In the funeral home, I was looking down and staring at Grandpa’s face. It was pale and bloodless, but calm. I stood there with my parents and my brother. We were all wearing black. The carpet was tan, there were no windows, and five rows of empty chairs filled the small space, which smelled distinctly of air freshener. I was listening to my brother talk about the days when Grandpa taught him to speak Shanghainese with a better accent. My high-heeled shoes felt as if they were sinking. My mother and father spoke next, and they talked about the happiness Grandpa brought to the household. He’d always comment on how good my English was, although I was born and raised in America. When it was my turn to speak, I had nothing to say. I didn’t know why.
All I knew was that last week he was alive, and that today he was gone. What were we going to do with his green coat behind the door, his closed-toed slippers, or his reading glasses? What was Dad going to do with the wheelchair he had built for Grandpa? Everyone looked at me and waited for me to say something kind about Grandpa, but all I think about was, why did he need a shiny satin blanket in eternity? And what was I supposed to say?
I recalled the time, just three weeks before he was admitted to the hospital, when I was sitting at my desk, studying French possessive pronouns. Grandpa stopped at my doorway, peeked his head in, and stared. It was a hot summer afternoon, and the windows were open but the cool breeze hadn’t kicked in yet. He looked solemn, holding his hands behind his back and his face drooping. He didn’t have much hair, but the hair he did have was all gray and swept to one side.
He was frail and thin, and he wore oversized beige polyester pants and a green knit sweater, even though it had to be ninety degrees in the house.
He casually asked me, “What are you doing?” I could tell by his face that he just wanted to chat and have some company after spending the entire day alone in our four-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style house in the suburbs, where nothing happens except the trash truck on Tuesday mornings and the sprinklers every night.
I was trying not to feel so exasperated at all the pronouns and derivatives I had to finish studying that night. As I sat gazing at his expectant face, I thought about how he had solely taken care of his family and his wife of twenty years after she’d fallen sick. It was back in China when my dad was only fifteen years old and Grandpa worked full-time as a mechanical engineer at a textile manufacturer. Though I didn’t know the story about his life as a worker there, the scars on his hands and arms told me a piece of that story. I felt guilty for not wanting to sit down and ask him about his life. I felt that I should have talked to him and taken notes and gotten his perspective.
TALK TO DAD ABOUT GRANDPA, FIND OUT ABOUT GRANDPA’S JOB AND WHAT GROWING UP IN SHANGHAI WAS LIKE, WHAT WAS HIS LIFE LIKE?
I said, “Just doing homework,” and turned back to my book. I heard his slippers shuffling down the hall and the TV clicking on. A Chinese drama show played in the background.
Ysabel Li is a senior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California. Once a champion figure skater, she has retired her skates and taken up creative writing and water polo. Her work has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She loves to dive into ice cream (cookies and cream) and aspires to become a young scientist. She used to raise chickens named Linda and Caroline.