Funeral for the Ordinary Dead During a Pandemic by Rachel Chen

Funeral for the Ordinary Dead During a Pandemic

On the morning my grandfather died, the New York Times had poured its cover full of obituaries, names and names and names, names lived and lost. It didn’t come as a surprise. We had FaceTimed the week before — ye ye lying on the cliché of a white-sheeted hospital bed, tubes strung like converging arteries, the fluorescents a malnourished yellow. My tongue twining itself around Chinese awkwardly, the words sufficient but never quite right. The summer I was nine, I climbed that tree with the hornet’s nest. You rushed into the yard, swinging a shovel around your head, ludicrously, hysterically, keeping them at bay. Stage four prostate cancer. I wasn’t worried: it seemed impossible for anyone to die of anything but bilateral pneumonia. After, we watched the funeral from an iPad propped on the kitchen counter. My mother, who had never once said anything nice to his face, put on a black suit jacket over pajama pants and wiped at red-rimmed eyes; a convincing show if it was one. Dad tried to book plane tickets, couldn’t. Kneeled, sunk his head degree by degree to the floor. A man capsizing. Prostrate on the rug, his breaths coming in great gulps. I floundered. We had run out of tissues weeks ago. Unable to conjure grief, I unspooled paper towel, laying down flimsy white sheets like a shroud for the dead, like an offering.

Rachel Chen studies neuroscience and creative writing at the University of Rochester. Her work has been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and received the American Voices Medal in 2019. She drinks excessive quantities of lukewarm tea.

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