In the end we are all the same despite the oceans we must cross

Michael Harding: A mother in Shenyang is mourning the loss of her son in Drogheda

There are no passports required in a coffin. Ethnicity, nationhood or gender don’t count then. Photograph: istock

There are no passports required in a coffin. Ethnicity, nationhood or gender don’t count then. Photograph: istock

 

I met a young man from Shenyang at a wedding in Drogheda one time. We were both friends of the groom.

“My name is Sky,” he said, clasping my hand.

“That’s a big name,” I replied.

He insisted on buying me a drink and for 20 minutes we were like brothers. We discarded the jackets of our wedding suits and rolled up the sleeves of our white shirts, and loosened our ties as we stood at the bar and had a great chat about the groom from Mullingar and the Bride from Shenyang.

She will make soup and heat noodles and play with her grandchildren. And the chaos of love will absorb her. She will look at the misty midlands as if this were her home

But we never met again, and tragedy in the form of a cancerous tumour was waiting for Sky. He died a few weeks ago and sometimes I imagine his mother eating her noodles and hot peppers in Shenyang with tears streaming down her face, because her son died so young. 

She came to Ireland when he was ill; all the way across two oceans just to sit at the end of his bed in an Irish hospital where he lay silently for a long slow moment of farewell, and with a thousand kisses from his children. When it was over his mother went back to China; to her soup and flat noodles and she took the last photographs of him with her in her heart.

Last week I went to visit the couple at whose wedding I met Sky. They have two children now, daughters who can already speak Chinese and English. 

The father smiled proudly when I appeared at the door. The children paid no attention.

“I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about most of the time,” the father admitted, “and that’s even when they’re speaking English.”

His wife runs a Chinese restaurant near Mullingar, and she arrived a little later with a box of food under her arm and we all sat down and ate chilli chicken, peppered beef and vegetable spring rolls at the kitchen table, talking about the lovely young man I first met at their wedding.  

“My mother is coming to Ireland for Christmas,” the woman announced. “She will arrive in December and stay for until spring.” 

She too will travel across two oceans; from Shenyang, a city of 10 million souls. She will spend winter in an Irish kitchen, hidden behind laurel hedges on a remote and lonesome laneway near a lake in Westmeath. 

But she is no stranger there. And she will step into that kitchen as if it were her own. She will make soup and heat noodles every morning and play with her grandchildren. And the chaos of love will absorb her. She will look out the window at the misty midlands as if this were her home. 

Because home is where the heart is. It’s as if the ego dissolves in the chaos of others. “The dewdrop becomes the ocean,” as a poet once said. Or as they say in Shenyang, death is another form of the dewdrop dissolving.

I imagined his mother, weeping in Shenyang for her lovely boy

 Most funerals I attend usually wind up in a graveyard, to witness the discreet lowering of a coffin, in the shelter of yew trees with the ruffle of beech leaves and the consternation of crows in the distance.

But nowadays it’s often a crematorium where the mourners stand in stoic silence, as the limp curtain moves, of its own accord, to envelop the deceased in the finality of fire.

And there are no passports required in a coffin. Ethnicity, nationhood or gender don’t count in the wake of that burning.

People in Drogheda mourned for a young man from Shenyang. They remembered that he loved golf, a pint of Guinness, and an occasional gamble on a horse.

“He was like ourselves,” I heard one man declare.

His friends commissioned a poster on a billboard in the town. It stood out on a wet street; a huge blank canvas of blue with a little red heart at the centre. 

“Sky,” the billboard said. “Sky, we love you.” 

 As if he had dissolved into the blue of the cosmos like a dewdrop in the ocean. As if all the chaos of the Milky Way had absorbed him like a speck and taken him home.  

It was the most beautiful billboard I ever saw. I stood looking at it for a long time, remembering the day he bought me a pint and how we had laughed. And I imagined his mother too, weeping in Shenyang for her lovely boy. I suppose in the end we’re all the same; despite all the oceans we must cross.

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