By William Au
"Take those earphones out of your ears!"
I looked at my father whose face was flush from frustration.
"You don't have to listen to music all the time," he said.
I raised the volume of my music player and replied, "It's fine." The rickety elevator groaned as it pulled into the third floor. I followed my father out the cab, careful to keep myself two steps behind him. From where I stood, my father's back looked small, like a turtle without a shell, a being vulnerable to all the pitfalls in the world. We passed by the dorm's reception desk and lounge, which was filled with geriatric patients staring at a gigantic TV.
In the lounge was a cage filled with twittering canaries the residents ignored. Every room on the floor shared the same appearance, similar to the indistinguishable recesses of an underground cavern. My father and I entered a room on the left side, which was lit by a wall light affixed above a hospital bed with an incline. Three women stood beside the bed, conversing with each other in hushed voices. One of them wore a thick jacket and gripped the strap of a travel bag. My aunt from Australia weaved between this trio, heels clicking against the floor, as she rearranged bundles of flowers and provisions. She saw us enter and gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. I returned the gesture and looked at the person sleeping in the bed—an older woman whose mouth hung open, taking in breaths that shook her entire body, like a house settling in the cold. This woman was my grandmother.
Since I was old enough to walk, I remember my grandmother being confined to a bed. I didn't share a close relationship with her during my childhood because I was a child, self-centered in my interests and preoccupied with having a good time. My interactions with my grandmother were always instigated by other relatives and usually went like this:
"William, talk to your grandmother."
"She wants to know how you're doing in school."
"I'm doing well; I'm passing, for the most part."
"She wants to know if you've been a good boy."
"Yes, I listen to my mom and dad."
"Okay, you can leave now."
Back then, my grandmother was just another adult, a stranger who seemed like a permanent fixture in my life.
Until 1959, polygamy was legal and widespread in Vietnam. My grandfather, Chau Au, operated an auto garage in Saigon while being married to three women. His first wife, Muoi Tu, was the oldest of the three and my paternal grandmother. Her age and position made the rest of the family address her with the name "Eldest." After my grandfather passed away from illness, my grandmother immigrated to Canada with five of her children. A couple years after I was born, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed the lower half of her body and ruined her ability to communicate with words. She couldn't use the bathroom by herself or change her clothes without assistance. After becoming immobile, she spent most of her time watching Chinese pop singers perform on a 13" CRT television, sleeping, or lost in thought.
My grandmother was a resident of Saint-Vincent Hospital, an extended care complex located near the heart of Ottawa's china town. She didn't speak any English and only left the place when my relatives were free to host her on holidays or weekends. When I was old enough to attend high school, my father started leaving me alone with her to perform errands or consult the nurses. She was always listless and despondent until someone engaged her in conversation. Her eyes sparked to life and she would start moving her fingers to articulate her feelings. Sometimes she even laughed in a gravelly voice that sounded like a putting engine. When we were alone, my grandmother always invited me to join her in conversation but I couldn't understand any of the guttural sounds she made. Also, I wasn't a good conversationalist and knew little about her, save for the fact that the only hospital food she touched was the applesauce and milk. In the end, I managed to resolve our communication barrier by throwing out questions and watching if my grandmother nodded or shook her head. She wanted to know about my friends, school life, and plans for the future. However, my responses were often vague or incomplete because I was embarrassed to talk about myself. It wasn't until later visits that I removed my filter and learned that I could make her laugh by interjecting gestures and caricatures of people in my stories. This behaviour is now a habit that I find hard to break.
I stopped by the hospital a couple years back to see if the place had changed. I climbed an asphalt slope to a set of double doors beneath a concrete awning. From what I saw, most of the hospital was the same. Nobody removed the replica of the building that dominated the foyer and the smell of human waste and disinfectant still hung in every hallway. To my surprise, the gift shop still had gaudy, gold decor and sold polyester balloons, get-well cards, and lottery tickets. The attendant in the elevator was new, though. Ever since the management installed an atrium on the first floor, I started to suspect that they were trying to present the hospital as a place more grandiose than it really was. Regardless of the renovations, I'll always remember the hospital as a plain room with a turquoise curtain that split the room in two and obscured the window.
As I grew older, my visits to the hospital became less frequent. I was preoccupied with school and relationships and didn't start seeing my grandmother again until her health took a turn for the worse. During this period, I spoke to her only once or twice. Every time I went to the hospital, my grandmother's room was filled with a mixture of my aunts, uncles, and their families. I often left and went downstairs because I didn't want to get in anyone's way. The only time I was alone with my grandmother was the last time I saw her. The creases lining her face were darker and a coughing fit accompanied her every action. She beckoned and pointed at the cabinet beside her bed. Inside the top shelf was a deck of battered cue cards, yellow with age. Each card showed an illustration of an object with a description in both Chinese and English. I asked my grandmother if these were for me and she nodded. I was confused; I stopped attending extracurricular language classes long ago and showed no interest in starting again. My mind raced with questions, but I said nothing; I didn't want to appear ungrateful or incapable of accepting goodwill. My father returned from buying egg tarts, my grandmother's favourite pastry. I thanked my grandmother for the gift and sat in the corner of the room. I left that evening without asking my grandmother about the intention behind her gift.
My grandmother passed away a week later. My father was at work and didn't learn that her health vitals were failing until it was too late. I wasn't allowed to go with him when he left for the hospital; I didn't want to stay behind, but I understood that it wasn't my place to be there. At the time, I wasn't sure if my desire to follow my father came from a sense of obligation or regret from not visiting my grandmother more. In retrospect, my priorities and reservations back then weren't that important. I should have been true to myself during the moments that mattered, instead of letting fear hold me back and deny myself from a relationship with my grandmother.
A year later, I had a dream where I was standing next to a canopy bed in a white room that lacked both boundaries and a ceiling. My grandmother lay in the bed with her fingers clasped together. She was still wearing her trademark hospital gown and a blanket covered up her legs. We shared a brief conversation where she told me I was a good boy and gave me instructions to look after a baby. My grandmother smiled at me and shrunk into an infant wearing a pink sleeper. I woke from my dream and went downstairs. I was surprised to see the rest of my family awake and contemplating in their pajamas. I tried to break the ice, but everyone kept interrupting me with snippets of how they saw Grandmother in their sleep.
I don't believe in the concept of reincarnation, so I consider the specifics of that dream to be nothing more than the product of an active imagination, but I did take the message to heart. After my fourth year in high school, I returned for a semester to complete a missing art credit. I was unable to register for university that year, so I volunteered at a neighbourhood daycare that took care of Iris, my cousin who was born earlier that year. Four months later, the daycare closed down because of dwindling clientele. From then on, taking care of Iris became a full-time commitment. I woke up at five in the morning every day, walked to my uncle's place, and slipped upstairs. Iris was a light sleeper. She would cry when her parents left for work unless I coaxed her back to sleep with a baby carrier. I made many fond memories with Iris that year.
On a typical day, I changed her diapers, read her books, gave her baths, and brought her to the park to play and perform calisthenics. Not everything was fun and games, but I don't regret a single moment of our year together. It's been five years since then and now I have another younger cousin named Katherine. I didn't have the opportunity to look after Katherine, but I try to maintain a relationship with her and all my younger relatives. I don't have much time these days to spend with family, but I do my best to be a person they can approach for help or guidance.
Once in awhile, I search my dresser for the deck of cards my grandmother left me and take a stab at memorizing familiar, but elusive Chinese characters. When I hold these cards in my hands, I can't help but wonder where and when they became a part of my grandmother's possessions. Perhaps she bought these years ago, from a roadside vendor or the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, in preparation of a new life in Canada. Having these cards doesn't improve my Chinese, but they're still important to me; they connect me to my grandmother, a memento that serves as a reminder of how time flies and where to place my priorities.
William Au is a student in the Professional Writing program with a love for storytelling that spans every medium of expression. His free time is spent sleeping, partaking of new experiences, and indulging in books and films. He helps run the Video Game Club at Algonquin College and collects children's books.