WATCHING PO-PO BREATHE
by Andrew Chang
My earliest memory of Po-Po is her cooking: the thick aroma of beef and bok choy wafting through our old kitchen, and the sight of her tightly permed hair through the steam gathering over the stovetop. After dinner, she would humor me as I tried to teach her English. I never had much success, but I remember her nodding and smiling along as I read my favorite picture books to her.
More recent memories present clearer, more focused images. I remember the thick hong-baos pressed into my hands at every Chinese New Year, and the weekly gifts of jung, with all the veggies I hated replaced by egg and sausage. I remember visiting Po-Po. She lives in the same house where she raised my mom, a white two-story building with a driveway, a basement, a small backyard, and stone steps that lead to the front door. Because I grew up in Manhattan, I remember that house as if it were a monument to some idealized dream of all-American suburbia—even though it’s just across the river from our apartment, and it’s in an Asian, urban community in Queens. Whenever my family visited, after offering us some food, Po-Po would always let me change the channel from her Cantonese soap operas to sports games she never understood.
That was one of our unspoken rituals. On the phone, our conversations were repetitive; we sent and returned the phrase “I love you” with the easy familiarity of a tennis rally. I would talk to her at holidays, and she would interject with “good boy” or “handsome boy” whenever I paused for breath. We never discussed her life. I learned all her important biographical details from secondhand stories: how she grew up in the Toisan region of China, how she became a teacher who was paid in bales of rice, how she fled to the mountains each morning to escape soldiers during the Japanese invasion. How she immigrated to the United States after the Communist Revolution in 1949, and how she raised six children on tomato soup and canned vegetables while Gung-Gung worked at the laundromat, how she sent each of those children to college and watched them achieve the American dream. I only learned that her marriage had been arranged when I was twenty-one.
Conversations about these topics never felt natural, especially when I was younger. Instead, we talked about school or how good her food tasted. In my mind, we always had next time for a proper, translated sit-down.
During the October of my senior year of college, my grandmother began to forget things: locations, recipes, names. She struggled to eat all her food, and she slept for most of the day. Although my family was concerned, we didn’t think there was any imminent risk. We thought these were just symptoms of old age. Even so, we transferred her to a hospital for official reassurance. I Skyped with her several times, planned a trip home to see her the following week. Life seemed to be moving forward. She’d return home soon, and the doctors would keep her healthy in the meantime.
Several days after Po-Po moved to the hospital, I received a phone call from my Dad: “You need to come back to New York. ASAP.”
Wait, what? I thought she was doing well?
“You should see her this weekend, just in case.” Apparently, Po-Po was struggling to move her body or swallow food. She couldn’t keep her eyes open. My parents had planned to wait until I had finished a round of job interviews the next morning before telling me this information, but there was no telling how quickly Po-Po’s body might deteriorate.
The next evening, I boarded a train back to New York with my cousin Katherine. Even though we both attended the same college in Philadelphia, it was the only time we had coordinated to book the same train. Not because we weren’t close—we were. Katherine and I were born a day apart, and for a long time, we were Po-Po’s youngest grandchildren. We shared similar friend groups in high school, and even today, we spend most family holidays chatting together. In college, however, our lives had diverged: different classes, different friends, different interests. Aside from the occasional coffee or dinner, our lives were independent, as if we were just good friends. But when we saw each other at the train station that evening, I think we both understood how lucky we were to have family so nearby.
For most of the train ride, Katherine and I sat across from each other in silence. She tried to do some homework, typing away at the same line of code for an hour. I watched as city skylines turned into flat swamplands, and I waited for them to turn back again.
Po-Po was hospitalized on the Upper West Side—a convenient location for the New Yorkers in the family. Our family had two previous experiences with this hospital, when my grandfather was dying and when my cousin Kimberly gave birth, so my parents reassured me that Po-Po would receive excellent care. I, however, was too young to remember the prior and had happy memories from the latter, so I didn’t know what to expect from a somber hospital visit. When I arrived that evening, instead of trusting in the hospital’s top-notch technology and doctors, my mind latched onto gloomy institutional details: the empty beds being wheeled down monochromatic hallways or the repeated warnings to wash our hands and put on gloves and masks before entering Po-Po’s room.
Katherine and I watched our grandmother breathe. We focused on the folds in her hospital gown: up, down, up, down. Her arms were wrinkled and bruised, with bandages covering spots where she had ripped out IV tubes earlier that day. We each held one of Po-Po’s hands as our aunt from California gave us updates: Po-Po had slept for most of the day. The doctors didn’t know what the source of the problem was, but they were running tests. Tonight, there was nothing we could do. When I arrived home several hours later, Mom told me that, before she had been hospitalized, Po-Po asked if I was coming home to bring her flowers. I responded that we could bring some in the morning. “She probably wouldn’t notice,” Mom said, “but we can try.”
We visited the next day and the day after, murmuring “stay strong” and “I love you.” Even when Po-Po was awake, she didn’t seem to notice too much. Once, Mom told her that “Andrew is visiting all the way from college, Ma, isn’t that nice?” and she moved her head in what we deemed acknowledgment. We cheered, but the blank stare returned when prompted to acknowledge the presence of others (even her son and daughter), and she fell back asleep. I rotated between a chair on her right-hand bedside and a couch in the visitors’ room where I could nap when other family members visited. Eventually, Sunday evening came, and Katherine and I returned to Philadelphia; I had classes. Real life would resume in the morning.
I ignored the first phone call I received that Monday morning. It was 1 a.m., and I was sleep-deprived and half-delirious. I thought it must be a wrong number. Then the second call, from my cousin Mira, Katherine’s older sister.
“Andrew, call your parents. They need to get to the hospital now—no one’s picking up their phones; they must be sleeping, but Po-Po is dying.”
The next half-hour was a blur of ringing phones, my parents’ familiar voicemails, crumpled tissues blotted with tears. Eventually, my uncle drove to my parents’ apartment and called me from the lobby. In a jumbled stutter, I explained to my doorman that the angry man who had passed him the phone and was shouting at him was indeed family, and that he needed the spare keys to the apartment, now. They went upstairs, woke my parents up, and ten minutes later, my mom texted me that they were en route to the hospital.
Despite the urgency, having a goal had been reassuring: things would be okay if I could wake my parents. For thirty minutes, I had something to do, and therefore, some control. After my parents were awake and everyone local had arrived at the hospital, all I could do, once again, was wait.
I didn’t want to spend the night alone, so I walked across campus to Katherine’s house. We Skyped our parents, and they raised their phones to Po-Po’s better ear so we could tell her that we loved her so much, that we’d be back home soon, that she needed to see us graduate. Whenever one of us began to cry, the other would hold the phone away so Po-Po couldn’t hear. Family called in from California, Hawaii, and Hong Kong to encourage Po-Po to keep breathing. At one point, Mira told Po-Po that she needed to stay strong so that she could see all her grandchildren get married. Throughout the night, a ring of people surrounded her, their gloved hands reaching out to hold on.
Around 5 a.m., her heartbeat began to stabilize. It was soft, but consistent. A miracle, they said. It must have been all the positive energy. The adults allowed themselves to go to the bathroom or sit down, and they told us to sleep. I walked back to my house through a thin mist caused by overnight rain. I’ve never seen Philadelphia so quiet.
The doctors told us that Po-Po was dying two more times before they deemed emergency care unnecessary, although we never discovered the name of whatever disease had caused her so much pain. Since then, recovery has been a slow process. She spent two months in the hospital and four months in a rehab center before returning home. Home looks different now, too. My parents and uncle renovated it to be wheelchair accessible: the familiar carpeting has been replaced by smooth wood paneling, and there are metal handlebars in every bathroom. Meanwhile, Po-Po has had to relearn how to move, eat, write, and talk, and she now requires a live-in nurse to care for her. She might never cook or bow with me in front of Gung-Gung’s portrait again. And I don’t know if we’ll ever have that sit-down I imagined.
I wish there were more time. But we’re living moment to moment, and it’s working. We celebrated Christmas in the hospital, and she laughed at the cartoon deer on my Christmas sweater. When she was in rehab, I watched her relearn how to walk. She stepped forward, clutching her walker, and I pushed a wheelchair two steps behind her in case she needed support. Our steps fell in sync, and even when I offered her a chance to rest, she kept moving forward. She’s even been asking me questions about my future; I think she’s excited for my graduation.
Several days before she was released from the rehab center, our family celebrated Po-Po’s ninetieth birthday at my uncle’s apartment. Four generations of family were present, including people I had never even met before. On one table in the main dining room, we had placed gold balloons and framed pictures of Po-Po: in her youth, with her grandchildren, on vacation. On the table adjacent was a feast of food, most of which Po-Po can no longer eat: four cakes, her favorite noodles, fried rice, and a roasted baby pig that one of my cousins had topped with a party hat. Throughout the evening, my family swarmed the guest of honor. When she first arrived, the family surrounded her in on both sides, forming lines to pat her back or hold her hand that served as a parade route to the center of the dinner table. We took photos with Po-Po in every possible combination, with flashes popping from the parents’ bulky SLRs, our pastor’s handheld camcorder, and each of the grandchildren’s cellphones. At one point, to break up the monotony, Po-Po motioned for us to place the baby pig in front of her as a new centerpiece for the doting paparazzi. As the night progressed, we slowly eased our way back into a sense of normalcy, and for the first time in months, our conversations drifted away from present concerns.
My aunt had brought several photo albums over from the house in Queens, and during one break in the evening, I discovered photos I’d never seen before. I saw my aunts holding mini boomboxes as teenagers, my uncles eating ice cream in the park nearby Po-Po’s, Mom laughing as a baby. In one photo, Po-Po is standing in an elegant black dress on a rock in Central Park, her arms tight around her youngest children. Her gaze looks straight through the photo, and the moment freezes just as she begins to smile.
I visited Po-Po the next day, and I told her how good she looked in the photo. Before translating my words, Mom told me that Po-Po had loved to dress up and take her kids on adventures after church on Sundays. She retold the story in Cantonese, and Po-Po nodded, and said “I love you,” and smiled. Po-Po’s smile reminds me of her age: she keeps her mouth open, and she curls her lips loosely around her teeth, and for a moment, her eyes will go blank as if she’s remembering something from her life before me. But that afternoon, as I squeezed her hand, she looked exactly as she must have on that Sunday afternoon, just before the camera shutter clicked and her kids ran off into the fields.
Author’s Note: Some names have been changed by the author to protect identities.
Andrew Chang recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he fell in love with Philadelphia. He enjoys writing about family and travel, and he is an avid sports fan. Originally a proud New York City native, Andrew currently resides in Washington, DC.
Image credit: Pixabay