Today, the world lost a compassionate and intelligent soul. My family and I lost the glue that held us together. My beloved maternal grandmother passed away last night in Taiwan. I cannot find the words to express my sorrow because it feels like there is a deep hole in my heart.
I should let you know that my grandmother endured two major wars in history – the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese Civil War. She was from a well-to-do and loving family, but had to leave them behind at the age of 19 as a refugee with her new husband, my grandfather, to Taiwan when war erupted in China in 1949.
I should also let you know that life was not easy for her, but she resolved to be strong and resourceful. She formed a community of women in her neighborhood for support and extra income. She took odd jobs whenever she could — sewing clothes for people, working at factories, and raising farm animals, growing vegetables and any sort of side job she could take on to to support her family with supplemental income. During typhoon season, when the water reached above waist level, she lifted her bike on her back and trekked home for 10 kilometers everyday from work.
As the matriarch of the family, Grandmother was strong and she was also the most compassionate person I knew. She helped raise all six grandchildren. When our parents were busy working, my grandmother took care of us. My fondest memories consist of spending the week at her house while she cooked for us, played with us, told us stories (she was a dynamic storyteller) and disciplined us. Her stories were always imbued with wisdom and life lessons. As a devout Buddhist, she especially emphasized the importance of compassion for all sentient beings. She talked to us about her aversion to war, poverty, abuse and any kind of suffering.
My eyes well up with tears when I recall the countless times she took care of me when I was sick. She would bring me ginger soup and eggs for quick recovery and check on me every 20 minutes. She was our favorite person to come home to because she would prepare our favorite snacks and games and she truly enjoyed listening to our stories. During Christmases and New Years, our families sat around and played cards and Grandmother’s eyes sparkled from strategizing her wins and sweeping the games.
Although there was much love, joy and laughter in her life, I think that my grandmother could never accept the loss of independence that comes with aging. She was feisty, independent and strong, and I think the thought of having to rely on others, even her children, to take care of her as her body deteriorated, frightened her. She expressed sadness to me when talking about all her friends and my grandfather who had already passed away. Her happiest moments in more recent years was when she moved to Chinatown in Los Angeles to an apartment complex for seniors. She liked to go shopping, play cards with her neighbors and do art activities with other seniors. She had freedom and she relished it.
There is a deep hole in my heart that will never be filled. It is a hole full of love that only my grandmother could fill. Despite my sadness, I know that my grandmother is in a better place. She left this world peacefully without suffering. As a believer of reincarnation, she asked that her loved ones refrain from weeping and help her transition to the next life as smoothly as possible by praying for peace. I went to the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles and prayed for a smooth transition. I could not stop crying, even though I had promised her months beforehand that I would not cry. Just the thought of not seeing her again or hearing her laugh or listening to her stories in this lifetime made my heart sink to the bottom. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that she is no longer suffering. It also comforts me to know that she was proud of me (she was so happy when I got my PhD) and all her grandchildren and wished for our happiness. She was our biggest cheerleader. Just having her in our lives was a blessing – a blessing that I hope will serve as a reminder of our joyous moments together and fill the hole in our hearts with gratitude and happy memories.
Keeping in mind anthropologist Kelli Swazey’s TED talk on a part of Indonesian society that honors life even after death, I vow to honor and celebrate my grandmother’s life every single day.