A year ago today, my grandmother passed away. The day would have gone by without my having given her or my grandfather a second thought had my mother not called me.
It was only 7:30AM back in California and I thought it strange to see my mother’s name flashing on the screen. She’s not one to wake too early, especially not on a Sunday, but I guess this isn’t like most Sundays. When the phone rang, I was standing in the kitchen, mid-sentence with a friend who had spent the night. We were talking about men and blogging. Things important to we the living. I picked up the phone and greeted my mother with the slightest impatience but became quiet when I could hardly hear her speak. She wasn’t crying and did not sound sad, but she seemed reluctant to let her voice rise above a certain octave. She was hesitant to remind me of something. She, along with everyone else, knows that in New York I’m having what is known as “a good time.”
I told my mother that my friend was visiting, hoping she would say, “Oh okay, I’ll call back later,” but instead she said a hollow, “Oh that’s nice,” and finally, after a soft “hmmm,” said, “You know, today marks one year since grandma’s passed away.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “It’s been a year.”
“Yes, so fast,” my mother said softly, “We’re going to her grave later, the family.”
I thought to my grandfather and asked after him, knowing that I would not under any circumstances call or speak to him today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow.
“He’s…” my mother hesitated, “he didn’t feel well last night.”
“He felt last night he couldn’t breath and complained of a stomachache. Your aunt Joannie went to visit him and she found him lying huddled on the couch. It made her sad, your aunt said. Just an old man in a cold house, lying huddled on the couch. He told her he felt very cold and very ill.”
“It’s stress,” I said, not sure if I was using the right word in Chinese, “Today is a terrible day for him and it stressed him out last night. I would probably feel sick too.” But I knew exactly which couch and how cold. The house had been warm in theory when my grandmother was alive and well and it was filled with the smells of her cooking and lots of bodies coming in and out to eat with them. But in the winter, when the stove was off and it was just the two of them, when they were napping or quietly playing solitaire, the house could get incredibly cold. It was two stories, the second of which they never ventured to, and possessed an old heating system that struggled against the high ceilings and thin, drafty windows. I often walked in on winter evenings to find grandpa wearing a cap, hands stuffed into the deep, fleece-lined pockets of a black puffy down jacket my cousin Andrew had passed down to him. I would sit and chat, fully aware that my fingers and toes were turning purple.
“The heater…” I would say, and most of the time, grandpa would respond, “Such a waste. Just two people in a big house. We don’t need it.”
I didn’t know how to say ‘heartache’ in Chinese, or not the way I wanted to say it. I knew to say, “Heart hurt,” which was accurate, but for some reason, when applied to Grandpa, seemed just the opposite. It didn’t go with his tough-guy mien. But in any language it is apt, there is no better word for it. Still, I didn’t use it.
I could sense my mother nodding on the other end, looking off somewhere.
“He said he did not feel very good at all.”
“Are you guys going to take him to see the doctor?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said, “We’ll see.”
I looked over to my friend, who knew my family well and knew that my grandmother had passed away. She looked concerned, but I didn’t want her to be. There wasn’t much to be done from here, by either of us. I wanted to hang up and continue talking about men, about blogging, about the future.
“Well,” my mother said after a short silence, “Tell Angie we said hello.”
I said goodbye, almost adding, “I hope Grandpa feels better,” but stopped myself. It wasn’t a cold he had.
Certain days in New York, when I’m walking down the street and see an elderly man or woman sitting alone on a park bench or shuffling slowly somewhere, I remind myself to call my grandfather to see how he’s doing. Mostly, I know. Or I think I know, in the general way you think you understand the feeling that comes with losing someone you’ve been married to for nearly seventy years. So I don’t know. I just know what he’ll say when I call to ask, “How are you doing?”
“Ma ma hu hu,” he’ll say, the Chinese equivalent of “same old, same old,” or more accurately, “Whatever.”
Most days, he means this to be funny. My grandfather likes to play Negative Ned to my Positive Polly. It’s our special thing – he thinks I’m a ridiculous smart-ass ray of sunshine, mostly because he doesn’t read my blog and also because with him, I steer clear of certain topics that once broached would make me cry until I had no tears. I don’t always want to cry when I see him. Most of the afternoons we spent together were mild, happy affairs. I cooked a simple meal we would eat together, then I would ask him to split a dessert with me. He would say no. I would shrug and say, “Your loss.” He would chuckle, arms crossed over his chest and shake his head.
“You complain about gaining fat and you always always eat dessert.”
In between bites of chocolate ice cream or cookies or cake I would nod, “Very astute, Grandpa.”
And it went like that. I’d clear the dishes. He’d watch the Chinese news, read another article or two from the Chinese World Journal, and between 1 to 1:30PM, would stand up slowly, wincing as his bones creaked and say, “Nap time, nap time.”
I’d nod and say “Good night,” and he would roll his eyes because it wasn’t nighttime.
“It’s good afternoon,” he’d correct me.
“Good afternoon,” I would stand corrected.
He would nap for an hour. Sometimes, I slept too, lying on the couch in front of the TV with a book on my belly. Grandma used to nap here, and when she was here and I was here, she’d nap in the bedroom and let me have the couch. Now, Grandpa would wake before me and come back quietly to take his seat at the dining table. He would read like a literary phantom behind me until I woke and realized the time and turned to find him there, still and scholarly. An ancient man in a modern Chinese-American painting.
“I’ve been awake for a while,” he would say, and I would rub my eyes and yawn dramatically, kicking my legs out and stretching my arms past the edge of the sofa towards the garden my grandmother used to tend to but is now under grandpa’s care. I’d feeling comfortably childish like a granddaughter just risen from a warm delicious nap and who together with her grandpa, was waiting for grandma to wake too.
But it remained just the two of us for a good part of the afternoon. Grandpa would move to his favorite chair in front of the TV, turn it on in time for a travel-through-China show he liked to watch, and I’d read some more back at the kitchen table. Sometimes I would go to the garden and collect some snow peas, yam leaves or tomatoes and grandpa would be pleased, because he chose to keep watering the plants his wife had loved so much rather than let them wither. Sometimes I would vacuum and grandpa would lift the chairs even though it strained his back. Sometimes we’d talk, though hardly about grandma. And around two or three, I would get ready to go.
I’d stand up and start packing away my books and magazines. He would look up and say, “Going?”
“Going,” I said, “I’ll see you __,” whatever day I was scheduled to come next, though it was a self-imposed thing. I was unemployed and needed structure. Even more, I think, than Grandpa. I’d take my bag, wait a bit while grandpa rose from his chair to let me out, and I’d walk down the driveway towards my car, which was always parked across the street along the neighbor’s curb, beneath a shady tree.
He’d stand in front of the drafty old house, with its red brick and wrought iron front gate. The small, two door garage filled with old Chinese school textbooks and odds and ends from various points of their grown children’s and their children’s lives. Old Christmas gifts and filing cabinets. Large stock pots and steamers my grandmother had used during Chinese New Years’ past. There was a single rose bush near the living room window. There he would be, standing slightly stooped with his arms behind his back, a ballast of sorts, holding down this fort that was and was not his.
“See you later, Grandpa,” I always called out from my window. He’d smile and wave and, seeing my car wend around Sunshine Park and out of sight, he’d slowly turn and go back inside.
In those summer months before I left for school, I didn’t worry about whether he would feel cold. Alone, of course, but not cold.