The heirloom of a grandfather I never knew

Carrying the legacy of a grandfather I never met


Original artwork by Rewon Shimray

Rewon Shimray, Staff Writer

Everything was white: the hospital walls, the lights that cast a stale vibe in the hallway, the crescents of my nervously bitten nails. In America, white is a symbol of peace or union, but this was not America. This was the place of my origin: Taiwan. In Chinese culture, white means death.

My mother was born and raised in Taiwan, but moved to America for her studies. This was the first time she had returned home in six years. She had a rough upbringing, but once she heard her father was terminally ill, she knew her duty was to go visit him. At this point, I was 12 years old. I’m only four years older now, but I’d like to think I understand life, and death, a lot more than I did then.

Ushered by my mother’s cold hand at the small of my back, we walked to her father’s designated room. It was a quiet walk. Once we came to the right room, door labelled with the same series of numbers the nurse had told us at the front, my mother whispered to me, “You’re about to meet your grandfather.” Until that point, it hadn’t registered in my adolescent brain that the man I was about to meet in this room was related to me. He was a figure that had been cut out of dinner table conversations, skipped over in family photo albums, and never heard from on holidays.

As my mother opened the door, a member of the hospital staff in blue scrubs walked out, looked at me, and began speaking in Mandarin Chinese to my mother. She translated, telling me I wasn’t allowed to go in whatsoever because I was too young.

I waited outside of the room. My mind wandered to imagine the world hidden behind that door. By entering that room, my mother was returning to the realm of memories she wished she had forgotten and grudges she couldn’t let go of.

It was only a few moments until my mother came back out. She did a peculiar thing then. Instead of letting the door shut behind her, she held onto the doorknob, slowly leading it the bolt. I knew what she was doing. The delay allowed me to see a glimpse of the room. My eyes caught onto the white bed sheets first, draping over the edge of the white metal frame. My gaze traveled up the white fabric until it stopped at a face. My mother’s father’s face. My grandfather’s face. My 12 year-old brain was instantly able to recognize him from the pictures. He looked no different from those Polaroid glossed frames taken so long ago, except for the wires and tubes that were connecting him to blinking red machines. There he was, head resting on a white pillow in a way that disheveled his dark hair up slightly. He didn’t see me, his chin was angled up 45 degrees so that he faced the ceiling. He was so close yet so far away. I couldn’t help but think about everything I knew about him. He was an architect. My mother had always said I had gotten my neat penmanship from him– as well as my cheekbones, my hardworking ethic and… But then the door shut and I couldn’t open it, because like the man in the blue scrubs had said, I was “too young.”

Looking back on it now, that man in the blue scrubs was completely right. I was too young. I was too young to understand that this hospital white meant nothing but death and that’s just what would happen to my grandfather in that room in just a few days, because the breathing tube that laid in the crease between his cheeks and mouth and the slope between his nose and his lips was all that his life was hanging on to.

We stood there for a moment before walking away, leaving in silence just the way we had arrived. I flew back to America on the 24-hour-long flight. Here I am four years later, and I am aware that each year I live isn’t one lost but gained, because although life and death and forgiveness and relationships are tricky, I am here.

Life and death and forgiveness and relationships are tricky. Yet we always find ourselves drawn back to the people we love. I didn’t ever have to meet my grandfather to acquire his traits: dark hair, defined face structure, artistic talent. I simply got them because he was my roots.

People have the power to affect other people. My grandfather had the power to pass his traits down to me, and I never even met him. My mother had the power to calm my anxiety with a simple touch on my back, to understand me in the silences that we shared. We, as people, have the opportunity to leave a legacy— and that’s real power, because if we leave something of ours behind that then continues to get passed on and on and on, we never die.