We buried my grandmother on Tuesday, at dawn, the second day of the lunar month. She passed away on Friday and the wake lasted five days. It was important to wait for an auspicious, even-numbered day, and to give everyone enough time to pay their last respects. Starting at 6 a.m., the funeral procession — her sons and daughters, followed by other family members, then the eight pallbearers — wound its way up the wooded hillside, bending branches from our path and setting off fireworks that lit up the morning sky. The procession was followed by musicians, as it is believed that evil spirits can be frightened away by loud music. We tossed coins and burned joss paper, or spirit money, on the ground before we laid her down. I kissed her coffin and called out to her, “Nai nai,” one last time, my tears soaking through the velvet cloth covering.
She had had a stroke in August, at her home in rural China. My grandfather found her outside in the morning, lying on the ground, having fallen on her way to the bathroom (outhouse). No one had noticed that she was not in bed, as it was the middle of the night. He took her to a hospital near their village, where they sent her home without treatment due to her advanced age. After that, she degraded quickly, becoming paralyzed and unable to walk, unable to chew solid foods, unable to speak beyond a few simple words. My aunts and uncles took turns taking care of her, feeding her water or broth with a little spoon.
When I heard that her condition was worsening, I booked a ticket from San Francisco to Wuhan for that same week, in early September. My father and aunts tried to dissuade me from going, worried that I would see her and be frightened by how thin she was, how unresponsive she was, how hopeless her condition was. It is an odyssean journey from America to reach my grandparents’ home in Fengshan village, in the northern part of Hubei province on the border with Henan: it entails flying to Wuhan, taking a bus to Suizhou, the nearest city, then taking a taxi to the furthest point where the paved road ends, and finally walking the rest of the way on a narrow dirt path between rice fields. They told me my grandmother couldn’t talk and perhaps wouldn’t even register that I was there. But I insisted on seeing her, and my father arranged for my cousin to pick me up from the airport in Wuhan and take me back to the village.
I packed my suitcase with only a single change of clothes for myself and filled the rest of the space with things for her: Ensure formula powder (I cleared out the entire shelf at Walgreens), picture books of animals and babies (I had read that elderly people with dementia like to look at pictures of familiar things), and photos of us together from my last trip. My aunts told my grandmother that I was on my way.
I landed in Hong Kong, and turned on my phone to find a message from my father saying that my grandmother had passed away shortly after I took off.
In that moment the color drained from my world. As I walked through the airport to find my transfer to Wuhan, I couldn’t comprehend how the world was still turning, even after mine had been shattered into a million pieces. How the linearity of time could press ever onward for everyone else — carelessly chattering and shopping — seemingly immune to what had just suspended time for me. I felt as though I were wading through water, sleepwalking through a horrifying dream where my grandmother — the woman who had helped to raise me — had passed away just as my plane ascended from the earth. Everything in the world felt like a distraction from the fact that life is so short, and that my grandmother was gone. Knowing that I would never see her again — that I had already seen her for the last time, spoken to her for the last time a few days before — was so painful that I desperately wished I could wake up. The world had lost one of its kindest, most selfless, most hardworking souls, and I had lost someone who loved me most.
I landed in Wuhan in a daze and found my cousin in the arrivals hall. My father was on his way as well, and would arrive a day later. We boarded the bus to Suizhou and then transferred to a taxi, picking up my youngest uncle. Two hours later, the taxi dropped us off, and we walked the last 2 miles to my grandparents’ house. The rice fields around us were golden-green, strings of yellow kernels draping downward, ready to be harvested, looking the same as they have every autumn since time immemorial. The pink petals had fallen off the lotuses, leaving behind bare stalks.
In urban areas, China has changed beyond recognition in the last few decades, the pace of progress transforming entire skylines. My childhood home — the Wudaokou area of Beijing, near Tsinghua University — now exists only in my memory as the quaint, verdant rural area on the outskirts of the city. The past two decades turned it into a boisterous focal point nicknamed “The Center of the Universe.” But here, in the rural countryside, little has changed in the last 30 — perhaps 300, or even 3,000 — years. There is no plumbing, no running water, no heating in the winter, not even addresses. Electricity arrived just a decade ago. Here, I could still find my way to my grandparents’ house by memory, wending along the river, passing by the same crumbling brick houses with the same neighbors sitting in the doorways.
Nothing had changed, yet everything was different now. That dusty path had previously always led to my grandmother greeting me at the end with a smile. This time, I arrived at my grandparents’ house, and knelt in the doorway in front of the coffin displayed in the main room and bowed my head to the ground. My uncle’s wife pulled me up and took me inside the house, where my two aunts were sobbing next to my grandmother’s casket, and I joined them.
The next few days passed in a blur of tears, the scent of incense, the whistling and deafening pop of firecrackers announcing the arrival of every guest who came to pay their respects. Smoke filled the air and pervaded our clothes as we burned piles of gold spirit money for my grandmother to spend in the afterlife. I would wake in middle of the night because of jet lag and cry in the darkness until the roosters began crowing at dawn and awakened others. I wished that her ghost would appear and that I could see her again and talk to her, but it was just dark stillness at night. The sadness was — and still is — suffocating.
A large tent was set up outside where we served meals each day for the entire village and anyone else who came to say goodbye to her. We wore white headscarves — the color of mourning — and held vigil by her side, guarding her coffin around the clock, taking turns to nap and to cry and to eat, in order to accompany her until the very last moment before she entered the afterlife. At each meal, three bowls of food were offered to her. We went to pick her burial site, and chose a space on a hill next to my great-grandmother, which overlooked a small lake and rice paddies, and cleared off the surrounding brush and trees. It was close to my grandparents’ house, a stone’s throw from her entire world, close to where she was born and had raised her family.
I retraced the steps where my grandmother and I had last said goodbye in-person more than 2 years ago, where I last held her hand walking down the path from her house. My aunt told me that every time my father and I left, my grandmother would stand outside watching us go until our figures receded and disappeared, and only then would she head back home, where she would proceed to cry.
Now it was my turn to send her off and let her go.
The day after she was buried, my father and I were scheduled to return to Wuhan in the evening to board our flights back to America. In the morning at 4:30 a.m., the entire family went to her grave and brought steamed buns for her, burned paper money, and set off fireworks in the darkness. For the next 49 days, they will burn money for her. As we walked through the rice paddies coming back from her grave, the sky just beginning to lighten, I turned around multiple times to catch another glimpse of her, to pause and see her again on the hillside, not wanting to let her go.
Back at my aunt’s house, we packed our suitcases, and my aunt fills my water bottle for the taxi ride back. I say thank you, and my aunt responds: “Family means never having to say ‘thank you.’”
“I’m like a mother to you,” she says. “You don’t have to say ‘thank you’ to family.”
In China, family means never having to say the things that American families seem to proclaim so often, like “I love you,” or “thank you,” or “I’m sorry.” The love is so deep, so unconditional between family members that the intent behind those words is tacitly understood in one’s heart.
But I still want to say sorry to my grandmother. I am sorry that I was not there for her last days, and that I never thanked her for everything she did to raise me. I wish I had told her I loved her, and I hope she knew this. I didn’t know that I would arrive too late. I regret not being able to make her more comfortable at the end. I will forever regret not having the chance to hold her hand one last time. I pray that in our next lives, we may have the opportunity to be grandmother and granddaughter again, and that I may have another chance to say these unsaid things and to do better by her.
— — — — —
She knew only two people who speak English fluently — myself and my father. Not able to tell her story herself, I want to use my voice to tell it for her.
朱苏勤 (Zhu Suqin) was born in April 1938, the daughter of a peasant family, and never went to school. Back in those days, daughters were seldom sent to school in rural areas, and most boys were illiterate as well. At 15 she was married to a local man who beat her, and she fled back to her parents’ house. A distant relative introduced her to someone else in the area — my grandfather — and they married when she was 17. She became pregnant with my eldest uncle a year later. My grandparents were together for the last 64 years, and have 7 children and 13 grandchildren, and, so far, 7 great-grandchildren. My father is the 4th among 7, and the second eldest son.
Her name, 勤, literally means “industrious” or “hardworking,” and true to this, she never rested a single day in her life. She was always toiling in the fields, cooking three meals each day, washing clothes by hand at night, taking care of her children, and later helping to raise each grandchild. She couldn’t read or write but she had the immense wisdom conferred by a lifetime of bearing hardships — eating bitterness — that few of us can even imagine. She endured the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution — when she was unfairly branded a ‘landlord’ because her father had saved up enough to purchase a small plot of farmland.
She had helped raise me, starting from before I was born. In accordance with Chinese tradition, she came to Beijing when my mother was still pregnant and sewed winter clothes for me. After I was born, she came back to Beijing again to help take care of me when I was 3 years old.
She could have stayed with us in Beijing but chose to go back to the village after a year. She was deeply rooted in that village. My grandparents lived in the same house that my grandfather grew up in; it was also where my father and all of his siblings were born. She didn’t want to move into a newer, more convenient house in a nearby town, because that village was her entire world — she knew everyone and could be close to the people she cared about, her family and her grandchildren.
Ever since my father started working 30-some years ago, he has been sending her money, but looking at how she lived, you wouldn’t know that she had enough to cover their expenses for years and live a more comfortable life. She never enjoyed the money, always handing it directly to my grandfather and continuing with her work. It’s just how she was wired; she couldn’t let herself be at rest or enjoy the leisure or material comforts that money could bring. She had the frugality and work ethic of someone who was born with nothing and in whose psyche it had been deeply ingrained to consume little and to ask for nothing. The village’s remote location, far away from any roads or stores, meant that her living standards never improved meaningfully. I hope that in her next life, she can bear to part with more of the paper money we are burning and transferring to her.
One of the only videos I have of her is of all of us sitting in the courtyard of my aunt’s house, listening to music and watching my 2-year old nephew (my cousin’s son) dance. I turn the camera to my grandmother and she smiles at me, then continues watching her great-grandson dance, breaking into laughter. Such pure delight. I find myself playing the video over and over again just to see her smile and laugh, wishing I could go back to that moment in time and be there again, missing her more than I can express, crying and feeling happy that she passed away surrounded by these family members and others who loved her. I hope that she can find some rest at last.