When sorry is the hardest word

When sorry is the hardest word

A girl wonders if she's missed her last chance to end years of bitter family feelings

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When sorry is the hardest word_L
Illustration: Martin Megino

The words from the Three Days Grace song blasted through my headphones as I tried to distract myself: "It's never too late, never too late..."

All around me I saw distress and fear, especially on the faces of my mum and her. They both looked so full of sorrow it hurt to look at them.

I leaned back against the cold, immaculately white hospital walls and stared up at the red light hanging above the surgical room doors - beyond which his destiny was being decided. The powerful lamp challenged me: How much do you love him? How much do you care?

The truth was, I didn't really care. And, instead of finding myself paralysed with guilt for letting such a thought cross my mind, I was burning with anger. Because I was not responsible for the words that, as he put it, slipped through his lips on that day I can never forget.

It was my third birthday and my mum had invited the family to celebrate. When they arrived, Mum passed me a cup of tea, a cup of tea which I, in my ignorance, had drunk. Only when he smashed his fist down on the table, stood up and glared down at me did I realise something was wrong.

Mum pushed me to the ground, to kneel and apologise, but it was no use. In front of everyone, he yelled at me in his stilted English, "That is not how you act. You are Chinese kid. You need to give respect. You give us tea, not drink tea! Even your younger cousin, Tom, act better..."

Traumatised, I whispered, "Sorry." But beside him, she still did nothing to stop him, just stared at me with her cold, disappointed eyes.

Two words stood out amid the long scolding, two words which caused my enduring bleak feelings towards them, "family disgrace."

When they realised the damage the incident might have done, they tried to dismiss it as a mere "accident".

Yet no matter what they said, I was certain I was a disgrace in their eyes - not because of what I'd done, but because I was not a boy, because I could not carry the family name. Although only three years old, I was already brimming with hatred for them.

Five years ago, when I was nine, I learned to make Chinese dumplings, symbols of a harmonious family. At the New Year holiday, Mum suggested I make some for all the family - including them.

That night, I served my homemade dumplings and received compliments and appreciation from everyone - until I reached him. As I approached, I knew something, though not precisely what, was wrong.

Because he did not want to ruin the night for the rest of the family, he reluctantly took a dumpling. I waited, with the small hope he would compliment, or even just acknowledge, my efforts. But, with a look of disgust on his face, he simply stood up and left.

Stupidly, I followed him. Through the gap in the bathroom door, and with tears rolling down my face, I watched him spit out the dumpling.

"How many times have I told her to give respect to the elders?" he muttered. "That elders are always first? That disrespectful girl never learns the Chinese way!"

As I turned away, I found her staring at me with those same accusing eyes, blaming me for nothing and for everything.

Once, twice, they had hurt me and I swore there would not be a third time. That was when I stopped regarding them as family members whom I should respect. From that moment they simply became "them", "him" and "her".

The red light dimmed and the door to the operating theatre slowly opened. As the surgeon emerged, removing his gloves and mask, everyone scrambled to their feet. I scrutinised the doctor's face, searching for answers - but found none.

"I've..." he began. Yet, all of a sudden, I did not want to hear. I turned my music up full blast, but I still couldn't stop my mind replaying the day's events, forcing me to recognise I might have missed my last chance to see him.

Only hours ago... "Lor-la."

Instantly, I knew it was him. After all these years, he was still the only one who could not pronounce my English name.

"You want come over for eating tonight?" the voice continued. Although he knew I understood Cantonese perfectly well, he persisted in struggling with his limited English. Every week he would call, as is Chinese tradition, so we could eat together as a "family". I would not be surprised if he hated inviting us, but he still did so out of "respect".

Although I knew the chance of me going was slim, especially since that night was my friend's birthday, it was still a question to be answered. So I forced myself to politely say, "Can I call you later? I need to check with Mum first."

After a long debate, I won. For the rest of the evening, I rejoiced that I did not have to go and instead could enjoy myself with my friends.

"Brrrrinng, brrrringg..."

It was some time before I realised I wasn't dreaming and reluctantly opened my eyes. I lay there in the dark, staring at the blank ceiling as I waited for the caller - probably some prankster - to give up.

For 10 minutes, with only short pauses while the caller was diverted to the answer machine, we waited for one another to pick up the phone. Eventually, when the ringing did not stop, I climbed down the ladder of my bed and walked blindly along the corridor, searching for the phone.

"Hello?" I asked. Nothing. No one. Just as I expected. I slammed the phone down and walked back to my warm, inviting bed to salvage what was left of the night's sleep.

"Zzzzzzzz." It was the vibration of my mum's mobile. Was it the same caller? I wanted to know, but tiredness crept through me. I was woken by a crash as my mum rushed through the door.

"What?" I implored.

"He's dying," a small, shaking voice announced.

How could I not have realised? How could I not know that such persistence was a call for help? The next thing I knew, we were squashed in a taxi, on our way to the hospital.

"...tried my best," the doctor finished. But what did that mean? How was he? The crowd pushed the doctor aside and rushed into the operating theatre, trying to catch a last glimpse of him alive.

As I replayed all the scenes which justified my hatred, I heard a familiar voice: "Lola."

It was her, eyes bulging red from tears. "This is yours," she continued softly as she handed me a red lai see envelope. I looked at it, bemused. "He knew your birthday is next week so he was going to celebrate it tonight. But... but you never came... could you please forgive us? We are really sorry."

I rushed to his deathbed, pushing away all my uncles and aunties, people I was supposed to respect. Once he was a man of power, manipulating whoever he wanted, saying whatever he wanted, hurting people whenever he wanted. Yet as he lay there, his face lined with age, he was a frail old man unable to change his fate.

Suddenly, his eyes flickered. His mouth moved. "He's saying something!" some distant voice shouted, yet all I heard was his wheezing.

So I pressed my ears close to his face, and strained my ears as he muttered, "Dui mm..."

Yet before he could finish, peace washed across his face and, all at once, life left him.

Every title he had held during his lifetime was cried, painfully, into the air: "Friend", "Cousin", "Brother", "Dad", "Husband"... "Gung Gung".

My Gung Gung, or Grandpa, was dead. I found my way back to my Po Po, my Grandma, and told her his last words - "Dui mm..."

Not until I repeated those words did I realise that my Gung Gung was saying "sorry" in Cantonese.

Because of the way he had hurt me, all this time I'd avoided understanding them and learning who they, my family, were.

Maybe if I had not been so reluctant to accept their beliefs and traditions, then this ending could have been different. Then my Gung Gung wouldn't have died apologising. Then I wouldn't have to live knowing I'd disappointed my family because my Gung Gung had died feeling guilty. And then, with his death, he would not have hurt me once more.

Why did my Gung Gung leave me no chance to change my feelings towards him? Whatever the reason, it is now too late.

This is the eighth finalist in Young Post's 2011 Summer Story competition, sponsored by Dymocks, in which HK$3,000 worth of book vouchers are up for grabs. The winning entry will appear on September 3.

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