I still sob every time I read this story.  I miss you Grandma!


Shanghai looked familiar but strange at the same time.  There were a lot more cars on the road.  People drove recklessly cutting one another and cursing at each other.  Skyscrapers and stacks of tall apartment buildings dominated the skyline.   The taxi took us on the Yangpu Bridge with a total length of 27,400 feet.  It is one of the largest cable-stayed bridges in the world.  Even on this magnificent bridge, we were going less than twenty miles an hour.  The driver cussed the huge population in Shanghai that caused traffic jam everywhere.  Once off the bridge, cars, bikers and pedestrians flocked the road.  Most people dressed stylishly and yet public spitting could still be witnessed frequently.  Along the streets stood numerous contemporarily decorated stores and restaurants but the sidewalks were covered by dirty water carelessly splashed out by the business owners.  Shanghai was loud.  People didn’t talk, they yelled at each other.  The noise level was elevated by cars honking, buses announcing the stop names, street vendors crying out for customers and bargaining conducted in roaring voices.

Finally we arrived at Uncle Mao Mao’s place.  He and his wife Yanhua resided on the fourth floor of a six-story apartment building that was only six years old but looked dusty and stained with rust.  Grandma lived here for less than a year before she passed away.  She would have been waiting for me here by the entrance door if she knew I was coming home, but there was no sign of her this time.  I was overcome by a sense of loss and sadness.  We got our luggage upstairs and entered the apartment.

This was my second time to Mao Mao and Yanhua’s home.  It is a 3-bedroom and 2-bathroom unit with two living rooms.  On a cooler day with the sliding doors to the balcony open, you can hear the cars on the street whooshing by and people chatting down below.

The apartment was divided into two sections by a glass door with a wooden frame.  Between the main door and the glass door are one of the two living rooms with an old sofa and a dining table, the kitchen and a bathroom.  The dining table was jammed with all sorts of stuff and was obviously not used for dining purposes anymore.  Beyond the glass door, another living room with the gray leather sofas, coffee table and a TV, the bedrooms, a second bathroom and the balcony.  Uncle and Yanhua must have had thoroughly cleaned up the apartment prior to our arrival but a new layer of dust was starting to collect.

I went into Grandma’s bedroom.  It now had two twin beds for Jane and Michelle to sleep in during our 2-week stay. “Hi, Grandma, I’m back!”  I sat down on the bed close to the door, resting my chin on the tips of my fingers.  Images of her flooded my mind.

Grandma was a very petite lady who was only 4’5’’ tall and weighed about 80 lbs.  At the age of eighty-nine, her hair was still grayish black.  She combed it neatly back and twisted a bun on the back of her head.  She often wore an apron over the blue tie-dye vest I bought her.  Even though she was small, one shouldn’t be fooled by her size because she was one tough lady.

The Cultural Revolution kicked into full gear the year I was born in 1966.  My grandfather (my father’s father) was a wealthy banker, a capitalist, the target of the Revolution.  His fortune was seized by the government after he died.  I never got to see the grandparents from my father’s side.  Grandfather passed away before the Revolution barely escaping the harsh and cruel reality he would have had to face otherwise.  Grandmother died of fear and anxiety when the environment was getting increasingly hostile and violent towards people of her class.  My father was sent to Yun Nan to be reformed because of his family background.  He didn’t have the freedom to come and go as he wished and therefore he wasn’t able to accompany my mother to Shanghai when she gave birth to me.  Mother handed me over to grandma when I was forty-two days old and returned to Yun Nan to my father and her job.

Grandma was already raising my sister Yiwen at the time.  Yiwen was born in Yun Nan, premature with osteomalacia.  My parents tried to keep her with them but gave up after a year.  It was too hard to raise a baby with health issues especially when they had to move from place to place because of their assignments.  So grandma traveled a week one way by train and then by buses through the mountain areas, picked up Yiwen and brought her back to Shanghai.  Even though Dad’s family owned a whole shikumen house, when I was born, the house was occupied by the Red Guards.  My sister and I had no place to live.

Determined to put a roof over our heads, grandma camped out with a toddler and an infant in one of the rooms in the house my father’s family owned.  Grandma was born poor and she married someone of her class and therefore they had no reason to oppress her.  But the Red Guards took away the burners to the gas stove in an effort to drive us out.  Grandma persisted.  With the help of family and friends, we stayed there day after day and managed to preserve a room in 930 Long Unit #4 that we could call our home.

I lived there for the first few years of my life.  Other families started to move in and eventually every room was occupied.  But I had my little room on the second floor and I had grandma.  I was happy!

When I was three, Grandma’s older daughter and her family moved into a shikumen house two miles east of where we lived.  Aunt asked grandma to live with them and take care of her kids as well.  So we moved and merged with Aunt’s family.  My happy life turned to be not so happy after that.

Aunt’s family of five lived in a ten by fourteen square-foot single room.  With the addition of Grandma, Grandpa, Yiwen and I, the small space became awfully crowded.  We had three beds, one for grandma and me, one for grandpa and Qi Qi (my cousin), and a big bed for the three girls (my other two cousins and Yiwen).  Aunt and her husband Yan slept at 930 Long.  A few years later as the kids got bigger, Yan built a wobbly attic to meet the urgent need of more space.

All Grandma’s possessions were stored in plastic bags stacked up on one side of our full-sized bed.  At night she and I cuddled on the other side of the bed.  When we had visitors those days, they sat right on our beds. A square dining table was pushed to the wall by the window with all the chairs tucked underneath, only to be pulled out at mealtime.

Grandma took on the task of cooking three meals a day for a family of nine all year round.  She would get up before the crack of dawn making breakfast for everyone and then head out to the outdoor market to purchase meat, fish and vegetables for the day.  She always left with an empty bamboo basket.  The handle of the basket would leave deep marks on her arm when she came home because it was loaded with stuff.  Grandma never went to school to learn how to read and write, but she did the money math in her head so well that nobody could get away with overcharging her.  She would spend most of the day processing the raw food, picking out the bad from the good, rinsing, washing, chopping and cooking.  Usually by the time she sat down to eat, there was not much left on the table.  Grandma ate a lot of rice to keep her stomach full.

With nine people sardined in a small space, tension flew high.  Yan and grandma didn’t get along and Aunt was sandwiched.  Aunt cried a lot those days and threatened to divorce Yan on a few explosive occasions.  But they always got back together.  In addition to personality conflicts, Yan believed that Grandma favored me and grudged her about it.  Every once in a while he would pick at me to start a fight with Grandma.  I just wanted to find a hole and hide in it when voices were raised and things started to get ugly.

Grandma would yell at Yan “You ungrateful son of a gun! I take care of your kids and your family.  Is this how you are treating me?”
“I didn’t ask you to live with us, your daughter did.  And those two girls you brought with you are eating our food and taking our space.”
“Have you forgotten that their parents send money every month and the money is used to buy food for everyone?”
“Money or no money, it doesn’t matter … It’s getting damn crowded in here!!”
“If you don’t want us here, we’ll move out!”
“But you are living in my house!”  Grandma burst into tears.
“What are you talking about?  This is my house!”  Yan roared.

On those nights after the emotionally charged arguments, Grandma would sit on the bed she and I shared weeping till the wee hours of the night.  She would say horrible things like her life were a total misery and she wished it would end soon.  The truth was Grandma didn’t have a place that she could call home anymore.  After a few rounds of shuffling to get everyone else settled, Grandma and Grandpa’s humble home was under the name of Yan and Aunt.  Grandpa blamed her for the situation they were in.  Grandma had hoped that she and grandpa would be able to live with Aunt in their old ages.  Aunt was her oldest and favorite.  The Chinese culture emphasizes children’s responsibility to take care of their elderly parents whom they are indebted to for life.  The room in 930 Long Grandma fought to keep belonged to my parents.  They stayed there during their infrequent home visits and it would also be their retirement home.

I stayed awake and cried silently with Grandma on those long nights, fearful that she would hurt herself in unimaginable ways.  I wanted to give her a home that nobody could ever kick her out of.  Grandma was my home.  Without her, I would be homeless.

In the early morning with puffy eyes, grandma always got up and continued caring for her family.

The last time I saw Grandma, she had been diagnosed with late stage uterus cancer.  Taking Jane and Michelle with me, I got on the first flight available to be with her.  Her five children decided not to tell her the truth because she had never been seriously sick in her life and she had always had a fear of dying in the hospital.  I didn’t know what the best way was to handle the situation and I absolutely wouldn’t have the heart to tell grandma she was terminally ill.  So I thought I would go along with the plan.

Grandma got out of bed and waited by the door when the elevator took us to the fourth floor.
“Hongwei, you are back!  You know I haven’t been feeling well …” She opened her arms and flung herself at me.
I hugged her tight.  She felt so tiny.   “Yes. Grandma, I am back … back to see you …”

She was thinner than ever.  Her skin appeared loosely attached to her bones.  She wore a light blue cotton pajamas she sewed herself.  Her hair was still in a bun but hadn’t been combed for days.

I spent the most of the next two weeks in this room, chatting with her and reading her Bible stories.  Grandma was in pain constantly which she described as menstrual cramps but one hundred times worse.  I gave her Tylenol and to my surprise it helped.  For the next few days, she was able to get up and sit on the living room sofa for a while.   Uncle Mao Mao and I sat with her and we chatted about everyone in the family as well as old neighbors we used to live with.  Mao Mao was very sweet to Grandma.  He always spoke to her in a soft and kind voice.  He brought water, medicine and meals to her bed, fed her and cleaned up after she ate.  They shared a very special mother-and-son bonding.   My mother, a former nurse, came almost everyday to give Grandma injections and take her blood pressure.  She did it professionally but without that element of sweetness.  Mother had always resented Grandma, her own mother, for taking her daughter away.

Grandma came to the U.S. after Jane was born and stayed till after Michelle’s birth.  I took her to church every week and she accepted Jesus in one of the evangelical gatherings.  Those couple of years when she lived with me and Joe were probably the happiest time in her life!  How I hoped we could be together like that forever!

My two-week visit flew by too quickly.  Most people in my grandma’s condition might prefer peace and quiet.  But not my Grandma.  She loved to be surrounded by her grandchildren and great grand children.  Grandma asked me to let Jane and Michelle stay longer since they were on summer break.  I called United Airline and postponed their return date to two months later.  On the day when I had to leave, I took her hands and prayed with her for peace, healing and eternal life with God.  Shortly after lunch before the taxi van arrived to pick me up, she got up from her bed and followed me around.  I didn’t want her to see me cry but it was really hard not to get emotional.  When I finally got into the taxi, I just lost it and sobbed uncontrollably.  As the van started pulling away, I looked back and saw grandma waving to me from the balcony.  My heart was broken to pieces!  I knew this would be the last time I was ever going to see her on this earth.

It seemed that at last Grandma had found her home when she moved into the new apartment with Uncle Mao Mao six months ago but now she would have to leave again soon.  Life could be so cruel sometimes!

The night Grandma passed away five months later, I was in Washington D.C. attending a Christmas Party sponsored by Joe’s boss Mr. Kwan, the owner of a number of small startup companies.  The big boss flew all his employees and their families to D.C. for the party.  At the time, he probably had no idea that his various businesses were not going to survive another year.

We were trapped at the O’Hare airport Friday evening because of a snowstorm.  I just wanted to turn around and go home.  It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning when we eventually landed.  In the morning, we took a tour around the city showing Jane and Michelle the white house, the capital building, the Washington monument and the Air & Space Museum.  The weather was much milder in D.C. that made our little excursion quite pleasant.

For the Christmas party, I wore a tight-fitted red silk qipao with gold embroidery.  Jane had on a cute embroidered pink qipao and Michelle wore a light green one.  I put up their hair in a bun on the top.  The three of us looked adorable together.  Mr. Kwan must have had spent a fortune on this party.  It was a feast with all kinds of delicious food, drinks, desserts, and lots of fun activities for kids.  Jane and Michelle had their portraits drawn and face painted.  It was good to see the girls having a good time.  But for some reason I felt tense and reckless inside.  We went back to our hotel room after ten o’clock and I took me a while to fall asleep.  I dreamed of Grandma.  She wore a green flowery apron over her brown sweater she knitted herself.  She looked healthy, no sign of pain.

“Hongwei, promise me you will take good care of yourself.”  She said to me gently.
“I am taking good care of myself, Grandma.”  I jumped up and down like when I was a little girl.
She took up my hands that for some strange reason looked very coarse.
“Look, you are not taking care of yourself.  Promise me you will.”
“Yes, I will, I promise.”

When I woke up in the morning, I remembered the dream vividly.

We arrived home on Sunday evening.  Our voice mailbox was blinking.  I pushed the play button “Hongwei, this is Uncle Mao Mao.  Grandma may not make it through the day.  She wants to talk to you.  Call when you get this message.”  The messaged was recorded at 9 pm on Saturday Washington D.C. time.

My heart ached.

The light was still blinking.  Another message.  “Hongwei, Grandma just passed away on December 17th, 1:15 pm.  Call when you get this message.”  This one was recorded at 12:20 am Sunday morning Washington D.C. time.  The year was 2000.

I howled.

I was furious at myself for not being here when Grandma wanted to talk to me for the last time.  I didn’t want to go to D.C in the first place.  I felt I needed to be somewhere else the whole time.  Now I knew why.

Thankfully my dear Grandma reached out to me in my dream before she had to leave this world.  I love you forever, Grandma! Yes, I promise you I’ll take good care of myself and my family.

Jane peered in and sat down next to me.
“Mommy, you are crying.  Do you miss Tai Tai (great grandma)?”
I nodded.
“I miss her very much too!”  She put her head on my shoulder.

Grandma still came to my dreams.  Sometimes I spotted her in a crowd and other times she was much closer.  Most of the time she didn’t say anything.  She just looked at me and smiled.