Personal: A little history of my grandpa

Gong-Gong reading

Gong-Gong in 1956, in China

I wrote on Saturday that we were going to visit my grandpa, and that I was worried about his increasing frailty and afraid we might not see him again after this visit. Yesterday we made our visit, and it went much better than I expected.

Gong-Gong has always enjoyed robust health and good spirits, as long as I’ve known him. My parents say that he remembers only the good things, and lets all the unhappiness just drop behind. He’s had a very full life… As a young man he trained as a physician and then served with these skills as a colonel in the Chinese army (I only just learned this, when Mommy told me he was recounting this era to a fellow resident in the nursing home). In the 1940s he came to New Orleans for more medical school, where he met my grandmother, and the two of them then traveled around the US for the next decade, raising three children (a fourth would be born in China) and chafing under prejudicial American attitudes toward “Orientals.”

Gong-Gong at bridge

Gong-Gong looking dapper in 1964

In the mid-1950s they returned to China. For a while they enjoyed government largesse and preferential treatment, but when the Cultural Revolution began in the 60s, they were branded as enemies and treated accordingly. My grandpa, once a professor, was reduced to serving as a caretaker in an animal-experiment lab, though his usual cheer remained undiminished. My grandma was less well-equipped to weather the turbulence of these years, and she took her own life. The family was forced apart: my mom worked in a factory and cared for their youngest brother; my aunt did light assembly work and then toured with a propagandistic performing troupe; my older uncle was “sent down” to rural Yunnan; and Gong-Gong went to a labor camp, where the country people showed him respect and spared him the worst physical exertions.

Gong-Gong by lake

Gong-Gong in San Francisco in 1979

As soon as the family could leave China, they did, going first to Hong Kong and then migrating separately to the US. As American citizens, my mom and her siblings were allowed to come first; they then applied for Gong-Gong, my dad, and my younger uncle to join them. The whole family’s English skills were rusty or nonexistent, but they managed to obtain schooling and job training. Gong-Gong was 63 at the time. Somehow he reestablished his medical qualifications and began a practice; as I knew him for most of my life, he was our most well-to-do relative, with his big house in Sacramento.

Gong-Gong and Er-Jiu

Gong-Gong and my younger uncle, 1988

I don’t remember exactly when or how Gong-Gong’s age began to make itself felt; it wasn’t until he was already retired and living in a senior apartment complex that I even realized that for most of my life he hadn’t been old or shown any signs of dependence. I know he had a stroke, maybe two. For a while he lived with us, until his children found the apartment and he moved there, where he’d be close to his kids and yet not living entirely alone. But he always seemed strong and well, in much better shape than many of his neighbors, who called him Doctor or Doc. He was the only Asian (maybe only non-white?) resident at the complex, and for this reason, as much as for his lifelong straight posture and dignified appearance, people took notice.

Gong-Gong with granddaughters

Gong-Gong with his granddaughters in 2000

As recently as a couple of years ago, we were asking him questions about the family history and he was answering. But his health deteriorated suddenly and rapidly. He suffered several falls, and began to rely first on a walker, and then on a wheelchair. It startled us to see how quickly he became dependent, and yet he remained (and still remains) stronger than one would expect. In one of his falls, he was actually alone for 15 hours before anyone found him — having spent a cold unclothed night on the bathroom floor — and yet, given the circumstances, he recovered very well. He was the sedentary, food-loving smoker of his family, yet he outlived his fit, athletic brother by many years. Most recently, Gong-Gong was hospitalized for an eye infection and then sent to his current nursing home (really a rehab center) to be cared for until (and if) he’s able to live in his apartment again. At any rate he will need nursing care for the rest of his life, wherever he resides.

He’s no longer able to dress himself, to use the bathroom, or to feed himself with utensils (finger food and cups are perfectly manageable). My mom, aunt, or uncle take it in turns to visit and feed him three times a day. After the recent hospital episode — during which he alarmed everyone by collapsing for no reason — I thought he was on his last legs, but during yesterday’s visit he seemed the same as the last time I saw him, several months ago. He smiled at me a lot, laughed with us when my aunt told funny stories, and listened happily when Erik played piano in the common room — in other words, though less talkative and quite a bit slower, he seemed as cheerful and as reasonably “with it” as any 94-year-old ought to be.

I’ll post another entry later today about the painting I made for him, but seeing him yesterday made me think I should really get a move on with the family history. There’s no chance he’ll be in any position to read the book when I finally do finish it (even if he’s still with us then), but maybe he’ll still be able to appreciate some early portion of it if I hurry up. I won’t count on it, but if it happens that way, it will be a great gift to us all.

In the meantime, I’m so glad to see him still enjoying life as best he can. He’s surrounded by loved ones and the best comforts available, and isn’t that all any of us can ask — at any time of life?