“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
My maternal grandmother passed away on April 1, 2015. She was 75 years old.
When I received my aunt’s phone call that morning at work, I thought, “This must be a joke. It’s not funny.” When I called and texted my family, they all thought the same. Well, my sassy grandmother did have a sense of humor; she passed away on April Fool’s.
As I sat there looking at her lifeless body, I kept thinking that she was just going to wake up and greet me as she usually does, “Mev Npauv (Her nickname for me—a play on the English pronunciation of my name), koj tuaj los (A general Hmong phrase to welcome someone into your home)?”
I knew she wasn’t going to wake up, but a part of me was in denial. She was going to greet me and then scold and nag at me for whatever reason, like usual. My dear grandmother couldn’t have possibly left. I still needed more time with her.
Grams knew she didn’t have a lot of time left. I always took her to withdraw her monthly SSI check. And each month, because she knew I would refuse the money she tried to give me, she would hand me a $20 bill and tell me to split it for my two children. However, in March, she handed me two $20’s and said, “Muab ib daim rau koj muab faib rau koj ob tug me nyuam. Daim no kuv muab rau koj saib ua dab muag cia (Split this one for your two children. Please keep this one as a memento of me).” Maybe I knew she was going to leave too, because I accepted it without resistance.
For as long as I can remember, Grams has always been a second mother to me. When my father left when I was 12, she helped my mother nurture and take care of me and my 6 siblings. She was the voice of reason when my mother was being unreasonable. She loved to sew and passed that love down to my mother and then to me. My grams was also a woman of tremendous knowledge, despite being illiterate. She had a profound knowledge of Eastern medicine and grew many medicinal herbs in her backyard. She was a mother and played her role with great wisdom and a big heart.
Grams suffered greatly the last couple years of her life. Her heart was broken when someone very close to her betrayed her trust. She was struggling with mending the relationship, her resentment, and broken heart when, a year later, she was diagnosed with cancer. She told me that although she didn’t want to die, she just didn’t have the energy to hold onto life anymore. Thus, we watched helplessly as she withered away.
I’m glad I got to spend as much time as I did with her the last 2 years. I got to know my grams on a much deeper level than I could possibly have. I got to know Sao Vang, the Hmong woman who never wanted to marry but was bride-napped; the Hmong woman who lost a husband and braved the Vietcongs and Pathet Lao and brought her family to Thailand; the Hmong woman who suffered from the injustices of the Hmong patriarchal system.
It has been almost 4 months since her passing. Struggling with the loss of a loved one is hard. There are moments when I miss her terribly, and today is one of those days. But I do find solace believing that she is in a better place, watching over us.
Niam Tais, peb nco nco koj heev. And as Frank Sinatra sings, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…“