2020

During the her version of the pandemic, my paternal grandmother — my Nana — decided to stop eating. It was, to the best of our knowledge, not related to COVID, as case numbers and deaths were long under control where she lived (China). One day, she could eat. The next day, she couldn’t keep anything down without throwing up. The day after that, she decided to stop eating. She was sharp, even in the end; she had lost hearing in one ear, all of her teeth except one, and most of her mobility, but she kept her wits about her. Her youngest daughter (my fourth aunt) was taking care of her at the time. She called my dad and told him that his mother had decided to stop eat eating. It was time, Nana had said.

Nana reported feeling no pain. She drank water and napped in bed. On the fifth day, my dad awoke to a text from Fourth Aunt, which read that Nana had left. My dad stayed in bed and cried. Later, he realized that Fourth Aunt had garbled her text — Nana had left her bedroom to use the bathroom.

On the seventh day, Nana passed away. She lived through World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the War in Afghanistan, Mao, Nixon, television, and five versions of HTML. She was a nurse, and worked in hospitals, until she had children. What did it all mean?

During my version of the pandemic, I went on long walks through Brooklyn after work, braving the February winters and the shitty snow that piled on the sides of sidewalks for months on end without melting. Always in Brooklyn, at all hours, there are people out on the sidewalks, walking their dogs, talking to other people in line for tacos at the taco truck, and loitering. So many little restaurants and shops closed in my neighborhood. Besides the streetlights, the luminous Foodtown of Prospect Heights was the only thing that lit up Vanderbilt Avenue in the winter, like some great beacon of B-grade produce. Going through the pandemic alone, a single man in his thirties, I realized I was being given a test. If I could survive this year by myself, I could probably survive any year by myself. I survived. I’m not sure I was elegantly fabulous in my survival, the way some other people experienced the pandemic (weddings, births), went but I survived. What did it all mean?

The last time my Nana and I talked in person, it was 2019. I had taken a twenty-one hour flight and a forty-five minute taxi ride to my Fourth Aunt’s apartment complex. That’s how addresses worked in Taiyuan: country, province, city, cross street, apartment complex, building, building unit. Long. For whatever reason, there was concrete rubble everywhere, as if the construction people left one day too early. We waited in a completely dark hallway on the first floor of Fourth Aunt’s building for the elevator. Architecture in Taiyuan is wanting: everything is covered in a layer of dirt, nothing feel safe, and all overhead fluorescent lights come from the same catalog that the military uses to furnish an interrogation room.

The apartment was clean, and filled with sunlight, not unlike a south-facing two-bedroom condo unit in Prospect Heights. Fourth Aunt had cooked a multi-course meal, with dumplings being the star entree. All throughout the afternoon, Nana’s little dog yipped and jumped on everybody. Nana came out to talk. We yelled short phrases at her, and she would tell us stories in a normal tone of voice. Like a monster, I was afraid of how she would smell, but she sat right next to me and she smelled OK. She showed me pictures of her husband, my Ye Ye, whom I never really knew. He had a stroke shortly after I was born, and was bedridden when I said goodbye to him in 1995. She showed me pictures of me — pictures of living rooms and lakes and gardens I couldn’t remember. I told her I couldn’t remember anything, and she laughed, and she handed me the next photo. After lunch, she grew tired and retired to bed.

The rest of us stayed and talked. Fourth Aunt’s husband (my uncle), propped a window open in the kitchen to smoke a cigarette, before coming back, before going back to smoke another, before coming back. There was apples served for dessert, and beer. Like most houses in China, there was no coffee, which I would have killed for. I could not get over how similar the apartment was to a Brooklyn apartment, right down to the small kitchen that could barely fit two people, with the refrigerator that was awkwardly one size too small for the cabinetry around it, and the white stovetop with burns that would never come out. What did it all mean?

The last time my Nana and I ever talked, we “Sametimed,” which is the verb my Mom uses for any form of video communication. My Nana called my Mom’s iPad over WeChat, and I called my Mom’s iPhone over FaceTime. My Mom held the two devices so that we faced each other. Over approximately ten frames of video per second, I told my Nana that I loved her and I hoped she was happy. She seemed happy to see me. This was the second day of her fast, when her children were already rushing to take the express trains back home to Taiyuan. Though, if they were like me, they likely felt complicated about calling their hometown home. At some point, home is the apartment that you rent in the new city you live in, even though maybe it never really feels like home because you’re the only person who lives in it. Can a home just be one person? Maybe if the person was rich, and the home had a huge balcony, and the person had great-looking friends over each night. But an apartment with clothes on the floor? My Nana said she loved me too, and then I was told by my Mom that she had to hang up on me. My Dad was going to keep talking to Nana for a while. Bye, Nana, I said. I love you. In Mandarin, and (I suspect) other dialects of Chinese, you don’t say “I love you” to end conversations, the way you might in English, but what else are you supposed to say? We hung up, and I laced up my boots, and I put on my big, blue coat, and I went out. What did it all mean?

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