Sunday, January 29, 2012

Popo and Cedar

Christmas Eve, huoguo (hot pot) tradition
Also celebrating Popo's birthday

My grandmother has been visiting the last couple months, staying with my parents in Seattle. My mom flew down to L.A. to fly her up here, and in a little over a week, my parents will fly her back down.

My grandmother is 92, too old to fly alone. She still looks remarkable for her age, but each time I see her I can tell that she is shrinking. It is true: old people shrink. Young people grow. Her hearing is going too, which makes it hard to talk with her, especially when in Chinese, a language I am still hesitant to use. You cannot be hesitant in a language in which you need to yell to be heard. Often, I just opt for smiles and silence. There is not much to say anyway.

I love watching Popo interact with Cedar. She met him first when he was five months old, then I sent her photos of him every few months until she met him again when he was 18 months. But it hasn't been until these last couple months that she’s really gotten to know him. I bring Cedar over there two afternoons a week for my parents to watch him while I go write or run errands, and recently I'll come by a couple more times too, where I stay and hang out as well.

Playing deejay and dancing are two of Cedar’s favorite activities at my parents, especially since my parents indulge his every request—changing the c.d. or record again and again and again while he shakes his head, “No, no, no,” until they finally alight on one he wants to listen to. Amongst his favorites are fifties classics like ‘The Twist’ and ‘Rock around the Clock’; or songs for kids like Nat King Cole’s ‘Frosty the Snowman’, me and my sister’s old Puff the Magic Dragon record, or the Sesame Street rendition of ‘Sing a Song’ (which my dad found amongst other old kid’s classics at a record store).

Cedar’s other favorite is “Beat It.” “Bi bi!!!” he’ll yell when it comes on, and when the song transitions to ‘Billy Jean’, he’ll shake his head, “No. No. No,” until my dad switches it back to ‘Beat It’. Then, when he puts on a new record, Cedar demands to be picked up so he can “See, see!” (Did I mention that this boy gets whatever he wants over there?)

Recently we were all dancing to “Beat It” in the basement in the midst of Seattle’s snow storm. My parents were practicing their hustle/swing steps, I was indulging Cedar in his favorite form of dancing (being held and swung around), and my grandmother was marching in place. It was one of those fleeting moments that, even as it’s happening, you realize is precious. 

Popo loves Cedar. She smiles, bobs her head, and pats her lap rhythmically when he’s around, calling him over. He runs up to her, and together they do a sort of chicken dance—bobbing their heads in and out towards each other (Cedar copying Popo’s movements). She pulls his bulky 30 pounds up into her lap, even though she is less than 90 pounds herself. She makes noises, “Bababa, bababa…” and also talks to him in Chinese. He copies her intonations-- in fact, my mom shakes her head at the grating way she taught him to call my name, loudly and with an emphasis on the second syllable, “Mamaaa!!!” He calls her Taipo (great grandmother) and she calls him “Cedee”, both pronouncing the other’s name imperfectly.

But really, at two and 92, who even needs language? He is the perfect companion for her, a burst of delight and energy, a being she can relate to because he is a (not quite) two-year-old, and two-year-olds are more or less the same in any language. They are curious, silly, stubborn, delightful. Popo can spoon feed Cedar avocados, let him turn on and off the lamp by her bed, let him play with the remote to the T.V. to his heart’s content. I will swallow my usual annoyance when told how to parent my child, and Popo can admonish me all she wants to put on his hat before we go out, to make sure the gate to the stairs is closed, and to not let him play with a rubber band, because she is his great-grandmother, because she has raised five children, and because no matter how much advice has changed in the parenting department over the years and across cultures, most of her words are still valuable and sound.

When it’s time for us to go, I can always tell that Popo is disappointed.
“Stay for dinner at least,” she’ll say.
“We can’t Popo. Cedar needs to go to sleep in half an hour. And he can’t eat most of the food we eat anyway.”
 “When will you come back? Tomorrow?”
“Not till Wednesday. The day after tomorrow.”
She nods, looking slightly disappointed, but appeased that at least it won’t be longer.

I need to make sure that Cedar and I spend as much time as possible over there in the coming week, because before long Popo will be flying back to L.A., and I do not know when I will see her next. It is not easy for me to travel with Cedar, especially without my husband who is tied to a busy work schedule, and the idea of trying to keep Cedar occupied while at Popo’s condo for days on end (without resorting to watching copious amounts of T.V.) sounds slightly… awful. So I hope that my parents will invite her to come back to Seattle again soon, perhaps this summer, and that she will still be healthy enough to travel.

Each time I see Popo now, I cannot help but wonder if it might be the last time. Overall, she’s in great health for someone who is 92, but still, her blood pressure runs high and even a cold will send her into a tizzy of fear and stress (not to mention real, escalating symptoms). But more than this, I can sense that Popo is wondering the same thing each time she hugs me goodbye now, or comments on how old she is, or forces me to take a little extra money: she is thinking, this might be the last time.

Every time I see Popo, and especially as she starts to anticipate her departure, she will start to reflect on how she helped to raise my sister and I when we were young. “I’ve held you since you were a baby,” she’ll remind me again, and nowadays she’ll shake her head and add, “I used to care for you when you were Cedar’s age, and now you have a child of your own.”

I can only imagine what this must feel like. She is 92. Cedar is not quite two. Ninety years separate the span of their experiences here on this earth. One of them can reflect on how fast it all goes; the other does not yet know that there is anything to be lived outside of this moment. One is losing her memory and hearing; the other is learning new words every day.

When he is older, Cedar will probably not remember these days of playing with his great-grandmother. But I will. And I will tell him how much she loved him, how much delight he brought her in such a short span of time, and how much joy it gave me to be able to share him with her, to watch them laugh and play together, these two beings connected to me through blood and fate, these two beings whom I was given no choice but to love. 

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