Family Matters: Errands

For the first year after my grandma passed away, my grandpa went to her grave at least once a week, sometimes twice. Now he no longer goes that often, but every two weeks or so, my uncle Jin will drive grandpa fifteen miles from Cerritos to the sprawling Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, neither man speaking much in the car.  Continue reading “Family Matters: Errands”

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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.

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.

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.

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.

How to Pass Time in the Hospital

For most of the time now, grandmother sleeps, in a body that she hardly seems to recognize. Her mouth is filled with canker sores. The scab on her upper lip, a result of her fall nearly three weeks ago, still has not healed – a paradoxical side effect of the oxygen mask she needs to keep her alive. She has lost weight and I was startled last night to feel how thin her calves had become, how loose the skin. But still, I repeated loudly what the nurses had said to me two weeks ago, “Grandma, all the nurses say you have excellent firm skin for someone your age.” We think she is sleeping, but we know too, that when you sleep all day, it is always a half sleep, never deep.

Before, when she still had energy to speak she lifted the oxygen mask just long enough to look at my mother and say, “How did it come to this?” 

It seems like half a year ago that the doctor deemed her well enough to commence physical therapy, but in truth it was just last week, when she showed signs of improvement and when her body was still hers. When we visited that week, we found two towels stuffed into the sides of her bed. We pondered these towels until evening after dinner she grabbed one between both hands, held it shoulder width apart, and began to twist and twirl them through the air in a choppy figure eight. It was an oddly elegant motion, and my grandmother performed it with a similar albeit shaky elegance, eyes closed and lips pursed. At times it appeared as though she were chanting. Even this tiny movement caused her to wheeze and I wondered about its effectiveness. My grandmother’s arms are strong, much more so than her legs which have undoubtedly been weakened further after two weeks of bed rest, but I suppose at this point you strengthen what you have and pray the rest will follow.

At the very least, the exercise helped pass the time. If you are a bed-ridden patient in the hospital, there is plenty of time. Twenty-four hours a day for fifteen days and counting, every hour blends seamlessly with the rest because in the hospital room with its darkened windows, one really cannot rely on the sun. My aunt, uncles and mother, my grandmother’s four children, take turns spending the night with her, given a break only occasionally by me, the unemployed grandchild with nothing but time and a stack of unread magazines. When the lights go out and my grandmother tries to sleep (though it is rare that she sleeps for an hour straight), I take out my CD player (a relic, nowadays) and listen to an audiobook. My aunt often asks me not to go – I am too young, I need my rest, etc. etc. but I stare at her sixty-year old face and say, “Yi-Mah, I’m twenty-six, it’s nothing to me.” And of course a few all nighters here and there are nothing, but she and I both know that if my grandma’s status were to suddenly take a turn for the worst, it had better be one of her own children than me, a grandchild with hardly any history. In the grand scheme of things, my life is but a tender, green branch, near the top of a towering oak tree.

Morning arrives and my grandmother stirs in her monstrous mechanical bed, not because she is well rested but because she is exhausted and tossing and turning is the only thing she can do to pass the night. I look at the clock; it is 6AM and neither of us has had any sleep. Between the beeping of her oxygen monitor and other patients’ IV drips and nurses who, so accustomed to their nocturnal lifestyles, forget to lower their voices in the hallway and the hourly visits of the Respiratory Therapist and the Nurse’s Assistant and the Nurse to administer one or two of my grandmother’s dozen steroid-based medications via the painful IV in the thin skin of her hand (re-positioned every two days to prevent infection) or the respirator or through the mouth, rest is clearly the only thing not administered to a patient in a hospital bed.

But still, the sun is just beginning to show itself and despite my brain crying for sleep and the danger of driving home in this exhausted state, I find myself striding out of the hospital’s sliding glass doors, slamming my car door and weaving in and out of traffic, racing home to my own bedroom which is free of other patients, free of fluorescent lights and free of commodes and bedpans and IVs. Anything but the confines of that small, dim space, to which my grandma is chained both by the oxygen tube that keeps her alive and by the weakness of her legs. Anything but that dim space in which she will remain until God or Zithromax and her seemingly impotent cocktail of corticosteroids are finally able to oust the stubborn phlegm in her lungs, though today it is clear that God is waiting because the drugs have failed.

To call myself a prisoner when I am free to leave at any time is to rub my grandmother’s present eternity in her face. But in truth I am trying to contrast a portrait of youth, myself, who knows nothing of patience and the most patient of patients, the etymology of which I am only beginning to grasp.

Movement

Firstly, thank you to those who have sent kind words and thoughts to my family. They are greatly appreciated.

As I write this, my grandmother’s lungs slowly fill with water. She has now been in the hospital for fifteen days, mostly lying down in a bed that is more flexible than she. To move her up or down for meals, we move the bed with the push of buttons conveniently labeled with enormous arrows. And while her arms are still quite strong, it is getting harder for her to push herself up. Occasionally she will sit up with a sudden, startling swing of her legs to the left side of the bed and point at the bedside commode*.

“Move it here,” she will say, “I’d like to sit for a while.”

At first I wondered why she would prefer the hard plastic seat of the commode to the soft mattress, but I thought to my own preferences when dining out, how I prefer chairs to banquets, tables to booths. Squashy seats take away any strength you might employ in your core, the muscles of which enable you to sit up straight and feel dignified, part of regular society. Sometimes she just wants to sit up in bed, but most of the time, if she has made it this far, she wants to sit on the commode. Not use it, just sit on it.

So whomever is at her side will stand behind the commode with arms outstretched in case she falls backwards and wait as she lifts herself up and off the bed, stands for several shaky seconds on her soft legs and turns around inch by inch, the bulk of her weight supported by her strong arms pressing down on the mattress until finally, her bottom is aligned with the top of the commode. With a heroic exhalation, she sits herself down. Panting. This has been for the past two weeks, my grandmother’s main source of exercise and movement, as well as the maximum distance traveled: less than a foot, from bedside to commode.

For all of us with clean, clear lungs and strong, straight legs that can take us from here to there, and even for those of us in physical states similar to hers, my grandmother is a paragon of patience and endurance. A single night in the hospital has me crawling for fresh air, release, sunlight, and did I mention fresh air? The room is like a vault of stale, overused air, far from sterile and filled with the smells of a million different medications, over-boiled hospital food, and of course, other patients plus all that they emit. It is perpetually dim, even near the window, which hospital administration thought necessary to coat with a darkening agent, as though sunlight was the last thing recovering patients needed. As such the interior is brightened only by the  light of two fluorescent bulbs, one deemed “room light” and the other “reading.”

The Improvised Field Hospital     Jean Frederic Bazille, 1865 Oil on Canvas

There is a cheap grey cabinet where patients and family members can store their things, upon the doors of which hang plastic dry erase boards where at every change of shift an energetic nurse comes in with a marker and rigorously erases the last nurses name and writes her own. The board is a bare bones overview of every patient’s “needs,”: the name of the doctor, an elusive man named Hsu; the patient’s diet preferences which in my grandmother’s case is an unappetizing category called “mechanical soft,” and laughably, the “activity for the day,” which is more or less nothing, though hospitals prefer the term “bed rest.” Beneath it all is a row of yellow smiley faces, though not all smiling: they represent a range of emotions: a smile, a grimace, a frown, and a cartoonish scowl meant to signify extreme pain. This is the pain scale – and every patient has a “pain goal,” ranging from 0 to 10, though understandably, a 0 is written on every patient’s board.

To the side, there is a height-adjustable table with difficult wheels, for meals, and a single, vomit-colored chair for visitors. These cramped quarters are meant to accommodate two patients. In the past, before enormous hospital beds and giant breathing machines were invented, this might have been a semi-comfortable set up, but now the machines take up more than seventy percent of the space, forcing nurses and family members to do an awkward dance each time the patient needs something. A dingy yellow curtain divides the room in half, though only by sight, leaving everything else that ought to be blocked (light, sounds, smells) from the other side and the outside, utterly available to torment you and your neighbor. Due to the lack of space, the curtain almost always drapes over something: the vomit colored chair or the commode or the table where your food is placed. You wonder if the hospital ever launders that yellow curtain which is probably as old as the hospital itself and when you arrive at the conclusion, “Probably not,” shake the thought away because it is the wise thing to do.

Most awkward of all, as though privacy and the rest that might result from such privacy were, along with sunlight, unnecessary for full or at least partial recovery, is the fact that even if the room next door is empty, they will always fill the spare bed in your room first before using the empty room next door.

Thus for the past two weeks my grandmother has had a half dozen roommates whose faces she has never seen and some whose voices she has never heard but whose presence and sicknesses can be felt because they are less than three feet away. In years past my grandmother was always the first to leave. She was the one whose health rebounded quickly, astounding doctors and nurses alike. When she left, usually in a wheel chair, they would pat her on the back and say, “Don’t come back,” and she would nod happily, “Of course not.” But now the other patients have come and gone, come and gone, and my grandmother remains.

*For days I called it the “bedpan,” until a frustrated nurse corrected me. “This is the bedpan,” she said, holding up a plastic bedpan, “And this,” she pointed at the aluminum frame that held a plastic toilet seat which sat over a plastic tub for waste, “Is the bedside commode.” I stood there with my GRE textbook and said dumbly, “Thank you.” 

My Mother’s Nightmares

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My father left the other day for a two week trip to Asia, not for business, but for fun with retired friends. He is the leader/tour guide, meticulously planning their itinerary from departure to return, in charge of booking all plane tickets and hotels and even drafting a list of must-eat restaurants in each destination: Taipei, Macau, Shanghai, and some province I’m not sure of.   Continue reading “My Mother’s Nightmares”