Our grandfather Yee-Noon Chan passed away last night. This is our tribute to him – first Olive’s, then mine.
Last night, for a brief moment, a baby’s laughter filled the room where a frail, 91 year-old man lay dying. The child was my daughter. The man was her great-grandfather – the father of my husband’s father. This was the second and final time she would ever meet him in her life.
Shortly before she was conceived, he had suffered a debilitating stroke. They told us he was leaving us then. As we all crowded into the emergency room at the hospital, I had prayed for God to have mercy on our family. “If you are going to take grandpa,” I reasoned with God, “can you at least give us a child to soften the blow?” And God answered. Not only did He give us a baby, He allowed grandpa to live for another 19 months.
Tim’s grandpa was the only grandfather I ever knew. My own biological grandfathers both passed on before I was born. After Tim and I got married, I tried to get to know Grandpa Chan as best as I was able to. I couldn’t always understand his Chinese as it was heavily accented with his hometown dialect. But we exchanged many smiles. When we would visit his home, I would try to make a point to sit with him and ask him questions about his day etc. even if I couldn’t quite get his answers. I wanted him to know I valued our relationship. I wish I could have known him better though. Tim would sometimes express annoyance with his grandpa, but I would gently remind him at least he had a grandpa.
The months after his stroke were a long, arduous 19 months: full of uncertainty, several additional strokes, four bouts of pneumonia and a gradual decline in alertness and health that eventually led to his waning hours of life accompanied by the hum of an oxygen machine. We never really got grandpa back. But once in a while, a light would spark in his eyes and he would recognize us. Like the first time we brought our baby to meet him. For a few fleeting seconds, grandpa smiled, raised his hand and reached out to touch his great-granddaughter. He could not speak anymore, but we could tell he knew who she was. And he was delighted.
We gathered around his bedside. Six grandchildren by blood, two grandchildren by marriage, and one great-grandchild. The priest read through the last rites, sprinkled holy water and placed his hand on grandpa’s head in blessing. The irony of the moment was that none of his children were able to be there to witness it. They were there with us in heart and thought. But we, the young ones, were entrusted with the sacred task of being physically present while his life flowed closer to the edge of eternity. Us, people on the front end of adulthood, separated by a generation. And the baby.
The baby, of course, will never remember this moment. Her world consists only of a limited awareness of those familiar to her, things to play with and food. She won’t know the solemness of those hours. Her concern was mostly for when she could get her next corn puff. But her presence there was equally important. Although she was oblivious to our grief, her babbling reminded us to be grateful. Her outstretched hand looking to touch our fingers with hers brought us a measure of hope. Yes, we were losing someone dear, but one look at her told us not all was lost.
So today we mourn. We mourn the passing of a once strong and proud man who gave us the legacy of the Chan name. We treasure the memories of conversations over dim sum. We grapple with the hole that is now left in our family. And in the midst of it, we hear a baby’s giggle, and we find consolation.
My Grandfather passed away late last night. He had been dying for 19 months.
The cell phone was ringing. I picked it up to hear my grandfather’s deep voice saying, “Teen-Ming (my Chinese name), let’s go for dim sum!” He was always looking for someone to have dim sum with. I probably declined 90% of his offers because I was busy studying or working, but that never seemed to deter him from calling the next week.
He always let us order our favourite dishes at dim sum – “Don’t worry, Grandpa eats everything,” he would tell us. And my Grandpa would always insist on paying – every time. Whenever we tried to pay for the bill, he would get very upset. So we would thank him, to which he would reply loudly, “No thanks needed!” As if accepting our thanks would hurt his pride.
My Grandfather’s name is Yee Noon Chan. He was born in 1921, which made him 92 years old when he died. In March 2011 he suffered a major stroke. The doctors thought he would die, but he had a strong will to live and survived.
McDonald’s… that was another one of my Grandpa’s favourites. He went there almost every morning. He always ordered coffee. Whenever my siblings and I stayed with our grandparents, he would take us to McDonald’s for breakfast. Maybe that’s why I like McDonald’s more than other fast food chains.
We were hopeful after the stroke, as my grandfather regained consciousness, some mobility, and some speech. Since he couldn’t walk on his own, he had to stay in a residential care facility. He hated it there. Every time I visited him, he would tell me to bring my car and drive him home. Once he even tried to escape on his own. I desperately wanted him to be better and able to go home. But he never got better.
For some reason, my grandfather loved to go to the airport. He always came to pick us up when we flew in, and see us off when we left. Many times I tried to discourage him from coming – we didn’t have room for him in the car and he always wanted to go out to eat with us afterwards. I thought he was a nuisance.
Thankfully I matured some with age and began to realize the joy my grandfather had in welcoming and sending off family members. With less annoyance and more gratitude, I began accepting and appreciating my grandfather’s way of showing his love to us.
Then my grandfather had another stroke, which he survived, and several bouts of pneumonia, which he also survived. But his health slowly deteriorated. It seemed like each time we visited him he looked a little worse. He stopped recognizing us. He stopped speaking. It was painful to watch my once strong and independent grandfather diminish so rapidly.
My grandfather loved his bus pass. It was a symbol of his independence. He was proud of the fact that he could travel anywhere, anytime. One time he surprised me by arriving at my home on my birthday, in the middle of my birthday party. He sat in our living room for the afternoon, surrounded by my 20-something year old friends. I was embarrassed and slightly frustrated, but it is one of my favourite memories of him.
My family took very good care of my grandfather after his stroke. My aunts and uncles took turns visiting him every day to bathe him, feed him, and take him for walks. My father flew in from Hong Kong four times last year to care for his father and to give his siblings a break. My extended family is fiercely loyal. These past 19 months proved the depth of their love and I am extremely grateful for them.
For one of his birthdays, my siblings and I bought my grandfather a white shirt with Chinese characters all over it from Hong Kong. He loved it and wore it every time he saw us that year, and on many other occasions (including my sister’s wedding rehearsal, as seen in the photo above).
Earlier yesterday afternoon, our cousin let us know that my grandfather’s condition had taken a turn for the worse. The head nurse said it would be his last run. We all quickly went to see him. On the way there we stopped by McDonald’s for a bite to eat – maybe as a tribute to him. His face was pale and he wasn’t responsive. My dad called fromHong Kongand I put him on speaker phone beside my grandfather’s ear. The nurses said hearing is the last of the senses to go.
This morning we heard the news that he had passed away. Part of me is relieved. His journey has been difficult and now he can finally rest. My grandfather died while he was on his own, without anyone there – perhaps it is what he wanted, to go independently like he had lived.
Three feelings fill my reflections today.
The first is regret. I wish I knew my grandfather better – knew what he wanted in life, what his dreams were, and how he grew up. I wish the language and generational differences had not been barriers to communicating with him. I wish I had more time to care for him after his stroke.
The second is gratitude. I’m thankful that I knew my grandfather. I’m thankful for the great memories with him. I’m thankful he was at my university graduation and my wedding. I’m thankful that my wife and my daughter knew him. I’m thankful for his work and sacrifice in providing for our family.
The last is sadness. He is dear to our family and we miss him.
They say heaven is not a different place up there somewhere, but that it will be here on earth. Heaven will be like it is here on earth right now, but redeemed. It will be without hatred, disease, and pain. Perhaps there will be no more language barriers and generational differences either. Perhaps in heaven, I will be able to go to MSG-less dim sum with my grandfather and have the chance to know him fully like I never could here on earth. I would like that very much.
Goodbye grandpa. We miss you dearly.
Photo credits: Louis Chan, Melissa Foo