My Grandfather’s Laugh Is like Thread
It is not the wheelchair, the sunken cheekbones, or even his bony legs that shock me. Rather, it is the lack of warmth and spirit that renders him unrecognizable. My grandfather, the one who let me use his legs as seesaws and took me on motorcycle trips to buy candy, now stares at me, confused.
“It’s been so long! You’ve grown so much; he doesn’t recognize you.” My mother laughs in a tight voice. I put on a smile and gently touch his arm.
“Gong-gong, it’s me, Wendie, remember?” His foggy eyes fixate on my face, and I stare intensely into them, trying to will some long-gone memory of me back into his mind.
“Wendie,” he rasps.
I nod encouragingly, “Yes, it’s me!”
Minutes later, the blank stare returns. That day and throughout the week, I repeat my name over and over again.
Walking around my grandparents’ Taipei apartment for the first time in four years, I find myself treading the delicate line between displacement and belonging that materializes when one feels the strangeness of what once was a home. It seems that as the cognitive and physical abilities of my grandfather deteriorate in his post-stroke state, the lively energy of the house that I have come to consider synonymous with Taiwan and my childhood are also drained. As we sit at the dining table, light conversation is sandwiched between the clinking of silverware and the low hum of traffic outside. The caretaker spoons mushed up food into my grandfather’s mouth, taking care to wipe his chin with the small bib tucked into the collar of his shirt. My grandmother holds my grandfather’s hand, and her voice trails off quietly when she speaks; the atmosphere feels worn with the sadness lingering at the edges of my relatives’ smiles. Even with my little cousins fighting in their high-pitched voices, the house is too quiet, and I know what’s missing. What’s missing is the throaty voice of my grandfather sharing stories of his time growing up in China while my grandmother swats his arm and tells him to hush and eat his lunch. My grandfather’s silence, aside from his coughs and rattling breath, is the most prominent reminder of what has been lost.
We decide to bring my grandparents to their old home in Kaohsiung for a couple of days, hoping the trip will jog my grandfather’s memory. We take him through the noisy streets, on and off the bus, through the winding back-alleys with various family members taking his hand or whispering into his ear. My grandfather’s crossed hands and facial expression, the one with the quivering lips and wide eyes of a child that seem to see but not understand, remain the only constants amidst the changing scenery.
Is he there? Does he hear? Does he understand? I’m a fully-fledged adult, but reminders of the cruelties of old age and illness have a funny way of turning back time, and I feel quite small. I struggle to comprehend the consequences of an aging body’s mutiny, leaving in its place the shell of a stranger. I have this image of my real grandfather trapped in some far back corner of his brain, shaking at the bars of tangled gray matter and sputtering neurons. I’m here! I’m still here! My eyes rove the valleys of his face as I try to lock his gaze. They say eyes are the windows to the soul. Perhaps if I look hard enough, I can find him.
At the Kaohsiung apartment, I find myself comforted by the old household fixtures all sitting dutifully in their places. Only the progression of yearbook and graduation photos on the refrigerator indicate that time has passed through this place. As I walk down the white marble-tiled halls to my grandfather’s study, a strong wave of nostalgia hits me. I can almost hear the creak of the chair as he reclines with his hands above his head, adjusting his glasses as he reads the newspaper by a dim lamplight. His belongings still lie around the office, the room suspended in time: a well-worn coat hangs on the rack and half-written notes and books are sprawled open on his desk, waiting in anticipation for my grandfather’s leathery hands to pick them back up again. I scarcely want to breathe for fear of disturbing the perfect placement of everything in the room, this museum of the life my grandfather once led. I walk around the study to gaze at the photographs on the shelves, and it feels like I’m watching a movie. Echoes of my mother’s voice reel like a narration as I look from frame to frame, trying to reconcile her stories with the various vignettes of my childhood summers that now flicker through my mind’s eye.
My grandfather grew up poor as one of ten children in southeast China and eventually fled to Taiwan during the Communist revolution, separated from the rest of the family for over forty years. He met my grandmother in the local laundromat where she worked, and she found him charming and gentle—a stark contrast to some of the sleazier men who came to jeer at the young ladies there. Together, they raised four children along with a dog named Liuly in Tong-Ching Lu, a cobblestone-lined neighborhood that has since been replaced with fancier new high-rise apartments. The house was small, but it had a red door, a mango tree in the backyard, and a cement rooftop where the kids could stargaze and play with sparklers during Chinese New Year. I have never set foot in Tong-Ching Lu, but I can feel the cozy bustling of the house; the sound of Liuly barking; and the kids shouting, “Ba-ba! Ba-ba!” when the putter of my grandfather’s motorcycle came through the cobblestone streets.
My grandfather and I weren’t close by conventional standards. I only saw him once a year until his stroke, and the language barrier usually prevented any substantial conversation. I used to struggle with this aspect of the first-generation experience whenever I heard about my friends’ long phone calls or giddy Saturday afternoons of board games and baking with their grandparents. I could scarcely imagine a free-flowing conversation much less the ease of a drive to see them, and it certainly made me wonder if I was “close” to my grandparents. I was hyperaware of the way my Mandarin sounded when talking to my relatives: clumsy, second-hand, Other. What I couldn’t convey, I’d try to make up for with smiles and nods. Yet, this lack of communication doesn’t dampen the familiarity that radiates from deep within when I reminisce about what Taiwan was like when my grandfather was alive and well.
The travails of language melt away when I remember how I used to clamber onto my grandfather’s lap as he bounced his knees to the rhythm of old Chinese rhymes, and I’d imagine I was one of the ancient warriors on horseback he was chanting about. Or how he’d sit next to me in the living room as I rapped my pencil on my notebook, attempting to teach him the alphabet, “A, B, C…” He struggled to wrap his voice around the flat intonations of English, so different from his expressive, melodic Mandarin in which every syllable melted into the other like a gurgling river. My grandfather would initiate a hearty round of cheers at a family meal, holding up his cup, “Gahn-bei!” and everyone would join in, smiling and clinking glasses. While I could not understand the dinner-table conversations or stories my grandfather told, I could drink in the lively chatter and laughter dancing across my family’s faces, and I was full.
Perhaps it is my skin tone, a tan contrast to the milky-white skin that many women in Taiwan prefer, or something more subtle in my gait, that makes strangers ask me where I am from even before my accented Mandarin reveals me. But remembering my grandfather’s daily walks to the local park remind me how I, too, had been a child of the streets of Taiwan, feeling at home in the city’s chaos. With groups of playing children darting in and out of the road while parents sat around fanning themselves, the hustle and bustle felt infinitely more intimate and carefree than the sterile sidewalks and quiet parks of my suburban neighborhood in the US. I enjoyed tagging along on his walks, for the trip would most likely conclude with ur-toh bing taro ice cream from the snack stands that dotted the city corners. As I ran around the playground, I’d watch him make his laps around the track, his face and steps purposeful. It was during one of those park pilgrimages that I had first learned to walk, my grandfather and mom both witnesses to my first stumbles along that same rusty red track. I like to think that was me trying to follow in his steps many years ago.
My grandfather could create homes across borders, providing a nest to land in after the straddling of worlds that comes with being once-removed from the motherland. The last time the whole family was together before my grandfather’s illness was during our family reunion road-trip through Yellowstone National Park, where we stayed in quaint wood cabins in the middle of the sprawling land. One night, as the rest of the family was preparing for bed, my mother and grandfather stood on the deck looking at the stars. I stepped out to join them. As I gazed up, I was struck by the view: large, sparkling holes in an otherwise vast darkness blanketing the earth. Bits and pieces of my mother and grandfather’s conversation floated through the night.
“How is she doing? Is her sister still in Taiwan?”
“I heard his son recently started a new job…”
“Have you been back to Tong-Ching Lu recently? It’s changed so much.”
The three of us and the crickets may as well have been the only beings awake for miles and miles. When I think of this moment, my favorite memory of the trip, I find myself fading into the background. What I see instead are my grandfather and mother, two kindred spirits seated under the giant stars of a quiet Wyoming sky, their murmurs a cozy lullaby that I eventually fall asleep to.
Though my grandfather is a person I only know through puzzle pieces of my mother’s stories and my fragmented memories, I still feel close to him in spirit. I may not have been able to talk to him about school or the books I was reading, but it had always been the small, unspoken things—his hand taking mine as we walked through the streets of Taipei, his voice saying my name in that lilting, song-like way: Wun-dee—that made up the letters of our own language, and they were enough. Remembering his presence only emphasizes the current emptiness, a Taiwan that feels duller and more muted. My grandfather was the glue of my mother’s family, connecting its members’ strong and wildly different personalities when they clashed, the force of gravity at the dinner table, and the person whose laugh warmed the room in a way that even the Taiwanese humidity couldn’t. Now, my mother’s family feels like a scattered set of archipelagos, separated not only by physical geography and miles of Pacific Ocean but also by the chasm left in the wake of his loss.
My little cousin’s yell pierces through my thoughts and I am brought back to my grandfather’s study, reality setting back in. I return to the couch where the children are watching television and bickering. My grandfather sits in his wheelchair across from us, gazing mutely out the window. Bored with the cartoons, my cousins and I erupt into a tickle fight. One of them shrieks in laughter and in her excitement, tumbles off the couch. As I reach down to help, I suddenly hear an odd, wheezing noise and look up to a miraculous sight.
My grandfather is laughing.
His shaking finger points at my cousin, eyes crinkled in that familiar mirth, and his mouth is shaped into a toothless grin. In that instant, something clicks, a light switched on in a dark room, like the split second after you wake and realize it was all just a bad dream.
“He’s back!” I think. But just as suddenly as the moment comes, it disappears.
Stricken, I watch as the twinkle fades from his eyes and his face resumes its blank expression. I tickle my cousin again until she falls off the couch, but my grandfather isn’t looking at us anymore. His eyes are fixated on some spot in the distance, some place I can’t reach.
My grandfather passed years ago, but the memories I have of him and Taiwan still bridge the distance between my identity and my family’s history; they bring me back to that feeling of home and belonging. It comes sometimes when I walk through San Francisco’s Chinatown or into a mom-and-pop, no-frills dim sum joint where the wonderfully disjointed cacophony of banging pots and pans and my mother tongue wafts through the air. For a moment, I’m jolted out of my life of hustling in and out of tall corporate buildings and am instead transported back to the Kaohsiung apartment.
While my clearest memories of my grandfather are from my more recent visits to Taiwan, they’re not the ones I truly associate with him. When I think of my grandfather, I don’t think of the wheelchair, the sunken cheekbones, or even his bony legs. Instead, when I think of him, I think of childhood — that joyful, sepia-toned, vintage photograph kind of childhood. I think of a memory that, while fuzzy around the edges, manages to ring in the strongest yet: sheltered from the sweltering heat and overwhelming symphony of cicadas, we gather around the kitchen table on the fourteenth floor of the Kaohsiung apartment building after a delicious home-cooked dinner. My grandfather sits at the head of the table, dealing cards for “ten and a half” and sipping his favorite Chinese wine. My grandmother comments on the heat, adjusting the fan, and my aunt grumbles when she loses her gamble. Taiwanese opera plays on the TV in the background. The night is filled with the sounds of my cousins and I with our triumphant cheers and heartbroken groans, my mother hitting the table with one hand—”Deal another one!”—and the jingle of coins sliding across the table. And interlaced throughout it all, my grandfather’s chuckles and laughs are like a soundtrack thread, tying us, tying me, and those memories together.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.