I’ve been lucky enough to live thirty-two years, three months and twenty days without losing a family member. When I think about those around me that haven’t been so lucky, I’m in awe of how they’ve managed to forge on, even with the knowledge that there could have, or should have been, more time. One of my girlfriends lost her father while she was in middle school, another lost her father during the pandemic, my mother-in-law lost her father when she was thirteen, and my dad lost his mother, my Nainai, when he was twenty-three. My Yeye (paternal grandfather in Chinese) passed away this week at the age of ninety-five.
He lived across the world from me, and as a result, our time together through my thirty-two years, three months, and twenty days was condensed into the few years he spent living with us when I was in elementary school, the semester I spent in college studying abroad in Shanghai, and the cumulative months he spent living with my parents during my high school and college graduations. I last saw him in person in 2014. In the nine years since then, Yeye’s age has prevented him from making the fourteen hour trek back to us, and my ever-growing anxiety with air travel has prevented me from joining my dad on his annual trips back to Shanghai. And while technology has had its fair share of bad press lately, I’m grateful to have been able to video call with him up until the end. I’ve always known that, short of a disaster, my Yeye would be the first person to leave my life. It’s the natural order of things – grandparents are supposed to pass before their grandchildren. That fact, coupled with the knowledge that he’s not involved in my day-to-day life has always made me believe that his passing would be, for lack of a more poetic term, less sad. It’s not less sad.
And while I’m grateful that the sadness I feel is different from the sadness my dad likely felt when he lost his mom before her time should have come, I’m still sad. I lost the only grandparent I ever knew, and even though he lived a life far longer than many people are blessed with, I still find myself wondering what if? What if he hadn’t contracted COVID this time? What if he was allowed to have been vaccinated? What if he was able to hold on just another few days so my dad could fly back and say goodbye in person? But, then I remember, as with all things in life, we have the agency to choose our perspective. And today, I’m choosing to celebrate the fact that Yeye lived for ninety-five years, that he passed away peacefully in his sleep surrounded by family, and that his legacy lives on through my dad and me. Yeye survived nearly a decade separated from his family at a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution, and aside from that miracle alone, he refused to be scarred by it.
He approached life with the levity of a child combined with the wisdom of a man who read a newspaper, front to back, everyday. More than once have I realized that Yeye knew more about my side of the globe than I did. When my parents immigrated here in the nineties on student visas, Yeye directed my dad not to fly back to China before he secured a green card, even if he died, because he knew how difficult it would be for him to re-enter the US if he left while on a visa. His unwavering commitment to forward motion, regardless of tragedy, taught me that above all, the will to keep going is all that matters. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself grateful, not only for the outpouring of love from my friends and strangers on the internet, but also, oddly enough, for Instagram’s analytics. As of writing this, 38,618 of you have seen a picture of Yeye’s face on my stories. Yeye was a total rockstar who, even at the age of eighty-six, knew he preferred to take photos without his puffy down coat on because *aesthetics* right? It brings me a small sliver of joy to know that Yeye is Insta famous, and that someone in Brazil, or Namibia, or small town in Holland has seen the face of my ninety-five year old Shanghainese grandfather. These are places Yeye never went to in this life, but will have eternal time to explore in the next.
A friend of mine sent the following message to me shortly after I found out about his passing (paraphrased for clarity here): “Allow yourself to cry and laugh at the absurdity. Do what needs to be done. Mourning has an infinite timeline until you’re on the other side. Yeye is crying and laughing with you and it makes no difference to him how long you take to grieve. There’s no time left for him here, but all the time there, so he’ll see you on the other side.”
Queen Elizabeth II famously said that “Grief doesn’t end, but it changes. It is a passage, not a place to stay. It is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price of love.” And so today, in honor of my Yeye, I implore you to keep going, to find joy even amidst whatever sorrow you may be facing, and to know that grief, however overwhelming it may be, is truly a very small price to pay for love.
Rest in power with Nainai, Yeye. Our family now has two guardian angels, and we’ll see you on the other side.
Zaiyang: 12/26/1927 – 01/26/2023