Earlier this month I lost my grandpa to pneumonia. Gramps was 88 years old. He saved all his money for his children and spent most of his life living alone. He used to have Coffee, a Pomeranian who ran his apartment. I wish I could say he lived a good life, but the sad truth is I don’t know.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, he was later moved to a retirement home. To see him deteriorate to the point of being unable to take care of himself, to the day he became wheelchair bound, and then to a point where he couldn’t recognize me or even speak is the most painful thing I’ve experienced. Reduced to a shell of who he used to be, it felt even worse to see family members struggle to come to terms with the fact that in a way, he had already died months ago.
It saddens me that he passed. It saddens me to see my dad in distress. But it saddens me the most that I didn’t really know my grandpa.
For my grandpa and I, it was the perfect storm of geographic, personality and cultural limitations. Since we lived in different continents until I was nine, I hardly ever saw my grandpa in my formative years. We were both quiet and reserved, and Chinese culture simply didn’t encourage an open relationship between more distant family members that exists in Western culture.
All I know about my grandpa is that he used to insist on giving me a Coke when I visited him, and would always comment on how I wasn’t eating enough as I was stuffing my face in front of him. In the fringes of my mind are hazy memories of my dad telling me that grandpa used to work six days a week and bought bruised bananas at the end of the day because they were cheaper. I never thought of asking grandpa about his experiences, nor did I ever thank him for his sacrifices. We exchanged few words with the unacknowledged understanding that we liked each other. So I spent little time with him. Instead I watched hours upon hours of SpongeBob and hung out with friends.
In my head, I can reason out why my grandpa and I aren’t close or why I didn’t visit him often when he was in the home. But that doesn’t excuse my inaction, and it certainly doesn’t make me feel any better. When I finally uttered the words, “My grandpa passed,” I cried in public. I thought it was going to be fine, but at that moment, all the guilt caught up with me, and no amount of reasoning could get me to stop sobbing.
I have friends who are very close to their grandparents. They hung out, watched TV together, and went to get dim sum every week. A self-centered version of myself used to think I was missing out on a great relationship. I saw grandparents as a source of embarrassing stories about my parents, or as figures that dispensed pearls of wisdom over tea. Pigeonholing grandparents to these stereotypical roles deprives them of the basic respect they deserve.
When friends tell me about their relationships with their grandparents, the onus is always on the elderly to initiate a connection with their grandchildren. They are the one who call and ask how school is going. While I can see why this is the case, it is also one of the greatest injustices in the world. Here is a person without whom I would literally not exist, without whom I would not be wearing Club Monaco and sitting at a café typing away on a MacBook. Yet the onus is on this person and not me. That’s messed up.
When I visited my grandpa in the hospital in his last days, with labored breathing he held my hand tightly and just looked at me. I don’t think he knew who I was, but I could tell he was comforted having someone by his bedside. I regret spending so little time with him; even more so when I realized that literally just sitting there without a word said was appreciated.
As cheesy and morbid as this sounds, you only have four grandparents and chances are they won’t be around for very long. These people have given up so much for you, and at the very least you should spend some time getting to know them. They will welcome it. It is your duty.
Photo Credit: St. Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital