My family recently visited the grave of my oldest aunt who passed away from cancer in February 2007, a couple days after I got back from Rwanda. We were close– she helped raise me, along with my grandmother (her mother), who had also passed away from cancer. I just happened to be digging through old computer files when I came upon what I’m reposting here:
30-June-2006: A Laudation
The story of my aunt begins much like the story of any other immigrant worker. I’m afraid it will end like the story of any other cancer patient. Not two years after the death of her mother, my grandmother, to cancer nonetheless, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She never smoked a cigarette in her life. Like many immigrants, she went to work in a factory with several of my other aunts and worked day in and day out for an hourly wage that I’ve managed to surpass in my hourly earnings as a twenty-one year old college graduate.
She left her home in south China decades ago, to be with the rest of my family that had migrated here. She got a job, the same job she’s been at up until her semi-early retirement. She saved up some money, and spent the rest on groceries, toys for me when I was a child, and lucky money in red envelopes to give to me whenever it was my birthday, Christmas or Chinese New Year. She spoke little English, but spoke three dialects of Chinese. I hated it when she had to take the bus to her doctor’s appointments, back when she was well enough to go on her own, when they didn’t realize how bad the situation was. I’d offer to stay home from class, or to come home early, to take her there but she would insist that I had to go to class to get my education. I would insist, since it would be 40F out at the time, and she would be alone on the bus, with an umbrella in one hand, and the other hand stuffed in her coat pocket, a scarf wrapped around her neck, cancerous growths in her lungs.
I saw her lose all her hair from the first round of chemotherapy, and I could tell she was ashamed of it. She always wore hats, even in the house, just so no one could see. When her hair grew back, and when it seemed like everything would be ok, I saw that she smiled more. And then the cancer came back, and the doctors couldn’t do anything. And then little by little, I saw her starting to give up. They advised hospice care. We looked into it.
They brought over a hospital bed and an oxygen machine in her room. There were boxes of nitrile and latex gloves everywhere. She had cotton drapes that she laid on when she was in bed, and always several pairs of clean pants for whenever she soiled herself. Her nightstand was full of pill bottles. I’d hide in my room whenever my mom and dad would run over there, after hearing moans from my aunt’s room. I’d hear them putting the gloves on and I’d cry. The weight of all this ultimately proved to be too much, so she was sent to a nursing home.
I visited her yesterday, and I sat there facing her. It was warm, sunny, breezy and beautiful outside, but her room was soft, stuffy and pale. A nurse brought her dinner in, pathetic bowls of overcooked food, watery mashed potatoes, overdone broccoli, orange jello. She drank the soup, had some of the mashed potatoes, and then laid back in bed. She sighed and told me to take care of my health, that when she was younger, she didn’t take care of herself enough, and now she’s where she is now. She told me to not get sick, because it really is a miserable, painful thing. She told me to work hard at my job, and maybe go back to school. She told me to take my dad out for dinner for his birthday in several weeks, that he works hard at his job, full of hard labor. That he has to wake up at 4:30am and that his boss always asks him to do overtime, and even though he’s tired, he stays until 4pm. She told me that my parents worked hard for me to get to where I am now, that I should be proud of them and that I should work hard and get lots of raises and promotions to make them proud.
How do I reply? “Yes.” She’s completely right. I can’t help but feel ashamed because I feel like a spoiled brat. I say yes to her, and she nods her head. I watch her though, how skinny she is, how grey her hair is now. What was… is… her life? It’s her family. I realized something yesterday, sitting in that room, that holding cell. Inevitably, what we were fades away and the only thing that remains is what we did. What will remain of our own legacies? Surely not so much the trivial things like which hand the pen was held in, whether showers were taken at night or in the morning, or how many odd-jobs were taken up during the summers of high school years. My aunt worked a lot. She saved a lot of money. She only opened a cell phone when it was a shared plan, in order to reduce the costs. But she’d give me $100 on my birthdays, would buy snacks and little trinkets for me. Maybe I won’t remember these things in thirty years. But these are the telltale signs, signature characteristics of who we were. Who she is. It is these things that others should try to appreciate in a life, although they may not remain in memory for long. But what remains though, is what we stood for, what we believed in. What we fought for just by living each day, doing the things we did, exactly the way we did them. My aunt fought for her family. Me.