This is a personal essay on grief and mining memory. It is a brief account of death in three parts, and central to the story is the event of my father’s passing. In recalling these fragmented memories, the discovery of words and their meaning is paralleled with a boxing scene from the 1952 film Sailor Beware! starring American comedian Jerry Lewis. In this scene, the comedian engages in zany irreverence and slapstick madness as the dimwitted Melvin Jones; falling over himself and clowning in the boxing ring as he is resigned to his futile fate against his far more skilled opponent. At once, random and absurd, the attempt to grapple with loss is paired with a five-minute boxing match – the irony being that this is an absurdist scenario where meaning is confused.
Al Crowthers (Melvin Jones’ coach): Come on, let’s go, Melvin.
Crowthers: Get in through here.
Melvin reluctantly enters the ring but hits his head on the rope.
Crowthers: Oh, I’m sorry, kid. Come on, get up.
Melvin Jones: What for? I’ll be back down here in a minute.
It is Monday morning in East London and I am assigned to a menial task of collecting data for a survey. I’m in a futile war with spreadsheets and numbers. Something to do with quantifying viewership or ratings. I feel abstract and alone.
It’s still half-past nine and a feeling overwhelms me. I think they call it grief but I do not know its shape. Sucker-punched, it occurs to me in this arbitrary moment that I do not know how many years have gone past since my father died. Like a child proceeding to count numbers, I hold my fingers up, the sea of cells spread out behind them on the screen. Could it be six, seven years?
Crowthers: Open your mouth.
Jones: What’s that for?
Crowthers: That’s so if he hits us, he won’t knock our teeth out.
Jones: …knock our teeth out (in a whimpering voice).
I can’t recall the day or month – it was September. No, October. I had just come home from a backpacking trip to Garston, a small village just off Queenstown. My friend and I spent four glorious days away from civilization. We were Fischli and Weiss’ rat and bear, hiking in the open with the backdrop of the Southern Alps, the sadness of the world yet unbeknownst to us. We read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden out loud and romanticised about self-sufficiency and living in the woods as we sat by the fire we so proudly built. Thoreau was twenty-seven at the time of writing and had lived minutes away from his mother’s house, as I later found out. She also cooked for him regularly and did his laundry.
Melvin Jones approaches his opponent cross-eyed.
My father called me out of the blue. I couldn’t remember the last time I spoke to him. He said he needed a signature so they could move him to a rest home. Lung cancer, he says. I could hear the whimpering defeat in his voice; the weight of regret, confusion and guilt combined into a single blow.
When I arrived at the hospital in Rotorua – the stinking town where I reluctantly grew up, the doctor told me that it had metastasized to his liver. Metastasis. A Greek word meaning “displacement”, from meta “next”, and stasis, “placement”.
To remove or change.
Referee: One, two, three, four, five-
Jones: I wasn’t ready!
My absent brother signed off on some paperwork that meant my father was to be assigned and transferred to a rest home in Mt. Eden. It was a fifteen-minute walk from my flat. I resented him for that. I resented him a couple of years earlier for not telling me about my grandfather’s passing. I think his knockout was caused by a tipsy fall and a hit on the head which put him in a bedridden state until he passed away, but I never asked for the whole story.
Melvin gets up and runs circles around his opponent, confounding him in the process. As he closes in, he runs out of breath –
Jone’s opponent grabs him and BOOF!
Crowther: Melvin, get up!
Referee: Three, four, five, six –
Referee: Let’s go, Jones.
Melvin: Where we going?
Referee: Quit stalling. Come on and mix it up.
When I arrived at the rest home, the nurse sat me down and expressed her sympathies and proceeded to hand me brochures of various kinds as a standard procedure; detailing palliative care, arranging the funeral and bereavement in clear bullet points and neat serif fonts. It was as if everything I needed to know had been handed to me then. They just assumed I knew what ‘palliative’ meant, but I chose not to look it up then.
Palliative care (derived from the Latin root palliare, or “to cloak”) refers to an interdisciplinary medical caregiving approach aimed at optimizing quality of life and mitigating suffering among people with serious, complex illness. (Wikipedia)
To lay a cloak over something.
I noticed an old man – much older than my father, mindlessly wheeling back and forth across the corridor outside my father’s room. He approached the end of the corridor and the wheel stalled as it hit the wall, but he kept trying to wheel forward anyways. My father handed me what was left in his savings card so I could go and buy Japanese food for him. By the time I came back with some instant udon noodles in my hands, the morphine had kicked in and he seemed far gone. I sat in the corner of the room with indecision, running back and forth in my mind wondering if the right thing to do was to reach out for his hand because that’s what I’d seen in movies of this kind.
Crowthers: Melvin, wake up here. Wake up.
Jones: It’s so nice here.
Just the two of us in the moonlight, all alone.
And by the ocean.
I can’t recall if it was almost midnight. I was woken up by a phone call from the rest home. The casual tone and nonchalant way in which the nurse broke the news to me bothered me more so than the silent manner in which he exited. The doctor said six months, but I think it was less than two weeks.
Crowther: Come on. There, we’ll get him this time.
The word “undertaker” didn’t quite resonate until they arrived to take away his body. For me, “The Undertaker” was the Deadman, or Mark Calaway, WWE’s most beloved character to haunt the ring. Famously clad in black leather attire with a menacing death stare, the immortal legend towered at six foot nine and reigned as a seven-time WWE champion with a twenty-one streak at Wrestlemania. With signature moves like the “Last Ride, “Hell’s Gate” and the finisher “Tombstone Piledriver”, his morose disposition and slow delivery of speech appealed to me as a young girl, more so than the loud charm of his opponents, like poster boy Stone Cold Steve Austin or the charismatic The Rock. Despite all his absurd storylines and incoherent gimmicks, there was a layer of realness which Calaway embodied – whether it be his silent demeanour or the way he rejected “selling” to his opponents. I treasured the stuffed toy of the reaper – the Ministry of Darkness-era of the Undertaker which my mother bought for me as a birthday gift. I’d sleep with it and secretly practise kisses with it.
When life was very hard, my mother encouraged me to buy toys, no matter how silly they were. As I sift through emails from an old Hotmail account, I came across this one from 2010:
I’m sorry to hear you crying, yoshiko. poor girl. Now definetly one of your tough time in your life.
It is my regret that i can not help with what you needed, all i can do now is just believe that you gon’na make it.
i don’t want talk about your father cause he’s good at putting others down and he always blame others.
blow it away!!!
you said you still interested in some toys, me too. buy it. that would be a kind of memory.
times go by, you grown up
the toy will remind you how you gonna make it. and next time you want to buy another toy, you could buy it by yourself.
OK?? i know everybody have their own life, not the same. show me your life, yoshiko.
i’m looking forward to talk with a laugh. it might be long, take a time, slowly, just one by one….
take care, yoshiko
My father passed away on October 25th 2012, just a month short of turning sixty-three. The abject horror of witnessing a body; barely any flesh, repulsive sores all over, or the morbidly grotesque noise the body makes as it tries so desperately tries to cling to life through expired lungs – it plays out like an infinite loop. His death lacked the excess and over-the-top theatricality of the WWE matches I watched as a kid.
I never had the courage to reach out and hold his hand.
There is a numbing tumour growing inside of me. Like the cancerous disease that wasted away my father’s body, the virus extends to mine and latches onto any feeling – anger, grief, regret, shame, resentment, guilt and joy, and seeks to swallow them whole into an all-consuming yet, dull indifference.
We don’t really talk about things. The culture I inherited from my parents and their parents – the disarticulation of our feelings from our thoughts – instilled in me the belief that ambiguity, confusion and doubt were unworthy of expression, that to utter them and bring them into being would only make them real. In school, they used to award you for being “clear” and “concise”, too. In a know-it-all world that demands numbers and factoids, certainty over ambiguity, loudness over thoughtful murmurs, I become smaller and mute.
Two years ago, my grandmother passed away. She died in a grim hospital near the house where my mother and I both grew up. The hospital smelled of piss and old death. Instead of tending to my mother’s side, I went out and drank. They say, third time’s a charm.
Referee: Get up here and fight!
Jones: I have my own strategy!
Alone, in this brutal city, I become acutely aware of my self-imposed palliation in this dulling office building eighteen thousand kilometres away from home. The streets here are unmarked by the memories of loss, instead the white noise of the city cloaks me. I wear this cloak of unfeeling with a smugness but now it oppresses me and atrophies my emotions. In my refusal to make sense of the loss I experienced almost a decade ago, I’ve been depriving myself of existence.
Crowther: Get up. Get up off the floor, Melvin.
Melvin, get up!
Look, Melvin, get up off the floor!
Come on, Melvin, let’s go.
Unlike Jerry Lewis’ Melvin Jones, who accidentally knocks out his opponent by dumbfounded luck and escapes from his assigned fate, I’m forever stuck in this absurd boxing match. I can’t tell if I’m Jerry Lewis or the palooka opposite him. The real-life boxer Eddie Simms who plays the baffled opponent to Lewis’s troll was famously knocked out in a record-breaking eighteen seconds in a match against Joe Louis in December 1936. He was paralyzed by a left hook, and as the referee helped the poor guy get up, Simms said: “let’s get out of here”. Parts of memories leading up to my father’s death still remain a blur. It very well could have been eighteen seconds let alone five minutes. As I revisit the Undertaker’s WWE matches today, I ask myself this: If my father rose up, the way the Undertaker would rise from the dead in every match, what words and sentences would I give him and in what order?
I suffered a concussion last month. As I complained about the lingering pain to my mother over the phone and lamented that I should be over it by now as the stitches had already visibly healed, she implored me to go back to the hospital, recalling a time when my father was working in a kitchen when an iron pot came falling onto his head. He later found himself straying off the sidewalk, unable to walk in a straight line and he landed in hospital for an overnight stay. Upon hearing this story, I walked into the hospital a couple of weeks later as I was no longer able to ignore this burden, and there at the doctor’s office, I was consoled by a gentle and soft-spoken doctor who put a name to my condition. I felt reassured by him who told me to be kind to myself and not to place a time limit to the pain. The pain still resides, but it feels lighter knowing that I now share something in common with my father whom I never gave myself the chance to relate to.
Words give me discomfort, but they also give shape to the grief I could not see. The boxing ring is my perimeter and I’m stuck here clowning around, but I’ll box with words anyways because without it, I fear that I’ll recede into abstraction until I can’t feel my limbs anymore. So, like Jones, I’ll keep making up my own strategy as I go along.