When I was young and it was summer, my maternal grandparents would come from Hong Kong to babysit me. It was a strange time in my life, what I consider my fetal years when I don’t remember learning anything, or having any awareness of my own consciousness.
My grandfather was a strong, intelligent, loving, gentle man, and my biggest hero. He showed me his war wounds, and taught me about states of matter. I even learned the term “civil war” from him when he used it (in English!) one time when some old black-and-white footage of Chinese battles came on the TV, but his English wasn’t great so I thought he was saying, “zero war”.
He was my favourite person in the world because he gave me the attention and stimulation I never got from my parents.
In one of those summers, I stole his cigarettes, two at a time so he wouldn’t notice, and hid them in the compartment of a red and white childrens drafting table. It was my way of getting him to stop smoking.
One time, I heard my grandparents shouting in the kitchen. They were fighting. My grandmother accused him of peeing on the toilet seat. It was the first time I heard them raise their voices at all, let alone at each other. I thought it was strange because at that age I was probably peeing all over the toilet seat, and no one ever yelled at me for it, so I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal.
My aunt and uncle were over because they wanted to spend time with them, and they came to see what the commotion was about. But they just stood there, listening, not wanting to take sides.
Eventually, my grandfather slowly bent at the knees, his entire body sagging, buried the heels of his hands in his eyes to rub out the tears, and said to my aunt and uncle with languishing pauses, “Sometimes, she makes me want to kill myself”.
And I knew he meant it.
I was too young to even be shocked, but for my grandfather to say something like that was completely out of character. He was invincible to me. I never understood it.
Eventually, he went to live with my aunt and uncle for a while. They slowly became warmer when they saw each other a few weeks later. I don’t know if they ever talked about it.