Seeing someone you love lying helpless on a hospital bed, attached to beeping machines and wearing a vomit-green gown will force you to reflect on your relationship with them. Why is it that times of tribulation are often the rare moments in life that provide pure clarity?
Ever since I can remember, my grandma has always been hard on me. She shakes her head in disapproval when I come into her house with wet hair. She gasps when I jab my plate in attempt to use hashi. She forcefully offers me food until I concede, then criticizes my less than dainty appetite. My anti-red meat, vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan weight loss antics are constantly a topic of amusement to her. My grandmother isn’t a cold woman, but she never allows herself to be vulnerable. She has never told me that she loves me, that she’s proud of me, or that I’m beautiful. She’s never embraced me in her arms, combed my hair, sang to me, or shared stories from her childhood—all of the things my Hawaiian grandmother does. I basically grew up thinking that my grandma didn’t care for me and the fact that I was overweight, girly, and bad at being Japanese just simply annoyed her. But according to my dad, my grandma is just one “tough cookie.”
My grandma is 86 years old and has lived in Waimea her entire life. She is conservative, family orientated, opinionated and hard working. Her four children live within a 50-mile radius of town and bring their children and their children’s children to her house for dinner at 7pm sharp, every Sunday. While we all love my papa, it’s grandma who is the center of our family. She’s the glue that binds us together and keeps us tight—she’s the one that enstores order.
This past Wednesday we learned that my grandma has stage four cancer. Nothing has ever tested the dynamic of my family like the news the doctor flatly delivered that day. Just two weeks ago she was working Monday through Saturday, 7am to 5pm on our family’s commercial plant nursery. On Sundays, she would spend her day grocery shopping and preparing enough food to feed a minimum of 18 people—twice. We would often ask her, “Grandma, you don’t want to take the day off and eat lunch at the Senior Center?” She would shake her head in dismay and firmly reply with a “no.” We all knew she’d rather be working.
I was with my dad, uncles, aunties, grandpa and cousins the night the doctor read her test results. The hospital room was cramped and threaded though the abundant jokes and laughter was fear—no matter how hard we tried, no one could completely mask the worry the gripped our conscience. Dr. Wong, the surgeon, arrived and regrettably read the bad news. For the first time that day I glanced over at my grandma and suddenly noticed how old and how tired she looked. I noticed the sunspots on her wrinkly face caused from long days working on the farm; her deformed hands due to arthritis and her fragile frame with protruding shoulder blades. I have never seen my grandma so vulnerable. When Dr. Wong left us, she straightened and said, “Okay, now you all know. Now you know what to expect. I’m strong, don’t worry about me.”
My dad and I were the last to leave the room that night and as we said our goodbyes, my dad began to cry. Grandma scolded, saying, “Leslie, you stop that now. You be tough and keep it together.”
This past week has really changed my perspective of my grandma. I’ve realized that she’s not only tough on me—she’s tough on all of us. She’s firm because she loves us and it’s like she’s been preparing us all for when she isn’t able to guide anymore. In a way, she’s molded my family to follow in her footsteps—to be focused, industrious, disciplined and respectable members of the community. She wants us to remember the value of family and the importance of humility and selflessness. My grandma wants us to be strong-minded; she wants us to know and believe that even a disease so invasive like cancer will never break our family bond. It will never defeat us and it certainly won’t defeat her.