When a bus ride becomes the distance between two worlds
I stare out of the bus window, and the outside scenery flies by in a blur. My throat feels so dry. My heart hurts. It hasn't hurt like that in a while now.
"He's gone," my aunt tells me. "Your father just texted me. Your 大伯, he's passed."
Gone? Even now, I try hard to make sense of her statement. For some reason, I can't wrap my mind around the words. My uncle can't be gone. It was only this morning that my dad told me there was a slight change of plans, that I'll be going back to the village for Chinese New Year instead of staying in Shanghai.
"Take the bus to Zhangjiagang," his text had said. "Your uncle is not feeling well."
Not feeling well.
How in the world was I supposed to know that "not feeling well" actually meant "is on his deathbed" and not "he needs more medication?" Far from hurrying, I had taken my dainty time getting out of bed and packing my clothes, almost whistling a tune even as I imagined celebrating Chinese New Year in the village. Instead of worrying about my uncle, I had squirmed in anticipation of the huge holiday that was in two days' time, of all the fun I was going to have with my cousins and nephews and nieces. The last time I had spent Chinese New Year in China was as a five-year-old baby, happily running around the neighborhood, shrieking in laughter at the fireworks that went off in the courtyard.
But this year, there won't be any laughter, any shrieking or running or dancing. Not this time around. Not this New Year.
I had known, before getting on my flight to Shanghai, that my uncle had stage three liver cancer and was living on borrowed time. But there was no doubt in our minds that he had at least a good year or two left before goodbyes had to be said and tears were to be shed. He was still so sturdy, so lively, so very much the happy, loud man he had always been, and none of us were even remotely prepared for such a tragedy.
"Internal bleeding," my aunt says in a soft voice. She's studying my face for a reaction, but I have none to give. All I can hear is the distortion of my mind amidst the white noise. "His organs suddenly failed. I'm sorry."
I nod once to show my understanding. I find myself unable to cry. Perhaps it is because I am with my aunt, who is from my mom's side of the family, and she would not know how to comfort me as I grieve for a relative that she has never met. So instead I focus on the surroundings, hoping that somehow I will find an answer there. We are standing in line, waiting for my bus, the bus that was to take me to my uncle so that we could catch up and share some stories, spread some fun, celebrate the new year. But that scene will never play, not now, not ever. My uncle is gone, and I missed him by one bus ride.
The tears are forming now, and I bite back a sob. Instead of being next to my uncle, I sit in a bus full of strangers, choking in my regret, drowning in my grief. I find myself wondering why the other passengers don't notice anything amiss. Do they not hear my screams? Do they not see my throat screeching itself raw as the pain claws viciously to find a way out?
If only you had gotten up an hour earlier!
Seen your dad's text a moment sooner!
Walked a little faster!
You could've told me you loved me, given me one last hug, comforted me in my pain.
I'm so, so sorry, Uncle.
I take a deep breath and wipe at my tears. Closing my eyes, I slowly mute the noise in my head until there's nothing but a cold, empty silence. I paint a little bit of warmth back into mind as I focus on the happiest memory I have of my 大伯.
"Ah, Xu Zhong!" He pauses in his work and beams at me. His hands are greasy from the motor oil as he repairs yet another bicycle for a customer. "Are you leaving for America?"
"Yes," I say shyly. I can't help but notice the uncanny resemblance between him and my dad, and I feel a huge burst of affection for my family here across the world. "I'll miss you!"
He throws back his head and roars in laughter. "Get going now!" he shouts. "Visit soon!"
I look out the bus window again, and among the flying images, I search for a peace of mind. It is not okay and it may not be for a really long time, but as I sit there and cry, I start thinking that as long as the bus keeps moving, maybe one day I'll find myself in a place where it all makes sense.
Until then, I will just have to get used to what it means to be human.