The first time I got a wobbly tooth, my grandfather, with the precision of a surgeon and theatrics of a showman, carefully wrapped thread around it, tied it up in a neat little bow, counted down from three… and yanked as hard as he could at “TWO.”
We avoided a lot of trips to the dentist this way.
Grandpa taught me how to ride a bike for the first time. He kept me close, holding onto the handlebars to help me stay balanced, and told me to “just keep pedalling.” He inevitably let go, and true to grandpa style, did it before I had any time to process my fear of falling. I continued to pedal ferociously even as I began tipping over, holding onto grandpa’s implied promise that if I just “kept pedalling” things would be okay. It didn’t work out that way of course; I fell sideways and grandpa was hysterical with laughter.
One time we watched a scary movie, and I was terrified of going to bed alone. Grandpa took his time with this one. He found some white cardstock, and this was important because regular A4 paper wouldn’t do. Carefully, he began to draw. He was precise, used a ruler, and constructed a pattern of boxes arranged in a tidy fashion. Once he was satisfied with the shape, he proceeded to fill the boxes in his design using coloured pencils. The intensity with which grandpa worked captivated and convinced me that whatever sorcery was going on, it was going to work. In the end, he designed a simple cross (we weren’t even religious) made of squares of different colours, cut it out, and tapped it to the head of my bed for protection. I slept soundly that night.
As I got older, my needs evolved, and grandpa adapted. There was a period of time when grandma would wake me up at the crack of dawn and make us breakfast at 5 AM in the mornings just so grandpa could drive me to school in time for swim practice. I would wake up bleary-eyed and groggy, the smell of grandma’s hot noodle dish was the only excitement which cut through those dark, sleepy mornings. Grandpa operated on a “if you’re on time you’re late” policy, which meant I always arrived 15 minutes early for practice and he was at work at least 30 minutes before he was officially on the clock. He napped in the car before work to compensate for waking up so early.
Grandpa had his flaws as well. All the Cantonese swear words I know I learned from him; he cussed loudly at villains and plot twists while we watched our Chinese dramas on the TVB channel. Though he was often a man of few words, dinnertime was filled with rants about incompetent coworkers or rude encounters. He was also known to be particular about his food, so efforts to help grandma “improve her cooking” was often met with a hot, flashy temper and threats to “cook your own damn dinner next time!” So it went.
When it was time for me to get my driver’s licence my grandfather was ecstatic about the fun experiences we were going to have on the road together. We had come a long way from me falling on the front lawn with my little two-wheeler years ago.
Grandpa loved to drive a little too fast and blast Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” a little too loud on repeat until my brain stopped processing the words. He was going to teach me to drive with one hand and explain the protocol for speeding without getting caught. After I had already gotten a few lessons with an instructor, grandpa took me out on a practice drive. It was the first and last time I’d take the wheel with grandpa ever again.
I was an anxious driver, and grandfather a commanding general. He had no patience for incompetence and unfortunately that’s what I was at the time: completely, totally, shamefully incompetent. He expressed his disappointment in me through anger, and second tactic commonly employed by Asian grandparents: loudness. Why wasn’t I better? Why couldn’t I understand simple instructions? I cried so much that day my eyes hurt. Grandpa never apologised, and I never expected him to. I’m sure it broke his heart to see me like that. He was just trying to make me better, grandpa style. Although that infamous driving episode went on to become a staple in the archives of our family history, its beginnings were only shared in hushed tones and out of earshot of grandpa and I. To this day, if you mention “that time April went driving with grandpa,” everybody would know what you were talking about.
Grandpa and I spent a lot of time together in this way – eating dinner; indulging in seaweed snacks and vanilla ice cream; me dozing off in the passenger seat during long rides… We generally never talked much about anything, but he was a constant in my life and always had big dreams for me. I was to become a doctor or lawyer, though he wasn’t too fussed when I chose teaching as my profession in the end.
In February of 2016, grandpa was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. I had just graduated and was working in Kazakhstan at the time. That summer was hard on everyone. We took turns at the hospital spending time with grandpa; grandma always taking the longest, toughest shift, tending to grandpa throughout each and every night. Towards the end of his life, grandpa would sometimes become bitter and resentful. It broke us to see him that way. In moments when he was lucid, he would comfort us and tell us not to worry.
After his passing, grandpa came to visit me in a series of dreams. These were silent films; set in the most mundane places. On a street, where grandpa and grandma walked hand-in-hand. On my grandparent’s wooden-framed bed, where we folded laundry while watching television. These visions of grandpa were comforting, friendly, and warm – a direct contrast to the emptiness I felt. Before his death, I was tormented with the task of sharing with my grandfather just how much he meant to me. My words were not enough. My Cantonese was so shitty I couldn’t string together enough words to express everything that was going on in my inner world. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry…