I was too naive, and too young, to understand. All I knew was that my parents, who usually spoke to each other in bitter tones and loud voices, were hugging. My mother was crying, and managed to say that my grandmother was sick. Sick. This word had a small spectrum of meaning to me — the flu, strep throat, maybe a winter cold. Cancer was distant and something I only had read and heard about, but it cuts deeper when someone you love is in its hands.
We wanted to move her here, where the doctors are less abrasive and more well-trained, but the giant oxygen machine keeping her alive couldn’t be brought with her, and the 12-hour flight would have been too long for her lungs without it. The humming beige box was connected to her nose via clear tubes, and it was scary to think that my grandma’s life relied on something that needed to be plugged into an outlet.
My mom, my younger sister and I flew back to China to be with her for six weeks. There were weekly trips to the hospital, where they drained a brackish fluid from her lungs, and each time we drove there my grandma would smile at me like this was simply a fact of life. And it is, because sickness of all kinds is everywhere, but I thought she should have been angrier. She deserved to be. Years later, I admire the way she accepted her fate and instead chose to find joy in the face of death.
While there, my mom insisted on seeing several doctors in the hope of a diagnosis that inspired more optimism. She found none. The weeks passed slowly, and I spent most of it reading the books my grandma had collected in tall, white shelves. A number of them were in Chinese or French, languages she studied and taught. I brought several English ones home with me: “David Copperfield,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Crime and Punishment.” The last one was her favorite. When I read it again for class in 10th grade, I had to stop myself from staring at her handwritten name on the inside cover, relishing the thought that the woman from whom I inherited my love for language once breathed in those same words.
I remember the first phone call, in the middle of the night, and I knew. Even before, my mom hesitated every time the phone rang, checking the country code, because we all knew. When I woke up, she told me that her father had died from a heart attack. To lose him was completely unexpected for the entire family, but I felt worst for my mom, who had no closure and kept nervously waiting for the second phone call. She blamed herself for not spending more time with him, for thinking that he was just looking for attention when he complained about chest pain. She keeps his out-of-tune violin in her closet even though it smells of cigarette smoke.
He was not a particularly extraordinary person by any means; he had flaws that deeply affected the lives of those around him — smoking in the house, for instance, was likely a major factor in my grandma’s sickness. But I also saw how his death affected my cousin, who saw my grandpa as a father figure, and my grandma, who felt her husband was integral to her existence, even if she didn’t show it.
I don’t think my grandparents loved each other in an affectionate way. I’m not even sure they loved each other the way spouses usually do. He often behaved like a child, someone who needed to be constantly watched and looked after, and as long as he lived, my grandma had someone to care for and live for. I always thought it was a rather one-sided arrangement, but it was in her nature to be responsible and in his to latch on to a responsible person. It’s a beautiful thing to have a person with whom you share your life, and hers had ceased to exist. She passed a few months after he did.
Not long before my grandpa died, we learned that all the doctors were wrong about my grandma’s lung cancer — it was actually a lung disease that worked much more slowly, with a different treatment. This was the reprieve my mom had looked for years before; it became guilt for her now. She was drowning in what-ifs, spending nights researching any treatments that could lengthen the time my grandma had left. But I never learned its name, because I refused to let the last five years of her life define her. After my grandma died, my mom eventually accepted the past in the way my grandma had accepted the future. Sickness was a very small fraction of those 74 years — we remember her for her life.