I get the message from my cousin, who I never talk to, while I’m mid-conversation with a coworker at 6 pm on a Tuesday. She passed away in China in the hospital at 4 in the morning. It was unexpected. 

There is no lurch, no shattering, not even a stillness. All I feel is a small stone sinking to the bottom of a well and bumping up against the floor quietly. 

I send a sad face emoji in the chat, and call my mom.

My grandmother, my dad’s mom, lived to be 84. She had kidney disease for the last ten years. When she was hospitalized this summer, she seemed to be making a steady recovery. She passed away with my aunt and uncle-in-law by her side.

My first thought when I heard the news was that I should have called her one last time. I tried to talk to her in June, but by then she was spending most of her days asleep. The last time we really talked must have been Chinese New Year. The last time I’d seen her in person was in 2019.

My dad and his siblings create a new WeChat group in remembrance. The messages come flooding in, in Chinese. From it, I stitch together a patched tapestry of her life.

My grandmother was born around July 9, 1938, in a small village in Shandong, China. We don’t know the exact date because her mother died when she was five. I’d like to think maybe we were born on the same day–me on July 14, my sister on July 13. 

She was the fourth of seven siblings. After her mother’s death, she was raised by her eldest sister, who was 13 at the time. Her brothers were much older and already had children of their own. A few years later, she was taking care of her brother’s children full-time. Her other sisters went to elementary school, but she stayed behind to help the family.

My aunt maintains that if my grandmother had gone to school, she would have been at the top of her class. My dad says all the intelligence in our family can be attributed to her. She never accumulated more than two months of schooling, but later in life, one of her favorite things to do was to listen to audiobooks of the great Chinese classics. 

There she’d sit, reclined in her chair in a sunny corner of the apartment, next to the plants, her eyes closed, her chest rising and falling slowly.

I don’t have a deep relationship with my grandmother because she was never a permanent fixture in my life. She flew to America to help my mom take care of me when I was born until I was 6 or 7. As a result, I know how integral this woman was to my upbringing, but I remember almost nothing. All the countless diapers changed, walks taken, meals cooked shrivel up into a little pool, buffeted away by the timelessness of a child’s mind. Tell me, what job is more thankless in this world than that of a caretaker’s?

I have friends who spend every free weekend that they get with their grandparents, and friends that call their grandparents every week. I have friends who see their grandparents whenever they go home, because home is only an hour or two away, and their grandma or grandpa lives with their parents. Those are the kind of people I’d consider good grandchildren. Not me. Not the child who only calls once a year and doesn’t have anything of substance to talk about with their grandma. 

The night after she dies, when I go to sleep, I dream of nothing. Miles away in Michigan, my dad goes downstairs into the basement guest bedroom.

Before the age of 21, my grandmother had lived through a deadly skin infection (penicillin was introduced to China just in time), the Japanese invasion of China in WWII, and the Great Chinese Famine. It is a statement to say, then, that her life got a lot harder after she married my grandfather, a man she later divorced and whom I have still never seen to this day.

My grandmother had three kids during the Cultural Revolution, starting with my dad when she was 26. She worked in the fields until she had to give birth at home, and then it was back to the fields–no time to heal or rest. 

Conditions were so bad that all the kids were constantly sick. My dad was the worst, suffering from bronchial asthma and malnutrition until he was 10. He and his siblings got to eat meat only once a year, on New Year’s Day. They lived in a hut with mud floors, with the family pig snuffling around outside.

They were sick and poor, but the thing is, they never felt sick and poor, because my grandmother always carried herself with a sense of pride. She was the village elder that people went to whenever they had an interpersonal dispute or needed spiritual guidance. As a result, my dad and his siblings grew up thinking themselves to be rather wealthy–maybe not materially, but rich in wisdom and confidence. 

All by herself, my grandmother raised three small children, doing all of the cleaning, cooking, and farm work by herself. She carried 60-pound water barrels miles up the mountains to the farm plots by herself for years. The labor was so backbreaking that her spine became permanently hunched as she grew older. But she carried on without complaint, so that my dad and his siblings could focus on their education–their ticket out of that little mud village. She made sure they never missed a day of school.

In her last days, my aunt says she would toss and turn in her dreams, calling out for her kids not to forget the lunch she packed them.

I think about how there were no laundry machines, cars, phones, or air conditioning back then. How rough and wizened my grandmother’s hands must be, from nonstop labor since the first baby she held in her arms as a child herself–grasping, cutting, mixing, kneading, spinning, sewing, washing, hanging–

How lonely it must have been. How hollow the pain of my own loneliness seems now.

My dad spends all night compiling photos of her into a slideshow and sends it in the group chat the morning after. It’s jarring to see myself in them–if that even is me, so indistinguishable am I from my sister in infancy.

There 奶奶 is with me/us, grasping onto my chubby legs, pushing my stroller, hoisting me Lion King-style in front of a scenic vista or neighborhood lake. That’s the image of her I want to remember her by–with her closely cropped hair still shiny and dark, her lodestone eyes serious and alert, her arms wiry and tan.

My dad and my sister both take the next day off work, but I don’t. I don’t feel any particularly strong emotion, only a sense of clinical understanding. Like an autopsy, the cause of emotional death is clear: geographic distance, language barriers, cultural stoicism, and maybe, just maybe, me being fucked in the head.

How can I not feel earth-bending heartache for the person who helped raise me when I was a helpless, squalling lump? But I don’t remember any of it.

How can I not grieve my father’s mother, or hurt more for how he’s hurting? But I’ve never seen him express a strong emotion other than anger, and now I don’t know how to respond to this new foreign sadness pouring out of him in waves, like strange tides on a further shore.

“I think I’m intellectualizing my emotions again,” I tell my best friend.

“You’re allowed to feel however you feel.”

The story has a happy ending. All three of my grandmother’s children grew up to successfully escape their poverty. My father and my uncle immigrated to the United States and Australia respectively, and my aunt became a college professor in China, staying close to my grandmother and her relatives.

When her sons had children, my grandmother flew overseas to raise each one of us from infancy to early childhood. In the end, my grandmother raised three children, five grandchildren, and countless other siblings and cousins. It took a village, working alongside her sisters and daughters, but at the same time, she was the village.

In these last few years with her, after I’d gone to the good college and gotten the good job, there wasn’t really much for a grandmother to worry about except the next big thing, marriage. The last few times I called her, she would brief me on the kind of guy I should marry–or rather, avoid. Her voice crinkled like dried tea leaves, rough around the edges with her lilting Zibo accent.   

“You have to make sure you don’t marry a drunkard. And don’t marry someone who’s too flashy, either. What’s most important is how he treats you.”

“Don’t worry, grandma, I know. I don’t even drink alcohol.”

“I’m serious. Don’t get with a guy who’s too charming and good-looking!”

Much to the chagrin of my exes, she’d be glad to know that I never have. That was her–full of wisdom and perspective, perhaps the most remarkable thing about her in a long line of truly remarkable accomplishments.

Don’t feel bad, my mother says. We decided this summer that it would be best if the grandchildren didn’t call her, because the tears would start streaming down her face the second your name was brought up, and that would have caused her more stress, which wasn’t good for her condition. 

But maybe I still should have. Is it really worse to die a little bit earlier, at the end of a long battle with a chronic illness, or die without having heard from the people you love one last time? 

My grandma was in America spending time with baby me when her eldest sister, the one that had been like a mother to her, passed away suddenly. She didn’t get to be by her sister’s side in her last moments or attend the funeral, and she carried that regret with her for the next ten years. 

Now it’s my father who is stuck in America, travel restrictions preventing him from being by her side. The day before she died, he had applied for a humanitarian exemption visa, hoping to get into China to see her in the next few months. 

The funeral happens on WeChat two days later at 10:30 am in China. My grandma is rolled out slowly in a beautiful red and yellow silk casket, surrounded by two tiers of white and yellow poinsettia-like flowers. When they peel back the veil, I can barely see her face on the pixellated square of my phone.

My aunt, my uncle-in-law, and a man I don’t know stand in a line in front of my grandmother’s casket, their shoulders slumped. When they get down on their knees to bow to her, my dad forgets to mute himself before he starts crying.

My aunt doubles over as she watches her mother, the woman she’s washed, fed, clothed, and transported every day since the summer herself, wheeled away on the gurney. The video abruptly cuts off.

We take turns giving short eulogies in Chinese. My cousins manage to make it through relatively cleanly. I almost make it to the end of my two paragraphs without cracking. I’m hyperaware of every emotion running through my voice and theirs–uncomfortable when they are expressed, and uncomfortable when they are not expressed. There’s just no way to win.

When we finally hang up two hours later, the silence is deafening.

“WeChat funerals are not how things were meant to be,” my sister texts me.

I auto-translated every green text bubble that came in this summer when my grandma was hospitalized. Every night starting at 8 pm, the messages would come buzzing in as they woke up in China: my aunt, sending daily updates on my grandma’s creatine levels and treatment plans–some fancy series of expensive shots that the doctors in China swore were the latest innovative, cutting-edge treatment. 

I never said anything in that chat, but my heart broke seeing how small and frail she looked in that miserable hospital bed, curled up in a fetal position, facing away from the camera. She looked no larger than a 13-year-old child. 

Swollen feet, bruised arms, asleep most of the time. Every time we called, she’d be asleep. What is death but a slow drowning of neurons? They said she wasn’t in much pain until the end. I guess I can only take their word for it. 

I wonder if there’s a special word for this griefless grief, the kind of sadness that is attached to the stillbirth of the relationship before it is attached to any human being. I reach into the cavity inside of me to extract anguish for the woman that I knew, but the first thing that comes out is a lopsided sadness for the relationship with her that I never even had.

I wish I had more to offer, more to say, but this is it. The admiration of another distant granddaughter, from the other side of the casket, on the other side of the world. Not a eulogy, not an apology letter, but something in-between. Am I intelligent and hardworking like her? Am I resilient and brave the way she was? Or am I just standing on the shoulders of giants?

In the end, I guess the best way to commemorate her life is to do what I have always done, what I think I still know best, even after all these years–writing about how I feel. 

2 thoughts on “奶奶 ”

  1. Wow, this was so powerful. I connected with your story on so many levels. I empathize with your feelings of not doing enough. It’s heartbreaking. I hope to connect with you in some way! But thank you for sharing this. There’s a sincere vulnerability and beauty in telling your story.

    Liked by 1 person

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