What love at my grandparents’ age looks like

伴侣 is a Chinese term that means something like “person-halves.” When my grandfather is diagnosed with cancer, my grandmother teaches me what 伴侣 means — and also what it means when you love someone who is sick in a country with a struggling hospital system.

“I’ve dropped everything,” says my nainai (grandmother). “Going out to meet my friends, trying to learn English — I haven’t done any of that in months. I’m saving all my energy to bring your yeye (grandfather) back to health.”

I. Before the third chemotherapy

The morning begins with oxygen, pills and water. My nainai, who has struggled with learning how to use an iPad for years, has somehow learned how to operate a respiratory machine for my yeye.

“At this point, it’s not out of passion or anything,” nainai says. “It’s plain and simple gratitude. Your yeye and I have sacrificed for each other all our lives. We’ve got each others’ backs until the end.”

Ever since their children moved out of their two-bedroom apartment decades ago, my grandparents have slept in separate rooms — until recently. My nainai has moved back onto a cot in yeye’s room so that she can walk him to the restroom at night. A light sleeper, she gets up every time he does, often several times before dawn.

One day, yeye tells nainai to take a break, get a good night’s sleep in her own room. It is the next morning that yeye falls on the way to the bathroom, the door frame taking a large gash out of his forehead. “There was so much blood,” nainai says, “Thank goodness he’s okay. But you think I’m going to let him sleep alone ever again after that?”

The nightstand next to my yeye’s bed is cluttered with reading glasses, old-school scissors, and arrays of pills. “In China,” nainai says, “It’s not like the United States, where you can get medicine and treatment if you’re sick and go into debt.”

“In China, if you can’t pay, you die. Good thing your yeye and I are okay financially. If you made 2000RMB a month ($335, as many migrant workers in Beijing do), how can you buy these pills your grandpa needs for his treatment, that’s 4000RMB completely out of pocket?”

“You simply wait for death.” She answers her own question. “There are all these newspaper ads by people asking for public donations to get medical treatment nowadays. People are often kindhearted enough to give money. But what’s our supposedly socialist Chinese government doing with all of its vast riches?”

Ever the Type A, my nainai keeps elaborate tables detailing my yeye’s blood pressure levels in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, and after dinner. She sits down every night to update the cells before sending photos of them to my father via our family’s WeChat group message, to which my father customarily responds, “Very good!” or “Not bad.”

This couch is brand new.

When my yeye was in the hospital last month undergoing chemotherapy, he mentioned that he wanted something to sit on that could recline. My dad bought a new plush western style sofa set to surprise him when he came home.

“I am so proud of your father in all this,” my nainai tells me, beaming. “Did you know that the first chemotherapy treatment is usually the worst? Your baba knew this, and knew that I scare easily. He flew back to Beijing to take yeye to the hospital and told me to go home. He didn’t let me see your yeye go through that. All I saw was that afterward, yeye was skinnier and his hair was thinner.”

“Even though he’s not here, he calls every day asking about your yeye’s health. We raised your baba well!

My yeye’s principal passion is 围棋 or “Go,” an ancient Chinese strategy board game oft compared to chess. He’s played at least one hour-long game every afternoon as long as I’ve known him. After his Go buddies moved out of the neighborhood one by one, my dad bought him an iPad so he could play online against other people at his caliber.

However, my yeye’s shaky hands often lead him to accidentally tap the wrong spot to place his piece, thus ruining his strategy. So, sometimes my nainai sits by his side while he plays and helps him tap the screen — even as she understands none of what’s going on.

My yeye never shows anger. But when his trembling finger places the stone in the wrong spot, it is my nainai who gets mad and says, “No! Don’t lose because of your finger, that’s stupid! Here, I’ll be your finger, just tell me where to go.”

II. The third chemotherapy

Even in the country’s capital, you often have to wait days for a bed to open up. You find people sleeping outside of hospitals, having traveled from far away and not daring leave the premises in case they need emergency care.

My nainai knows that it is in this seven day period that my grandpa is supposed to get his third out of six chemotherapy treatments, so for three days she jumps every time the phone rings. Finally on the evening of the third day a nurse calls and tells us to come the next morning for a bed space.

Still, we wait from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for that coveted bed space. At this ward, there is one inpatient room repurposed into a waiting room that doesn’t otherwise exist. Since the eight patients already barely fit on their assortment of chairs and beds, family members are told to wait outside the ward in the stairwell. The stairwell looks like it hasn’t been swept for ages, but we all eventually give up and sit despite the grime.

At lunch time, my nainai and I walk my grandpa back down to the first floor, where we have discovered a row of six chairs in a sparse hallway. My nainai retrieves hot water and rebuilds the broth for my yeye’s noodles. As a diabetic with bad teeth, there are only certain things he can chew and digest without trouble. Yeye eats in a pensive silence.

As an inpatient, you must hire a caretaker to watch over the patient for the night, because nurse rounds are less frequent and who knows what may happen in between.

My nainai calls in the afternoon for a caretaker so she can go home for the night. She is told there are none left. My spoiled American brain thinks: Shouldn’t there be someone managing this rather vital hospital function? Shouldn’t there be checks in place to make things like this doesn’t happen?

The going rate for a caretaker is 160RMB or $27 for 24 hours, and the hospital agency takes 25% of the cut. From the caretaker’s perspective, you are paid less than $1 per hour to work 24 hours straight with an hour off per meal. If the host pays you an extra 15RMB ($2.25) per meal, you can’t leave for meals either.

When this happens and the patient is in critical condition, a family member must stay. I offer to stay, but my nainai dismisses me. She puts it plainly: “What if your yeye has to take a number two at night? I’m his wife, I’m going to wipe his butt.”

So my nainai rushes back into the hallway and rents a 10RMB ($1.70) cot right as the distributor is about to leave for the rest of the day. That said, she doesn’t actually sleep. My nainai is a trooper for pulling all-nighters in the hospital at 77 years old.

This stay was 24 hours, but the first time in June it was the better part of a month. Every day that my yeye has been in the hospital, he has eaten home-cooked food by my nainai — or in the case of this one day, dumplings and soup by me! Even for a 24 hour stay, he is accompanied by a duffel bag of carefully newspaper-wrapped bowls and utensils. The morning after, I bring milk and fresh mantou buns. My nainai, roughly in translation: “We’re not letting you eat that hospital crap all day.”

By the next afternoon, my yeye is good to go home. Day after day, he builds his health. Summer comes at us full force.

III. After the third chemotherapy

Outside the apartment complex my nainai runs into her longtime-friend and neighbor, Pang ayi. She asks my nainai about my yeye’s condition, and my nainai happily tells her that he has completed his third out of six treatments. Halfway to health!

Throughout his seventies, my yeye played one to two hours of ping pong every day. Last year, he beat my 23 year old brother in a push-up-off (39–25 or something like that). I was also pretty embarrassed when I lost an arm wrestle to an 80-year-old white haired geezer. (My favorite white-haired geezer though.)

But the chemo is really taking its toll. Now, yeye tires easily, and his long morning walks to the market are abandoned for laps in the apartment. Every day after dinner, I hear the shuffling of slippers on hardwood as he makes his way to this wall, and back to that one, and back to the chair.

Yet every once in a while, my yeye will blurt, “Let’s go out.” This afternoon, we ran into a neighbor who worked with my grandparents and caught a cute picture of them holding hands and beaming like toddlers. They have known each other since the 1960’s — I can’t even imagine knowing someone for over half a century. Such bromance!

While selfie-culture has taught me to conjure a smile in a split second, my yeye has never developed the habit of smiling for pictures. In many of our family portraits, he wears a half-amused, half-pained expression. In other words, he doesn’t know how to fake it. Which is why, when that smile cracks from his lips, it’s truly, truly golden.