My Paw Paw died on the Thursday before Christmas at a time when I was already dealing with numerous emotional challenges (you know when you feel like things just keep piling up). It seemed to my gut to be rather abrupt, but my mind knows it was actually a gradual decline that lasted years. While I find it hard to be upset by the manner of her passing – bingo and spaghetti one day and a final breath the next – I can’t help but be saddened that she left us at all.
Paw Paw was a tough old bird. Witty and sarcastic with a stubborn, independent streak. She was disowned by her parents for a time because she ran away and eloped with my grandfather. In the end, she would marry and divorce him twice. (She would be so mad at me for telling you that. She was also very private.) He was a Chinese Don Juan with perfectly quaffed hair who could tell stories for hours until everyone lost track of time. During our childhood, he drove a limousine for the St. Francis Hotel. That’s how suave he was! He married a few other women over the years, but I still believe that my Paw Paw was the love of his life. (But, what’s love got to do with it??)
My Paw Paw was a first-generation American, born and raised in San Francisco. She never learned how to drive – too hiply urban riding cable cars and buses her whole life. The first time I took Will to SF to meet her, he whispered, “How come she has a Chinese accent? I thought you said she was born here?” Then I took him to Chinatown, where she was raised, and he instantly understood: You don’t need to speak English to get around Chinatown!
“Paw Paw” is Cantonese for maternal grandmother and it’s what my sister and I always called her, and what our children now call our mother. The name given to her by her parents was Fannie. She never liked it. She preferred people to call her Fran. “Why would anyone want to be called butt??” she would say. Then, we would giggle.
The Chinese believe that the dead come back to visit loved ones 3 days after their passing. That would put Paw Paw’s return on Christmas Day, the birthday of someone many believe returned 3 days after his own death as well. My Paw Paw was always a deeply intuitive person who believed in the spiritual realm. She said my grandfather visited her 3 days after his death (See…soul mates.) and she swore she was awakened suddenly at approximately the time my dad died, despite being all the way across the country.
My Paw Paw felt things and there was never any talking her out of her feelings. She visited a fortune teller once who told her exactly when she would die. She would never tell any of us when that would be, preferring to keep it to herself for decades. We would joke about it with her and sometimes she would laugh and sometimes she would get defensive. She clearly believed. My sister asked her to write it down somewhere so we could check after her death – then we could all go to this fortune teller if she was that good. I don’t think I care to know if she was right or when I myself will die. Anticipation is a real struggle for me.
The photo above is from Paw Paw’s 95th birthday party last August and we drove to San Francisco from Boise to be there. After spending the entire week leading up to it in the hospital, Paw Paw was released for her party and sent home with a hospice bag. She lived another 4 1/2 months.
And because I can’t seem to stay away from the topic of breast cancer even if I try, here’s a bit of trivia for ya…my Paw Paw and I only had one breast left between us. Ha! She had breast cancer twice resulting in a single mastectomy each time. (Again, she would be SO MAD at me for telling you that!) I was always told by my doctors that her breast cancer wasn’t genetic since both occurrences were post-menopausal. And sure enough, my genetic testing last year came back clear. No mutations. We’ll see if I get struck again, too, just like my Paw Paw.
I miss the days getting to know my Paw Paw as an adult. I promised myself that I wasn’t going to learn more about her from other people at her funeral than I learned from her directly while she was alive (like I did with my Swedish grandmother with whom I share a middle name). I spent the summer after my first year of graduate school with Paw Paw learning to knit. That was my excuse anyway. As I struggled to hold both needles, I couldn’t help but think back to learning how to hold chopsticks as a child.
I asked question after question between skipped stitches and tangled yarn, then listened to stories from her childhood to motherhood to her working days – dressing up in Ferragamo shoes, flirting with coworkers, and everyone loving to see her because she passed out the paychecks in the office. We sat in the two chairs in front of the tv and talked like girlfriends with only a folding tray between us which held our tea cups and a box of tissues, a barely-there scarf in my lap and an almost-finished sweater in hers.
I have found that it’s usually the downtime between events – at the beginning or end of the day – where the magic happens and you learn the most about people. These are the moments that have been flooding my memories the last three weeks.
Paw Paw outlived all of her siblings and their spouses (and there were more than a dozen). The last of an entire generation. Will lost his last grandparent – also his maternal grandmother – just a few short months ago. So, it suddenly feels as if we’ve moved up in the queue.
A generation closer to the front of the line and I don’t know how I feel about that.