Sunday, January 16, 2011

Death of a four year old student

Just before Christmas,  a 4 year old student of mine (from my "Hoppy Palace" paying-job as an English tutor)... a beautiful, bright Chinese little girl who knew an amazing amount of English already .... died.  Just died.

We had been restarting the "Letter of the Week" Alphabet vocabulary games, and she was there for the letters A and B, and when we got to the letter C she was gone.

"Nova has gone up to... gone up to... God", her six year old friend, Samuel,  from the same small "Oral English" class reported to me, struggling to communicate in his limited English.

I thought maybe he meant she was at the hospital on the hill.

Or, I hoped, maybe he meant that she had moved away.

Or started at a different, higher class tutoring school.

No, she had died. Apparently an infection had traveled to her heart, and stopped it.

It was a week after her 4th birthday, which was on December first.

The memorial services were held just last week.  I attended together with Sandy, the receptionist from the "Hoppy Palace", who had seen Nova as often as I had (once a week, nearly every week, for nearly two years).

We clung to each other -- I clung to Sandy because I had little idea what to expect at a Hong Kong funeral.  I didn't know what faith (if any) Nova's family had.  I was not worried about Nova... I know that six year old Samuel was right, she is with God because of Jesus' clear promise that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children.  

But I was worried about Nova's parents.  I had been told that many times, Chinese parents will not attend the funerals of their children, and in fact, will condemn themselves for having done something wrong in order to merit this untimely death

Sandy clung to me because she had been to the same funeral parlour for the funeral of her grandfather, and the memories were frightening. Also, according to her traditional Chinese beliefs, it's unlucky to see the body of the deceased.  "I'm not going into the room with the body," she said to me.

The funeral was on a Friday night.  We met at the MTR station and took a taxi to the imposing looking high-rise funeral parlour, where funerals were taking place on a number of different floors.  We weren't sure where to go at first, and found ourselves getting off at one wrong floor, then another.  I only caught glimpses of the goings-on -- wailing, gonging, large paper constructions of homes, cars, even rather macabre (to me) paper people, which were about to be burned as an offering for the dead (if I understand this correctly).

Finally we found the correct room for Nova's memorial service, and I wept tears of sadness, but also relief, as I caught sight of a beautiful, enlarged photo of her, with a cross placed in front of it.

Nova's family was Christian.  Her mother and father were very much present, and greeted us warmly as we bowed towards the photo, in a traditional sign of respect.

Soon after we arrived, the service began.  As far as I could see, I was the only westerner present among the hundreds of participants. A pastor prayed.  Scripture was read. A poignant collage of video clips from Nova's brief life was played.  Nova's father spoke. The pastor spoke.  And a church choir, including a dozen adults and four or five small children, just Nova's own age, led us in singing several songs in Cantonese and then an old, familiar one to me, in English, a song  I remember singing at dawn on many Easter mornings:

Sing Alleluia to the Lord!/ Sing alleluia to the Lord! Sing alleluia, sing alleluia, sing alleluia to the Lord.
Jesus is risen from the dead. Jesus is risen from the dead.  Jesus is risen, Jesus is risen, Jesus is risen from the dead.
Jesus is King and Lord of all.  Jesus is King and Lord of all.  Jesus is King, Jesus is King, Jesus is King and Lord of all.

The memorial service was a worship service, to honor the God who had created Nova, to honor Nova's brief, beautiful life, to repeat the hope that we Christians dare to insist is the truth:

  "... I give them eternal life, so that they will never be lost. No one can snatch them out of my hand..."     -- Jesus    

                                                               (quoted in the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 28)

marked with the cross of Christ... forever.

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