A Birthday, A Death and Two Celebrations

17 03 2013

What is your most memorable birthday celebration ever?

If I had to describe mine, it may go along the lines of one of the following:
  •  Revolving doors. One entering, the other exiting.
  • Yin and yang. Black and white.
  • Two sides of a coin.
More concretely, a birthday spent attending a funeral – that of my paternal grandmother’s, who passed away peacefully last month after a long, tenacious fight against cancer.
The contrasts and juxtapositions are, of course, jarring.
For a boisterous birthday party, substitute a sombre gathering. For birthdaysong-singing, substitute traditional Buddhist chants and prayers. For birthday hats, substitute white traditional costumes. And for candle-blowing, substitute bowing with incense-sticks clasped between hands.
But there were also close parallels despite the apparent polarities.
I was none too pleased when I first found out about the arrangements. Spending my nineteenth birthday at the funeral parlor was not exactly my idea of a celebration. Early in the morning, I had gone off for a celebratory 10-kilometer running race, then quickly dashed off for a bit of hurdling practice before rushing to catch the train to the funeral parlor. I was tempted to snarl and growl my way through it all, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how both my birthday and my grandmother’s funeral were both celebrations of life.
One, a celebration of a life to come. The other, a celebration of a life that was.
Two celebrations for one birthday? You bet. It’s like having two double-chocolate fudge birthday cakes to myself.
A line of poetry comes to mind. I first came across these wondrously phrased words when reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. 
And all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
are full of trees and changing leaves.
           – from Luriana Lurilee, by Charles Elton
Lives lived. Lives to be. Trees and changing leaves. Here, on my nineteenth birthday, was a reminder of transience and ephemerality. But more importantly, it was a celebration of not one, but two lives.