A Wave, Goodbye

Monday, May 4, 2020 / 1:12 PM


I saw ma-ma in a dream Friday night. She was sitting up in a wheelchair, voice full of energy and as clear as I remember it from when I was a child. She was wearing a red sweater and a black puffy vest, like in the photos I’ve been looking at lately. In Cantonese, she told me she was happy to see me. "See you next time," she said in broken English, the way she used to call after us when we'd leave her house at the end of a visit.

We waved goodbye as I walked out the door, and then I suddenly woke up. My bedroom was still dark but I knew something was different about the world. Two minutes later, my phone buzzed with a text letting me know she was gone.

I went back to sleep, and tried to re-enter the dream for just another moment.

* * * * *

Eight random things I remember about growing up with ma-ma:
  • She used to take Na and me on long walks in the morning. We would go to this office building that had an indoor public space. There was a giant fountain with a fish statue coming out the top. Ma-ma would always tell us, before we started walking, that it was "time to go see the fish." For a long time, we thought she meant actual, alive fish, so we were really confused.
  • If I was reading a book on the living room couch, even if it was bright outside and I could see just fine, she would come over and turn on the lamp on the end table because she didn't want me to strain my eyes. 
  • She didn't like watching the end of sports games if the score was too close or if they were going to go into overtime. It made her too anxious, so she'd watch up until the last couple of minutes and then leave the room. (I still do this sometimes too.)
  • She made greeting cards and bookmarks for people. She always had card stock, stamps, stickers, and colored pencils ready to go in case she needed to bring a card to someone at church. 
  • She was deaf in one ear (we always forgot which one) because of her years working at the cannery when they got to the U.S. Sometimes she didn't realize how loudly she spoke because she couldn't hear herself in one ear. This would backfire on her sometimes, much to our amusement.
  • We made dumplings with her a few times, but using a mold. Recently, Na and I tried to fold our own dumplings by hand and it was really hard. We wish we had that mold.
  • She loved to garden. She used to point out the vegetables to me that were just about ready to be picked and cooked. 
  • She always knew when the weather report would be on on every local news station, and she knew what order to watch them in too. I don't know how she knew, but she got it right every single time.
* * * * *

One of the most endearing photos I have from the night of my high school graduation is one that needs a bit of explanation. (Background: I graduated from an all-girls private school, and our graduation followed that of a traditional debutante ceremony.)

I'm walking down the auditorium aisle in a white dress, holding roses and reminding myself to walk carefully so I don't trip. I try not to get distracted by the flashing lights around me, but as I'm approaching the stage, a hand flies out from the aisle to my left. I look: it's ma-ma, reaching over yeh-yeh with her short arms to wave at me.

I love that she and yeh-yeh always came to stuff like graduations, even if it meant sitting for hours through something they couldn't understand. It was important for them to show up, and I'm glad that they always did.

* * * * *

I watched her, this time around, in every interaction we had--at Christmas dinner, at lunch the next day, at dim sum a few days later. When she walks past her children or grandchildren, she reaches a hand out to touch their arm. It would look like she was using us to steady her balance, but it was a light touch and sometimes the person wouldn't even notice. Her wrinkled hands brush against us as she walks as a display of affection, of letting us know, "Hey, I'm here." Ma-ma has this way of shivering when it's cold that I noticed I do too. She scrunches up her shoulders and gives a quick and violent shake of her arms, as if the chills just attacked her from out of nowhere--and she doesn't just do it once; she does it three, four, five times, and then stops, as if she's suddenly warmer. When yeh-yeh says something funny, she smiles (no teeth) and shakes her head, amused.

I imagine that when ma-ma wakes up each morning, she already knows what jewelry she's going to wear, what color lipstick she'll put on, and what outfit she might like to put on. She always looks put together, just as she did 10, 20 years ago. Her hair was curlier back then, and she walked a little faster, but she's still so very much the same. She still loves us all very much the same.
* * * * * 

We are products of the people who love us – the ones who are still here on this earth and the ones who've since left. I've been sad since we said our goodbyes last week, but I'm also grateful because I was lucky to have had 31 years of my life with her in it: 31 years of birthday dinners and holiday gatherings and shopping trips and holding hands in the car; 31 years of her smiling while watching her grandchildren interact, even though she didn't know what we were talking or laughing about; 31 years of moments that stay alive no matter the breaths in our lungs. 

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