The day we visited my paternal grandfather’s grave, the Beijing sky was flooded with morning light. The cemetery, a lush meadow brimming with birdsong. My father clutched a fistful of long-stemmed flowers.
I wondered if the bright excess of vitality was to compensate for the tremendous amount of loss this place held, if the idyllic landscape and fresh bouquets could possibly fill the empty seat at the dinner table.
Grandfather’s grave marker was a granite rectangle, dark and glittering like night. Engraved in gold were Chinese characters I couldn’t read. We kneeled, knees kissing the soil, and passed around a towel and a bucket of water to wash away the grime that had accumulated upon the stone.
As per Chinese tradition, we took turns talking to Grandfather. My cousin had done well on her high school entrance exams. My younger brother was getting more involved with debate and soccer. When it was my turn, I realized that my shaky grasp of Mandarin wasn’t enough to express everything swelling up inside my throat. I wish I’d spoken to you more. I wish I’d known you more than as a distant relative I’d see every few summers; that I knew more about you than just a scrubbed apartment cluttered with books. But I didn’t know how to say any of those things, so instead I mumbled something about going to college and stepped aside to let my grandmother talk to her late husband.
She was hunched over with grief: her spine drooped into a question mark. As she spoke, her voice seized with sadness. “Take care and wait for me,” she murmured at the end. Wait for me. My grandfather’s passing wasn’t permanent, just a breathless transition to a better place.
Later, my mother would tell me that my grandmother had criticized her husband for over fifty years. Every day, a new complaint. You don’t wash the dishes thoroughly. Didn’t I tell you not to put your feet on the table? Why do you spend so much time watching this trash television?
And yet: wait for me.
Several days after we visited my paternal grandfather’s grave, my younger brother and I visited our maternal grandparents, who had raised me in China while my parents finished up school in the States. It was the first time we’d seen our maternal grandfather since he’d been diagnosed with a trifecta of bad news: colon cancer, Parkinson’s, and a debilitating vision-reducing disease whose name I never caught.
He sat in a wheelchair, face gaunt, brown-spotted hands shuddering. He could only speak in a whisper, and we leaned in close to discern the words. “Water.” “Restroom.” “Please.”
Here was the man who had held my chubby hand as I took wobbly steps in the courtyard, and later held it all the same as nurses slipped IVs into my arm when I fell sick. Now, he was reduced to a ghost with a sliver of a voice. I hated that he had told me Chinese stories to distract me from the pain as I laid in a hospital bed, that he had crammed medicine down my throat even when I was screaming my lungs raw, that he had done everything in his power to heal me, yet I could not do the same for him.
Over the course of the next few days, we would visit him often, but as June simmered into July, our date of departure drew closer and closer. When we bid our goodbyes to our maternal grandparents, I found myself, again, at a loss for words.
I can only hope to have as much of an impact on the world as you did. I can only hope to be as brilliant and brave. You took care of me when my parents couldn’t, and for that, I owe you more than I can ever repay.
The Chinese word for love is Ai. A simple syllable for something so ferocious. I could not bring myself to say it.
Instead, I hugged him and said something grateful but generic. I stumbled over my Mandarin, let the words clatter clumsily to the floor. I knew it was likely the last time I’d ever see him.
Outside, Dad sputtered for breath, something too immense quaking inside of him. I wiped at my eyes.
All relationships eventually arrive at the last chapter. I hated permanence: the absolute finality of saying goodbye for the last time. If this was how losing a treasured one felt, then I didn’t want to clutch onto anyone so closely.
Once I flew back to the States, I made an effort to improve my Mandarin. On the plane, I watched Chinese-language movies. At home, I spoke as much Chinese as possible with my parents. I intended to write frequently, weekly perhaps, to my grandparents, to cultivate the thread of love that spanned an ocean. Through the social media app WeChat (a mobile-messaging platform reminiscent of WhatsApp and wildly popular in China), my mother connected me with my grandmother. But as the months unraveled and I moved across the country for college, my emails were still unwritten, my WeChat messages still unsent.
Often, I would only remember that I had not yet written to my grandparents at one a.m., while rushing to finish a problem set, or after turning the lights off and settling into bed. Tomorrow, I would tell myself. Tomorrow, I’ll email them. Tomorrow dripped into next week, which slipped into next month, and so forth, until the year was rushing to an end.
I had plenty of excuses. My Chinese was clunky and all my sentences came out as cobbled messes. (True, but Google Translate existed for a reason.) I was too busy. (I spent hours each week watching cat videos.) I didn’t have anything to say.
This last excuse struck closest to the truth, which was that I didn’t know what to say. My grandparents’ stories glimmered with extraordinary circumstances and history: when he was sixteen, my grandfather ran away to the mountains in order to fight in the Chinese Communist Revolution. In her youth, my grandmother had been so beautiful, a black-and-white portrait of her had hung at the front of a hotel. They had met in Russia, both such exemplary students that the government had sent them abroad to study and carry knowledge back to China, which they did by becoming nationally-renowned professors who wrote textbooks used by students across the nation. Me...well, last week, I had made a daring purchase on Amazon.com by ordering twenty-four packs of instant ramen.
I relayed all of this to Mom, who replied, “The point isn’t to entertain them. The point is to express how much you love them.”
Initially, that struck me as an odd way to communicate love. I pondered over it. Maybe love was about the little everyday things, more than sweeping grand gestures or passionate declarations. Then, perhaps my paternal grandmother’s years’ worth of criticisms to her husband were an unconventional, and maybe a tad misguided, form of expressing her love: I’m only saying this because I love you and care about what you do.
So I sat down at my desk, determined to write to my grandparents about various happenings: the French class I was taking, so I could conduct research in Paris the upcoming summer. The blizzard that swept through Boston and draped a lustrous sheet of snow upon the cityscape. The frustration and euphoria that came with debugging computer science assignments at midnight.
But still, the words didn’t come. And soon, it was evident that the root issue was that I was terrified of losing those I cared about.
Better to maintain distance than to step closer and get hurt. I would close my eyes and see it all again—flowers set upon a grave marker, a shock of color against a backdrop of grief; our knees, brushing the dirt; my father, gasping like a fish, body wracked with sorrow, even years after my paternal grandfather had died. Wounds that never healed, empty spaces that couldn’t be filled.
I had chosen to major in a STEM subject because I liked solving problems, but here was sadness I couldn’t fix with a few keystrokes, couldn’t suture with a line of code or a paragraph in an email. It was terrifying.
“Your grandparents would really love to hear from you,” my mother told me a few weeks ago.
“Reply to Grandma on WeChat,” she texted me yesterday.
I can’t bear the thought of standing at my grandparents’ funerals, but my time with them is chipping away. Regardless of whether or not I write to them, one day I will have to say goodbye, and while it’s doubtful I can ever say everything I want to express to them, perhaps I will cling onto fewer regrets if I work up the courage to let them into my life.
I’ve always seen permanence as inherently negative, the signature problem with death. But permanence is not necessarily synonymous with tragedy. Love, too, can be permanent. My paternal grandmother, hunched over, murmuring wait for me. And in a way, my paternal grandfather lives on, in the tales my father tells us, and in the memories of those who loved him most.
So despite my clumsy grasp on Chinese, my lack of enthralling escapades, and my fear of goodbyes, I will write to my grandparents. I will tell them about my lost student ID card and the struggles of multivariable calculus, and I will ask about the stories they carry. And I will end my emails with:
RONA WANG is an eighteen-year-old freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying mathematics with computer science. She has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Sierra Nevada Review, the Adroit Prizes, and Claremont Review. When not writing, she is involved with activism and cat video appreciation. She is originally from Portland, Oregon.