It’s complicated

“Were you close?”

That’s a question that I’ve been asked a number of times lately about my 公公, my maternal grandfather; one that is a challenge to answer. I reflect upon my relationship with my maternal grandparents and well, the easiest response would be, “it’s complicated.” I saw them a lot growing up, but they wouldn’t be the grandparents of modern day, spending time playing with or doting on their grandchildren, so we weren’t close in that way. Yet, we grew up with them around, with regular visits during important dates during the calendar year. He commanded respect and honour as the patriarch of the household and as an elder, even from his own children. I imagine him to be a stern father, coming home to the children and his wife after a long day at work to have dinner and unwind with a newspaper at the table. My mother told me that the children would make sure to behave when he was around to avoid discipline. He enjoyed strong coffee, formally sitting down to chat around the kitchen table, dim sum, and eating out at Chinese restaurants with good service, ones that took care to remember their name.

As a child, I looked forward to Christmas and Lunar New Year gifts from my grandparents, as theirs were the most generous—the biggest red pockets, or practical clothing and apparel but more luxurious than what my parents could afford. He would often treat everyone to a family meal at Chinese restaurants we wouldn’t otherwise go on our own, or have us over in their home for a Christmas meal or other large family gatherings.

I remember visiting the flat my grandparents lived in while they were in Hong Kong, a small place compared to Canadian standards, which housed their family up to seven, with their bunk beds still in their room. Their space reflected the interior design decor common to that time, with green dressers and lacquered wood, and hardwood or bare floors. My great-grandfather was in the watch making industry, and later, my grandfather also had his own watch factory, one that would make watches for brand names and non-branded ones, so he would expertly fit the watches I always had, which were either too big for my wrists or the battery needed replacing.

When my grandparents immigrated to Canada in the mid 80s, he was in his 60s and had decided to close his business and quit smoking. My mother tells me that he simply said he would stop smoking, and he did, just like that. They studied enough English to pass the citizenship exam, and although my grandfather didn’t work in this country, they managed quite well and lived independently the last 30 some years up until recently. He also knew more English than he let on (which my brother recently discovered).

Initially, they lived in an apartment with my aunts, and eventually my grandfather bought a lot and custom-built a generously sized 3+2 bedroom, 3.5 bath home, where a few of my aunts and uncle lived in until they moved out on their own. This was the house that they called home and lived independently, up until his fall during the pandemic. He didn’t quite bounce back unlike his previous health scares (including a stroke), and they eventually had to move into an assisted-living home, despite his desire to move back home—they even thought about retrofitting their place with a chair lift or other accommodations to make getting around more easier. It was a hard time for my mom, aunt, and especially my grandmother as they took turns supporting his medical and physical needs over the past year plus.

I’m thankful that my kids and I were able to come for a short visit to celebrate his 95th birthday a few months before the pandemic hit. That was the last time I saw him in person. As they got older and older, many fears and anxieties around death increased and were seen through their beliefs and selective, superstitious practices. This meant that you needed to bow to pay respects to dead ancestors at their graves during 清明節 (Tomb Sweeping Day), the body of the dead needed to face a certain direction in the cemetery (opposite of the other plots), and rules including one where we couldn’t see our grandparents within 30 days of a death. This also meant my sister and brother-in-law couldn’t go to a family dinner because their hamster died. Practically, it also meant that although we were in town during the last two years during COVID, they preferred that we didn’t visit. Yet, his heart was firmly closed to the idea needing to be saved and that Christ is the only way to eternal life, though they sent their children to private Christian schools and churches in Hong Kong. This decision was likely because of the idea of good moral teachings that reflected their and Chinese ideologies and values, such as filial piety. Like many ways of the older generation of Chinese, while he had many opinions, he wasn’t direct, but yet, we learned to navigate that and what was perceived as showing honour, whether it meant calling to wish them a happy birthday yearly, or being able to figure out what they were trying to saying and mean, without them having to actually saying it (note: I really dislike playing mind games, so I’d prefer if you were just direct).

So, when it was finally time for my grandfather to be put in palliative or comfort care, and they told me of his passing, I was especially saddened because he had so many years to acknowledge and believe Christ as Saviour and Lord of his life, and that he had such an influence on my grandmother about her decision as well, and ultimately, he had run out of time and chances to change his mind. He was 98. His children had prayed, his grandchildren had prayed; his great-grandchildren had prayed for his healing, perhaps not so much his physical but his spiritual healing. In calling my mother to ask about funeral arrangements, etc., she nonchalantly referred to them as Christians, which I picked up on and asked about. Turns out, a few days before he had become unresponsive and while he had mental clarity, my aunt had a chance to share the gospel with him and my grandmother yet again, and in their conversation, he demonstrated a willing acceptance of the reality and hope of Christ, and that Jesus had died for everyone, including my grandmother and grandfather. This time, my aunt could tell he was sincere and it wasn’t a superstitious response. My grandmother had also decided to trust in Jesus as her personal saviour at that point too, as we sensed she was reluctant to do so before, without her husband’s lead or blessing, despite asking how to pray and starting to pray before this. What an amazing answer to everyone’s persistent prayers and what a miracle, after all these years. My mother tells me that my grandmother marked the date of his passing on her wall calendar so wouldn’t forget, a simple phrase reflective of her newfound faith, filled with a hopeful promise and a profound truth: “爸爸上天堂” (“baba went to heaven”).

It just so happened that one airline had a 50% off base fare sale that had a direct flight to and from home which was $288 roundtrip. While WestJet had a 30% off bereavement fare available with a free check-in, that was still close to $1000. So thankful that j.w was willing to stay behind with the kids for the past five days. Although I didn’t get much time to see my grandmother this time around, I still believe that God also provided for a way for me to come back to see my grandmother and attend his funeral as well. I learned more about his family during this trip, as he had a half-sister living in the city that many of the grandchildren didn’t know about or realized before. My grandmother is in her 90s now, and the next while will likely be very lonely and challenging to navigate as she wants to return to their home. She finds her current living arrangements in the assisted-living home confining, she doesn’t like the food, and because she doesn’t speak English, she cannot communicate with anyone around her without her daughter’s help, often through the telephone, but their house may no longer be the best place for one person to live (好唔放心). So instead of praying for 公公, we will now pray for 婆婆.

My grandfather in an apron holding an egg beater to mix some batter in a large mixing bowl
Above: This is one of my favourite photos of my grandfather as it shows him helping my grandmother with baking in the kitchen. I didn’t see him with an apron or cooking very often in the kitchen.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: