It has been a while since my last installment of this series. Over the course of the last month, I have began to feel a change within my life, a creeping anticipation for what’s to come in the fall.
One thing that I have noticed is about how I feel a tendency to write and articulate when I am only upset, angry, or disappointed. It’s strange for me to find myself in front of my computer typing away with the same vigour and passion when it’s about something positive. I wanted to change that. I want to learn to write when I am happy, to capture my ‘highs’ with the same authenticity as my worst days. I wanted to have something pleasant to reminisce in on this blog, a form of therapy from my past self.
So, here we are having tea, iced of course, in this suffocating summer heat at dusk. The sky has melted into a puddle of deep oranges, with indigo beginning to spill in from the eastern edges. The sounds of cars no longer call for the same attention, nor do the happenings from earlier in the day. The sharp flavors of the chilled tea tickle the words from my throat and I begin to speak.
I tell you about how my grandfather passed away two weeks ago. I was never super close with him growing up, physically mainly, which often means emotionally as well when you are too young to grasp the concept of ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’. It wasn’t a sudden passing as he has been ill in the hospital for over a year. But that’s the thing, he was a tough guy, a few years short of a century old, having lived through war, cultural revolutions, and financial hardships while raising a family of five children, the idea of this history written in his wrinkles and calloused skin being erased completely after having lived on for so long seemed impossible. I had kind of convinced myself there was always at least one more day left in him, each day, just one more entry in his tens of thousands page story, there ought to be room.
It was the greatest shock to my mother. Of the five siblings, she is the only one who lives out of China, and aside from her annual visits back home, she becomes sort of blind to the realness of my grandfather’s deteriorating health, the fragility of life captured in his thin body. In a matter of minutes of receiving the news, I helped her book her flight back to China for the next day. We didn’t speak of the details of the circumstances, she still hadn’t processed the gravity of it all at that point. The next morning, I drove to the airport and dropped her off. It has been two weeks since his passing and my mom has returned home. She showed my sister and I old black and white pictures of my grandfather and told me stories about his life. He was born in Vietnam, educated in Hong Kong during the British Crown rule which is why he learned English, and grew up without a strong father figure. At around 14, he was taken into a rich family to be a peer to their son and accompany him to his different lessons. In fact, that was how my grandfather ended up learning to play the violin. During the Japanese invasion, he was a translator because he could speak both Chinese and English so while the other men received one bag of rice at the end of each day’s labour, he would receive two bags which he would bring home to his family. He has endured the strenuous trek from Hong Kong to Guangzhou on foot, losing his brother in the process. By the time he was in his thirties, he had enough life experience that would age him significantly compared to people of the same age in our generation. He was a strict father, often disciplining my mother and her siblings. He instilled in them a value for education from a young age which is why almost all of his children have had a career in teaching at one point or another. My one aunt is the only one who went straight into nursing instead.
She was there 15 minutes after his heart stopped that day, calling his name. In that moment, her instincts to save a fading life had to fight with her own feelings as a daughter who had seen her father suffer for so long, was she going to cause more pain for a potential of a few more minutes of his time? Ultimately, she let nature run its course and like that, my grandfather moved on.
I now realize that I had mentioned earlier about how I wanted to write about happy things and yet our conversation has led me to this story about death. But there is a positive sentiment in this, I promise.
The day my mother returned, she recounted all these stories above to me and in that moment, I recognized her love for her father, and her loss she had felt. She told me how in the Chinese culture, when one reaches over 95 years old, their funerals shouldn’t be sad, it isn’t meant for tears. When one has lived a long life, they are revered in the community. It is considered an honour. She told me about how beautiful the roses looked surrounding his casket. She recalled the remarks my cousin made about the place they passed on the way to the funeral, it being where my grandfather use to take him as a kid for meals. Every little detail was imbedded in the story. I could see the legacy that my grandfather had left behind in his children and grandchildren, each and every one of them with personal anecdotes of their time with him. I think that’s when you know you have lived a meaningful life, it’s when people are able to recall specific, seemingly trivial memories they have shared with you, with fondness.
I have learned a lot about love this summer, not in the romantic sense. Love, I think in its unadulterated form is about gratitude. That’s where it begins. In my culture, where words of affection are hard to coax from our mouths, we resort to acts of service, a sign of appreciation for people. Self sacrifice is the language of our communication. Time and energy being the currency of our system. And I don’t know why it has taken me this long to realize this but, boy am I in debt.
I received a letter from the premier’s office last week notifying me that I had received a scholarship for an essay I had written about my mother’s government operated company and its impact on the lives of people in the province. I told the story of how my mother had spent over a decade working to support her two children alone, when all the odds were stacked against her, and managed to get us from our low income government housing to our modest home that she was finally able to purchase 6 years ago. She sacrificed her thirties working in a male dominated field driving forklifts and lifting boxes, trying to prove herself in the workplace. She wasn’t dealt fair cards, but she didn’t quit and continued working with this optimism that better days were to come. Though I was the one who received the scholarship, in many ways I don’t feel like I deserve it, all I had to do was write about the incredible things that my mother has done. I told her the news while she was still in China and she congratulated me, but in that moment, I felt as though I should have told her how proud I was of the things that she had accomplished, told her about my gratitude for her. I wanted to show her that just as she recognizes the sacrifices my grandfather had made for her upbringing, I also acknowledge her forfeits in mine.
So there you go, see, I told you there was something nice to come of this story. Go out there and tell someone you appreciate them today, that you love them, or better yet, show them.