Death and All His Friends

When my biological dad and my mom were still together, my paternal great grandmother passed away. I never really got to know her. She was a very kind lady, but a woman who I could not communicate effectively with because she spoke Spanish and I was limited to English, Chinese and Sign Language. I remember going to San Bernadino to my paternal grandparents’ home and eating homemade Mexican food, watching TV, and playing with my cousins. I remember sitting next to my great grandmother and not saying anything, but having her offer me fruit silently, and watching her knit. I remember the deep, deep lines on her face, signs of wisdom, beauty, and a hard fought and hard lived life. I thought she was amazing, but I could never tell her that. She passed away and I distinctly remember the “service” and saying goodbye to her. This happened sometime between the ages of 5-8, I think.

In high school, my stepdad’s (who I basically refer to as my dad) dad passed away. I remember being sad, crying at their Long Beach home. He was such a jolly, happy, caring man. He had become a great step-grandpa and somebody that I admired and enjoyed the company of. My dad didn’t react in a very sad way. He seemed almost stoic. Their relationship had been challenging. At the time, I didn’t realize this. I stupidly ( or so I think now) said, at lunch at Baja Fresh soon after his passing, I’m not that sad, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I said it because my mom didn’t seem sad, and my dad didn’t cry. Maybe he cried in private. Maybe he hid his pain and grief well.

In 2008, my mom’s paternal uncle passed away. I recall the last few weeks of his life, visiting him in the hospital with my grandparents. I remember going with my uncle Sam and my grandparents to the hospital one day, unsure of what to expect. This was, unbeknownst to us, the last time we’d see him alive. It was the middle of the week and we drove out to Alhambra after lunch. We got there and ran into one of his sons and his wife. He was unconscious, linked up to many tubes. My grandpa was in so much pain, I could tell. He said that it should have been him, not his brother 26 years his junior. He touched his hand, said his goodbyes, and left. We weren’t sure if we’d come back or if he would even be alive in the following days. About 3 days later, we received news that he had passed. My grandpa was completely devastated. During his wake and funeral, my grandpa sobbed like a baby. I had never, ever seen him so fragile. My grandpa was such a strong pillar, a symbol of strength for me. He was the one man in my life that had been there for as long as I could remember. I saw him break down before my eyes and it hurt me more than anything. At lunch the following day, my grandpa asked for a moment of silence before we started to eat. And in that moment, he closed his eyes, rested his chin on his hands above his cane, and sobbed again. It should have been me, he always proclaimed.

All three deaths affected me momentarily, but I often found myself thinking back on them as a distant memory, a miniscule imprint on my life. Sometimes I would startle myself, remembering that the were gone, all of the sudden, and shrug it off. Having been raised by my mom’s family, a huge family with many elderly aunts, uncles and even cousins, I’ve always been warned of impending death. I know that sounds kind of morbid, but it was just fact. My mom and my dad, since I was in high school, often talked about how many of my relatives would probably pass within a short time of each other because they were all so old. This freaked me out in high school. I was so paranoid that any phone call would be news that my grandma or grandpa, or one of my aunts or uncles had passed away. Any time somebody would get sick, even with a cold, I would freak out and think about the worst case scenario.

When I was contemplating post-grad service, the biggest factor was deciding whether or not I should travel far, as I was fearful of one of my grandparents would pass away or become terminally ill while I was away. The three distinct deaths I experienced in my childhood had impacted me in small ways. But I’ve always known that if anything had happened to my maternal grandparents, the man and woman who raised me while my biological father was absent and my mom worked her ass off, I would collapse. I had been dreading this for as long as I could understand the concept of death. I decided that coming to NYC was an important experience. My family urged me. I felt confident that my grandparents would be healthy. I prayed to God that he would not take away my grandparents while I was gone. I thought about this every single day. Every. Single. Day. These two people are so important to me, I always prayed. They mean everything and more to me. Them leaving my life would tear me apart. Luckily, since I moved out here in August 2009, I have been able to go home many times, visiting my grandparents and spending quality time with family. I went home in October 2009 for my grandpa’s birthday party. I went home for Christmas, and I went home for 11 days in February for Chinese New Year and my birthday.

I left CA on February 21, 2010. It was the last time I would ever see my grandpa alive. I went to visit my grandparents the morning I was leaving. Hugged them tight and said I’d see them in August. They said the usual things to me, loosely translated in English: Take good care of yourself, Save money well, Work Hard etc. In early March, I was going crazy missing my family. Turmoil in my community made me want to go home so badly. I felt so homesick just genuinely didn’t think I could stick it out until August. As a short term solution, my mom and I agreed that I’d go home for Mother’s Day weekend in May. We bought a round trip ticket, and I was counting down until I could be in CA again.

On March 24, 2010, I was getting ready for work in the morning. I felt homesick, as usual, and was about to call my grandpa, but decided not to, not knowing if he’d be awake, not wanting the phone to wake my grandma, because she is cranky in the morning. I instead texted my mom, told her I loved her, etc. My mom texted me just as I was heading out the door around 11:30am. Amy? She texted, asked me if I was free. I thought she was texting me to make sure I was taking care of my loans information and getting paperwork done. I quickly texted her back, and said I was on my way to work, I’d get the loans taken care of soon. She texted me back, Amy, I have to tell you grandpa passed away. I was walking up 29th St and my body completely froze. I was so shocked, I just broke down in front of a stranger’s home, and cried on their fence. I quickly turned around and walked back to my place, knowing I had to get a plane ticket and head home right away. Everything happened so fast. Within 3 hours I was at JFK on my way home. I was home for just over a week. At times I was happy to be with family. Other times, the reality of my grandpa being gone hit me like a brick wall. He was the patriarch of our family, the head of the table, he represented everything I grew up with. I had flashbacks of sitting with him watching TV in our old Alhambra home. Memories of him picking me up from kindergarden. Memories of us having lunch at Carl’s Jr, of a car accident that happened on Naomi & Baldwin Ave. I felt like my life was crumbling down, like there was a huge gaping hole in my heart. I came back to NYC after the funeral completely stunned. I didn’t want to be here at all. All I could think about was going home, taking care of my grandma, being with my family, and grieving with all of them. But my mom told me my grandpa wouldn’t want me to quit. So I’ve kept going.

Some days I get by without thinking about him or my grandma at all. It’s hard to think about my grandpa’s death without also mourning for my grandma. She was the absolute love of his life. They went together like…peanut butter and jelly. They represented deep family ties, never-ending love, passion, and loyalty for me. The way my grandma cried the week I was home…it was unbearable. It was 10x worse than seeing my grandpa cry after his brother passed. It was like half of my grandma’s heart died, like her life stopped having purpose. It was gut-wrenching, at best.

In June I was watching “Sunshine Cleaning” and was enjoying the movie until a scene where an elderly woman requires the cleaners because her husband has passed. She’s standing outside the home they shared, the life they had together, completely shocked, pacing back and forth, looking so lost and broken. I thought of my grandma and just lay in bed sobbing. It rushed over me like hot water running through my body. I sobbed and sobbed and couldn’t stop. The reason I started writing this was because I was watching a Grey’s Anatomy episode where an elderly man loses his wife. He refuses to stop pumping her heart because she would then die. He looks so hopeless, so helpless, so hurt, so sad. I wasn’t thinking of anything but the show, but somehow I just started sobbing again. It hurt me so much to see him lose the woman he spent his life with. It hits me in waves. My grandpa’s death was the first of “significance” to me. He was like a dad to me, and the best grandpa I could ever dream of. I miss his scent, his laugh, I miss sitting next to him and holding his hand. I miss his huge smile, his buck teeth, and all his insight.

I’m going home in roughly 24 days and I can’t wait to be with my family. It’s going to be hard living at home semi-permanently, taking care of my grandma, constantly being reminded that my grandpa isn’t there. It’s going to be tough on me. Nothing has ever hurt this much. But I’ve survived through it. When I was younger, I thought the death of my grandpa or grandma would literally kill me. i thought it would suffocate me in the most painful ways. It has indeed hurt a lot, but I’ve realized that “this too shall pass.”

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