In celebration of tomorrow and Ching Ming, a sacred ceremony to honor ones ancestors, I want to share a short/short story.
Some folks are so afraid of ghosts that they do not even like to think about them, and then there’s me. I have to confess that I was afraid of ghosts too until I began a series of conversations with my father’s ghost/spirit after he died in 1990. But now, not so much because the conversations with Dad and others have taught me a lot about life as well as death. Those conversations inspired the following story about a conversation between a ghost and two fellow ghosts.
Ching Ming 清明节
April 4, 2000
Colma, aka The City of the Dead, south of San Francisco, CA
Sunlight broke through the fog sending rays of light onto the copper lid of the coffin. Jimmy Lei stood there as if frozen. He watched as the family left the cemetery but still he could not move.
“What a waste,” he said as he looked at the elaborately carved granite double headstone and, then, at the well manicured grounds.
‘Well, will you look at that? What are the odds?” Ming Li tipped the pointed end of his fedora to the tombstones on each side of Mr. Lei’s gravesite. He adjusted the handkerchief in his breast pocket so that his initials were prominent.
“I don’t believe it,” W. G. Fong replied.
Jimmy said, “Who are you and what . . .” he stopped before he could finish. The man on his right died on April 5; so did the man on his left. “Wait just a minute. I died on April 5th, Ching Ming, the day I should honor my ancestors. The last time I saw my parents was in 1931. I was a new father and widower in less than two weeks. I had to leave my newborn son to return to America.” He looked around and saw the remnants of the Ching Ming rituals, evidence that others did indeed honor their ancestors.
“What are the odds that three people buried next to each other would die on the same day? Well, I’ll tell you. You have a better chance of winning the lottery,” Ming, who loved to gamble, said.
Mr. Fong recognized his family’s floral arrangement, the wreath with red ribbons inscribed with details about the deceased. His family, known for its beautiful calligraphy as well as its floral work, merged the Western tradition of placing flowers at a funeral with the Chinese tradition of an announcement scroll. “He must be Buddhist. See there. The words on the banner ask permission to enter into heaven and I heard a woman mumbling a Buddhist prayer as her fingers counted the beads on her mala.”
“What are you talking about?” Jimmy said.
Ming said to W.G. “He still doesn’t quite get it.”
“Don’t be so hard on him. You were the same, Ming.”
“Don’t remind me. It’s as if it were yesterday instead of fifty years ago.”
“At least, you were used to this country. I wanted to go back home to die or at least to be buried. I had no one here. In China, I had family who would honor me. I never dreamt that Huang Er, my brother’s second son, would come to the States and make good with the money I left him. I was a second son also. I knew he would be neglected in favor of the number one son. I knew Huang Er had talent but I see now that he also had ambition. He turned my little florist shop into a chain of fancy shops. When he dug up my body from the old Chinese cemetery, and had it moved here, I felt like a king. I guess it paid off to leave him my small fortune.”
“Old Uncle, you’re too old-fashioned.” Ming said. He patted the shoulder of W.G.’s mandarin jacket causing W.G.’s wispy white hair to fly up like a spider’s web disturbed by an intruder.
“Yes, but it is still an honorable thing to pay respects to your ancestors, whether you are a Buddhist like him; a rice bowl Christian, like me; or an Atheist, like you. Shou Shen, brother, Shou Shen.”
“Shou Shen – Filial Piety. You’re talking to an orphan, W.G., but I lived my life right. I did not need a parent or customs or a church to tell me right from wrong.”
“How can you be so sure you were abandoned? China was in chaos between the Japanese invasion and the fighting between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists. Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive them, Ming?”
“So, you did learn a thing or two from the Christian priests.”
“Yes, but, then, why am I still here? It’s now seventy years. Why didn’t I go to the pearly gates?”
“W.G., I think it’s something more than a coincidence – this April 5th thing. Hey, Jimmy, what’s your story? Why are you here and not in the Buddhist heaven?” Ming said pulling at his eyebrow hair that persisted on sticking out.
Jimmy looked forlorn. He tugged at the well-worn buttonhole of his favorite cardigan. “I made the preparations: the roasted pig, the whole fish and chicken, the paper money and petitions to the guards of heaven to burn in the altar, the family blankets, and a band to ward off evil spirits. I did it all. You tell me. Why am I still here?” He knew these last-minute compliances to rituals could not make up for years of neglect. He knew that he had not sent money back to China, squandering it instead on gambling, drinking and women. He shut out those words – Shou Shen – because he knew he had not paid the proper respects to his ancestors. He knew now that the ticket into heaven was not words on a piece of paper, nor dutiful submission to a long list of rituals. He knew that he would have to pay dearly for his deeds in his next life.
“I was wrong,” he admitted to his new neighbors, “but I have another chance to get it right.” His broad nostrils flared, making them look even broader and his eyes even smaller. He tugged at the buttonhole like a child caressing his “blankie.”
“What are you talking about?” Ming asked.
“We are all still here – because we are stuck until we realize our karma. W. G., you would call it “sins.” I thought I got away with my deeds. I have to accept what I did wrong and make it right. I know that now. You think it’s too late but I do not think I’d be here talking with you now if it were too late.”
“If there’s a way to leave this place, I want to hear about it. Maybe, it’s time for me to look at my life. I thought I did the right things but now I’m not so sure. It was the ultimate gamble,” Ming confessed.
W.G. held his head down as he tried to hide the tears that ran down his sunken cheeks. “I went to the mission so I could eat. We were so poor. I’d do almost anything to get some food for my family. I ate the rice in the rice bowl and I hid pieces of vegetables and meat in my clothes to take home to my family. I worked in the kitchen just so I could steal the scraps of food left on plates.
“I listened and pretended to pray. I tried to learn the English language. Of course, they taught it to us by reading the Bible. I wanted to learn the language so I could be a “Gold Mountain” man. After I came to America to find my gold, I discovered the truth. Gold was not everywhere as the traders told us. I worked hard and sent money home to China. I guess I learned enough about sinning to feel bad because I just could not believe in their Jesus. I was not a good Christian man but I did love my family.”
Something in them changed as they shared their stories. They developed an inexplicable bond with one another.
April 5, 2001
“Look, our families are coming,” W.G. said. My nephew is an old man now but he looks young. He has a good family and a good heart.
“As many years as we’ve been here, our families never came at the same time,” he said to W.G.
Jimmy Lei’s family passed the first tombstone. Jenny said, “Hey, guys, he died the same day as Goompa.” Lily set the basket on the ground and, then, sorted out the incense, papers, and Jimmy’s favorite foods while the neighbors swept the gravesites and added fresh flowers.
“Hey, this guy over here, Mr. Wai Gauy Fong, died on April 5 also – but in 1920 – and Mr. Ming Li over there died in 1940. I bet they would have great stories to tell if we could talk with them. This is weird. I have a feeling this is not a coincidence.”
“Let them figure it out, either in this life time or the next. If we can, they will also,” Jimmy said to his new friends. “Are you ready to go now?”
“Where are we going?” W.G. and Ming said in unison.
“I’m not sure but I think we need to cross that arched bridge. It wasn’t there before but I feel we need to go over it. Remember, the Buddha said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
As if on queue, they took that step together.