Dreams, departures, and the remains of the day

On a day like today, I get to be alone with my thoughts, uninterrupted. I think of my maternal grandparents who passed away while I was away for college. I think of my paternal grandfather, who still listened to my travel stories until the very end. I think of my granny, who I never thought of as my mother’s aunt-in-law and my nanny, but a third grandmother whose warmth and fairy tales always eased me, the hyperactive kid, to slumber. She left last month. Their demises were natural, a remedy to the aged pain.

On a day like today, I walked on the streets and watched people who were struggling with life. I wonder about their stories and dreams. I wonder if they already abandoned or forgot their dreams, or as the night falls, these dreams would come back to haunt them, as vivid and incorporeal as the fluorescent street light. I wonder if they cry for the broken dreams.

I think about them, the people who have come into my life, and the passers-by, and wonder if I were them, right at that moment, what I would be thinking. And I often come up blank, confused to whether if I should feel relieved or frustrated that I couldn’t feel their sufferings. Maybe the former, because I could live without knowing many things, but vicarious pain is a punitive measure.

And I feel like revisiting a piece I wrote in tribute to my late grandmother.


My grandmother had always been a beautiful and strong-willed woman until she passed away of cancer four years ago. She was the realistic version of the woman you would frequently read about in Tu Xuong’s poems and Thach Lam’s short stories: the wife of a hedonist and fallen-behind scholar, the breadwinner of the family and the responsible child-rearer. In fact, she only appeared as the heroin in my mother’s stories as one of the few person to think about life enough to struggle with it. Other than that, my knowledge of her life was little and my memories with her light. She hardly talked of herself or spent the day recalling the hardships she had been through. She didn’t have time to anyway, because her life was as never-ending as a ray of sunlight; it only shines for other people, and only drops when it touches the ground. One rare moment she ever had for herself was the late afternoon, by the Buddhist altar. That was the moment when she obviated all other noises and physical presences and keep her mind completely tranquil. That was the moment she began her “mind talk” with Buddha (or just the statue of him), the only person to whom she could convey her wishes and dreams. Nobody else, even her children, ever knew her last will.

Even though I think her strongest will was to confronted and then walk pass by cancer, with composure.

To many people, the old age is the most fulfilled time of life. They have had their saucerful of past, are taking their present and know their future. At least, to my grandmother. She filled up her present with house chores and incessant thoughts about her future. Sometimes she was tearful and caustic, sometimes calm, sometimes with a “couldn’t-care-less” attitude. Anyway. It tore me up whenever I saw her like that – always in the expecting, if not defiant position. But what was I to talk to her, given that cancer is the one-way route that varies by length and intensity, not by destination? And what else did I know about life to talk with someone who had been there longer than me, and closer to its end than me?

Yet at the same time, I felt from deep inside of her a vigorous and perennial spirit, invisible by gesture but imprinted by moment. Still, she cooked every morning, prayed every late afternoon, and prepared medicine for her bedridden husband without entrusting the duty to anybody else. As broken down as he was, my grandfather was her sole inner strength, the mere reason she forced herself to keep holding on – as if she was living for two people. After all, that was what she had done for over the past 50 years. Being the one who struggled and fought, the one who loved and lived. Being the woman.

She left for Nirvana in a peaceful sleep. She must have prepared another place down there for my grandfather, just as she did with his bed every night up here, because he came to join her just a while later. Now, in her ultimate bliss, she is free from all the worries, and simply the woman about whom, my mother, and then I, would tell stories for our kids – the stories about the eternal ray of sunlight that only drops when it touches the ground.

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