Notes on watching my grandmother love, age, and embrace cheap music
My grandmother died on May 6, 2020, at 8:49 a.m. I don’t remember what I was doing when I got the call — only thinking that, since I was in California (a whopping 15 hours behind Beijing), in my time zone, she was most certainly still alive.
We don’t know if she had Covid, as she was isolated for months even before the outbreak, but she did exhibit an alarming number of symptoms: fever, chills, and shortness of breath, which ultimately took her life.
I found myself fumbling for a pen and frantically jotting down notes as my uncle shared the details. She’d had a fever, he said. Antibiotics were picked up. She seemed improved. This morning she woke up around 7 a.m., the caretaker gave her congee and a hard-boiled egg and she ate it, or she ate half of it. “Did she eat it all or did she eat half?” I asked. “I think she ate half.” Suddenly, she was struggling to breathe. The caretaker called an ambulance, but she stopped moving before it got there. Cause of death was heart failure. I noted his tone — “hurried,” “brusque,” “rueful” — and my reactions. He said she died with a smile across her face: “a white lie.” That we won’t make the funeral due to China’s required two-week quarantine: “The price of immigration,” I wrote. As my uncle sobbed quietly: “First time I’m hearing him cry.”
I’m not sure why I did this. In West Africa there are griots, storytellers in charge of keeping the history of an entire village. People went to the griots with their memories, and the griots would remember them for future generations. Sitting more than 6,000 miles away, it felt like the only thing to do. I couldn’t make funeral arrangements, couldn’t hug my aunt and uncle, but I could be a griot.
My grandmother started her career in a paper mill. During the cultural revolution in the 1970s, she traveled the country conducting scientific surveys for the state. Officially, she had a middle-school education, but her friends used to tell me she had her head buried so deep in books that her neck grew 10 cm to accommodate her posture. After Mao died, and the universities reopened, she worked as a lab assistant at the University of Science and Technology. She was so beloved by…