I sit next to her, watching her as she slurps the pureed meal, all mushy and brown. It’s shocking how quickly things can change: six months ago, she didn’t exist. Naturally reticent, my dad never talked about his parents. When I was young, I imagined my dad materializing into the world out of thin air, blinking into existence one cloudy day in 1957. When I grew older, I assumed my grandparents must have passed years before I was born in some unspeakable tragedy. I never imagined my parents would hide them away, stuffing them in a closet behind half-truths and changed subjects. But here we are.
She looks back at me blankly.
It’s clear my parents still harbor deep resentment toward my grandparents, but it’s hard for me to feel the same. All I see is a diminutive woman swallowed in blankets and sweaters. Some brown dribbles past her lip, and I reach over to wipe it with a napkin. She pushes the bowl away before drawing her frail, bony hands back into the warm tunnels of her red sweater.
“Nainai, are you finished?”
She doesn’t respond.
Deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s, my grandmother is almost entirely mute. I wonder who she sees when she looks at me. Does she know who I am? Or do I appear as some past specter of my dad? I know I’ve been looking for glimpses of my dad or even myself in her face, staring at her eyes, nose, and cheeks, the way she smiles or frowns. Almost as if I still need to be convinced she is, indeed, my grandmother. It’s an awkward thing trying to manufacture a familial connection to someone you met only a few days earlier.
“Nainai, I’ll be right back,” I say as I take the bowl, “I’m going to go wash this.”
I speak more to allay my discomfort with the silence than any real hope that she’ll respond or understand. Busy with caring for Yeye, my grandfather, with the hugong—a family-paid care worker common in China—at the hospital, my dad tasked me with keeping my grandmother company for the day. How? I wanted to ask, but seeing the gray exhaustion across my dad’s lined face, I swallow the question down.
“Dad says you like books.”
Nainai looks at me with a vacant gaze. She opens her mouth as if to speak, but only a soft grunt comes out.
“Unfortunately, I can’t read Mandarin, but I can read something in English?”
Taking her silence as agreement, I settle into the chair beside her and open up a collection of poems I found on a dusty bookshelf in the living room.
That was six months ago.
In the time since, my dad and I have fallen into a sort of worn cadence of sleepless nights and bleary days as we care for Nainai and Yeye. These days, it feels like we’re weary sea-soaked sailors listing in a squall, bailing water out of a sinking ship, plugging holes when we can. The water stays level on the good days when we’re lucky, but most days, the unlucky ones, the water rises inexorably, reaching past our knees to our hips, and now it’s lapping against our chests, cold and salty.
Every day it’s another issue, another crisis. Another item on a never ending to-do list. My dad’s phone has turned into a piercing siren, receiving an unending stream of calls asking consent for more and more to stave off the inevitable. Wishing for more time. But time, as it always does, slips past, untameable, uncaring for our simple wants. It is a grand arbitrator with whom there is no bartering. So, my grandparents continue on their slow, steady march.
But tending to them over these long months, I was beginning to think I was getting to know them. Slowly familiarizing myself with the particulars of Nainai’s grunts and sighs and occasional glare—I see where my dad gets his scowl. I knew which TV shows were soothing and which socks were her favorites. I learned that nothing, absolutely nothing, should interrupt her afternoon naps; she might look small and harmless underneath the blankets that cocoon her, but her temper is like a geyser, something to behold. And I was learning the same with Yeye: the sibilant whoosh of his breathing as I sat next to his hospital bed, watching Shanghai bustle below and the warm softness of his hand as I shook it in greeting each day. Perhaps a sort of non-traditional kind of knowing, but a knowing nonetheless.
Yet, when a former student of my grandparents handed me an old photo of them on an international medical trip to Togo, my illusion was shattered, my knowing unmoored.
Looking down at the photo, I saw the pair of them, both smiling wide for the cameras. Yeye’s black hair was stylishly coiffed to the side, while Nainai wore a short bob and a pair of elegant glasses. A stethoscope lay curled in the front pocket of Nainai’s long white coat. It was strange seeing them look so young, so healthy. So alive. Surrounded by others in scrubs, Nainai was shaking hands with Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the president of Togo, as Yeye beams with pride next to her. Dressed in a white military dress uniform, Eyadéma towers over the both of them.
In that moment, studying the photo, I felt lost. It’s a bizarre thing to get to know someone in the twilight of their lives. Twilight, itself, is a peculiar time: not quite day, not quite night, just a liminal moment of hushed purplish skies and emerging stars. And that’s how I felt as I looked between the photograph I held in my hands and Nainai. An uncomfortable transitional state of unknowing. Is she Nainai, the mute, petite woman I’ve been caring for, or this internationally renowned doctor? Is she my grandmother or just a stranger who happens to share a genetic lineage with me? And if anything, looking at the photo, Yeye feels even stranger. Although I see bits of my dad in his face—his eyes and the lopsidedness of his smile—the fullness of Yeye’s face and broad shoulders in this picture stands in stark contrast to the confined, sallow-skinned man I know, diminished after so many months in bed after a devastating stroke.
Despite the bits and pieces I had gathered about my grandparents, I realized, in truth, I hardly know them at all. What do my collected sets of idiosyncrasies even mean when compared to hard facts and memories? I might never know the specifics of their lives, who they were, their dreams and fears, their favorite foods or colors. I don’t even know their names; they’ve only ever been Nainai and Yeye to me, Mandarin for paternal grandmother and grandfather, since meeting them all these months ago.
My grandparents’ student had generously given me this photo, thinking it would be a source of comfort. And although I appreciate the gesture, it’s only underlined how much I don’t know. In fact, to my embarrassment, he had to point out who my grandparents were in another photo he had given me, one of the entire department. Unsure of how much this former student knew of my family dynamics, I tried my best to play along, acting as if I’d known my grandparents my entire life, laughing to cover the awkwardness of not recognizing them. Of course! How could I have missed them? But like a splinter lodged in my brain, this inherited cleavage has gnawed at me ever since finding out, digging itself deeper with each revelation. I can’t help but wonder what other family secrets are out there? What else have my parents hidden away? Do I even know who my parents are? Do I know myself?
In the end, my grandparents remain mysteries.
Now, a few years later, I’m still unsure of how I feel. Although not exactly familial love, I grew to care for them in my own way—an inevitable deep bond that develops after spending hours upon hours with someone through their dying days.
At times, I imagine other lives, other realities where I knew my grandparents, worlds where they are familiar, old companions since my beginning, teachers of wisdom. It’s easy to get lost in the what-ifs, imagining different choices, different paths of being. But the past is slippery, hard to keep hold of, so many possibilities where one step in one direction can have such profound effects, its consequences tumbling into one another until you end up galaxies away from where you were. Who’s to say what could have been? Perhaps knowing is as untameable as death. Maybe that’s the lesson, the wisdom my grandparents could still bestow despite everything. Maybe submitting to the uncontrollable and being grateful for the moments we own is all we can do.