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How we remember them: My grandmother’s shirt | Coronavirus pandemic

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In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been part of the lives of millions. In “How we remember them”, we reflect on how we process that loss and the things – both tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost.

I learned of grief in 2003 when my grandmother, Youa Lee, died. I was 22 years old and a senior in college at the time.

My Hmong American family had been refugees. The adults had lived through the loss of friends and neighbors; they had suffered the loss of a country and everything it contained. But I was born in the refugee camps, a stateless child, living only with the remnants. Because of the love around me, it was enough.

The oldest person I knew was my grandmother. In that hot place of waiting, I made her promise me she would never die:

Beneath the shimmering leaves, sitting at her feet on the smooth dirt, six-year-old me would say: “Pog, promise me you’ll never die.” My grandmother would respond: “That is a promise I cannot make. I, like all living things, will die one day, and by the time I die, you’ll be ready to learn how to live without me.” I’d tell her: “But I won’t.” Then, I’d cry. At first the tears were hiccups in my throat, then they grew hands and feet and crawled up my body, until the cries fell from my mouth. Grandma would say: “Why are you crying? Don’t cry. Pog is just speaking the truth.” In between the rise and fall of my breaths, I’d tell her: “I don’t want your truth. I just want you.” My grandmother would give in; “Fine then. I won’t die. I promise.”

Her promise and her presence were enough for me for many years, until 2003, when I had to face a truth beyond her or me, when the only thing I could cling to in those final days was the simple fact that there were people who had loved my grandmother before me. I came to understand that somewhere beyond me, there was a place filled with her mother and father, brothers and sisters, my grandfather, her most precious girl, waiting.

In 2003, I had to learn how to live in a world without my grandmother.

Grandmother left behind 13 suitcases. They were filled with gifts we’d given her: a Polaroid camera, a coffee pot, two pairs of canvas shoes, flowery skirts and shirts in slippery polyester fabrics, tiger balms and menthol oils. They were filled with the things she’d made: little cloth bags with zippers on top for healing herbs and medicinal plants, ropes made from cut plastic bags, and twigs she’d sharpened into toothpicks. In the spread of her goods, I found myself with a single shirt.

In the beginning, the shirt smelled like Grandmother. It smelled like menthol oil and tiger balm, like spicy dried herbs and somehow of the dry dust that flew around her in my memory. Every once in a long while, I’d take the shirt out of the different closets of my life and smell it to get a whiff of her.

The years passed. I grew older. I got married. I had children. We moved from one house to the other. The shirt traveled with me, hidden in the back of my clothes. Whenever I chance upon it, I’d smile. I feared of smelling it, finding that Grandmother’s smell had disappeared and that in its place: there would just be mine. Laundry detergent, the occasional spray of perfume. It hung in my closet untouched for a long time.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 hit. I was home more than I had ever been. I stopped seeing my extended family. My aunts and uncles, Grandmother’s children, had all grown old. Some of them had died of old age and diseases like cancer. The ones that remained, we wanted to keep safe. A new silence had entered our lives despite the noise of a bigger world. We all knew the silence was a good thing: it meant there was no news, it meant that everyone was OK. A year into the pandemic, I started believing in a small corner of my heart, that if we all stayed away from each other, if we all wore masks and hid, then maybe we would all make it through to the other side. Then, the phone started ringing.

The COVID-19 infections came. They hit our family hard. My community was ravaged. Then, an uncle got sick. Another one, too. One survived. The other did not. The one who survived, his hair, once salt and pepper, turned white like the roots of green onions in water. They flew in the direction of the winds of grief. I huddled in my home, nursing my own aching heart.

A picture of a grandmother
The writer’s grandmother, Youa Lee [Courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang]

I ached for a time from the past when my father and his brothers were whole. I ached for a time when our family was anchored to Grandmother. When her medicinal bags traveled across our homes, her healing touch a remedy for our ailments of the heart, body, and soul.

On a windy day, I went to my closet. I opened it, not knowing what I was looking for. My fingers ran through the cotton shirts I loved best, the button-up ones for work, the slouchy ones I wore for play. Grandmother’s shirt fell to the ground from its hanger. I picked it up. I saw that its shoulders were dusty. In front of a bedroom window, I held up my grandmother’s polyester shirt. Despite its black colour, the spots of red, the light came through it. I opened my window. The wind blew through it. I placed my nose right up against the fabric. I started coughing. The wind in my chest heaving at the scent of dust, the slight dampness of the winters past, the decades in between 2003 and 2022.

The old fears choked. My grandmother’s scent was gone. It had been replaced, not by the smells I knew and loved, but by the one I had wanted to keep at bay: the scent of time passing, of dust collecting, of the wear of the seasons. The grief I had been holding, all these many years, was now multiplied by the passing of an uncle, a font of strength when I was a child, a man who had not died because his body had given in to age, but rather from a pandemic that could not be contained. I reckoned with my grandmother’s words, “All who live must die.” I am no longer six but I did not feel ready to live without my loved ones and I knew I would never be.

There is no way to prepare for grief. It settles deep and sometimes takes decades to unearth. My grandmother died in 2003. I missed her tremendously. I miss her, still. My uncle has just passed away in this pandemic and yet his memory will linger far beyond it. When I speak of the last two years, I will speak of him.

I will speak of a man who made no promises to me. I will speak of a man who had lived a life before I was born, in a country I never knew as mine, who had to remake himself again as a refugee in a neighboring country, and then again as a refugee in the country that resettled him. I will speak of a man who was brave when the pandemic came, who got up with the rise of the sun, toiled all day beneath it, only to do it again the next day. He tilled the earth and nurtured the things that grew. Among them, me. He understood that we live, and we die, for his mother had raised him and then left him to raise others. I will speak of his legacy, of how we cannot know our deaths, but how in our living we must honor what they’ve left behind.

At the back of my closet, I have a shirt that once belonged to my grandmother, Youa Lee. I have washed it this year. It smells now of the laundry detergent that my family uses, a scent like spring, perhaps grass that is green, a sun that is bright, a breeze that blows lightly, a magical unreality, a yearning in the heart for a life that is no longer lived. It hangs at the far end of my clothing rod. In the last year, each time I open my closet, I know it is there. I know it waits.

One day, when I’m an old woman, I should like to wear it. Not all the time, but once in a while when I’m going outside, walking beneath the sun that my grandmother, my uncle, and I love. I now accept that like all living things, I one day will die. I will leave behind not only my children but perhaps my grandchildren. I know that if I live my life well, as my grandmother and uncle had, then when I go, they will not be ready for a life without me. I will die knowing that my memories and the legacy of my love will live on far beyond me in the things they carry, the words gifted, the memories shared, the shirts I’ll wear as an old woman. My straight shoulders will be tired by the force of gravity, the skin of my eyelids will have fallen low, and what remains of my hair shall blow in the direction of the winds of grief, but also that of wisdom.

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