Why I Remember


I don't remember exactly what I was doing when my dad called me. I remember it was the day after Valentine's Day and I remember it was unusually warm, but not much more than that. I don't even remember what he said, or where I was when he told me what happened to my grandpa.

Hit by a drunken motorcyclist, he told me. There were other details, like the lawsuit and the travesty of the streets in his city in China. Everything happened very quickly after I found out what happened - my dad went to China to be with his mom and his siblings, and the next thing I knew it was his funeral and I was on the other side of the world, crying.

At the time I was working part time in an Elementary school teaching English to fourth graders. On one of the days surrounding the funeral I gave the students instructions to take out their notebooks and write a journal entry about a family member. Hands shot up everywhere.

‘But Miss Esther what do we write about?’ they all asked, their brows furrowed, flinging their pencils across the room. I answered, ‘Well, you can write about your mom or dad or brother or sister or grandma or grandpa...’

And one of my kids shouted from across the room, 'Why would I write about my grandpa if I don't even know him?'

And when I heard that question I got that feeling you get when you're about to cry. I swallowed, then said slowly, 'Well, I didn't know my grandpa that well since he lived in China - ', but before I could finish the room erupted with kids exclaiming "China? He lives in China?!"

 How do you write about someone you don't really know?

Growing up, I remember thinking I would have more stories to write if my life was more like the stories I heard about how my grandpa raised my dad and his siblings on the side of the mountain. My dad said he grew up taking care of chickens and fighting off wild animals. I remember dreaming that one day I would take all the tales I'd heard about their little village and weave them into a story that gave voice to the people on the mountain during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

What do I know about him? What do I know about the man who raised my father, who flew halfway across the world to hold me and my brothers on his lap and tell us stories of the wild animals he and my dad had to fight off? The man who told us all about the monkey king and taught us surprisingly applicable life lessons from Chinese fables? The man who tried to learn how to say 'grandpa' in English and had the only laugh in the house that was louder than my dad's?

I wonder if I could ever really write that story. It's too late to ask him to tell me those stories again. The last time I had a chance to do that I was a teenager, and somewhere along the way it became more important to me to be introspective and self-absorbed than to care about my family.

All I really have now is the little things. Like how I always found chocolate hidden in his desk because he had type II diabetes. How he never forgot to water the vegetable garden or take care of the plants.

But I still have to write those little things, because they're all I have - I guess a language barrier will do that to you.

How do you write about someone you don't really know? And why do I feel like it's something I must do? Does it somehow make everything more significant if I can record on this blog the tiny collection of stories and moments that barely even live in the corners of my mind?

I've read somewhere that part of grieving is taking inventory of that person's impact on your life and on the lives of those around them, which is what I guess I’m doing. If don’t write it down, will anyone remember? I don’t know who I’m writing this for, but I’m writing it anyway because I think I’m desperately trying to prove to myself - to someone - that it mattered.

The years my grandpa spent with us were the stuff of those Chinese fables – short, carefree, yet deeply significant. I don’t know if the memories I’ve managed to gather together do any justice to the stories I heard, but I don't think anyone really has all the words. And I’m learning that that’s alright.