It was a dreary winter day in Boston. The gray sky was brewing up yet another storm that could cement the snow already on the sidewalks into banks of ice that wouldn’t disappear until late spring. A funeral home that hadn’t been renovated since the early fifties sat on the corner of a run-down street. It had a dark and damp interior, and the heat was anemically generated by a space heater. Shivering since she had walked into the room with her son, an eight-year-old wearing a pair of glasses that looked too big on his small and angular face, Emily Shi sat with her hands clasped tightly around her knees, trying to suppress the constant urge to scream and cry. She had been trying so hard and for so long that her fingers were stiffened into the likeness of the claws of a bird of prey.
Shy and timid, the boy sat close to his mother, glancing up at her constantly and anxiously. Emily was wearing a black jacket with hand-knotted buttons and a matching pair of black pants; her face was deathly pale and expressionless, as of a marble statue. He had tried to grab one of her hands but failed miserably because they were clasped as tight as iron hooks, so he had resigned himself to taking hold of her sleeve.
Staring at the closed casket in front of them with a pair of startled eyes, widened further by the confusion of a child who couldn’t get his mother’s attention, Peter Shi trembled. He had hoped to see his father, who hadn’t been home for the last several days, but with the coffin firmly closed, he didn’t know what had become of him. Was he inside? He knew his mother had brought along his father’s best outfit because she had thought there would be a public viewing.
It was a secondhand suit that Emily had bought from a thrift store in the neighborhood. Peter vividly remembered his father’s reaction when he first saw it, black with thin gray stripes.
“When will I have the occasion to wear a suit?” Rob Shi looked at his wife incredulously. He had been working as a chef at a Chinese restaurant since his family had migrated to the United States.
“Plenty,” Emily replied, counting on her fingers. “First of all, you’ll need it for the wedding of your friend’s son.” The wedding had been scheduled for the following month, and the Shi family had all been invited. “And then there’re Peter’s graduations.”
“Graduations! He’s only eight years old! Besides, I can’t wear a suit for the wedding because the banquet will be held at the restaurant where I work. Have you ever seen a chef in a suit while cooking?” Because he was the chef, the owner had given his friend a 20 percent discount.
“It doesn’t matter,” his wife said dismissively. “In a few years, Peter will graduate from primary school and then middle school, high school, and college. It’s the custom in this country that the father of the graduate has to wear a suit to attend the ceremony.” She looked down pleasurably at the ensemble that had been laid out in their bedroom. “It was only ten dollars, and the color looks great on you.”
Rob Shi lifted the suit jacket from the bed. “It is a good deal,” he said approvingly after having inspected the garment for a few moments. “I should be able to wear it to all our son’s graduations. He’ll attend college and, hopefully, graduate school and have a respectful career.” Rob Shi had been a mechanical engineer in China but became a chef because he couldn’t speak English. Emily Shi worked as a cashier in one of the supermarkets in Chinatown, even though she had taught linguistics at a high school in Guangzhou, where the family came from.
“Yes, he will.” Never once had Emily thought otherwise. Peter was their only hope. Although she and her husband had to live humbly in their current circumstances, their son would achieve great things in his life. To make sure that Peter could attend the best college, she and Rob had been working long hours and saving diligently.
The room reserved for the wake was small and bare. The dark casket was the only object in front of a few rows of chipped wooden benches. There were no decorations, no floral arrangements, and no mourners. Rob and Emily didn’t have relatives in the United States, and their friends were mainly the folks they met at work, who had stopped by early and then quickly left for their day jobs.
Rob had died three days earlier on his way home from work when his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. It had snowed the night before, so the roads were mostly deiced, but patches of black ice remained here and there. His car, an old Toyota Civic, didn’t have a fighting chance. It was totaled, and Rob’s body had been so badly mangled that it was impossible to restructure, so it had been suggested at the last minute that his widow should skip the repairs and save some money.
Everything had been a total blur since she had been notified by the police. Paralyzed by shock and grief, Emily had left the details to her landlady. Good old Mrs. Lower found the cheapest funeral home available that would handle it all for the widow at one low price, including the cremation.
Glancing up desperately at his mother, who appeared more like a stone goddess than a grieving widow, Peter burst into tears, for it was the first time he could remember that his mother had refused to pay attention to him. He knew that a tragedy had struck his family but was too young to grasp how severe it was for his mother. He sobbed and pulled at her sleeve, to no avail.
Emily wasn’t crying. Peter didn’t think she had ever cried, at least not in front of him, but he had noticed that the corners of her colorless lips were twisting uncontrollably, trying in vain to keep her emotions under wraps.
He didn’t know how long they had been sitting in front of the casket, in the room that had nothing but four whitewashed, empty walls, when two sober-faced men showed up, materializing through a side door. Quietly but surely, they escorted Peter and his mother to the waiting area while wheeling the casket out for the cremation.
It was a long journey home when the mother and her child took the urn, an unmarked wooden box, and first boarded a subway train, then a bus to their rented home in Somerville. Emily Shi placed the urn on the dresser in the bedroom, where a Buddhist shrine had been set up with her husband’s photo framed by white flowers and candles. She lit the candles and told her son to get down on his knees.
Having taken the string of her husband’s beads from the shrine, Emily closed her eyes and prayed. Tears rushed down her cheeks as she was suddenly overcome by the unbearable pain and wrenched emptiness. She tried desperately to hang on to the praying beads, which felt cool and smooth in her palms as she counted each of them as if touching her dead husband. It was so overwhelming that she was soon in a disoriented state and remained so until she heard the sound of a child’s cry. Hungry, he hadn’t eaten since early morning, and hurt, having been forced to kneel on the hardwood floor for over an hour, Peter couldn’t help but weep loudly. The pitiful cry for attention moved up more than a notch when he saw his mother’s refocusing eyes.
As if suddenly awakened from a bad dream, Emily stood up. In her grief, she had totally forgotten Peter, her son, a part of Rob as well as a part of her. Yes, her son! With proper care and devotion, he could one day grow into the man she and Rob had envisioned, a learned professional who would have a splendid future with unlimited opportunities.
Her face softened as she turned to look at her child, who clung to her like a baby. Instead of comforting him and hugging him, she helped him to his feet and took him by his hand. It was time for her son to hit the books so that he could catch up on whatever he had missed at school.
For once, Peter was happy to be led to the kitchen—a tiny area but the only place in their small apartment that had a table—to study under his mother’s watchful eyes, as the familiarity of his daily life had taken his mind away from his father’s tragic death and his mother’s unprecedented grief.
The next morning, Emily got up at the crack of dawn and went to the supermarket in Chinatown, where all kind of edible fish were swimming leisurely in the tanks. Because she couldn’t afford the religious rites of Buddhism for the dead—hiring the monks to pray and chant for her husband for seven days—she had decided to do something that she could afford. She took the subway to the Charles MGH station after taking her son to school.
She walked gingerly along the promenade of the Charles River, holding a transparent plastic bag filled with water and a live carp. Then she stopped at the edge of the bridge and, as soon as she was sure that nobody was watching, emptied the bag into the river with a prayer, dutifully performing the ritual of Fangshen, “life release,” so that her Rob could have a better afterlife.
Standing over the rail, she gazed over the water as the fish swiftly swam away, leaving not a trace on the surface as it submerged.