Death. A tragedy, a preordained cycle, a passing to the life everlasting — depends on who you ask. But me? I wouldn’t know. I’ve never attended a funeral. The only people I remotely know who have passed away are my great-grandmother on my dad’s side and the quiet boy in my PSAT class two years ago.
On a bright Sunday morning last week, I woke up to a swarm of messages in my family’s WeChat group about a trip to Yueqing, my grandfather’s hometown. A couple minutes later, my mom texted me “A-Tai is very sick.” A-Tai is my other great-grandmother, the mother of my mother’s father. I wasn’t particularly close to her; sometimes I think that I didn’t even know her. And with her dozens of great-grandchildren, I doubt she remembers me. Despite this, I, someone who considers herself a fairly unemotional and optimistic person, teared up uncontrollably during lunch. Later that day, I bolted for the safety of Haas’ restroom stalls before my sniffles broke the silence of the study space.
I remember my first and last time seeing her. It was the summer of 2012. I sat beside A-Tai in a dimly lit seafood restaurant, huddled around a round table. She was a dainty 90-year-old woman, with wisps of grayish-white hair framing her round face, skin wrinkled by decades of exposure to the relentless sun. She wore lip balm and had affixed a shiny flower hairpin to the side of her head.
I was a seventh grader from America who only spoke Mandarin. But A-Tai, having spent her whole life in Yueqing, a fishing village in southern China, only knew its local dialect. Consequently, our night was mostly silent, her shaky hands piling vegetables and fish onto my plate, me racking my brain to make sense of her words and a lot of mutual nodding accented by elaborate hand gestures. But I felt it, the love. It was a simple love. From every piece of spinach and cod fish she piled onto my rice, to the way her small wrinkled hands instinctively patted mine, to the childish gleam that lit up her eyes each time we laughed, I felt it. I wish we had more time.
Now more than ever, I want to hear her talk, know her mannerisms, properly appreciate her. I honestly don’t know how she did it. A-Tai lived a long life. She gave birth to my grandfather when she was 16, then bore seven more children. My great-grandfather died before he turned 40, most likely due to starvation, leaving the burden of survival to her and their eight children. She kept them all alive! And yet, here I am: 19, single and stressed out about a mere art project. Incomparable.
It’s true that I didn’t know her, which makes me wonder why I felt so broken after hearing that she was about to pass away. I’ve never dealt with death, but I think I know what “loss” is. I know how it feels for people — to whom I’ve given many months, trust and a great part of myself — to come and go. I spent a maximum of one night with A-Tai, but losing her hurt, both exponentially and illogically. Some say it’s the power of a familial blood bond. I’m not sure. But hear this: Loss isn’t linear. It’s not predicated on how many hours you’ve spent or memories you’ve made. It is, however, an event, an emotion, a change that binds us as Yalies, college students or simply people. We’ve all lost something, somewhere along the way.
In high school, I probably would’ve swallowed these feelings, these fussy thoughts. But at Yale, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s okay to feel, to let out my emotions — so here I am. Consider this a eulogy, a tribute, an open letter: A-Tai, thank you. You are strong, beyond anything I can imagine. I never knew you. But I know you. I hope you are at peace. We face different worries, but you continue to ground me. I love you.
Michelle fang is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .