Keeping My Promise to Popo
As Anne Liu Kellor says goodbye to her Chinese grandmother in the hospital, she taps into buried memories and family trauma.
No one can agree on how old my grandmother is. Because she was born in wartime China, because they use the lunar calendar, because she immigrated from the mainland to Taiwan to America and declared her own birthdate, or because she’s always been vain and told people she is younger. Is she 98, 100, 102? Her sister claims one age, Popo another, her Social Security card yet something else. How can there be such a range of unknown?
Regardless, now she is finally, undeniably, old. I watch as Popo rests in the hospital bed in Monterey Park, her body thin, dressed in a pale green gown. Oxygen tube in her nose and around her neck, short greasy hair flattened, black with white roots. Mouth curved into a frown. Hearing aid, glasses, wig, glittery rings, all removed. Fingers no longer able to scrawl characters on her erasable black board with the pointed stick. Eyes no longer able to watch Chinese soap operas on TV. Mouth involuntarily moving, like she’s chewing, or rooting. Voice involuntarily making sounds, eh, eh, eh, eh. Sleep coming in short intervals, drifting off for an hour here and there, in between nurses coming to check on her.
The nurses are Filipino, Chinese, East African. They come in and open her curtain every hour or two, glance at her vitals, rotate her body, write things down on a chart and leave. On the white board beside her bed it says “Mandarin,” so sometimes they speak to Popo in Mandarin, but the white board does not say that she is basically deaf, and that in the last many years she’s reverted to speaking Cantonese, her childhood language. They might as well be whispering to her in Tagalog or Somali. She does not hear a thing they say.
My uncles and I brought Popo here one day in January of 2018, to this hospital in East L.A. — her second trip to the E.R. in two months. I take most of the day shifts that week since I flew here two days before from Seattle with the sole purpose of visiting my grandmother. I only see her once a year, if that; being a mom to a young child has made it hard to visit. But each year Popo gets older, I remind myself this might be the last time. Now, my relatives are tired of bedside vigils, yet I am fresh, able and willing to give. I will only be here one week, after all. And as the second daughter to Popo’s eldest, my mother, I know I can escape true anguish over my grandmother’s care, for I am not the one Popo calls when she is lonely or hurt. I am just the granddaughter, the one who can send a feel-good card, put my son on Skype, or otherwise greet and leave her suffering as I please.
On the white board beside her bed it says ‘Mandarin,’ so sometimes they speak to Popo in Mandarin, but the white board does not say that she is basically deaf, and that in the last many years she’s reverted to speaking Cantonese, her childhood language.
When I was a child, however, Popo was in my life every day. She came to Seattle after I was born to help take care of my sister and me while my mom was finishing her PhD. My mother was the first in her family to immigrate to the U.S. for grad school in 1966, later helping her four siblings and parents come too. Popo arrived first and lived in our basement for seven years. After school she fed my sister and me steamed mantou with melted margarine and the three of us watched T.V. — cartoons, game shows, The Dukes of Hazzard, Silver Spoons.
I try to imagine the span of roles Popo has played — from the daughter of a landowner and soy sauce merchant, a young woman who loved to sing; to the wife of a man ten years her elder and a wartime refugee on the move with five young kids — demoted from relative wealth to poverty. Popo also used to teach Chinese, but I’ve always known her as someone without a vocation, someone who loved to play mahjong, go out to eat, socialize, laugh like a school girl — and strike with her temper, lips pursed, head shaking in disapproval. By day, she often wore a thick wavy black wig, accessorizing with brightly patterned silk scarves, and big round glasses. In the evenings she’d strip down to her beige long underwear, wig retired on its stand. My sister and I would play with her collection of lipsticks, nail polishes, and gold clip-on earrings while Popo stood in front of the T.V., swinging her arms in wide circles.
Now, I feel like I’m watching a baby sleep, vested with the responsibility to make sure my grandmother is still breathing. The T.V. is tuned to a Chinese channel with subtitles in traditional characters flashing across the bottom of the screen, the sound muted. I glance up occasionally trying to see how many I can still rescue from memory, relieved when I still recognize quite a few from the years I spent studying and living in China in my twenties — when I finally became confident in the language again. As a child, you see, I spoke to Popo in Chinese, but then English took over. When I was 9 and Popo moved to Los Angeles where her other kids had settled, I remember how much I dreaded Sunday evenings, when my mom would phone her and beckon me for my turn, “Come say a few words to Popo.” I’d obediently answer questions about my health and the weather, before the calls’ end where Popo would say, “I love you” and I’d answer, “Wo ai ni.”Then I’d go to my room, lock the door, and cry, ashamed by my lack of words.
It took living in China for several years after college for me to become confident in the language as an adult. But Popo rarely praised my efforts; in fact, she often asked when I would stop wasting my time in China, a country she fled long ago. “Haishi Meiguo hao.” America’s still the best, she’d say after flipping through my photos, firmly opposed to life on the mainland. I never took her criticisms personally, for I understood by then that my visits were more to show her care than they were to solicit approval. But of course I still wanted her approval, hoping she’d notice my newfound fluency, even if she’d never understand how much my efforts to reclaim Chinese originated with her.
Now, I watch as the nurses come and roll Popo’s body from side to side, as they show me her rash from incontinence, and her sores. I try not to stare as they wipe her flat bottom, as I see her skin, still soft and supple, her breasts small and withered, hanging to her sides. I know how mortified Popo would have been in her younger days — or even a mere month ago — to see herself like this, barely cognizant, exposed. They show me her toes, inflamed, tell me we need to keep her feet elevated. Keep her bed at 100 degrees. Or 130. I write these things down so I can remember to tell my mother, who is due to arrive in a couple days. I watch as Popo’s arms fill with bruises after her blood transfusion. They tell me this is normal. I watch as she seems to barely breathe.
I try to remember to keep an eye on her oxygen levels. The male Chinese nurse says, “We can turn it down a little, then see how she reacts,” the idea being that the less she needs, the faster she can go home. But I don’t trust this hospital. I don’t trust that he will remember to come back and check when he says he will, or that one nurse’s notes will be relayed to the next. I don’t trust them because “Mandarin” is the only word written on Popo’s board.
Another nurse drops off lunch — mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry juice, Lipton tea. Popo’s chart says “pureed” diet, but it does not say xifan, bone broth, protein drinks, or pureed Chinese vegetables — foods that have kept her healthy, foods that are familiar. I’m supposed to feed her but when I try she purses her lips in disgust. Then I give her a sip of water through a straw, something we’d done the day she was admitted, and she sucks it in eagerly. So thirsty! I feel terrible; all this time she needed me to offer water. Only now she is taking it in too fast and coughing, choking. Alarmed, I hit the call button, afraid I am killing my grandmother. But by the time anyone comes, minutes later, her choking has passed. Now they tell me, “Don’t give her the straw. She is too weak to swallow. Feed her water from a spoon.”
I sit at Popo’s bedside for hours, listening to the beeps and voices through the open doorway to the hall. I text my mom, keep her updated, for she wants me here so I can advocate for Popo on her behalf if need be. But I know that I am not the one my grandmother wants by her side. Instead, again and again while she was still alert, Popo kept writing on her erasable black board: Ga Jie shenme shihou lai? When will Older Sister arrive? My mom is the first Popo calls when she is worried. Ta 14 hao lai. She will be here on the 14th, I kept writing back. My presence a steady reminder of her daughter’s absence.
Around dinner time, I am relieved when Popo’s full-time caregiver finally arrives to take the night shift, so I can leave, feeling satisfied by my duty and eager for my escape. Soon I will return to Seattle, to my comfortable middle-class life steeped in green foliage and everywhere the English language. Popo, if she is lucky, will return to the hospital bed in her living room.
I drive the five minutes back to open the four locks on the two doors to my grandmother’s condo. Eyeing her empty hospital bed in the living room, I find comfort in the fact that I know the Christmas card I sent Popo is now underneath the pillow. When I arrived here nearly a week before, I’d asked Popo if she’d received it, but it turned out her caregiver had been storing away any mail written in English. So not even my meager, annual greeting — Sheng dan jie kuai le; Wo ai ni; Wo 1 yue 10 hao hui lai, Merry Christmas, I love you, I’m coming to see you on the tenth of January, along with my son’s third grade school wallet-sized photo — had reached her this year. But once Popo got a hold of it, and I watched her eagerly tuck the card away, where it would stay close to her, I realized no gift was too small or belated to share.
Alone on my grandmother’s bed, I cry for the ghosts that linger. And I open my mouth and begin to sing. Tentatively, then stronger, clearer, I call out to my family, both dead and alive.
Tired, I climb the stairs to her old bedroom where the artifacts from her independent life are stored: her closet full of stylish outfits — faux fur vest, leather purses and cashmere cardigans; her desk drawers stuffed with English-Chinese dictionaries, old photos, and notebooks with jotted down words and phrases; her dresser top scattered with neglected lipsticks and perfumes. I shower, then climb into Popo’s old bed — the one with the board under the mattress, the one she has not slept in for years. Here I lie down to write in my journal, but soon put the pen away, and cry. Finally I have the silence and space to cry. To cry for my grandmother. To cry for my mother. To cry for my uncle who blew up at me when I suggested we consider hospice. To cry for all of us who wish we had more time. Time for questions. Time for apologies. Time for presence.
Now, instead, alone on my grandmother’s bed, I cry for the ghosts that linger. And I open my mouth and begin to sing. Tentatively, then stronger, clearer, I call out to my family, both dead and alive. No words, just toning, just allowing my body to remember how I once discovered I knew how to pray. Maybe there are echoes of Chinese voices in this song — Chinese minor keys, lullabies, countryside ballads, mountaintop wails. Or maybe this song goes back further than traceable lineages can hold. All I know is, with this song I call forth my love and my longing. With this song, I do not need to speak words or rational language. With this song I give voice to my grief and my love, to my tears, to my ancestors’ tears, to our long spiraling line.
I seek to grieve what my family is unwilling to name.
The next day, my parents arrive so I sleep in, tired after my few days at the hospital. But in the evening, when I return, Popo is finally more alert. I greet her and she registers my presence, then holds out her pinky. I grasp onto her soft wrinkled finger, not sure why she is sticking it out. But then, finally, I get it and hook it with my own; we shake: pinky promise. I remember, even as I don’t quite remember: did she used to do this with me when I was a kid? Or also when I visited her in my 20s? I can’t remember exactly, but I’m starting to.
Remember, I held you since you were a baby, she always used to say to me. Ni cong xiao wo baozi ni.
See me, don’t forget me, acknowledge my suffering, I think she tried to say to her kids. But those words could never come out right. Those words could never be accompanied by a deeper vulnerability, by any hint of her own apology or remorse. Instead, so much bitterness and self-pity. Lashing out with grievances: cursing this son for his betrayals, swatting this caregiver for her ineptitude, pursing her lips in distaste at this meal. Complaining about this life. Evading the last.
Things too terrible to speak of.
Needs too far back to surface.
Wartime. Bombs. Refugees.
Domestic abuse. Neglect. Five young kids.
One, now a dentist who drinks too much in Taiwan. Another, a corporate climber turned evangelical pastor in L.A. Another, the one most interested in history and philosophy, mentally ill, alone, and not wanting to be contacted in China. Another, a scientist, gone too soon, not long ago, from pancreatic cancer. And my mom, fierce, analytical, kind yet sharp, and removed in Seattle. Siblings scattered, relationships strained. Popo at the center, barely holding us together.
Now, we hook pinkies until she pulls away. Then it’s my dad’s turn, my white dad whom Popo has always been fond of, who buys her Chinese pastries or takes her out to play. He stands at Popo’s side and she grasps his entire hand, murmuring approvingly, a repetitive moan: you can tell how much she loves him. This goes on a while, my dad looking up at me sheepishly, until I approach Popo’s other side again, wanting to get in one last goodbye, for I am leaving tomorrow. But she purses her lips and turns her head away: she is done with me. Message clear. So I say Wo ai ni and Zaijian one more time, then slip away, sad yet relieved. Relieved that I am only the granddaughter, not tasked with greater responsibilities for now. Relieved, yet acutely aware of all the ways I carry my family’s line of exile, silence, and pain.
Don’t forget me, I think she wanted to say.
I promise, Popo, I won’t.
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This essay was originally published in Longreads.