Last Sunday was my grandpa’s 90th birthday. Technically, he was born in 1925 and should’ve only been celebrating his 89th birthday, but old school Chinese people tend to count the time you spend in your mother’s uterus as your first year. So 90 it was.
In any case, 90 isn’t 30 or 40, so why wait to celebrate? The progression of feelings towards birthdays as one ages is fascinating. When we’re young, every year is a celebration of how much bigger and more like a productive adult member of society we’re getting. Sometime later in our 20’s, we start developing this morbid fear of aging, and each birthday is just a reminder of how much older and further away from some idiotic, media-propagated notion of our prime we’re getting.
Sadly, this gerascophobia occupies the majority of our lives. We live in a dread of aging so persistent that, in the next birthday stage of our lives, each birthday becomes a surprise to everyone that we haven’t died yet. Whether that’s a pleasant or a disappointing surprise is strictly in the eyes of the one doing the aging.
These past two weeks gave me a long, consistent look at Grandpa’s life at 90. For most of my life, I’ve only known two grandparents: my mom’s mom (外婆 – waipo) and my dad’s dad (爷爷 – yeye). When my mom’s mom passed away several years ago, I developed a strong sense of regret that I didn’t spend as much time with her as I should’ve, not just towards the end of her life but in general.
I was already very much a grown adult by then, but it was the first time that I realized every family required members to pump in time, money and attention; so far in my life I’d only been leeching those three things from mine. I made a commitment then to be around more for my grandpa, so, when I heard over the summer that he’d been in and out of the hospital since April, I flew to Shanghai the first chance I got.
Thus every day for the past two weeks, I’d go to his hospital room, sit between his piss jar and his box of protein, and spend a few hours with him, his caretaker, his two hospital roommates and their families. It was a morbidly fascinating situation there.
For those unfamiliar with Chinese customs, the concept of caretakers is likely foreign. We call them 阿姨 (ayi) in Chinese, which literally means “aunt.” Essentially, they are nannies for adults. They are all older, relatively uneducated women who come to bigger, east coast cities from smaller, often rural Chinese towns and work for cheap. Many of my expat friends in China hire caretakers to clean their apartments and cook their meals. They are so prevalent that Grandpa’s hospital actually hires several on staff to perform some of the menial tasks that normally go to nurses here in the U.S. (no more wiping asses!).
Fortunately, my Grandpa was able to bring his own, who’s been with him for years. His two roommates did not, yet they managed in their own ways. The younger one, a real estate mogul in his seventies, was a distinguished-looking man even in the hospital’s green pinstripe pajamas. His son visited early on after his procedure, but he maintained most of his faculties and often watched my grandpa’s and their other roommate’s behavior with as much bewilderment as I did.
That other roommate was 86 and had a huge family attending to him: a wife, two daughters, three sons, five in-laws, God knows how many grandsons, and one—to my own grandpa’s sincere envy—great-grandson. Some family member or another was always there by his side; though when there were too many, it sometimes felt like they were holding court around him and laughing at him like partygoers around the blacked out guy on the floor mumbling the secrets of the universe into the carpet. Luckily, dude was nearly deaf and spent 80% of the time I was there either heading to or in the bathroom.
Without either good health or a giant family around him, my grandpa appeared to be the most miserable patient in the room, which made me even more relieved to be there for him. Seeing me come to the hospital for the first time brought him instant euphoria, which lasted about two minutes. Then he asked me the question he’d been asking me every time he’d seen me the past three years: when the fuck are you getting married and having a kid?
No, he didn’t actually say “fuck.” He didn’t actually say much at all. Long ago multiple strokes had robbed my grandpa’s ability to speak properly, so communication with him was difficult even for native Mandarin speakers and far more so for shitty Mandarin speakers like me. Yet he still managed to communicate this subject to me not just once but pretty much every 15-20 minutes.
Initially, he’d call his caretaker over and trace the characters 结婚 (jiehun – get married) onto her hand and then point at me accusingly. I’d be telling him a story or showing him a movie, and he’d call her over again and do the same thing. After the third time, she refused to keep playing along, so then he’d just point at me and mumble out something resembling the words. I knew what he was saying.
I do have three other cousins who could produce him a great-grandchild, but mine is most important to him. Mine would be the only one to carry his last name. Not having any children, especially sons, means his family name’s lineage stops with me, which frankly is such an epic fuck-up that it just feels inevitable for me to do it.
On the other hand, all that questioning did lead to this enlightening exchange:
Grandpa (slowly): Get married.
Caretaker: What kind of girl do you want your grandson to marry?
Grandpa (slowly): Doesn’t matter. Find a good person.
Old Lady in Room: That’s a good answer.
Caretaker: What about a black girl?
Grandpa (very clearly): No no no no no no…
Yes, racism is just as funny in China as it is in America.
Though his mood was lighter in the two weeks I was in Shanghai, Grandpa’s condition was still lousy. He’d tried to go home from the hospital a couple days before I’d gotten there but ended up vomiting constantly and had to return. By the time I’d gotten there, he was on a diet of nothing but bags of nutritional chocolate goop apparently used to treat diabetes.
Yet he still wanted to be a grandpa to his grandson, so, just as he’d always offer food to me in his home, he did the same at the hospital. Thus my first day there, his caretaker handed me a bag of chocolate goop, and they both watched and waited for me to try it. So I did. It tasted like a warm whole milk protein shake. After that I always tried to get there around lunch or dinner time, so I could pick up something from the cafeteria that was at least a couple steps above chocolate goop.
Grandpa’s memory had also been slipping for a few years. One day, he kept asking me if I’d be staying at the hospital for dinner and I kept telling him that I had other dinner plans until his caretaker got fed up and told him to stop asking. I think dementia is common in our family. I dread the day my dad gets it, but part of me anticipates the day that I do. I look forward to forgetting quite a few things about my own life. I may even start early, just fake it and live back in the parts of my mind that I prefer.
In fact, I suspect that was exactly what Grandpa was doing: just pretending like he’s forgetting when he really just kept asking the same questions until he got the answer he wanted. I even called him out on that once. He just laughed and then asked me when I was getting married.
However, the mind games he played were trivial compared to the ones being played on him. The thing that disturbed me most about this part of Grandpa’s life was the web of lies being spun to keep him happy, or at least stable. I broke this rule when I answered his first question by telling him I’d broken up with my ex-girlfriend since last I’d seen him, and he wouldn’t be meeting his great-grandchildren any time soon (i.e. ever).
That news upset him so much, he ripped out a tooth that night and woke up with a mouthful of blood. His caretaker, being the gossip-monger all caretakers are, told everyone, and eventually the entire floor knew my grandpa gave himself a dental extraction because his fuck-up grandson refused to get married.
My family’s concern is that something far worse would happen if they told him about his little sister. Grandpa hasn’t heard from her in years and thinks she’s upset at him. She’s not; she’s been dead since 2011.
Of course, no one has told him that, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the asshole who did. The idea is that he’d have significantly less to live for if he knew, and this is an attempt to keep him alive longer. When I was there, this charade even went as far as sending my aunt out to the bank in the middle of a workday to withdraw money from my grandpa’s account so he could mail it to a sister who’s no longer there to receive it.
Is that what makes my grandpa happier? I don’t know. I don’t know if he prefers to keep trying to help a sister who won’t return his calls. I don’t know if he would’ve prefered to believe that my non-existent girlfriend and I are getting married and soon to be carrying on his family name. I don’t know if he prefers the continuity of ignorance over the finality of truth.
I wouldn’t. I would want to know that someone I loved died. I would want to know if she found peace, and I’d want to make peace with her loss. I would want to know if a dream I was waiting to see is going to be delayed by possibly more years than I have left, and I’d want to judge whether my idiot grandson is capable of fulfilling that dream after I’m gone.
Then, knowing all that, I would want to be the one to decide whether or not life is still worth hanging onto. That’s my own selfish decision to make, not someone else’s.
When you get old, though, those types of decisions inevitably start being taken away from you. At Grandpa’s age, it’s amazing how much the family that you raised starts treating you like the child. Yet why wouldn’t they? Grandpa can barely talk. He can’t walk. He can’t bathe himself or take a dump without help. He’s prone to emotional outbursts. Despite some cheekiness, both his short- and long-term memories are slipping.
But his mind is not that of a child’s. It is one burdened with wisdom and experience and love and regret and responsibilities. This is not keeping someone in the dark; this is ripping out someone’s eyes because the light was hurting them.
It may sound like I’m condemning the way my family has chosen to treat my grandpa. I’m not. I don’t want to be treated that way—at least that’s my opinion as a 31-year old with most of my life likely still ahead of me—but I don’t believe in always treating people the way you want to be treated.
Anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship should know better than that. You don’t hold other people up to your own standards. You treat people the way they want to be treated, to the best of your abilities. At least that’s what I assume we’re doing here.
I may feel conflicted about the decision, but I accept that’s what my family thinks is best for him. I’m also noting that’s the choice they felt was appropriate in this situation, as I get the feeling I’ll someday find myself in a similar situation with them.
And they’re going to be a lot more social media-savvy and English-proficient than my grandpa, so you won’t be reading any of this shit about them on the Internet.
By the time I left Shanghai, both Grandpa’s roommates had also checked out of the hospital. He took this opportunity to grab the window bed, and his caretaker was hoping no one would move in over the weeklong National Day holiday so as to have some peace and quiet.
I was hoping for the exact opposite. I wanted two more patients to move in immediately. For all the battles over the air conditioning and the bathroom and the occasional chaos of so many family members in one room, I couldn’t imagine it being sadder than being in a hospital room alone with just his caretaker.
Then again, that was my opinion and not his. Grandpa had spent the better part of a decade alone with just his caretaker in his apartment. My dad’s mom passed away before I was born, but my grandpa remarried, and I’d known a step-grandmother for most of my life. While all of Grandpa’s children moved to America, she still had a decent amount of family in Shanghai. Sometime after his first and worst stroke, they had a falling out and separated. I never got the full story why, but I haven’t seen that former side of the family for 10 years.
It felt like a shame. As he grew older and more unwell, that seemed like the ideal time to have family around constantly. Instead, he chose a quiet, solitary life with just his caretaker and the occasional visits from his family in America. Though at that age, I also would stop giving a fuck about what’s most convenient and would want what gives me the most peace of mind.
Does he regret his decision? I don’t know. The one time I tried to bring up my former grandma in conversation three years ago was met with instant dismissal. However, would his actual family have visited as much this past decade had we known he had the other family there to look after him? I probably wouldn’t have.
Ultimately, though I know Grandpa always appreciates my presence, the incremental value of each appearance is getting lower and lower now without a wife and a baby in tow. Odds are he will never see that in his lifetime. I’ve known that for years, and now he knows it, too.
So now Grandpa has a choice. He can keep hoping, he can become despondent, or he can just accept that and be at peace with it. My guess is he’ll probably vacillate among all three choices at some point or another, but he’ll settle on the choice he wouldn’t have if someone told him his little sister died. He’d keep hoping. You always do when it comes to family.