It’s in all the TV shows, it’s in all the novels: when the phone rings in the middle of the night, we know it’s not good news. A death in the family, a car crash, a fire which burnt someone’s house down to the ground.
Maybe in today’s 24/7 lifestyle, the fear of the past-midnight call has been diluted. Much so that it’s not as taboo to be calling your friends late in the night to talk about a date that went bad or to invite him out for a drinking session at the kedai mamak. In fact at 2am you might not even be asleep yet, and a ringing phone does not instil in you the heart-thumping fear and does not make your mind conjure up 20 different scenarios of tragedy in that three minutes it takes you to pick up the receiver and say a breathless and worried “hello”.
But it is the post-midnight call of bad news that compels families, and friends, to immediately come together in a way that nothing else will. Drop everything else, sleep be set aside, forget an early morning meeting that you have to be up for – when the call comes, you are there.
My mother died in the afternoon all those years ago, so the round of phone calls was performed in the light of day – not as urgent, with people coming staggered throughout the rest of the day at their convenience.
But I remember staying at my aunt’s house when once the phone rang past the witching hour. I picked it up and another uncle, sombre in voice, asked to speak to my aunt. There was muted conversation, an exclamation of surprise, a slow click as the receiver was put back in place. My younger cousin had died.
And the family came together at once, bundling all the sleepy children, protesting or not, into cars for the drive to my uncle’s house. Some still in pyjamas, some hastily dressed in ill-matching clothes – it was no time to preen and look pretty, as people tend to do during day visits.
This was the very soul of ziarah, visiting the ill or paying respects to the dead. It is not for the dead that we come, but for the living. It is not for what we can bring them – the nicely packaged basket of fruits or box of chocolates locked away in closed stores – it is us, and we are there. The family grouped from all over, some a mere hour’s drive away, some taking more than four hours to get there. But they came, wasting no more than an hour from receiving the call to setting out.
Funny how death should be the reunion-maker. Have you ever tried getting your family to a get-together for a celebration? Hours of phone calls to pick a good day, adjust schedules, set a time convenient for all. And try it with friends, that’s even harder. Choosing a good place to meet, juggling dates and times, getting the usual last-minute cancellations because of other pressing matters.
But death just comes without warning. No appointments, no asking if everyone’s free on that date, no RSVPs and no reminder calls not to be late. And not even considerate enough to do it before midnight.