Ma Ma 嬤嬤

My grandma (嬤嬤 — paternal grandmother in Chinese Cantonese) passed away two weeks ago. Since then, I have been struggling with whether or not to write this. What could I possibly say to do her life justice? But then again, I realized not writing was more of a disservice to her.

嬤嬤 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s roughly 20 years ago. In these past 20 years, we witnessed her decline in both mental and physical capabilities. It started first with her memory. In those early days, short-term memories were stored on a broken record that was constantly erased, but long-term memories were pristine in separate silo. However, as time passed, even the long-term memories were forgotten. Over a few more years, 嬤嬤 lost her ability to speak. She fell mute and the inability to move and eat soon followed. In the past five years, she was in and out of hospitals. Despite her old age and handicap, her fiery will was evident as she triumphed over three full body anesthesia and surgeries. She proved to be such a super woman that the news of her death surprised me. Pneumonia? Come on, 嬤嬤 is stronger than that. But, life and death has the final say.

Since young, my memories of 嬤嬤 have always been very limited. She was a proud and strong willed woman, I know; but my memories were tainted by the dementia she suffered from. I remember her short temper, perpetual repeating of certain things, and seemingly endless and needless worries whenever we would visit Hong Kong during summer holidays. But the woman I have come to know is far from simply being the woman I knew in my childhood.

I am ashamed to admit that it was not until I read the novel “All the Dancing Birds” by Auburn McCanta did I really start wanting to learn more about my own grandma. The novel is told from the first person point of view of a woman suffering from dementia and her thoughts day-to-day as she struggled with the disease. 嬤嬤 had Alzheimer’s for as long as I can remember so it felt normal. But, the novel struck a chord and made me think of the struggles 嬤嬤 must have faced. What shock and hopelessness must she have felt to be unable to remember what she ate an hour ago, the people who were speaking to her like family and old friends, and where she lived for 30 years? As I emphasized more with my grandma, I found myself asking more questions to family and family friends about grandma. The stories I head about 嬤嬤’s life blow me away.

嬤嬤 was born during a chaotic time following the fall of the Qing Dynasty and rise of the Chinese Nationalist and Communist Parties. She experienced poverty from a young age, following her mother from northern China to Nanjing, not knowing where her home town is, what her maiden name is, or who her father was. As she grew in Nanjing though, her living conditions greatly improved, and she became somewhat of a local celebrity.

This comfort was short lived. Despite being from separate social spheres, grandpa started unsuccessfully courting grandma. Grandpa was a successful merchant who had fought on the Nationalist Party side in Nanjing. When the Communist Party came to rule over Nanjing, grandpa was jailed. It was this incident that brought the two together as 嬤嬤 came to his aid. She managed to rescue him from jail and together fled to Hong Kong where they had nothing.

As if this rescue and flee story is not telling enough of her strong character, my grandma’s life in Hong Kong proved her to be a super woman. Despite her struggles in Hong Kong, she came to know and believe in Christ. As grandpa’s business stabilized and my uncle and dad were cared for, 嬤嬤 wanted to devote her life to Christ. She attended seminary but was forced to leave to support the family when my grandpa’s business ventures failed and my dad and uncle were on the border of being homeless. Being the visionary she was, in the 1950s in developing Hong Kong, 嬤嬤 started a language school. She taught Chinese Mandarin herself and hired instructors to teach languages from all over the world. During these years, she lifted herself and her family out of poverty, started a small production house, taught Chinese Mandarin on television, and survived breast cancer. Her legacy continues; my grandma, 50 some years ago, bought the house we live in today in Hong Kong.

嬤嬤’s one regret was never finishing seminary and committing to a life of missions. Her steadfast faith remained though. I witnessed this when I was younger through her prayers and devotion to church and even when she was entirely paralyzed by Alzheimer’s. There would be times in these last few years where I played praise songs to her in her room and hospital bed. Despite her lack of speech, motion, and, seemingly, consciousness, she never failed to respond to “Amazing Grace”. She would moan throughout the song as if she were singing along and tears would fall from her eyes. It was an embodiment that all else will fade, but Christ remains.

嬤嬤 used to describe herself and her life as “一個平凡的女子, 不平凡的遭遇” which roughly translates to “a simple woman but a not so simple experience”. I have only come to realize the truth of this saying in these last few years. There is a Chinese saying that translates roughly to “a home with an elder is a home with a treasure” (“家有一老如有一寶”). We lost a treasure two weeks ago. I am sorry I never fully realized what a treasure she was until I no longer could converse with her. However, I am comforted that we will meet again in heaven.

I am proud to be your granddaughter, 嬤嬤. Rest in peace in Him.

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