Baby Steps

Initially, I sought to spend every other weekday afternoon with my grandfather to make good on a suggestion I’d made the evening my grandmother was hospitalized. I had just had dinner with a friend in town from Switzerland – she was a flight attendant – and, having heard from my mother that she was headed to the hospital, I thought, “Well, I’m heading back from Long Beach, so I’ll stop by grandpa’s house to keep him company.”

My grandfather is a tortured introvert. He can keep to himself forever and he very nearly would if it weren’t for the constant flow of sons and daughters and grandchildren visiting him, even long before grandma fell ill. She was the social one whose voice could always be heard, not necessarily telling stories, but doling out advice on how best to fry a fish, knead the dough for a green onion pancake, pinch the seams of the perfect dumpling – my grandfather would sit in either of two spots: his chair at the table, slightly tilted left so he could watch the tv as well, or a heavy mahogany chair with his back to the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. The latter was his TV chair, though it faced the wall ajacent to the TV rather than the TV itself. Only recently I asked grandpa if his neck had any issues, from spending hours twisted in one direction. He looked at me blankly and shook his head. The neck was fine.

That October evening, my entire family was still ten years younger. I was driving away from a friend I’d made in another country, my head brimming with the plans we made to travel in the near future. She, as a flight attendant, could request destinations a few months in advance and had yet to see Asia, where I planned to be in less than three month’s time. Our lives felt fuller from the conversation alone, conducted over a small cafe table near my grandfather’s house. I had just dropped her off at the hotel when my mother called me.

“It doesn’t look good,” she said, and I shook my head in the dark, silently accusing my mother of jumping as she usually did to the worst conclusions. Grandma being in the hospital was nothing new. She would be out again in a few days’ time.

Still, this time was heavier – not final, just heavier – the result of accumulated fear and anxiety and of course, facts. The fact that grandma had been falling more than usual, had more difficulty breathing than usual. Throughout all this my grandfather sort of faded into the background of our worried brains. He was okay for now, tough as nails, the stoic, the stone. I dialed his number as I drove past the dark freeway on ramp. It was 9PM – on a normal evening grandpa and grandma would be winding down, watching one last Chinese variety show or news broadcast before turning in – but tonight he answered the phone as though he’d been standing by it all evening.

“Hello?”

“Hi Lao Ye,” I said, “It’s Betty.”

“Oh Betty,” he said. It was not unusual for me to detect disappointment in his voice when his wife was at the hospital and someone not at the hospital with her called.

“I’m just passing through,” I said, “Can I stop by?”

“Sure sure.” He hung up in his usual way, before I could say goodbye. It didn’t matter, I would see him soon.

I drove as my grandfather most likely slept that night and the many nights after that: fitfully, building upon the worry my mother had transferred to me over the phone, and wondering how he felt right now. He’d been the one to find her so many times, more than once covered in blood in the middle of the night, her head cracked open, her eyes swollen and cheeks bruised. I thought about the last time I saw grandma without a nasty bruise or scar on her face…I couldn’t remember. As an octogenarian with poor lung function and an inflammatory diet (high in fat, salt and sugar), she healed slowly if at all. She would pass away with the mother of all scabs on her upper lip, but at the moment, the scab was still small.

I parked across the street from the familiar house in which I’d lived until I was six, when we moved to the Park and my parents asked my mother’s parents to move in. My grandpa, a tortured believer in self-reliance who despises handouts to this day refers to the house, at least to me as, “your father’s house.” It is my father’s house, as many things belong to many people, though in name only. I rang the doorbell and almost instantaneously a voice called out, “Ah Jun?”

“Yep, it’s me, Grandpa.”

The garage door rolled up and my grandfather stood in the narrow doorway, one hand on the door frame, the other on the large white garage door control.

“Come in then,” he said.

We sat staring at each other for a while. The TV was off, though it buzzed faintly with cathodes still cooling and as usual there was only the long fluorescent light on over the tiled, built-in dinner table – anywhere else I would describe the light as a harsh, but that particular light over that particular table I have come to associate with my grandparents brightly lit faces, looking at me over the steam of a hundred delicious dishes. But tonight the table was bare except for napkins and reading glasses, and my grandfather’s insulated tea mug. We chatted about what, I forget now, and suddenly, I began to cry.

“What? What?” grandpa asked, looking horrified. Had I stopped by to sob uselessly?

“Grandma,” I choked, then could say nothing more.

He sighed and told me not to cry, “This is just how it is when you get old,” he said, as he’s said a million times before.

I nodded, though inside I disagreed. I did not think that old age had to be this way, filled with falls and hospitalizations and the fear and uncertainty all these things generated. My old age would not – and, looking at my grandfather that evening, I hoped his wouldn’t either.

I stopped crying then, convincing myself that partly, I was just tired from driving and for making those very ambitious plans with my Swiss friend. It was 9:30PM and grandpa did not seem to be tired at all. We began to speak again, though this time about other things, about the past – a favorite subject with old people, no? I started asking questions to pass the time, to get him talking, and that evening, he talked for much longer and with much more energy than I’d ever heard or seen him. We talked about the early days of his marriage, about running away from the communists on foot, with nothing but the clothes on his back, the various friends he’d made and the one or two he miraculously reconnected with decades later in the United States. He told me about the barbarism back then though barbarism is my word. He was thirteen when he witnessed his first decapitation.

“You saw someone murdered?” I said, my eyes wide with horror.

“Not just one!” he said almost indignant, “Dozens! I saw them decapitated right before my eyes.”

He made a motion with his hands, thrusting ten fingers upward, “The blood like this in the air. And the body,” one hand fell limply at the wrist, “just like that.”

“What did you feel? Were you terrified?”

And, so odd to me, he cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips as though he were trying to retrieve the feeling that had accompanied the observation.

“I don’t remember what I felt,” he said, “That’s just how it was in those days. Lives were not of much value.”

By then I had pulled out a small notebook and had filled nearly five pages with spotty notes. I wanted to listen, but knew I would forget – and looking up I saw the clock. My hand was tired from writing, and I still had to drive home. Though grandpa looked as though he could talk forever.

“I have so many stories,” he said, “You don’t even know.”

Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear 1889

 “I’d like to hear them,” I flipped the pages in my notebook, wondering if this was how biographies are written. “You know, Grandpa, if you don’t mind, I’d like to video tape you next time you tell me stories. I could write them down and share them with the rest of the kids. They’d like that.”

Secretly, I could tell that he too, would like it very much. He was introverted, sure, but at some point (around the decade your mortality rises to look you in the eye) a man wants to share what he knows, wants to be heard. My grandpa was on some strange raconteur’s high that night, and he did not disagree to my idea.

“I have so many stories,” he said again.

I stood up and nodded, “And I’d like to record them.”

We bid each other good night and I wondered if he had gone to bed with his old stories swimming around his head, or if, as I think is the case now, he heard nothing but the overwhelming silence of the empty spot next to him.

———————–

A few weeks later, driving grandpa to the hospital on the same day grandma would later pass away, I asked grandpa if he remembered my suggestion.

“I do,” he said, “but not now. With your grandma in the hospital like this, it is hard for me to say anything. The feeling is not right.”

“Okay,” I said and didn’t bring it up again.

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