A 'Goodbye' to Goodbyes

Monday, April 13, 2020 / 11:10 AM

Sunday, March 29

Yeh-yeh is in the hospital. He has a fever and a cough, and it’s officially been diagnosed as pneumonia. They tested him for COVID-19. I am aware – now, more than ever – of fear.

I’ve felt this fear before, those times when people I loved were suddenly faced with intense illnesses or death. My grandfather, at 98, has battled a lot. He’s survived a lot. But COVID-19 is different, and I think about him alone on a hospital bed, disoriented by the lights and the noise. His English is basic, but nowhere good enough to understand the situation. Yet visitors aren’t allowed in the hospital, even to translate, and all I can hope for is that someone speaks Cantonese well enough to be by his side.

When I was a freshman in college, yeh-yeh had a stroke that sent him to the hospital. It was my first time living away from home and the first time I had to really confront the thought of not being there if something bad were to happen. As I grew up and moved farther and farther away, it was a reality that became almost inescapable, and by the time I moved back to California, I was just relieved to be a 45-minute plane ride away from some of the worst moments of my life.

But now, it didn’t matter how close I was. If yeh-yeh’s test comes back positive, I could be a 10-minute walk away and it wouldn’t make a difference because I still wouldn’t be able to see him, to try to make him laugh, to hold his hand, to pretend I wasn’t crying.

And, suddenly, I’m mad at myself. Why didn’t I try harder to retain my Cantonese? Even if yeh-yeh had a phone I could reach him at, my limited Chinese and his limited English would clash. It worked when we were in person, but over a phone line or even a video call, it didn’t quite make sense.

I love him and I'm angry and I'm frustrated and I'm anxious because there's nothing I can do. I'm tired. I'm not ready to grieve this loss because I don't think I would know how. I've already spent the last few weeks grieving the loss of so much "normalcy," but something this personal? Where ritual is so important? How would I say goodbye if I wasn't allowed to?

Wednesday, April 1

Yeh-yeh is back at the nursing home. "That was fast," I say to my sister. Our dad used to joke that yeh-yeh would outlive us all as long as you replaced his batteries every once in awhile. 

His fever broke and the medication is working. His COVID test came back negative. In photos on a group text with my cousins, he and ma-ma are sitting side-by-side in front of the computer the nursing home set up to take Skype calls. My sister and I mail cards with photos. 

It feels like the universe has bought us a little more time. Not everyone has that luck. But all I can think about is what "goodbye" looks like in a world where we've already said "goodbye" to so much. There is no sense in trying to understand what saying "goodbye" to goodbyes would look like, too. How can we steel ourselves for the possibility that there may be no "goodbye"? 

I'm still angry and frustrated and anxious and tired. 

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  1. I love this so much! I agree with your dad's comment- yeh yeh may outlive us! He is a strong one and I'm glad he is holding on! Your same thoughts came to mind when my parents told us he was in the hospital. I grieved over what I couldn't do even if I decided to drive 13 hours back home to be near him. I grieved over what it would be like to lose him and not say goodbye. And I grieved over what he was feeling, laying there without any of us there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love you!