Be Good

By the time I was three or four, I only had one surviving grandparent – my dad’s mother. I have pictures of our family visits, though my memories of those are quite spotty.

When I was six, my family immigrated to the United States. My grandmother – along with many aunts and uncles and cousins – stayed behind. A few eventually came to visit us in the US, but the trip was too much of a strain for my grandmother. Our relationship was confined to the sporadic greetings we would exchange over the phone to the other side of the world.

For a myriad of reasons – personal and financial – my family didn’t visit Hong Kong for many years after the move. Not until I was 19. The trip was surreal. I still remember the warmth with which we (my mom, my sister, and I) were received, by faces and personalities that seemed to me both vaguely familiar and yet so very faraway.

My parents had divorced by this time, and not in an amicable fashion. So during that trip, my sister and I went to visit my dad’s side of the family by ourselves. My sister always had warmer relations with our dad, and so she spent more time with our aunt and with our grandmother. I was in the background – quiet, polite, secondary. I don’t remember too much about the interaction.

With my Cantonese limited, and my memories few, Hong Kong never did quite call to me. Even as I shifted to adulthood, with the relative freedom of a graduate school schedule, I didn’t make the effort to go back and visit relatives. My sister was much better about this, about family stuff. It wasn’t until when I was 30, and had just finished my degree, that I made another trip back, with her and her now-husband.

My grandmother was happy to see us. She didn’t have an exuberant personality, but that much was obvious. She was particularly tickled to interact with my now-brother-in-law (who spoke only the few words of Cantonese that my sister had taught him). We had missed the occasion of her 90th birthday, but she saw our visit as a second celebration. And it was; I even saw my great-aunt for the first time since I was six. Everyone spoke about how much more talkative I had become, how much my personality had developed.

I ended up moving to Japan later in 2013, and visited Hong Kong two more times. Once that same Christmas, and once for the New Year in 2016. I stayed with my aunt and my grandmother both times. My grandmother suffered a fall in between, and so the latter visit was tougher, more solemn. She spoke of her physical pain, about the frustrations of her limitations. We made small talk, mostly. It was the first real quality time I could remember spending with my grandmother.

In early December, I learned that my grandmother’s health had taken a turn. She had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer and had months to live – at most. I ended up arranging a video call on Christmas Day. She was in the hospital, tubes attached, looking terrible. I was not prepared for the sight. It was hard to keep up a cheerful front. The connection was spotty, and so the conversation was short. She told me to be good.

The next day though, while I was at a museum in Paris, my cousin texted – as my grandmother was apparently in better spirits. I ended up sitting on the floor somewhere, away from the crowds, in order to connect. She did look more energetic. Still, the conversation was short. Again, she told me to be good. I told her I would be. I said that she didn’t have to worry about me or my sister anymore. I started choking up. It felt like goodbye.

I didn’t feel like partying New Year’s Day 2017. I was in Porto at the time, but the crowds were just a turn off. I ended up returning to my Airbnb early, watching a movie or two.

Twenty minutes after midnight, I received the text that my grandmother had passed.

I was not a good grandson, never was. I did not put in the effort to forge a real relationship with her – I was too young and immature, too impatient and too easily dissuaded by the language barrier. I don’t even remember her real name; I only ever called her “a mā” (grandma in Cantonese). I’m only pretty sure she was 94, and I know she grew up in deep poverty – having to literally beg in her youth. I don’t know much else.

Still, I know my grandmother was loved. My aunt lived with her for over 20 years. My father went back to Hong Kong to spend time with her, frequently. My oldest cousin had purchased a minivan expressly to drive her out once in a while, and another cousin made it a point to take her to tea almost every weekend. After her fall, my sister bought her a better stroller to move around in; they chatted on the phone with regularity.

And I know that my grandmother loved. I know she was terribly sad when her best friend had to move to a nursing home about a year or two ago. I know she still cared about my mom: she would make it a point to ask about her in my recent visits. I know she enjoyed flipping through the photobooks my sister and I had sent over. Mostly, I know she was proud of all of us, especially my sister and I, and all that we had accomplished.

She still worried, as grandparents are prone to do. But like I said, she didn’t need to anymore. I’ll be good.

(Photo by Typhoonchaser, CC-BY-SA-3.0,, via Wikimedia Commons)


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