A Virtual Goodbye

Friday, November 20, 2020 / 12:12 PM

My grandfather liked beautiful things. As a kid, I would follow him around the kitchen while he cooked, watching the way he'd assemble plates. "It has to look good," he would tell me in Cantonese. See, the green bell peppers were too bland because they blended in with the other vegetables. The yellow ones (or "gold," as he liked to call them) looked the best.

Every memory I have of growing up and running around my grandparents' house involves me trying to get yeh-yeh's attention – and he always gave it to me too. We'd watch the laundry dry on the clothesline in the backyard. We'd walk around the backyard while ma-ma gardened. We'd sit in the living room and watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. On weekends, he'd take my sister and me to the grocery store, and sometimes we'd get on the bus and go to the mall. At Macy's, he would point out the clothes that were the best quality and he would pick out new shirts and pants for ma-ma too. 

Our conversations were limited due to language, and I always wondered what our relationship could be like if I knew more Cantonese or if he knew more English. He spoke English better than ma-ma because of his years working in kitchens, but it was never enough for us to have long talks about anything substantial. 

Thirteen years ago, yeh-yeh had a stroke. It was my first year in college, away from home, and I remember getting the call about it. It was the first time I ever really faced the idea that he may not be around anymore. For my whole life, he was always there – stoic and dependable in his armchair with me sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him. During commercial breaks, he would tap me on the head and laugh when I batted his hand away. Sometimes he would sneak me extra snacks ("shh" he'd say, raising his eyebrows) or a quarter or dime from his pocket. We sat like this even well into my teens and 20s.

That Christmas, after surviving the stroke, he greeted everyone who came into the house with a hug and a smile. It was unusual for him, but it was clear that he was grateful he got to see everyone's faces again. For us, we were grateful it was at least one more dinner together. 

We'd have many dinners again after that. Every health struggle, he battled – and won. "All you need to do is change out his batteries, and then he's good to go," my dad joked after yeh-yeh – at 98 years old – recovered from pneumonia and a COVID scare in the spring. It would take a couple days, but then he would be back to his old self, laughing and teasing. 

The last few years in the nursing home changed him. Before, he was so independent and strong; but seeing him confined to a wheelchair was hard. Whenever he saw his grandchildren or great-grandchildren, though, seemed to light him up. He liked the staff at the nursing home and they liked teasing him right back. "This is my granddaughter," he would say to everyone we passed while I chaotically wheeled him around in circles through the lobby. A volunteer who came to take residents out for walks around the building outside stopped us once to say hello. 

"Mr. King's gotta lot of energy!" he said to me. 

"I hear he's a troublemaker," I responded. Yeh-yeh scoffed and told me to shut up while I poked him in the face. 

Over the last few months, since ma-ma passed, my uncle set up regular Skype calls through the nursing home so my cousins and I could see yeh-yeh and say hi. Every session, yeh-yeh would tell us not to waste time or money calling him, but I think he was secretly happy he could see us all. 

We buried yeh-yeh this morning, the majority of us via FaceTime. With him in his casket was a green vest he wore regularly over the last few years, one of ma-ma's knit hats, and the UCI baseball cap I bought him one year. 

Today would've been ma-ma's 97th birthday. I guess he just couldn't wait to see her again to celebrate. 

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