Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Help Me Take This Mask Off

I visited my grandmother the day I turned eighteen. It was the first time I had been back to Taiwan after five years in the States. The trip was a gift from my parents for getting a full scholarship to university, or so they said. I had wanted to go much earlier, but there was no point arguing with them.

It was a sweltering summer afternoon in Taipei, and my cousin Erica took me on the MRT to a corner of the city I rarely visited in my childhood. The hospice center was clean and dim, its main room occupied by elderly patients in wheelchairs watching some television drama. A middle-aged caretaker guided us through a maze of partitions to where my grandmother lay strapped to a bed.

"Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes."
He explained that she could no longer move, see, or speak, and her hearing had deteriorated. We had come at a good time, however, as she was often awake in the afternoon. He put a hand on her shoulder and shook her gently, saying her grandchildren had come to see her, then left us.

Erica had to nudge me forward. Finally, I took my grandmother's rigid, claw-like hand, leaned close to her ear, and said I was back. I told her I had graduated high school, and would be going to college soon. I told her she raised me well, and did not need to worry about me. I told her I was sorry I did not get to see her earlier.

Her eyes did not focus on me, but as I spoke she started to cry. Erica told me that it happened sometimes, that it meant she knew I was there. She had no other means of communicating.

We stayed with her for a while, and she wept until she drifted off to sleep. I followed Erica back out into the sun-baked street. I felt like I was underwater, as if everything came to me from a great distance. Even the heat and humidity of a Taipei summer could not banish the sense of disconnect. It was the first time I felt the vast numbness that passes for my grief, but it would not be the last.

Because the progression of Parkingson's Disease had been frightfully quick for my grandmother, I do not think that either she or her doctors thought she would hang on for so long, forlorn and cut off from the world. I will never know if she wished for death in her final years of darkness. If we could have known then what she wanted, we would have done it; but she could only cry.