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Life The last summer in Shanghai

Mar. 8, 2019
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What I would like to say here is that it’s been two months and I still don’t know how to feel. Or, more possibly, I am ashamed that I feel near to nothing. 

***

Since we were babies, my parents have brought my sister and me to Shanghai every year (and sometimes more than once a year). To my sister and me, it was a trip for soup dumplings and card games with cousins and a taste of our grandpa’s divine sautéed prawns. We always spent a few days on the trip visiting my mom’s parents in their small apartment in the city. My sister and I usually kept to our own banter (jumping on beds and whispering under tables) while our parents would catch up with our maternal grandparents.

***

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I was thinking about how she is gone and how I won’t ever call someone 外婆 (wai po) again. 

My grandmother passed away over two months ago, on the day I moved into college. She was the first person in my family who died while I was alive. I’d been fortunate enough not to have attended a funeral for the first eighteen years of my life (and I still haven’t).

Hoping to catch her mother in urgent care, my mother flew home on a red-eye flight from LAX to Shanghai. My dad and older sister stayed at an AirBnB by my school for a few days. They helped me unpack my things and hang up my sweaters. They took me out for lunch on the day before they left.

My mother and aunt missed the peaceful death of their mother by just a few hours of inevitable travel. My father and sister said their goodbyes to me and flew to move my sister into her new apartment. I went camping at the beach with twenty college freshmen. Of the four of us in my family, only my mother attended wai po’s funeral. 

*** 

What I know about wai po:

She was 84.

She was once an esteemed professor of physics at Shanghai Fudan University.

She attempted suicide decades ago, in the heat of Mao's Cultural Revolution. (I found this out only months ago, on an obscure Chinese website.) 

She kept a diary in which she wrote about her thoughts and ideas, her everyday activities, little details about this and that. My mother and aunt have read her diary and marveled at the abundant attention she paid to all that surrounded her.

She collected large antique dolls.

She loved to sing, and beautifully she did. My mom always wanted me to sing for her, but I recoiled at the idea. I was shy; I felt uncomfortable; I didn’t like singing on request; I didn’t know what to sing; I wasn’t on that level yet with my grandmother. I didn’t want to sing for her. Even as I got older and started performing music on my own, I could never bring myself to do it in front of wai po.

Her head was shaved (as was my grandpa’s) after Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign revealed itself as a scheme of exposing and humiliating the intellectuals who openly opposed his regime. My grandparents, along with hundreds of others, were paraded through the public as political prisoners.

At around 75 years old, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In the years before her death, she stopped recognizing most friends and family. In her last two bedridden years, she forgot the name of my grandfather.

Her name was Min Min Ma.

A framed black-and-white drawing of her hangs next to her bed in the retirement home. The piece is fundamentally living: her eyes sparkle with life, her short, curly gray hair floats across the canvas, suspended in the air… Her thin, wired glasses shine under the peculiar light, her round, protruding cheekbones glow in a warm blush.

She and my grandpa were in love.

*** 

On our last visit to her in Shanghai, my grandmother lay on a clean, white queen-sized bed, mouth pursed, eyes flicking open every once in a while to browse her surroundings. My sister and I laid by her either side, stroking her wispy white hair, holding her silky, veiny hands. We talked to her, calling her wai po and 马老师 (ma lao shi or “Professor Ma"), the name her former students would call her and the name she best responded to as her dementia developed. My sister and I spent hours with her, getting excited each time she spoke a couple of blurred words, smiled into our eyes, or clasped our hands in hers, knowingly.

Indeed, the two of us were most comfortable and affectionate with our wai po in her last moments, when she was least aware of our presence.

My mother says that wai po died because she was ready—that after our final visit to her in Shanghai, she was satisfied and full of the love that we shared with her. So, after a few weeks, she glided away. 

My grandmother and I knew each other, certainly, but our relationship was one lacking a true familiarity of one another’s lives, experiences, and consequent perspectives. Our love consisted of warm embraces and sustained formalities year after year, and I don’t know if I’m okay with that. I don’t know if I should have, might have done more before she left—because I, belatedly, selfishly, want to miss her.

Perhaps I should have sung to her.

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