... to use one's hands & eyes; to talk to people; to be a straw on the river, now & then -- passive, not striving to say this is this. If one does not lie back & sum up & say to the moment, this very moment, stay you are so fair, what will be one's gain, dying? No: stay, this moment. No one ever says that enough.
~ Virginia Woolf, December 1932
Tomorrow will be my last day in Seattle for a while.
D's been amazing -- he's already bought tickets for September and October, so we have several visits lined up. Which means no anxiety about when we'll next get to see each other (that is, if you don't count a certain well-justified sense of foreboding over airline punctuality).
I should be finishing up the first draft of my syllabus right now, but I know if I don't write this post today, I won't get to do it without fifteen other distractions once I get back to Iowa. So any thoughts on grading breakdowns and plagiarism policies will just have to wait. There's still time (even if the Type A in me says otherwise).
I went to Toronto early last week to spend some time with my mom and her mother. At one time, my grandmother was an enthusiastic storyteller, full of tales from her youth and her escape from the Japanese during World War II. Now that she is largely isolated from her family, she has no one to tell her stories to. In fact, the only time that they are ever told is when my mom recounts them for me.
Like my mother and her mother before her, I have the storytelling gene (even if I don't do the recounting as well as they do, the desire to do it is there). And while it is premature to say whether I'll actually be able to accomplish this, I want to try to cull all of the history from family memory and write it down. But first, I have to tell the story of this visit in order to explain why.
My grandmother is 92, and she is in a nursing home. Her doctors say she has Alzheimer's. It's hard to say whether this is completely accurate -- as far as I know, no one has actually done a scan of her brain to see what's going on in there -- but she is wheelchair-bound (more from advanced osteoporosis than anything else) and can no longer feed herself. She has trouble remembering the names of her children and difficulty recognizing some of their faces. But she's still there, deep in her mind, where her oldest memories live.
She rarely speaks now -- in fact, one of the nurses walking down the hall while we were visiting came into the room because she heard my grandmother talking to us and couldn't believe her ears. But given time, and more questions than "What's my name?" from every person who drops by, she can hold a good conversation, even with someone who barely speaks Cantonese (me).
On the day I arrived, my mom and I went to the nursing home right away to have lunch with my grandmother. I knew that she had physically deteriorated a lot from what my mom described after a visit nearly a year ago, but it was still a bit of a shock to see my grandmother in a room full of other vacant-eyed elderly men and women draped with large bibs, many of them being fed by the staff. There were also several residents who were fairly self-sufficient and very alert, but most of them had already finished eating and were making their way to the TV room down the hall. When we got to my grandmother's table, she was asleep with her head hanging over her tray.
One of my uncles was with us and had brought some homemade chicken soup, so we wheeled my grandmother to a quiet spot in the TV room to feed her ourselves. She was rather hazy -- the staff gives her some kind of sedative in the morning because she's supposedly developed aggressive tendencies toward them and other residents -- but we did manage to wake her up a little. She glanced at each of our faces repeatedly, staring for a few seconds then closing her eyes again from what seemed like exhaustion. For a while, she wouldn't eat. My mom kept offering her spoonfuls of rice and mashed vegetables, but my grandmother would turn her head or push the spoon away with one hand.
Then one of the aides walked by and said hello, chatting briefly with my mom in Shanghainese. My grandmother's eyes immediately flew open -- she had recognized the dialect she grew up speaking. "Did you see that?" I asked, nudging my mom. "Try asking her to eat in Shanghainese."
"Mine's terrible," my mom said, but she went at it gamely, offering a bite of chicken and laughing at the sounds coming out of her mouth. "God knows what I'm actually saying to her," she whispered.
It worked. My grandmother took the mouthful of chicken and let us feed her more. She still grimaced when we offered her vegetables, so we hid them in the rice. "I wouldn't like them either," I said to her in English (my Shanghainese is nonexistent). She stared at me again, trying to find me in her memory. "Hello, Nga Po," I said, calling her by the name I had used for her from age 1. I gave her my Chinese name too, but she closed her eyes again before it seemed to register.
That evening, we went back to feed her dinner. She was so much more alert that by the time we arrived, she had already finished (with the help of an aide), so we took her to a sitting area at the end of a hall. This time an aunt, in addition to my uncle, was with us.
"Who am I?" my uncle said. She stared and stared but shook her head. "Who am I?" he repeated. Then he began to talk about their life in Hong Kong, decades back, when my grandfather was an upholsterer doing all the furniture and drapes for the Peninsula Hotel. "Do you remember sewing all those curtains with Dad?" my uncle said. "We worked so hard with those needles that I got holes in my fingertips!"
A look of recognition began to filter into Nga Po's eyes. "You're Daniel," she said at last in Cantonese. They were the first words she spoke to us that day.
"Yes, yes," he said. Then Nga Po looked at my mother. "This is Mor Mor," my uncle said, giving the nickname her siblings called and still call her by -- littlest sister. Nga Po nodded, but we were unsure if she had really made the connection as to who my mother was.
My uncle talked on a little more until Nga Po suddenly pushed at his arm to indicate she wanted him to go away. Once he had stood up, she gestured to the wing chair he had vacated. "Let Mor Mor sit," she said very clearly. We all laughed. She remembered.
My mother took her turn until Nga Po asked for my aunt, also calling her by her nickname. Before we could try to explain who I was, though, we had to leave to meet more of my aunts and uncles for dinner. "We'll be back tomorrow," I said to her once we had wheeled her back to her room. She looked at me again, then her eyes glazed over a little and she retreated into fogginess.
The following morning, we found her not in the cafeteria but in her room. "She was hitting people again," an aide explained. "She wouldn't take her medication either, so we brought her back here."
Nga Po, lying flat in her bed, looked at us sweetly as we greeted her. Her gaze was alert as I leaned down and gave her my name again.
"My daughter," my mom said.
Nga Po's gaze locked on mine for a few seconds. "You've gotten so tall," she said.
I looked at my mother -- we silently seemed to agree that her recognizing me might have been a fluke, some kind of mistaken identity. But even if she wasn't remembering the right granddaughter, Nga Po allowed me to take her hand all the same, and she squeezed it and shook it gently. "She must be so hungry for physical contact," my mom whispered. We raised her bed so she could sit comfortably, and then we rubbed her shoulders and neck and stroked her hair, which she accepted quite peaceably.
"Are you sure this isn't bothering her?" I asked.
"She'll let you know what she wants," my mom said. "I'm sure she was hitting because the aides were trying to force her to do something she didn't want to."
"The medication," I said. "She knows what it does to her, and she knew we were coming back today."
We looked at Nga Po, but she gave no indication that she had heard us. I took my hand out of hers and reached to pull down her sweatshirt, which had ridden up behind her when we had raised the bed. Suddenly, she grabbed my hand firmly and pulled it toward her. She settled her own hand in her lap, her fingers still wrapped around mine. My mother was right. Nga Po knew what she wanted. I squeezed her hand, and she began to shake it again as if to say hello.
"Your hair is still so dark," my mom said after a moment, combing the thin black strands streaked with amazingly few white ones to the side of Nga Po's forehead. "Soon I'm going to have more white on my head than you!" She pointed to her own hair with its light sprinkling of silver.
"Whatever you say," Nga Po said. Her immediate response surprised us both.
"Well, of course!" my mom continued. "If your hair isn't changing anymore and mine still is, I'll catch up to you in no time."
And Nga Po laughed.
"My God, I haven't heard her do that in ages," my mom said, looking at me with wide eyes. "She's still in there."
That night we visited again with two of my aunts and uncles, a cousin, and her fiancé. Even though Nga Po's eyes were practically closing as we stood around her bed, she tried to force them to stay open, clearly recognizing many of her children, if not her grandchildren. We took turns again, sitting in front of her where she could see each of us more easily. "I can't remember," she repeated over and over as she tried to come up with our names.
"But you know our faces," one of my aunts reassured her. "That's all that matters."
Nga Po nodded a little uncertainly and smiled, the muscles in her face stiff from lack of use. And then she fell asleep.
On our last day, we took Nga Po to an outdoor pavilion on the nursing home grounds for lunch. After getting Nga Po's wheelchair settled, my mom went back to the car to get the fish sandwich from McDonald's -- one of Nga Po's favorite meals -- that we had brought, along with salads for ourselves. As we waited for her, I took Nga Po's hand and told her my name again. "You've gotten so tall," she said once more.
I nodded and took a breath. I knew this would be my last chance to talk with her for a while, and even if she couldn't connect my present-day identity to the granddaughter she could remember, I wanted to connect with her in the moment.
"I got married," I said.
"Really?" Her face brightened briefly, as if the broken filaments in the lights of her eyes were temporarily recoupled and glowing like flares. I wondered if she was remembering the day of her own wedding as a 16-year-old bride.
I pronounced D's name slowly for her. "That's my husband," I said.
Nga Po nodded and even repeated D's name. I knew she would not remember him after a few minutes, but knowing that she had understood me was enough.
After lunch, I took out my laptop and showed her a photo that had been taken on my wedding day. She turned to study my face and then looked at the image on the screen, as if to match them up. Then I pulled up a picture of her that had been taken at around the same age, one of several old photos that my mom had scanned for me. Nga Po stared at it intently then looked at my mom. "Is that me?" she asked.
"Yes," my mom replied.
"So pretty," I said. "I was never that pretty."
"With such an expression on my face!" Nga Po said, frowning critically at her younger self. "Hardly."
"Beautiful," I insisted and pointed at the lipstick carefully painted on her full lips.
Nga Po got quiet again. Then: "Is that me?"
My mom and I exchanged glances. "Let's keep moving," she said. I pulled up the next picture, one of Nga Po and me around age 7 wearing a red cable-knit cardigan. "Do you know who knit that sweater?" my mom asked.
Nga Po squinted and blinked. "I did," she said after a few seconds. "I did."
"I still have that sweater," I told her. "Someday, when I have children who can wear it, I'll tell them that you knit it for me."
For nearly half an hour, we looked at photos, some of whose events Nga Po was able to recall -- birthdays, engagements, trips. Even when she could not, though, she repeated over and over, "These are so good -- so good for remembering."
"We can take a picture now," my mom said, showing her the camera I had brought.
"And next time we come, I'll have it on the computer to show you," I said. Nga Po nodded. Very quickly, my mother composed the shot. But by the time she pressed the button, Nga Po was looking elsewhere in the room.
We had to leave in order to beat traffic to our hotel, and Nga Po was getting tired. No aides were available to get her out of the wheelchair into bed, so we took Nga Po back to the TV room where some of the staff were hosting a karaoke party for the residents. A few of the residents seemed to be following along as one aide sang along to a track in Cantonese, but the rest dozed or gazed at the TV screen expressionlessly.
"I don't want to tell her we're leaving," my mom whispered to me, her eyes beginning to well up with tears.
"I know," I said. "But we have to -- or else she might think we've abandoned her when we don't come back tomorrow."
My mom nodded. "She's understood every time before when I've told her we have to get on a plane. She knows it means goodbye." She bent forward and spoke quietly into her mother's ear beneath the warbling amplified through the sound system.
Nga Po nodded and raised her head to look up at us. And then, very clearly: "Thank you."
Both of us hustled toward the door of the TV room, tears streaming. When we turned to look one last time from the threshold, Nga Po was already staring straight ahead as if we had already vanished, figments of memory faded to black.