July 20, 2013

She is skinnier than I’ve ever seen her before, as skin dangles from arms that were once substantial. Arms that, once upon a time, could hug you with the strength of a grandmother. Her lips are the next thing I notice. As she talks, I can’t help but notice their glossy appearance—how those old lips seem to shine like something new.

My grandmother is dying. The doctors have diagnosed her with colon cancer that has spread to other parts of her 90-year-old body. A body that has traveled to more of the world than I ever will. The Holy Land. Machu Picchu. The Alps. Okinawa. When I was a boy, she would bring back souvenirs of her adventures for my brother and me. To let us know that she remembered us. To give us tangible evidence of her adventure. So I write this entry down, even though I hate to do it. Even though it will cause me to cry when I read it again. Because like those souvenirs, I want to put my memories of her on a shelf, pick them up once in awhile, and just remember.

The memories I have are much like those souvenirs. Random in nature. A bola whip the color of bone. A blue fabric bookmark stitched with icons to indicate its Swiss-ness. Two pieces of jade, one gray and coarse the other pale and polished. Our relationship wasn’t neatly fashioned like that latter piece. Hallmark writers did not have it on their radar. I didn’t listen to stories on her lap or bake apple pies with her. In the last few years, her difficulty hearing has made it very challenging to have a face-to-face conversation and futile to have a phone conversation. But I love her. She’s the only grandparent I’ve ever really known, the only one that my mind can recreate with firsthand memories, scattered as they are.

She worked in the housekeeping department of the hospital I was born in. Sometimes, my brother and I would get dropped off at her “office” which was on the bottom floor. When we would visit, she would take out jars that contained the colorful edible flowers that must have gone on cakes or cupcakes. They were actually pretty terrible, even to a 5-year-old who thought Apple Jacks were life preservers sent from heaven. But I couldn’t say no to my Grandma. The optimism in her eyes and the surety in her smile could have convinced me to eat a tomato.

She moved in with my parents when they went back to Hawaii. While in college, I enjoyed talking with her on trips back home. One summer, Sara came to visit. I’d like to think I volunteered to help Grandma out of the goodness of my heart rather than a desire to impress my then girlfriend, but I can’t claim complete magnanimity. As I recall now, the two impulses were equivalent. Maybe Grandma saw through my double motives when she sent me on my mission. Grandma wanted beets. She was having trouble bending down due to a sore knee, so I quickly morphed from grandson to gopher. With Sara clicking pictures, Grandma pointed out the selected targets. If I went for the wrong one, she would let me know. All while wielding a knife that, I would eventually learn, was to be used for beet greens. After just a few scoldings, Grandma seemed happy and grateful. Sara seemed amused to see me bossed around like an army private, but also pleased at my willingness to be a dutiful grandson. Missions accomplished. I was glad I didn’t say no to Grandma.

After Sara and I got married, we came back for another visit. By this point, Grandma was on her own schedule. She would fall asleep late to Korean soap operas and would wake up in the late morning. Because of this, she would often sit by herself at the table. Wanting to keep her company, Sara and I decided to sit down for a chat. Somehow we got on to the topic of my grandfather, a dairy man who died too early from lung cancer. Grandma’s eyes beamed when she talked about him. His long commute from work, the occasional day trip with the family, the bonuses he earned for being good at his job. Somehow we must have talked about the virtues of milk as well. More on that later. The conversation also covered earlier times, when Hawaii went through curfews and blackouts during World War II, and the fear that came along with those dark nights. Grandma gave me more souvenirs that day, pulling them off of the dusty shelves of memory this time, as opposed to the clear glass of foreign gift shops.

While we took away warmth and fuzziness from our interaction that morning, Grandma locked in on something else. Somehow, she had gotten the impression that Sara really loved milk. But not just any milk, whole milk. Like the persistent widow of Bible fame, Grandma convinced my father to buy two quarts of the white stuff. The problem, of course, was that Sara never really professed her alleged love of lactose. That was beside the point, as she soon found herself staring down a full eight-ounce glass of whole milk and the grinning wife of a dairy man. Either I drank it or we poured it back in the carton when Grandma wasn’t looking, but Sara somehow got off the hook. However, she learned the difficulty of saying no to Grandma.

When Alice was born, I got to see a new side of Grandma. In writing this, I was surprised by how few childhood memories I had of her. This is mainly due to the fact that we moved from Hawaii while I was seven and I saw her very sporadically until my parents moved back after my freshman year of college. It could also be due to the fact that I was a selfish and egocentric kid who was more interested in watching my Grandma’s television (which had like eight channels as opposed to our four) than spending quality time with the matriarch of the family. Some people get no Asian respect.  Whatever the reason, I mostly missed out on seeing the delight that spreads over a grandma’s face when she sees a little one. Thank goodness for Alice.

Grandma was using a walker by the time Alice was born. Not the stiff geriatric kind with tennis balls on the bottom, but a sleek one that could have made her the envy of the nursing home. It folded. It was a shiny blue metal that looked like it was made from tennis racquet frames. And most intriguingly, it had wheels and a seat. Alice knew something that had wheels and a seat, her little push car given to her by her auntie and uncle for her first birthday. So when Grandma walked by with something that looked like a futuristic super-sized push car, the kid’s jaw literally dropped. I remember the moment vividly. Alice leaned back against a closet door, looked at me, and said nothing. However, her expression totally said, “Whoa. Grandma has a push car too! And it’s amazing!”

Since one-year-olds aren’t exactly opaque with their desires, Grandma picked up on Alice’s walker envy right away. That’s when the fun began. Grandma motioned her anime-eyed great granddaughter up into that walker (or rather roller), let her sit on the seat, and gleefully pushed the kid around while her pleased yet somewhat terrified parents looked on at two chubby-cheeked gals who just wanted to have fun. The one riding was glad she said yes to her Great Grandma.

[Author’s note: Got a little teary typing that memory]

The room is quiet when I ask Grandma a question. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine,” she says matter-of-factly through those glossy lips. “I had a conversation with the Lord.”

I lean in. Her weakened body begins to fill with steel.

“I said, ‘Lord, you are a perfect God. So if you are going to put me here in this bed to sit around and waste my time, then there has to be a reason.’ ”

It was a complaint to God straight out of the Old Testament. I also mentally noted that it wasn’t much of a conversation.

“So I told him, ‘There must be one person here that I can witness to and bring to you. If that is the case, then this is worth it.’ ”

She relaxes. She says how she appreciates the prayers. She asks me to pray, not for her, but that her hope is fulfilled. That, through her suffering, she can bring one person closer to Christ.

I hold her hand, pray with her, and give her a kiss.

It’s been nearly two months since that visit, and it has taken countless starts and stops to complete this post. When I left her bed, I truly thought it would be the last time I would see my grandmother this side of heaven. But against the odds, Grandma is doing quite well. She can still converse coherently, has a decent appetite, and isn’t experiencing any pain. She has already surpassed the two months of life diagnosis offered by the palliative care physician. She has lived to be a great grandmother for the sixth time.

In light of these better-than-expected events, it’s easy to forget the severity of what she is dealing with. But my Grandma’s dying wish still remains in my vision, more than a souvenir on a shelf. When I returned from my trip, I shared her story with my students, hoping that it might touch one of them in the way my Grandmother prayed for, bringing them closer to their Creator. Maybe, just maybe, her story will touch someone who comes across this post. Or maybe, it will simply touch me in a way that forces me not to forget. After all, it’s hard to say no to Grandma.


6 Responses to “Barbara”

  1. George Says:

    Readers note: Your tender memories made me a little teary, as well.

  2. teachiro Says:

    Nice, George. It’s a sign that we’re real men.

  3. awningonanouthouse Says:

    I may also be crying. I love her spunky nature, from traveling the world to her conversations with God.

  4. Mom Says:

    I can hardly write this because I’m crying so hard but I had to write and thank you for writing these warm and loving memories of grandma.

    • teachiro Says:

      Oh, Mom. I don’t like to picture you crying at all! But I’m truly grateful for your thoughts. Just wanted to make sure I never forgot that moment in the nursing home with Grandma.

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