I thought yesterday was safe.
Grandma said that she would go on a rainy day — she always had a mystic air around her. Hence when I woke up to a cloudy but rainless sky, I told myself “good, it’s not gonna be today.”
I was wrong. A couple of harbinger drops fell as we left for the hospital. Then it became a persistent downpour. Then the doctors told us that her digestive tracts weren’t absorbing enough nutrients for her wounds to heal. That intubation was imminent if she stays in the ICU. That we should consider hospice and last words.
Three days ago, the big family gathered for Dragon Boat Festival dinner. Normally, the Matriarch would be seated in the center. She would be drinking. Eat only a little and talk more. Remind me to study hard and stay well in America. Maybe smoke a cigarette. But instead, she was chained to a bed while nurses encouraged her to cough out more mucus.
A sudden power outage forced us to eat under candlelight. Dinner became more ominous. Only by the slight slime and familiar chewiness could I tell that I was eating pork stomach. Sweat that beaded from my arms and forehead streamed onto the table then the floor. Relatives carefully avoided the topic of Grandma, yet it read like an early ode to me. My uncles kept pouring drinks which I would normally refuse. But I drank up, even though that alcohol burned my throat with every breath and pushed up my esophagus with every swallow. Partly because I wanted to test my limits: in the face of death, I felt brave; partly because tears were easier to hide when they’re drowned in an alcoholic’s sweat.
I knew Grandma wasn’t gonna get better. Her frail frame could take neither the ravaging illness nor the treatments. I knew this moment was coming. Intrusive thoughts in many random sleepless nights were rehearsals for saying goodbye. Since videos of her sickness overtook the family group chat, I had a fear that this summer might be our last. I knew she had made peace with death. She said that, anytime now, she can leave without regrets: she’d sent all her grandkids to college and held her grandsons’ sons. I also knew she had more or less foreseen her own end. Her sister left a couple of years back. She always told me she wasn’t afraid.
It really should be a happy affair, for an old lady of eighty-six with dutiful sons and lovely great grandchildren. But it stopped being one for me when my aunt spoke of Grandma’s instructions for our return from America: “of course my grandsons would stay with me at the old house, but you can take them to your house for showers…” When I saw the bedding she’d laid out and the snacks she’d bought. When I conjured up the image of her, watering chili peppers while wondering how soon we’ll be back — not soon enough. When I heard people say that “she could wait for the moon and stars for her daughter, but the illness couldn’t.” That’s when tears betrayed me.
I think the tears were more for myself than for Grandma. Grandma lived a long, fulfilled, and independent life. She insisted on living alone in the countryside, farming her own produce and feeding her own chickens, even as her kids begged for her to live in town. She ate what she liked (mostly vegetables) and smoked whenever she wanted. She accommodated the pains of aging and was never a slave to medication. I am happy for her, but I cry at the thought that I failed to come back sooner. That I will now forever be without that icon of strength. Without grandparents. Without the person who will find any innovative method to feed me including putting me in the washing machine, who will fan mosquitoes away as I fell asleep, who will tolerate me. Who won’t give up on me even as everyone else might.
The rain got to its worse around 11 pm. I hope she went without any pain.
Grandma used to do this thing. When I was in elementary school, the darkness gave me all kinds of intrusive thoughts. If I couldn’t fall asleep, I would go to Grandma’s bed, and she would put a spell on me. She takes my right palm, writes a series of characters with her fingertips, then firmly folds my hand into a fist. She tells me to hold tight. Then she writes another set of characters on my forehead — it always ended with a dot — then blows lightly to seal the spell. It blessed me with a sound night’s sleep.
In this battle with death, I’m realizing, it’s never death that I’m afraid of. It’s regret. Now, I can say that I’ve made peace with my own mortality, that I won’t die with any regrets. But it’s harder when it comes to the death of others. I wish I could hug her one more time, listen to more of her words, piece together more of her story. I wish I had the chance to scribble on Grandma’s hand and blow onto her forehead. Put a spell on her, keep her here a little longer, ease the discomfort from weeks of illness, make sure she wasn’t scared during those nights alone on the hospital bed.
The week-long rain ended today. It’s sunny. Clear for at least twenty miles. According to the weather report, it will stay so for the next week. I’d like to think of this, the prophecy that came true, the end to a mournful gloom, the opportunity to celebrate her life under the sun that she lived under through famines and wars and years of dazzling serenity, as her one last spell for us.