It was a last minute thing. My mother got an urgent WeChat message at the turn off the new year that her mother was just admitted to the hospital, and the day after New Year’s, she was on a plane headed back to China.
I had planned on going back to China to see the family, making tentative plans to go back over the winter break with my father, but I had ultimately shoved those plans aside as I decided that I’d rather see my entire nuclear family instead for those nearly two weeks, now that we all live on different coasts and getting everyone together is getting harder and harder.
But once my mother got back to China, she sent for my father and insisted that he come right away to China too. My grandmother was in extremity poor health, and this could be it. Three days after my mother left the States, my father booked a flight to China as well.
Realizing that this could very well be the last time that I would see my grandmother alive, I pulled all of the strings I could to go back to China too.
I returned to work the first Monday of the new year and the first thing I did when I walked into the office was ask my boss, sitting directly next to me on a long desk, if I could immediately take almost two weeks of vacation to go back. Thankfully, she was very understanding, and I ended up leaving work that day an hour before lunch.
By noon, I was at the airport. By 2pm, I was wheels up, setting off on a 14 hour flight to Beijing with my father.
I’ve always hated the traveling part of going back home to China. My family hails from a rural part of China seemingly far away from everything else — podunk nowhere, as I like to call it. We arrived in Beijing in the evening, hopping on another plane bound for Guangzhou, arriving in southern China late at night.
We were still a half day’s but journey away from home, but it being so late, no buses were going. As was usual, we ended up staying a night in Guangzhou, walking up early in the morning to get to the bus station, taking the earliest bus to Rongxian.
During the three days of transit time, I wondered if my grandmother would die before I got to see her. Not exactly the most pleasant thought to carry around with you for three whole days. And since my father and I were using US SIM cards, we could only communicate using WeChat, and only where we could find wifi. Not exactly a recipe for timely updates.
In the time it took for my father and I to get to Rongxian, my grandmother had been transferred to a hospital in the nearest big city, Yulin. My father and I dropped out things off at my paternal grandfather’s, cleaned up, and then drove to Yulin with one of my cousins.
My mother and her sister had effectively been loving in Yulin for a week, ever since my grandmother was transferred there. She was originally submitted to the ICU, but her condition eventually stabilized to the point where she was moved to the CCU (sic). The CCU had only a 30 minute visitation window, from 4:30 to 5:00pm. I realized that my mother and my aunt were basically in Yulin waiting every day for a 30 minute window where they could visit my grandmother.
That day, we managed to convince the hospital staff to let more than the usual 2-only visitors in for the visitation session. I donned plastic footwear covers and a heavy blue hospital lab coat and was led into a small room with about ten beds arranged against the outside wall of a L-shaped room.
I was not prepared for what I saw. My grandmother last there in the bed, groaning in pain every ten to fifteen seconds. “Ah! Ah! Ah.” Short, staccato, sharp yelps that were never ending. Immediately, my mother and Aunt set about massaging my grandmother’s entire body, a slim hope that they could alleviate the pain and itchiness seemingly piercing all over her skin.
It all seemed so hopeless. She seemed to be in pain all the time and we could only visit her 30 minutes a day, tops. Was this going to be the way her life was going to end? I choked back a couple of tears and tried to tell grandma, in my broken Chinese, that I had come back all the way from America to see her. She was barely able to respond to my words.
Thirty minutes up, the family retreated back to the waiting room to figure out what to do next. We had a consultation with one of physicians on the staff, and the outlook wasn’t good. “Doesn’t matter if you spend 10,000 RMB or 20,000 RMB, there isn’t much more that we can do for her.”
A choice was made. We’d sign the papers to take Grandma out of the CCU and transfer her back to a hospital back home in Rongxian. We were, as my father put it, “giving up.” Better that she pass close to home, and somewhere where we could spend more time with her than 30 minutes a day.
We all stayed the night in Yulin that evening, crashing at my cousin’s in-laws’ empty house in town. The next morning, the paperwork was signed, and my father called in a favor from a friend, who came by with one of Rongxian’s ancient and worn out ambulance vans.
My father, my mother, my grandmother’s caregiver, and I rode the ambulance back to Rongxian with grandma. It was an agonizing one hour drive back to Rongxian in an 90’s rattling tin can of a van, suspension crashing over every bump, jostling the crap out of the stretcher, placed directly on the floor of the van. It was an oven in the back, with untinted glass windows and no air conditioning; relief from the heat was achieved by carefully sliding open some of the windows, balancing the need for cool with the need to keep the dust out.
We rolled into the hospital clinic in the center of Rongxian, right next to the central bus station. Grandma was carried up to the second floor and into a small room.
The good news is that she is still alive, and still in that small hospital room. The bad news is that she is still in that small hospital room.
Last year, my paternal grandmother passed away, and shortly thereafter, my paternal grandfather had a stroke which he survived, but left him bedridden and unable to control the left side of his body.
I know that was devastating for him. My father would brag that his old man was way up there in years but would still go up in the mountains every day to collect vegetables and bring them back to town and sell them. Grandpa never made much money doing this, but then again, money was not the point. It was a routine. It got him out of the house. I’m most certain that it have him purpose in life.
If I should die of natural causes, I’m probably going to die of a stroke of some sort. My uncle had a stroke at an early age that rendered him unable to walk steadily and unable to enunciate words without extremely slow and tedious effort. My father had a very minor stroke in the past few years that was only discovered well after it has actually occurred, giving the family a good health scare. And if course, my grandpa, once able to climb mountains in his 90s, if now no longer able to move around unless being pushed about in a wheelchair.
I hadn’t seen him grandpa since he had his stroke, so I was unsure of what to expect when my father and I arrived at the house when we first arrived in Rongxian, after getting off the bus and before the drive to Yulin.
To my surprise, the roll up door on the front of the house was wide open as we approached. I found out why very quickly: the side room to the right of the garage had been converted to a ground floor bedroom and living space.
In the back corner was my grandfather, on a small hard bed with a bamboo pole serving as a bed rail. Next to the bed, along the back wall, were two chairs and an table. In the opposite corner was another hard bed, which was where my aunt, now the primary caregiver for grandpa, spent most of her time. Next to this bed was a TV stand with all the things one needs, with a TV and a media streaming box, and a wireless access point. Tucked along the wall was my grandfather’s wheelchair, along with a stack of plastic stools, for adding additional impromptu seating for when a large group of people wanted to keep him company.
One thing that you need to know is that people in Rongxian speak the Bai dialect, which is a branch of the Cantonese dialect that everyone thinks of when they think of Southern China. I simply cannot speak Baihua, as they call it, which is unfortunate because it means that I simply cannot communicate with my grandparents, who were never formally educated. My aunt’s and uncles, my cousins and nephews, all can speak Mandarin, so I can converse with them, but not my grandparents, on either my mother’s side or my father’s side.
That said, I did try to talk to my grandpa. I would speak in Mandarin very slowly, and ask if he could understand what I said to him. He would not yes, but I’m not sure if he ever really did understand a single word I said to him.
I talked anyway. I told him about how I managed to pull off a last minute trip to China, that no, I am not married with kids yet, or even in a relationship, and how work was going. I would greet him in the morning, and sometimes accompany him and my father when my dad would take him out for walks in the wheelchair.
Grandpa also got a red envelope with 1000 RMB. I gave him a red envelope for my brother Michael and his wife Yanfen too. He was happy to hear that we were gainfully employed and could send him money. Not that he could really use it himself. I’m sure he was just looking for a sign that his grandkids were productive human beings, and that they had some respect for him.
But during my visits with him, I was always a bit melancholy. He couldn’t feed himself, he couldn’t use the restroom by himself, he couldn’t get out of bed by himself, and he always needed someone to lift him upright into the chair next to his bed, it into the wheelchair. For a man whose only drive in life was to go go do things, I can only imagine what a drag his days must be now. He can’t read, he’s not much one for telling stories, and he isn’t one to engage in art, pop culture, entertainment, or hobbies. He lays in bed most of the time, occasionally getting helped up to sit in his chair for meals, and getting pushed around in his wheelchair when someone is around to do so, and the weather is cooperating.
Dad says it’s tough for him, and worries that he’s lost the zeal for life. I’m inclined to agree, judging by what I see for myself. And to be honest, I would probably also be just as stuck if I ended up nearly completely bedridden too.
I wonder how many more years of life grandpa has. If he’s not already 100 years or older at this point, he has to be pretty close at this point. That said, is a longer life desirable when all of the fun of life is gone?
My maternal grandfather passed away several years ago. He was probably my favorite grandparent, as he at least attempted to talk to me when I came back to China to visit. Before he died, he saw that that I had brought along my beloved Mamiya TLR film camera during a visit, and proceeded to give me his old film camera, a Canon AE-1 Program that my father actually bought for him back in the 80s after my father immigrated to the United States.
Since then, it’s been my aunt’s family in the house taking care of my grandmother. When she became bedridden, the family, with help from us in the US, paid for a live-in caregiver.
She’s been effectively living the life that my paternal grandfather is now experiencing for a couple of years now. But at the start of the year, blood started pooling in her legs and feet, long since weakened from a lack of use, causing extreme pain.
That landed her in the ICU in Yulin.
It’s been nearly two weeks since we “gave up” and moved grandma back to Rongxian. She’s doing better than before, that’s for sure. For one, the pain doesn’t appear to be nearly a regular occurrence like it was before, and her kidneys, once thought to be failing, are holding up better than expected.
That said, I’m not sure I see a way for grandma to return home from the hospital. She is still bedridden, and no longer has the strength to pull herself up. She also hardly eats anything, which is devastating. Sometimes it seems like everything would return to normal if she’d just eat more and regain her strength. My mother and my aunt practically have to beg grandma to eat something when they feed her, and for the past couple of days, I hardly ever saw grandma eat more than maybe two spoonfuls of milk or congee in a sitting.
But she is still alive, and for that, I am grateful. Just like with grandpa, I did my best to tell grandma about what was going on, in very slowly spoken Mandarin.
The day that I was to leave town and head back home to the US, I stopped by the hospital one last time before going to the central bus station. My grandmother was there in the bed, on her side, clutching the bed rail with both her hands.
I was there with my backpack on my back and my camera bag slung on my shoulder. In slow and deliberate Mandarin, I told her that it was time for me to go back to America and go back to work.
Very slowly, one hand ungripped from the hand rail. She made a small pawing motion with her hand. “Bi, bi,” she said.
It took me a moment to realize that she was trying to say “bye” in English, one of the few things I, my brother, and my cousin managed to teach her years ago as children.
I waved my hand back at her. “Bye bye.”
“Bye, bye,” she responded back.
That could very well the final farewell I ever have with my grandmother. I turned around and headed out the door, down the stairs, and into the bustling city street, and down the block to the bus station.
A lot of time to think
Three days on buses and planes leaves you with a lot of time to think. The vast majority of this post was written during the 13 hour plane ride from Seoul, South Korea back to Detroit.
I’ve never been this close to death for a sustained period of time. And all the while, I could see the toils of my parents, themselves graying over, realizing that I too would eventually have to go through this experience with them at the center.
And that someday, the end of life experience will be mine too. I’ve never given much thought before as to how I would die, but now, I definitely have thoughts swirling in my head as to how I’d deal with my ultimate end.
Taxes. Insurance. Add “death of one’s parents in old age” and “your own death in old age” to that list of things that no youth ever truly thinks about.