Grandpapa had a gift for storytelling.
Sitting on the two-legged stools at the end of the Hutong,1
I was mesmerized by tales passed down of the Monkey King and the heavenly palaces.
Through Grandpa’s voice, ancient Chinese prose came alive:
A melancholic scholar whose brilliance was ignored by court officials,
Only because she was not a man.
A fickle adventurer discovering a hidden utopia amidst the peach blossoms,
Betraying an oath of secrecy to the settlers he claimed to befriend.
Never to return home.
And the brilliant poet, tragically born as emperor,
Forced to choose between his writing brush and the imperial throne.
Grandpapa was often invited by relatives and friends
To birthdays, to graduations, to weddings, to anniversaries.
To speak, to tell, to show, to share laughs and tears through the stories of yore.
Funerals, however, were by far the most memorable.
Grandpapa would reimagine the afterlife of those who passed,
Crafting their encounters with guardian spirits and gods.
Amazed by his wisdom and eloquence, I dreamt of being blessed with the same gifts.
To me, Grandpa was more than just a grandpa.
He would always end his speech on the same note,
A special emphasis on preserving the “wholeness” of the body after death.
The heart, lungs and kidneys would continue to circulate mystical essence and energy.
“Every inch of skin and every strand of hair are precious gifts from our parents,”
Grandpapa would admonish,
“So precious that we ought to return every organ intact on the day we turn to dust.”
Such corporeal sanctity never resonated with me,
But being so young, I simply lacked the courage or care to probe.
Until that call after my first day of medical school:
“You did what?” Grandpapa’s shock reverberated across the trans-pacific phone line.
Dissections were outrageous enough, but cutting organs out to study?
Our conversations grew awkward, less frequent.
We were both stubborn to a fault, the Chinese zodiacs said it well:
A tiger and an ox would forever butt heads.
That was, until the old ox got sick.
Concerned and still curious, I reached out more often:
“I’m going to teach Chinese poetry in English at Sunday school.”
I paused, waiting for his coughing fit to end.
“What lesson should I start with?”
He instantly perked up.
Gone was the heavy breathing, and before we knew it
The sun was setting in the Forbidden City and rising over the Mississippi.
Before semester’s end, the class had become the most popular elective.
Overflowing with excitement, I misplaced my phone and had to borrow a student’s.
Fingers shaking, I clumsily tried to dial home.
But Grandpa didn’t answer.
Two days and three flights later, I made it home.
“When is the cremation?” I asked Mom, fighting back the moisture building in my eyes.
“I want to see Grandpapa one last time.”
“It all happened so suddenly,” Mom handed me an envelope.
“Before he went to the ICU, he donated his body to the school.”
I sat in silence, hands trembling as I opened the letter.
It was clearly written in a hurry,
But with strong-willed upstrokes, rigorously-placed horizontal dashes,
Sharp at every angle, all with a passionate flair.
No doubt it was Grandpapa’s calligraphy.
“Don’t fault the fallen petals for being heartless in leaving the flower
For they are willing to gift away their last bit of life as nourishment
So the flower can bloom again.”2
1Hutong: A type of old street alley in Beijing.
2Excerpt from Qing dynasty poet Gong Zizhen（龚自珍）. Original Chinese text: 落红不是无情物，化作春泥更护花。
Image Credit: Fallen Petals (CC BY-NC 2.0) by buck82
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