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On Grief (Part I)

My experience as a Chinese American has been marked with memories that are not entirely mine. Historical trauma can feel so personal and personal trauma can be historical. In these unprecedented times when there is so much social, political, environmental upheaval and turmoil, I felt it was necessary to look inwards and to address some of the feelings that had been bubbling inside of me but are not unique to me. This piece has been cathartic, and felt almost like metaphorical bloodletting – with my keyboard being the leech. Hopefully, it can be the same for others.

Part I

I’m 7 when I see my grandmother for the last time. She wraps her thick, wizened fingers around my little hands. I don’t remember what she says, my ears blocked by the flurry of thoughts in my head. I’m adamant that I’ll see her again. I tell her that I’ll come back for sure. I’ll go to college, I pledge. I’ll get rich and buy you a BIG house. Just you see. She nods. I’m not sure if she’s sad, looking down at me without smile or frown. I’m not even sure if I’m sad, sweat dripping down my neck in the heat of all that is a Hoisan summer, wanting to go back to America where my head doesn’t have to steam with heat.

She waves when I get into my uncle’s truck. I watch her grow smaller until I can no longer see her. I whip my head back around to the front and look forward.

I feel a tiny pang in my chest that I don’t understand.

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I’m 8 and we have the same conversation over the phone over and over again for a year. She says are you doing good, Little Puppy? I’m good, Popo. I’m being good. I miss you. Do you want to talk to mom? 

The phone calls are less frequent. Mom says Popo is busy, and I find that it’s okay. Because it scares me. Popo scares me. Chee ngoy. Alzheimer’s. I don’t get really get it. I’ve only ever seen it on TVB. Old people just forget. right?

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Popo stars brightly in the first chapter of my life. I’m her youngest grandchild, and she moves to America to look after me. She takes me everywhere.  She teaches me how to count, first in Hoisan-wa, then in Cantonese. Out of all her grandchildren, I know she loves me best. I’m her Little Puppy.

I used to have nine children she says sometimes. Now I have six.

I wonder if she can see any of them in me.  

My father yells at her all the time. Probably too much. She asks me why he does that. I hear the pain in her voice, and it fills me with rage. I tell her not to listen to him.

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My mother doesn’t tell me my grandmother dies until years after it happens.

I only figure it out when I see her grave for myself and do the math. I’m 24. I don’t confront my mom. It occurs to me that I had stopped hearing from Popo gradually until I don’t hear from her at all.

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I remember Popo turning on the faucet in our house.  The water in the tub rises, billows over the rim. Aiya, I forgot. She says. 

Everyone gets upset at Popo. They yell, and I don’t want them to. I don’t get it. It’s okay, everyone forgets sometimes. Shouldn’t we respect our elders?

Melissa Chen really is like any other ABC who grew up with a bowl cut and can’t swim. On occasion, she writes.

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