My grandparents

Over the weekend I had to skip my daily writing prompts for the first time since I started them weeks ago. On Monday I thought I would sit down and write all three of them at once (Sat, Sun, Mon), ten minutes apiece. But the first prompt proved to be my grandparents and once I started I kept at it for half an hour, wiping my eyes as I wrote.

My grandpa and grandkids in 2001

Gong-Gong and grandkids in 2001

I always envied the kids with close, loving relationships with all their grandparents. Of my four grandparents I’ve only met the one, my mother’s father. His wife, my maternal grandmother, passed in somewhat questionable circumstances during the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai; her absence has colored my childhood and more particularly my adulthood, and is almost certainly responsible for the way my mother (s)mothers her three daughters. My dad’s parents are less known to me. His father passed at age 63, also during (or perhaps slightly after) the Cultural Revolution, of liver disease. My dad believes the illness was brought on by his father’s “revolutionary” assignment to hard labor and insect-infested living quarters. My father’s mother passed at age 78, shortly after I was born, also in China, also of illness (I believe a respiratory disease).

When I was a child I took consolation from the fact that though we couldn’t say “over the river and through the woods to Grandfather’s house we go,” we did go over the hills and through a forest of wind turbines to visit Gong-Gong in Sacramento. Whatever else I lacked of the American ideal in my second-generation childhood, I did have a grandpa, and he was cool and generous and well-to-do. He gave us crisp $20 bills in red envelopes on every conceivable occasion, from Chinese New Year to Christmas to our birthdays to his birthday. Similarly, on Christmas and our birthdays and for special piano recitals, he paid for beautiful party dresses my mother took us to purchase at Macy’s or Nordstrom. When my parents decided we should have a baby grand piano instead of the old upright, he paid for that too. I spent all of my youth thinking of him as wealthy, and only learned very recently that he was in his 60s when he returned to the US in 1979, and built his medical practice from the ground up after that.

Now Gong-Gong spends most of his time in a wheelchair in the Woodlands nursing home in Los Gatos, doped on Lexapro. His children would never have allowed him to be medicated, except that after Gong-Gong lashed out at a fellow resident in a bout of irritability, the nursing home managers decided he “posed a threat to himself and to others” and insisted that it was medication or expulsion. The fact that no one was hurt, and that the two parties involved forgot the incident and were agreeable again right after it happened, was of no import. Even before the Lexapro, it was clear Gong-Gong’s mind inhabited a hazy land between awareness and confusion. Most of the time he doesn’t follow what’s going on, but I know all the pieces are still there — he just can’t put them all together fast enough or consistently enough to function without help. He knows faces and names, but not together; but when I catch his eye, he still gives me the smile of someone who’s known me since before I was born. About a week ago my mother sent me an email saying she’d caught him sitting in his room staring at the wall, where she’d hung the pictures and cards I made. When she asked him what he was doing, he replied, “Lisa paints very well.”

I know the small guilt I feel for visiting him so infrequently pales in comparison to the torment my mother, aunt, and uncles must experience daily for not taking him into their homes the way Chinese tradition dictates. Instead, they spend hours with him every day; in the case of my mother, the only close-by child who is not employed, she spends nearly all her time there, tending to his needs, talking to him, and badgering the more careless nurses. For the past year or more, every time I’ve talked to her, she has repeated the same stories and musings about the people and things she encounters in the nursing home — Gong-Gong’s confinement there has become her life as well as his. What she and her siblings see there has them talking regularly about their own future, a future that will not be comforted by Gong-Gong’s ample savings or the filial devotion of his children. My parents’ old age holds only the dubious promises of bank accounts depleted by three daughters’ college educations, the sporadic attentions of these same children who feel distant even now in their twenties and thirties, and the solitary miseries of the neglected elderly.