Two great books for when you’re feeling down and useless

Memoir on dying by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. Last night, in a bout of writer’s block/what am I doing with my life despair, (after spending the evening complaining to Tom about not writing and then watching two hours of Sci-Fi TV (“The Expanse”), I logged onto the New York Public Library website and downloaded two books to my Kindle: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.
Continue reading “Two great books for when you’re feeling down and useless”

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Thanks, Giving

On my flight home for Thanksgiving, I flew Southwest with a stopover in Denver. I sat next to a woman from Denver who had just spent the past month nursing her daughter back to health. The girl was in most ways, an independent woman. She had graduated from Tulane University, moved to New York to work for a luxury carpet company and had done well enough to move into her own $2400 a month studio in the Lower East Side. Her mother said these things proudly until she came to her daughter’s condition. Something about the girl’s heart. She had fainted the other day and cracked her head open on the sidewalk. She had a swift surgery and with the help of her mother, was now recuperating. The woman did not want to leave her daughter for Thanksgiving, but the girl assured her mother that she had several friends who were staying in the city and that she’d be well taken care of. She had, over the five years she’d been building a life in New York, formed a strong circle of girlfriends, most of whom were either from Tulane or from Colorado. 
“So aside from that,” the woman said, “My daughter is doing really well in the city.” 
I nodded, wondering how many yards of carpet the girl sold each year to cover the cost of living. 
“But,” the woman said, “She can’t seem to meet a man.” 
The girl had, upon first arriving in the city, gotten into a relationship that cooled almost as quickly as it had gotten serious. The boy turned out to be, in the mother’s words, “not a very nice man.” He had what are known as wandering eyes, and hands. And lips. It was not a good first year for the girl, but she bucked up, threw herself into her job, strengthened her female bonds and was soon living the life of an independent young woman in New York with a wealth of contacts, nights out, favorite wine bars and lounges she could confidently rattle off to out of town visitors, and a strong if slightly dull career path – she was selling carpets, after all. But after that first fizzled romance there were only a string of measly dates or worse, half-assed bar pickups and no follow through. 
“I don’t know what it is,” the woman said, shifting in her seat, “She’s a great girl. Smart, funny, athletic. And I’m not just saying that because I’m her mother. Her friends are all great too…but none of them seem able to meet anyone. It’s bizarre.” 
We talked about their hometown. The girl was apparently quite good at keeping in touch with her childhood friends from home, most of whom had opted to return to Denver after college and most of whom were married by now. A few of them even pregnant or with children. 
“New York is a little different, I know,” the woman said, “But goodness how could all of her friends in Denver have found men and she just doesn’t seem to be meeting anyone?” 
The girl’s friends now, when they spoke on the phone or got together over holidays, tried to convince her to move home. The girl refused. She loved the city and she was convinced that she would find someone. 
Would she consider online dating? 
“I suggested it,” the woman said, “But she’s against it. She thinks it’s unnatural. And I don’t think it’s the best way, but if she’s going out and being social and meeting people in person and it’s not working out…I just think, why not give online dating a try? But she’s so stubborn. She gets mad when I bring it up.” 
I thought about my own experiences with online dating, some good, some bad, none of which turned out to be anything. I though too about my present situation with POI, which came about because of mutual friends. 
“Yes,” the woman said, “I have asked if she has friends or coworkers who could set her up, but honestly, all her coworkers are – she lowered her voice – gay, and all her friends are single too. They don’t have two eligible single guys to mush together, amongst the five of them.” 
“Timing and keeping an open mind,” I said sagely, though in truth I had and have not the faintest clue.  
The woman nodded, “I know. I know, that’s what I tell her. I think she’s too picky, but at the same time, I want her to be picky.” 
The flight attendant came by with our diet cokes and waters. There was an hour left in the flight. I would spend it asking the woman about her own marriage to a man who built mansions in the nicer parts of Denver. They had met through friends. The man liked her immediately but the woman was not so sure. They lived close by however, and one day, after the man had left for a month long trip, she realized she missed him. When he returned they began to date in earnest and a year later they were married. He built his houses. She was a school teacher. They had two children, the eldest, a son, who was married last year to a woman he met online and the girl, Leah, who channeled Flannery O’ Conner just a few hours before the woman left for the airport, “A good man is hard to find.” 
“Shouldn’t be,” the woman said, “Especially in a city like New York.”  
“But it is,” I said.   
The view outside John Wayne Airport, Terminal C. 

My father, a good man, drove with my mother at his side to pick me up from the airport.

“Your father washed and changed your sheets,” my mother said, “He knew you would not want to sleep in old dusty sheets.” 
I smiled at my father’s reflection in the rearview mirror. 
“I bought you a new set of suitcases too,” he said, “They’re in the garage. Let me know if you like them.” 
I clapped my hands, “You are the best,” I said, “The very very best.” 
A month before, upon returning from London, I had complained to my father about how heavy my old suitcases were. He had gifted them to me when I graduated from high school and was bound for New York. They were a distinct deep maroon, recognizable on the luggage belt from far away, and I had stuffed them mercilessly for the past ten years, dragged them around the world with me. But they were bulky, heavy even when empty. In London, POI had carried the suitcase up and down the stairs of our bed and breakfast in Bath and in and out of taxicabs. 
“That shit is ridiculously heavy,” he said. And I nodded, dreading hauling the suitcase back up to my studio when I returned home. Whenever I did, without fail, my arms would always be sore for the entire next day. 
When I returned from London and called to tell my parents about the trip, I mentioned in passing that my arms were smarting. 
“What’s wrong,” my father asked, “Did you get hurt?” 
No no, I said, the suitcase was just too heavy. 
“Well, come home and we’ll go pick out some new ones.” 
But he’d gone ahead and done it for me. They were sleek silver Samsonites – a set of two: one large and one carry-on. Light as a feather and with four wheels on the bottom for vertical rolling. I would travel in style. My arms would be spared. 
At home I spun the suitcases around, then happily brought them to my room, where the bed was made and my room was left just as I had left it. My father stood in the doorway, his arms crossed. 
“Happy?” 
“Very,” I said. 
I guess I brought it with me (the rain, if you can’t see it). 

It rained on Thanksgiving day. Loving as my parents are, they had other plans for Thanksgiving dinner, and I found (or invited myself) to dinner at uncle Jimmy’s house. I picked my grandfather up at 6PM. He had not wanted to go, preferring (outwardly) to stay home alone. Thanksgiving was very close to his wife’s passing and was the first holiday he spent without her. But he came with me and was seated next to the youngest member of the family.

Grandpa, who is a fussy eater,  and baby Caden, who is not. 

My uncle Jimmy carved the turkey (from Lucille’s – a delicious deal if you’re not in the mood to make turkey).

Uncle Jimmy, the turkey, and his trademark grin. 

My grandfather had a shot of Jameson from a wine glass and began to giggle shortly afterwards. He was in a pleasant mood that night and I could tell he was glad to be there and not home alone.

“You talk too much, Betty,” is what he normally says. But on Thanksgiving, he simply said, “Cheers.” 
My uncle toasts his grandson. Good habits start early. 

The next morning, I woke to the sound of aerobic counting and found my mother, a family friend, Uncle Jimmy and my aunt exercising in the entryway. My aunt and uncle come over early at 7AM, as they’ve been doing ever since the summer, when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Uncle Jimmy takes her and a family friend who also has Parkinson’s through a rigorous regimen of exercises. The point is to hold off on medications for as long as possible, and uncle Jimmy, who eats like a horse and drinks like a fish but is at his core a doctor of eastern medicine, drives an hour round trip every day to do this for his older sister before heading off to work or to teach more classes. My father makes breakfast for them afterward and that morning, he greeted me with a glass of freshly blended fruit smoothie.

“What fruits do you want in it?”

“Anything,” I said.

“I know just what you’ll like,” he said, and he was right.

When he learned my mother had Parkinson’s he watched her cry for a minute then told her calmly not to worry.

“I will put your shoes on for you when you are no longer able to,” he said.

My mother nodded, recalling that as a young woman she had dreamed about marrying a romantic man who would walk through the rain with her. My father hates the rain, but still, she had found that man.  

At the breakfast table, my aunt stirred her smoothie. “Your father is the nutritionist.”
“And uncle Jimmy is her trainer,” I said. 
My mother, her cheeks flushed and glowing, her forehead shiny with the faint sheen of sweat, smiled at the good men (and women) all around her. 
“A good man (like me) IS hard to find,” my father says. 

I took a walk on the road I always walk on. It had not yet started to snow in New York, but on that road it would not be strange to ask, “What is snow?”

A street near my street. 80 degrees that day. 

In the evening the entire family gathered at the Orange Hill Restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner after Thanksgiving. My brother and his wife were not there, but they were moving back from Shanghai and would join us for Christmas. We took many photos together, including the one below of the girl cousins and one male cousin-in-law, Lawrence, a new father to a baby girl. 

We looked at the photo and nodded to each other and to ourselves. Adults? Kidults? Whatever we were, we had turned out alright.

Cousins. And who is that stud? 

The next day, the family assembled again, though this time all in black. We found ourselves at the same cemetery and afterward, the same vegetarian restaurant as a little over a year ago, when my grandmother passed away. It was the funeral of a very peculiar man, my uncle Louis’s father who had smoked two packs a day until he turned ninety-six and simply decided to quit. He died quietly at 100, battling nothing really, but time.

Mr. Yang, Sr.: Laconic, stylish, (almost) everlasting. 

Later that evening, I reunited with my childhood friends in a childhood home for an annual leftover party, in which we simply show up and eat Grace’s leftovers. It is infinitely more scrumptious than I am able to make it sound. Smiling, Grace baked me a pecan pie.

She may be smiling, but she’s thinking, “The Chinese middle class can suck it.” 
Friends with pie. 

After dinner, we took turns holding her nephew, a child of improbable cuteness, and above his soft, fragrant head, talked about life and other things.

Modern Family 
One of us was working and considering buying a house. Two of us were in school, one for science, the other for art. The other made music on a daily basis, in a city whose tanned denizens said things like, “What is snow?” One of us was nearing the eighth year of her relationship and one of us was just stepping into her first. Two of us felt similar to the daughter of the woman I’d met on the plane. Bellies full, we moved to the couch and watched Jeopardy and then played charades, laughing like the kids we’d been in elementary school, where we all met. And now we had all returned to the same small town, nesting temporarily in our roots, looking up at budding branches. 
The End. 

One Year

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.”

“How so.”

“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.

Mosquito Bites

IMG_0408

I have – and this may not be the medical term for it but it’s a direct translation from what doctors say in Chinese – an allergy-prone composition. Which means my eyes itch and run quite easily, and I’m prone to bouts of rapid-fire sneezing. When it comes to skin, mine reacts badly to the saliva of jerk-off Taiwanese mosquitoes who apparently prefer American-raised blood as my Taiwanese cousin never gets bitten if she walks with me. Continue reading “Mosquito Bites”

Solitaire

On Wednesday, grandpa turned on the computer.

“I haven’t looked at this machine in a long time,” he said, “This was something your grandma liked to play.”

He was referring to solitaire, a game I used to associate solely with grandma until I started looking down on my way through airports and airplanes and noticed many people playing on their tablets and iPads with trancelike stares. It is an addictive game. In elementary school I thought it complicated; for some reason the numbers on playing cards signalled to me that the game involved math, but one afternoon my brother patiently explained:

“It’s easy,” he said, not really verbally explaining but showing me on the monitor. He moved cards with a simple click and drag of the mouse, “You put things in order. At the end it just sorts itself out.”

I liked the neatness of the game: it fed benign obsessive compulsive tendencies of mine. There was something deliciously militaristic about dragging the cards to their proper place, where they were prettily displayed in alternating colors. It frustrated me when I reached the limit to the number of cards I could pull from the master deck, but that was part of the challenge. What’s next? Could I work with it? Would I be stuck? I especially loved, when everything was squared away, the exhilarating explosion of the conclusion: a seemingly infinite number of cards bouncing insanely out of their decks, the ultimate joke: all that labor to sort things out and then what? Bonkers! Bananas! Now deal again. Now start over.

Meredith Frampton A Game of Patience, 1937    Ferens Art Gallery, UK

It may have been over a decade ago now, judging by the looks of the desktop, but someone, perhaps my brother or a cousin, or my uncle who runs a Chinese school and has a hoard of janky computers, set the PC up at my grandparent’s house. The idea was not to “connect” them – my grandparents never had internet – but to install some of their favorite games to help pass the time. Or keep them sharp. I’m not sure which, but both were achieved.

Grandma was an active woman, not that she exercised, but she kept herself busy around the house, in the garden, and in her kitchen. But sometimes when the weather was bad or when she didn’t feel like making buns (most likely her freezer was already full, waiting for hungry grandkids to come and empty it out), she’d set herself down in front of the computer and open solitaire. She played with an admirable concentration that seemed unlikely for someone who played purely out of boredom (I don’t think I ever saw a bored expression play across grandma’s face), and for some reason the image of her, playing solitaire by the sunny window that faced the neighbor’s wall is somehow, in hindsight, a paradoxical picture of elegance. Elegant precisely because it is not. The technical term for this, I cannot recall.

Objectively speaking, there was nothing elegant about my grandmother’s bearing. She was confident, but neither stylish nor poised. She had not exactly aged well. Some of the deepest wrinkles I ever saw were the ones that stretched in all directions across grandmother’s cheek. I can honestly say those wrinkles worry me because I know my skin-type is identical to hers. She gained weight in her old age, due largely to her voracious appetite rather than a slow metabolism (though this did not stop her from pointing out other fat people and shaking her head at them), and her hair, thick, curly and wiry, a Shandong Afro, was kept short in a low-maintenance haircut. On anyone else I would have said, “Butch cut, if there ever was one,” but on Grandma it was the only way her hair could be acceptably styled. A non-style, and in that, utterly her style. The hair stood up stoutly all on its own and grandma, if she was going out somewhere, would simply use an Afro pick to tease it up a bit before stepping out the door.

At home though, she was the epitome of low maintenance. Which is not to say she didn’t have her vanities: she liked having her nails painted and never turned down a bag or blouse or piece of jewelry her kids and grandkids bought her, but compared to the average female, whether Asian or Caucasian, she was, in her dressing and grooming habits, decidedly unfeminine. At least in her old age. She was most comfortable in loose elastic pajama-type pants and roomy collared shirts, which gave her upper body more definition than the soft roundness that was actually underneath. For additional adornment and truly special occasions, she alternated between an old diamond or ruby ring, a black pearl pendant, gifts from my mother, and preferred simple pearl studs in her ears. Around her thick, strong wrist she would wear a thin silver watch with a minuscule band of diamonds around the face. But at home, which is mostly where I saw her, she left those things on her dresser.

So solitaire. I just now recall an old deck of cards sitting on the kitchen table. The smiling cherubic faces of the odd looking angels and mermaids on the backs slowly being rubbed away, white edges stained yellow over the years with a thousand flips and shuffles on tables where countless dumplings were made by grandma’s hands and then consumed by our young mouths. She used to play with these tangible cards and it was only until after the computer was installed that the deck was put away. I never saw it again. It’s still in the house somewhere I’m sure, tucked away behind my grandfather’s knickknacks or old bottles of nail polish, the pigment long separated from the oil. Spare belongings for spare people.

On quiet afternoons, after lunch or perhaps an hour or so before dinner, when the dumplings were made and the vegetables washed and all that was left to do was boil water and drop them in, grandma would pull out the chair before the computer and play. Grandpa would be reading the paper just behind her or sit in front of the TV. Aside from the TV there would be very little noise. They were together but apart, in their own little worlds – she in solitaire and he as well, though a different kind. But they were together, living.

Edward Hopper Four-Lane Road,  1956 Oil on Canvas     Private Collection

Most Wednesdays, my uncle takes grandpa to Rose Hills cemetery. Grandpa brings flowers, if he can find a nice bloom, and they either sit for a while in the car or stand on the grass, near the grave, depending on the weather. I’m assuming. I don’t know. I don’t go with them, nor do I want to. Right now I think in terms of a single year, or when I’m being only slightly more realistic about how life tends to work out, two or three years.

“I hope I get into grad school next year.”

“I hope I find a job before I graduate.”

“I hope I meet someone before I turn thirty.”

It’s limiting, but digestible. My grandparents were nearing their 70th wedding anniversary when grandma passed away and this number I find both awe-inducing and bone-chilling. A few days before grandpa turned the computer on I drove him home from lunch. He was in a good mood and brought it up first. The next five years.

“I think I will still be around,” he said.

“Of course you will,” I said, sneaking a glance at him, “You said you wanted to see me get a master’s and maybe…well, if you’re up for it, maybe I am too, a PhD.”

He looked out the window and when he spoke again his voice had became thick.

“I say I can live for five more years, but one never knows. Your grandma was fine the week before she went into the hospital, and even on certain days in the hospital. She never knew what was coming next or that she had so little time left.”

“It’s true,” I said, “You never know. But still, it’s nice to look ahead.”

But that was the 27-year old speaking, not the 86 year old widower who was born pessimistic to begin with.

So on Wednesday after lunch, he stood up, turned around and saw the computer. He reached behind it and switched it on. I don’t think he planned to, he just did. I was still at the table, not yet ready to clear the dishes, and I watched him double click on the Solitaire icon. The cards were beach themed, absurdly sunny on the outdated monitor. I thought about the upcoming summer and laying out by the pool, going back to Taiwan for my brother’s wedding and my eventual move to New York City. The simple image of the sun shining over a colorful beach umbrella brought all these thoughts and more. My year ahead.

Grandpa clicked and clicked, dragged and dropped. He said nothing and played for five minutes or so. I did not see his face, but I sensed he was not concentrating; his expression, if I walked over to look, would be blank. There was something about his posture – his back was slightly stooped – and the placement of his hands, right hand resting only lightly on the mouse. As though it were moving it than the other way around. His chin rested on his left hand. The pose of a daydreamer, except he was not daydreaming. He was passing the time, playing patience.

Mahjong

The Art of Playing Mahjong
The Art of Playing Mahjong

A few years ago I visited my grandparents at the same time an old friend of theirs, Grandma Dai, was visiting. She and her husband, a short man with spectacles and a shiny head shaped like a cod liver oil pill, were my grandparents’ longtime mahjong buddies. When they were all in relatively good health, Grandpa Dai would drive to grandma’s house, where an aluminum card table and four folding chairs would already be set up in the garage, along with a small TV dinner table where they would put nuts, an ashtray, and thermoses of tea. They would crack the garage door just enough so that the fumes from their many cigarettes would have somewhere to go, and the game would commence, stretching from the late morning until late evening.

It was an unspoken agreement my grandparents had with their children: either call before you visit, or simply drive on by when you noticed an unfamiliar car parked before a partially open garage door. My grandparents lived in a curious sort of denial: they didn’t smoke if we didn’t see it. They didn’t play mahjong for hours and hours if we didn’t see it. On occasion however, if my brother and I or any of my cousins happened to be in the vicinity, we would drop by anyway and what could my grandpa do but open the garage door fully to let us in? (For some reason, most of my family prefers to use the garage door as their home’s main entrance, leaving the front door for “company” and trick-o’-treaters.) The garage door would raise slowly, creakily, and an impressive amount of acrid second hand smoke would waft out. Even by the time the door was fully raised, much of it still lingered, casting a carcinogenic haze around the mahjong table and its players. A single 60 watt bulb lit the garage, hanging bleakly over the shiny white tiles. It was a depressing sight, and looking back, I wonder why they didn’t just play in the backyard where the sun was shining, the air was fresh, and they would be surrounded by my grandmother’s fragrant fruit trees.

On one such impromptu visit, I recall seeing my grandfather standing imposingly at the front of the garage door, several feet away from the recently vacated mahjong table, his hands behind his back, an impatient expression on his face. I had never played mahjong at the time, but I remember how the table looked: the long flat clear green plastic bars standing against a stout army of green-backed white tiles still unplayed. A small pile of used tiles sat in the middle: there was no mistake that we had interrupted them in the middle of an epic game. He bid us hello, and through the haze we saw Grandpa and Grandma Dai sitting at the table but in process of pushing themselves away. Grandma and Grandma Dai’s hair seemed to blend in with the smoke. Each had a small pile of pennies in front of them, small stakes for a game whose tiles are based on ancient Chinese currency, and on the tv tray next to them I spied the small lacquered guitar-shaped ashtray, a kitschy relic from God knows where, filled with smoking butts, some of which still burned like incense.

“Hello, children,” Grandma Dai would say, and we would say hello and nod politely, stiffly, for we knew that smoking was wrong and caused diseases and we could sense my grandparents’ discomfort that we had seen this relatively reckless side of them.

Sometime before I went to college or perhaps when I was in college Grandpa and Grandma Dai stopped coming around, and my grandparents gave up smoking. We no longer saw Grandpa Dai’s car in the driveway and the garage door was either completely open or completely closed. The Mahjong table stood folded next to the refrigerator in the garage, alongside the plastic drawers where my grandma stored her “special” shoes for going out. Over the years the smell of smoke, which had permeated the wooden walls of the garage, dissipated and was replaced by the smell of laundry, footsteps, and dust.

My grandparents still played the occasional game of mahjong, with whom I know not, but as the years stretched on, occasional petered out to never. I suppose hours and hours of the same game can get exhausting, but on some level mahjong, along with smoking and whatever other things they enjoyed in their younger years, seemed to them a thing of the past, intrinsically tied to their younger years (“younger” is also relative. I am talking about their seventies). When I visited and happened to see the mahjong table, I would ask about Grandpa and Grandma Dai, and my grandparents would say, “They are doing well, I think.” Then a few years back, before I saw Grandma Dai again, the story changed to “Not too well, Grandma Dai is sick.”

She had some sort of intestinal thing, my grandparents couldn’t say exactly, but each time I mentioned her grandma would shake her head and say, “She hasn’t got long.”

Then that day a few years ago, I was at grandma’s house when Grandma and Grandpa Dai suddenly dropped by for a visit. She came walking in through the garage door and I was surprised to observe that she was much thinner than when I’d last seen her. All the silver that had been in her short, curly hair back in their mahjong days had disappeared. Her entire mane had become a pure, clean white, as though her sickness and its subsequent “cure” had shocked her. Her complexion was clear, free from sunspots and though at that moment her body radiated fatigue and frailness, her eyes seemed bright. Whatever disease she had, she had fought it and now had energy to stay and chat a while to chat with grandma, whose health at the time was still quite robust.

When the Dai’s left, I turned to grandma and said, “She looks quite good, and she’s lost some weight.” Grandma huffed and shook her head in the way she does when it’s clear there are too many things I don’t understand, “She’s too thin, and she is weak. She hasn’t got long.”

That was many years ago.

Last Sunday November 11 at my grandmother’s funeral, I spotted Grandma Dai’s white mane from a mile away. She walked slowly on her granddaughter’s arm towards the chapel where two long lines of grandchildren stood all in black to welcome attendees. As her figure grew closer I saw that she wore a single black glove on her right hand and oval spectacles fitted with transition lenses. Aside from the mournful expression on her face, she appeared to be in good health. She had maintained her slender frame despite having shrunk a few inches since we last met and walked more steadily than my grandmother could in the last two years. Grandpa Dai was just a few steps behind, also in good health. They both moved, at least it seemed to me, without pain or shortness of breath, without walkers or canes, apparatuses that had become necessary in my grandmother’s last year. When they saw my grandfather, now an old widower, grandma Dai broke out into silent, heaving sobs. He patted her on the back and told her to buck up.

“My old half is in a better place,” he said.

After the service my family stood in a line, facing those who had attended and thanked each guest. They made a long line that wrapped around the chapel to view the body for a final time and when it was Grandma Dai’s turn, she crumpled again, grasping each of her departed friend’s children and burying her face into lapels and black cardigans. From where I stood near the end of the line, I could see her white hair disappearing into the arms of first my uncle, then my aunt, then my other uncle and my mother. She made her way slowly down the line until the casket was in view again just beyond her small figure.

Soon she was standing before me, the frail woman my grandmother had so many years ago, said with utmost certainty would not make it. She cried with hearty gasps of air into clear, healthy lungs. I thanked her for coming and she grasped my hands, putting the gloved hand on top of mine, an odd combination of paper and cloth. Grandpa Dai nodded with a sad smile. She let go of my hand and I watched them go, certain that they had more than a few years ahead of them. I looked back at the casket, my grandma’s own salt and pepper hair just visible atop the cherry wood edge. I wished her spirit patience. She would have her old mahjong gang back to play at a celestial table with heavenly cigarettes whose fumes would form clouds – that was certain as Mahjong’s prevailing East wind – but she would have to wait.