A week ago, my grandma died.
My grandpa went a couple years before she did. They both lived in China, and they both fell ill fairly suddenly, so I’ve gotten that phone call twice. The one that’s like, “Hey Emma! Just wanted you to know, Grandpa isn’t feeling too well. He’s been in the hospital for a couple days. They’re not sure what’s wrong, but…maybe you should come visit?”
Both times, I dropped everything, ran to the Chinese consulate, got my same-day rush visa (which requires no small amount of yelling and faxing, let me tell you), bought my next-day plane tickets, and flew into Shanghai the following evening. Both times, I arrived just in time to say goodbye.
My grandparents pretty much raised me. My parents had me right after they immigrated to the States, and they were out working most of the time, so it fell to my grandparents to spoil me rotten. My grandmother was this tiny, fierce, combative lady with a withering glare, but she always smiled when she saw me. My grandfather usually let her have her way, probably because he loved her, and probably also because life was much easier that way. He was a tinkerer. Neither of them ever learned much English, despite living in Chicago for nineteen years, but my grandpa was happy, because he was busy raising my goldfish and frogs and parakeets that I’d grown tired of, building three story birdhouses for the pigeons I brought home with broken wings, and trying to grow a variety of Asian vegetables that had no business growing in the midwestern United States. He loved to play Chinese opera songs at top volume through his duct-taped Walkman, while moving Chinese dominoes around in ways that defied logic. He explained the game to me one time. It was like Solitaire, except that it made no sense at all.
My grandma was smarter, and more easily bored. She largely occupied her time experimenting with cooking, watching historical Chinese soap operas, and telling my grandpa the right way to do things. She was mercurial, even with me. Some days she was sad, some days she was icy, and some days she was completely fine. I found out when I was older that my mom tried her out on a bunch of different antidepressants throughout the years, but it made no difference. She was simply that way, and my grandpa quietly took care of her, and defused her temper whenever possible.
I never had a doubt that they thought I was special. The rest of their grandchildren all lived in Shanghai, and around them, even my goofy grandfather was sterner, more demanding of respect and obedience. My grandmother rarely smiled at all. But I was their strange, foreign granddaughter, and they readily accepted my bright pink hair, my motorcycle, my Caucasian boyfriend, my unladylike career choices, and everything else about me as a matter of course. Aren’t all American kids that way?
They moved back to China permanently when I went off to college. My grandfather immediately embarked on a million new projects, which he’d show me whenever I flew in for a visit. Here was the vine plant, obviously much bigger than he’d imagined when he’d built the frame for it, that would theoretically someday produce fruit. Here was the microwave-sized porous rock, inexplicably covered in four different species of moss.
My grandmother enjoyed being back in a place where she could express her disapproval at people in a language they’d understand, but I think she missed me a lot. I usually talked to her more when I called, and she always seemed cheerier by the end of our conversation. When I was in college, I would relay my various adventures around campus, and she tried her best to scold me, but never quite managed because I could always hear her smiling. When I became a software engineer, I tried several times to explain to her what I was doing for work, but we pretty much arrived at “typing on computers a lot.” She reminded me not to look at screens too much, to dress warmly, and to call my parents more.
At one point, I remember my mom and some of her siblings talking about getting my grandparents a laptop, or an iPad, or something. I knew better. When I was in high school, I’d spent a few summer weeks trying to teach them to use the Internet. When I started, I thought I could teach them to download Chinese movies and send emails to their kids in Shanghai. A week in, I would have settled for them learning to turn on the computer, and click on a handful of bookmarks to Chinese news sites that I’d installed for them. It was useless. My grandfather is probably going to be a QA tester in a future life. One time, I saw him using a mouse upside down. My grandmother had somewhat more common sense, but she was also much less patient.
There was one exception to my grandparents’ blanket incompatibility with technology. Every year, on my birthday, I would always get a phone call from them. My freshman year of college, they called me on my regular, old-timey telephone from their regular, old-timey telephone. But soon, they graduated to cordless phones and non-smart cell phones. One year, my grandma even Facetimed me from my aunt’s iPhone! True to style, she started the call with the wrong camera feed on, and she was ready to spend the whole call talking at the back of the phone. I walked her through it, though. I was unspeakably proud.
I’ve never thought that the last days of someone’s life were more important or more meaningful than all the rest, so I tried to lighten the mood when they were in the hospital, told them terrible jokes, tried to get them to recall the sparse English I’d taught them years before. I didn’t know how to say goodbye. But I hope they knew that I loved them, that they gave me a happy childhood, and that they instilled in me an enormous curiosity and a reckless tenacity, respectively. I think that they must have known.