Her eyes had seen much in their eighty-odd years, and those eyes were tired. And as I sat in that cold hospital room watching my grandmother, I wished I could see her eyes flicker with excitement once more. I wished I could hear her storyteller's voice again. Those eyes, that voice, had been my window to another world.
My grandmother was a living legend at Pui Ching School in Hong Kong. She was known as "Teacher Yim," and no student made it through third grade without Bible lessons from this iron lady of the classroom. She was so strict, so fear-inspiring, legend says, that one little girl, in a moment of sheer terror, lost control of her bladder standing right there beside her desk, facing Teacher Yim.
I laughed the first time I heard that story. I laughed a lot. I never knew my grandmother to be strict. I never remember her as harsh or domineering or, horror of horrors, pee-inducing. After all, how could my little grandma, of all people, scare someone into publicly losing all control over bodily functions?
That's not the woman I remember. That's not the person I knew. Instead, I remember Grandma's fried rice, my favorite breakfast and a concoction that I haven't been able to recreate. It was last night's rice with Chinese sausage, some scallions, lettuce, maybe a dash of sesame oil, and an egg cracked over it.
I remember her favorite English line, "Good for you!" That phrase worked magic with me. OK, so maybe the magic came from the stern look delivered with the line, the stare that told me I'd better eat what she put on my plate or else. And it didn't stop my whining, but it did get me to eat my squash and leafy greens.
I remember constant reminders that we grandchildren should study hard. Unlike many Chinese women of her generation, Grandma had a father who believed in education for girls and sent her off to Shanghai for schooling. She eventually ended up at teachers' college, where she met a young professor who encouraged her to make a better life for herself. She did just that, emerging from college with a degree and a husband who just happened to be some young professor.
I remember the money tucked away in the oddest of places – behind the writing desk, in a cookie tin, under the bathroom sink. It was a habit acquired, I suppose, during years of wartime life. When my grandparents married in 1934, the Japanese celebrated by continuing their romps through China. And when the Second World War was over, the Chinese Communist Revolution was there to take its place, making life ever so interesting and financial security an altogether foreign concept. I remember the picture of my grandfather that Grandma kept tucked in her Bible.
It first found its place in the well-worn pages of Psalms when the Bamboo Curtain went up in 1949. With his family safe in Hong Kong, my grandfather remained in China as a pastor and seminary professor in a country that wasn't exactly Jesus-friendly. Despite his wife's pleas, he felt called to stay until one day in the early 1950's, when somehow, he just knew it was time to go. He packed his bags, grabbed his traveling papers, and headed for the train station. The next morning, the Communists took over the seminary and threw his successor into jail for over a decade.
I remember Grandma's fashion sense, if you can call it that. Her trademarks were Chinese cheongsam for church on Sundays and way too much polyester the rest of the week. But then again, once she retired to Berkeley, California, fashion didn't matter. Anything goes there, and she, with her butterfly-rimmed glasses and butterfly-print tote bag, wasn't any weirder than anyone else.
Most of all, I remember that she cared far less about fashion than faith. And from that faith came the most amazing peace of mind and contentedness. Growing up with eight younger brothers amidst upheaval in her homeland, she learned that ultimate security wasn't to be found in the world around her, in material things or in wealth. The government was less stable than a house of cards. Money was scarce and meals were simple. Her unshakable trust in God was borne of an era when it was plainly obvious that everything else in the world was ephemeral.
It has been three years now since I sat in that hospital room saying my final goodbyes to my grandmother. Never again will she remind me to study hard, to behave, to be a good kid. Never again will she cajole me into eating vegetables, reading my Bible every day and practicing my Cantonese. Never again will she say grace with me before dinner, sing songs with me in the morning and listen to stories about school over the telephone.
Once in a while, I still get angry with myself for not having listened to her when I should have, for not always (I confess) eating the "good for you!" stuff that she cooked, for being a selfish little boy. Why didn't I take the time to listen, to soak in the stories, to learn, to make my grandmother happy?
When I pray my bedtime prayers, I like to think Grandma is up there watching. And sometimes, in the middle of those prayers, this feeling comes over me – a really strange but cozy feeling – as if she's right there with me, as if she's saying "Everything's going to be ok," as if she's giving me a hug straight from heaven.
I wish I'd heard a good friend's advice years earlier, but perhaps I wouldn't have understood it back then. "Love your friends and family," she said, "as though every day were your last day together."
Amen, I say, amen.