My grandmother passed away today. She had a rare cancer which struck unannounced, spread rapidly and took her away in the course of 5 months. She died in the hospital, knowing she was loved and cared for by the people that mattered most to her.
I only ever lived in the same city with her for 2 years, when I was in 7th and 8th grade. Before then, and even after then, she has alway been a colorful presence in my life. From her, I learned how to speak Indonesian and be comfortable with the ins and outs of the language. I practiced on her, and that practice came in handy when I would listen to the rest of the family mutter, argue and gossip – and then finally let them know that I understood. It became colorful when I found that my knowledge of the language – inherited directly from her everyday speech – was a collection of curses, insults and rough language hardly used by the toughest sailor left around the docks these days, and then even when cleaned up, was clearly the Ebonics version of Indonesian.
My favorite Grandma-Byron story has always been the house fire. When she took care of me as a baby in Hamilton, so the story goes (it’s apocryphal), she went outside the house to take care of something and inadvertently locked herself out. Speaking no English, and in an area with nobody that spoke any Indonesian, she was at a loss as to how exactly to get back inside. The doors were locked, the windows shut, and the stove was on. I was inside the house and obviously unable to help out, and my parents were away at work. Fearing the worst, and unable to fathom contacting anyone or calling the police, she broke the window (after what seemed like hours, supposedly). Which is a solid thing to do when there’s a baby involved. No fire. I lived. This story is much better than the other one from the same time. My cousin Louisa, on a visit, carried me around in her arms until the moment when she dropped me, on my head. I blame any deficiencies and faults on her.
My grandfather was a man of his times. Suave and entertaining – a born salesman – he started and grew a large shipping operation that was spun off into logistics, telecommunications and other areas by the heirs at those companies. He was an intensely successful man when he died in his late 40s. My grandmother was uneducated, and it seems to me a little magical that they were able to go together so well. Regardless of the fairytale, she compensated for any lack of education by being a pillar of womanhood – at least for her time. Modest, supportive of her children, and a good homemaker and housekeeper. Which persisted when my grandfather passed away; even into her 80s, her daily manual labor around the house was grueling. Cleanliness like godliness. She was also extremely good with money. As good Confucians, everyone gave money to Grandma. She in turn parceled out her love back to all of us in wise investments: mostly food, but whatever we needed – for the more ailing or wayward family members. Money necessary to repay a debt or two, or finance some real estate deal near and dear to her children, would all suddenly appear from Grandma’s largesse. She was shrewd with her stewardship. Nothing went to waste.
I visited her in August for her birthday. She was quiet then, which was strange and saddening, but still lucid and quite aware of everything, and of me. She had been discharged, momentarily, from the hospital, and was laying in the bed she had called her own for over 20 years. Her room was like I had always remembered. When she forced me to take naps in her room during the afternoons (back when I was a child), I remember staring at certain shadows on the wall and smelling mothballs and Chinese medicines that she kept stocked… and I looked for them as I lay down beside her in that room. She was breathing steadily, clutching the Curious George stuffed monkey I had brought with me, and looking off into the distance. Sometimes at me, and sometimes at a far off spot, like she was remembering something. She didn’t smile often, but she would smile sometimes for me. At one point, she turned, held my hand, smiled that enigmatic smile, and squeezed. I found the shadows again, and that old familiar smell came back, and I got a little drowsy there. It was nice. Later, when I got up, I felt that was our goodbye. It was just us in the room, and I had relived 25 years of knowing her, all of it coming to a head with just that one squeeze on my hand. Physical pressure, knowing she was there. Even after coming back another time and saying goodbye to her (on my way to the airport) with more words and more pomp and circumstance, I knew that one time was it, my last moment with her. Oh, I had talked with her at length at many other points, but that one moment, in its quietness and in the heartbreak it generated, was much more important. Sitting in the airplane back to Philly, I knew I’d never see her alive again. I’d hoped she would have lived longer, but I somehow knew that was not going to be the case.
There’s more, of course. She was influential far beyond what I’ve written so far, and in ways I haven’t really sat back and thought about yet. She was just there, and things that are just there have a presence and influence you can’t always describe but you know are very important. I love my grandma. I will miss her, and I will pray for her and I keep many of the things she’s said to me near and dear so that they will not be forgotten. This may not be the most eloquent eulogy, or the most fluent, but it is my eulogy for her. Goodbye, Grandma.
1990, Burlington, ON.
1994, Vancouver, BC.
2008, Vancouver, BC.
2009, Vancouver, BC.
RIP Homiez. 2010, Vancouver, BC.