Last week my grandfather passed away, and today should have been his wake.
I’m putting together the pieces of who he was to me.
We gained one last year with him, where his children, my parents and my aunts and uncles rallied around him to take care of him. They’ve spent countless sleepless nights and sleepless days watching him, and I’m so grateful. I also see that a testament to our values as a family, and what my grandfather meant to all of us.
I know that I didn’t know my grandfather completely. I think as a child and grandchild of immigrants, it is a familiar story that our language, culture, and generational gap has stolen much of what many other families have of a relationship between their eldest and youngest members, though the memories I have with my grandfather are precious.
As a child, I remember going on walks with my Yeye to pick up my siblings from school. I remember countless visits to my Nai and Yeye’s house to see my cousins – one the highlights of my life. I remember origami cranes and boats my grandfather would fold from the silver Wrigley’s gum wrappers. How carefully he would fold and tear the paper so he could make me those tiny birds. He was always a lover of animals. There were always eager squirrels waiting for him on the porch for peanuts, and cats that he had taken in from the streets living in the basement. I remember the cardboard box of kittens he’d bring up so we could see them. Eyes barely open, large claws peeking from their tiny kitten paws. Tiny children peering at tiny kittens. And at every family gathering and outing, my Yeye was there with a camcorder recording his grandchildren from the side. As we got older, he would play those videos. Long videos of children debating how to play a game, and shots of my Nai Nai’s flowers in full bloom.
We didn’t talk much – no more than “Hi, Yeye!” or “Yeye, have you eaten?” I had to yell because his hearing was going out. But this last year has been so much more.
First night home from the hospital after more than a month. He is barely coherent, but he is finally home. He asks my dad for beer. I have never seen my grandfather drink, and yet for the first time in my life I have a beer with my grandfather from his hospital bed in the living room of his house. He talks to my dad about rules of life, and celebrating.
I hate to admit we didn’t think he would live for very much longer, but he was persistent. He was determined to live. He taught himself how to walk again, after being on the brink of death and refused to use a walker or a cane, much to our family’s worry. He explained to me that you need to practice to do something right. A walker teaches you to walk relying on something else, and he wouldn’t get all the way better relying on a walker. I now have countless little stories, anecdotes, and advice I wouldn’t have had without this last year.
My grandfather survived through war, moving countries with his family multiple times, escaping governments trying to kill them all. He lived through moving to the US as an immigrant, and raising five children in a place where he didn’t speak the language. He was an electrical engineer who used his skills to get us to safety, and take care of his family. There are so many stories that I will never know, and some that I will only hear second hand. My grandparents even in life live half in myth, building the story that I carry with me in my blood and through the values I live.
When he was feeling his best following the hospitalization he requested the family all go out to a buffet. So we went, even though the only buffet in the area was at a casino. We weren’t sure if he’d be comfortable going as he’d always been very against gambling, but we went, and at the end he paid for all of our meals as a way to thank us for taking care of him. He did it in a way that fit our family so well, with food and abundance.
This week has been hard. Despite our grieving we have all been apart from each other, and will continue to be apart for the foreseeable future because of this virus. I’m glad we will still be able to have a funeral, though abridged and adjusted. Today should have been his wake, but it can still be a way for me to say my goodbyes to him, and honor the life that he lived.
The last time that I saw my grandfather with my grandmother was Lunar New Year two years ago. Even at their age, he held her hand and walked her to her seat. I watched as he spoon fed her rice surrounded by the family they had created together. He and my grandmother are my example of long lasting love, sacrifice, and persistence. We love you, Yeye, and we miss you. You and Nai Nai can be together again now, and I hope that our lives will be an honoring legacy for you.