts and minds) leave such a bitter aftertaste? Because at the end of the day, he’s gone. And there’s no changing that no matter how much we delude ourselves.

Yesterday I was filling out a form that required emergency contact information. My mind raced back to pre-school, when my mom taught me how to spell my grandfather’s name and memorize his number so I can always remember to add that to my permission slips, then through every year thereafter when his name was always my first emergency contact. Thanh Pham. To this day, I can only first remember how to say his phone number in Vietnamese. If something happened, my grandfather would know first. I stood staring at my form through dewy eyes and turned it in blank.

At the local community center this past weekend, there was a Tet Trung Thu event, an annual Vietnamese festival to celebrate the onset of autumn. Looking around the room, I observed grandparents who had taken their grandchildren out. They were dressed in the traditional ao dai, waiting in line for a lantern. I remembered a picture of my grandparents kneeling beside me and my younger brother. I’m dressed in a yellow ao dai, with the token bowl haircut. My grandpa has large-rimmed glasses and bushy eyebrows, his hair peppered with black, gray, and white strands. Standing amidst the children toting their lanterns and chewing their moon cake, I wished so much to return to that photograph’s simplicity.

My grandfather had a record player that played 33’s and 45’s. I would toy with it each time I came to visit, but much to my disappointment, my uncle sold it a while back. So I found a record player at a store in downtown Fullerton back home. Each time the needle hits the vinyl, my thoughts jump to Grandpa.

I just wish he were here so I could show him.

A lot of what I consciously do now is based on that mantra. He made an effort to be intellectually strong all his life. I read, write, and search for facets of learning everywhere I go, with more vigor now than before, with my grandfather in mind. He lived for his family and loved ones. I make a conscious effort to be there for my family (a handful of friends are included in this category) to carry on the legacy he left. I do things every day that I believe connect me to his spirit. That’s the best I can do for now.

To every day henceforth, Ong Ngoai, this is for you.

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