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1st Place winner of the Covid Challenge: Goodnight, Grandpa - Miranda Li

Updated: Jun 6




With my grandpa, Harbin, China


March 30, 2020

Today when we called my grandparents, grandpa told us he had a bit of a cough. We’re hoping it’s not COVID-19 because they stopped going outside and have been quite careful since a week ago. Even if it is, I think grandpa will be ok because he’s really healthy for his age. But I’m worried that he’ll pass it to my grandma who has asthma and heart problems and might not survive it. We told her to be careful, but it’s hard since they have a one bedroom. He’s going to sleep on the sofa-bed in the living room.


April 2, 2020

It’s gotten a bit worse and his symptoms like cough, fever, and shortness of breath are all following the progression of COVID-19. He’s been too tired to cook and grandma has been taking care of him, which is a huge strain on her since usually grandpa is the one who cooks and does most of the housework.


I’m frustrated. If only we’d gotten out of New York two weeks ago, or moved them in to live with us. But hindsight is 20–20. We were worried about being carriers of the virus, since mom took the subway every day to work before the city closed down, and I was just about to come back from India. I can’t blame myself, and I can’t blame my mom, and I can’t blame my grandparents.




A socially distanced grocery delivery


April 5, 2020

Jimmy, a friend of my mom’s, drives us to my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn to drop off some groceries.


We stand 2 meters away and hand over the cart of groceries. Grandpa comes downstairs a couple minutes after grandma; they’re staying apart as much as possible, now. He’s wearing an N95 mask that’s too tight for him. He looks tired. He doesn’t want to spend too much time downstairs, and wants to go back up to his apartment to rest, but I keep saying, “别那么快就上去。多呆一会儿” — “don’t go up so soon, spend a little more time here with us.”


I can’t stop looking at him. We don’t say much, because what more is there to say? Everything that I want to say can’t be said then. It would take years. But looking into his eyes, it also takes no time at all.


I hate that the virus is contagious, that I can’t give him a big hug and not let go, that I can’t go into their apartment to cook for him and take care of him.


Grandpa takes the bag of groceries, opens the front door, and slowly steps inside.


I can’t stop crying but I also can’t wipe my tears through my mask and eye protection. I just let them fall. My mask is soaked by the time I get home.


Jimmy says, “he looks so tall, alert, and healthy. He’ll be alright.”


April 6, 2020

Grandpa calls at 1am saying that he’s having trouble breathing, and that we should call an ambulance. Knowing him, it must be really bad since he’s willing to go to the hospital. He’s admitted to the ER early in the morning and the chest x-ray shows fluid in both his lungs.


He FaceTimes me whenever he needs something or a nurse visits him because he doesn’t speak English. The ER is a mess: way too crowded, with loud beeping noises from the IV pumps, and lights on all the time. Grandpa keeps up his good humor, and says “还可以了!每个人有个床。没有人在地上” — “it’s not so bad! Everyone has a bed, and no one’s on the floor.”


Luckily, he has a curtain up between his bed and his neighbor’s, and is near an outlet so can charge his phone. He gets hooked up to an IV and, because he needs to get a nurse to unhook him, sometimes doesn’t make it to the bathroom in time. To think of him lying in his own filth, without changed sheets or clean clothes, and not being able to communicate…


His oxygen is saturating at 88, but around 95 with the help of an oxygen mask, which is ok (normally blood oxygen saturation is 95–100%). My mom calls the ER begging for him to be admitted to a unit as soon as possible, but the hospital simply doesn’t have the space. She calls every 3 hours, asking about his status. She doesn’t sleep.




Video calling from the hospital room


April 7, 2020

Finally, after 30 hours in the ER he’s admitted to the 3rd floor! “这里好多了” — “this is much better” — he tells me over FaceTime, showing me around his bed. He has lots of space, clean sheets and clothes, and some sunlight peeking in through the window. I’m happy, and relieved. It’s all I can do.


April 10, 2020

The COVID test results are back, and he’s positive. But we all knew that already.


Every time he calls needing something — like hot water, removing his IV to go to the bathroom, more oxygen — he presses the call button and I call the floor. The person who picks up says, “I’ll tell the nurse.” But the nurse takes a while to come — sometimes up to an hour, and sometimes never — and by that time he might have already soiled his sheets. They patiently change it for him and help him clean. The doctors, nurses, and aides are risking their lives and doing so much. And they are patient and kind — to the degree that they can be when stressed and overworked — with him, and with us.


And yet, his loss of dignity pains me. All his life grandpa has been the type of person who takes care of himself and the people around him. Even without speaking English, he navigated the New York subway systems, coordinated his and grandma’s doctors visits, and figured out green card and passport renewal paperwork. Whenever I needed something to be fixed, from clothes to shoes to electrical panels, I knew we could count on him to fix it.


Whenever my grandpa was going to do something, I knew it would turn out ok. But this time, I’m not so sure.


April 11, 2020

In Inwood Hill Park, I pass the top of the hill near the baseball courts. That’s where we all sat as a family so many times, in the evening between sunset and nighttime, when the sky overlooking the pond turned beautiful colors and the stifling summer heat became comfortable.


I walk by the small peninsula where grandpa took me rollerblading in high school. Where he taught me tai-chi, and a random man came up to us asking grandpa to teach him too. But grandpa decided that I should be his only student.


I walk by the Columbia boathouse marsh, which grandpa used to walk to every day when it was being built back in 2013. He used to excitedly report the construction’s progress: when a new ramp was built, when some patch of weeds was trimmed down, when benches were added. When it finally opened, we explored it together and walked onto the pier where boats were launched off.


April 12, 2020

They do another x-ray and the pneumonia has progressed a bit. A few months ago my mom had a chat with my grandparents about end-of-life, and they both decided to be DNR / DNI. We confirm it with my grandpa and tell the doctor. The doctor says, “I know how painful it is. I was out last week with the virus. Even now, I can’t speak a sentence to you without feeling out of breath myself.”


The nights are the worst. Every night between 12–3am, grandpa calls me saying he can’t breathe. I call the floor and the nurse comes to visit him, but there’s little they can do except help him sit up for a little while. They’re already giving him the maximum amount of oxygen they can, non-invasively.


A Mandarin-speaking aide takes some time out of her busy schedule to visit my grandpa, even though she isn’t assigned to him. She changes his sheets, and just spends some time speaking with him in Mandarin and getting him some hot water. It seems Chinese people universally understand the appeal of hot water, which is quite a long process to get in the hospital: there’s no hot water dispenser so cold water needs to be microwaved. She’s a hero.


April 14, 2020

A Mandarin speaking resident comes to visit my grandpa. Her visit means so much to him, and to us.


It’s getting harder and harder for grandpa to breathe. He keeps asking, “你给我治病呀” — “please, cure me” — and it breaks my heart to say, over and over again, “这个病治不了。只能等着你的身体把病打败” — “this disease can’t be cured. All we can do is to keep your body going as it fights off the virus.” We beg him, please, keep fighting. For your sake, for our sake, for grandmas.


He asks how long he has to keep fighting for.


April 15, 2020

I ask the social worker if I can visit the hospital. I want to see him, one last time. I want to help him feel a little less lonely in this strange place, so far away from his home in Harbin, where no one around him speaks his language. “It’s dangerous,” she says. “Nurses are dying. Doctors are dying.” I learn that her own cousin died last week, on the same floor my grandpa is on.


April 16, 2020

Today is the day that grandpa said he really couldn’t stand any more, that he wants us to let him go. Now at night, even with the maximum amount of supplemental oxygen, he’s at 83–85% saturation. He begs for pain relief. Morphine and hydromorphone are respiratory depressants, so doctors wait until the very end to give it to the patient.


I wish I could walk with him just one more time in Inwood Hill park. To put my hand through his arms, to discover the world through his eyes, and to explore the fun and amusing depths of an everyday activity. Even as he got old, and his legs weren’t what they used to be, he never lost his curiosity. He could turn anything into a grand adventure.




Grandpa could turn anything into a grand adventure. Olympic National Park, Washington, 2019


Grandpa says he has no regrets. My biggest regret is that I didn’t spend more time getting to know him even better, learning more of his life stories, traveling and showing him the world that I love. There is so much love and wisdom and story and life left untapped, not understood. And if I’m not there to listen, will his story be lost?


When he dies, we’re going to cremate him. When we go back to Harbin, we’ll throw some in the 松花江, the Songhua River.


Grandpa can’t speak more than a couple words now without running out of breath. He prefers to type on WeChat.


I text him reminiscing on our times together, ending with, “这个病什么结果,我总是记得我们在一起的时间。我心里永远有你💛” — “no matter what the outcome, I’ll never forget our times together. I’ll keep you in my heart, forever.”


And he responds: “谢谢你的一路陪伴” — “thank you for accompanying me on this journey.”

Grandpa, it’s you who has accompanied me on my journey.


April 17, 2020

As I make coffee in the morning, I FaceTime grandpa. He can’t say much and doesn’t really have the energy to hold his phone up, but I’m there if he wants to look at me.


I count breaths with him: “breathe in, breathe out,” I say. He’s breathing heavily and quickly. I slow down my words, trying to slow his breathing down, to get him to take deeper breaths, to fill his weak lungs.


But he breathes more and more quickly, more and more loudly, and soon he is moaning with every breath.


April 18, 2020

At 4:18AM, grandpa passed away, after my mom and I bid him goodnight one last time. His nurse found his body at 5:38AM. The doctor and nurse had been giving him hydromorphone, so hopefully it was a peaceful and not painful passing. He died from respiratory failure, from fluid built up in the lungs.


April 19, 2020

I haven’t cried much. I suppose I know that he’s not suffering, that he’s not in pain anymore. The last couple of days leading up to his death were really hard for him to withstand, and it’s not hard to imagine that his life, even if he recovered, would be quite different with damaged lungs.


Grandma keeps saying she wants to go with him, to please let her die with him, to give her euthanasia. She knows that’s not something we can or are willing to do, but she begs for it anyway. In a way, him dying first is a type of freedom. His body never deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t do things by himself anymore.




Together at home, Brooklyn, 2017


Time doesn’t wait. On the surface, I didn’t think I’d lose either of my grandparents soon, especially not grandpa. But deep down I think I had a sense, a dread, a sadness, that grew every time I saw them. In the last year or two, every time I visited my grandparents in Brooklyn, I could really feel that they were getting older. It’s why I started to rigorously learn to cook from him, to make a few of our favorite dishes as memories I’ll keep forever and recipes that’ll make me think of him. It’s why I started take videos and pictures every time I visited them with some semblance of the thought deep in my mind, “this might be the last.”


Grandpa’s mind was slowly getting muddled; for one, he couldn’t solve math problems as quickly as I could anymore — he was a math teacher, and one who taught me trigonometry when I was still in elementary school — so that must have been frustrating for him. In a way, I’m glad he passed without losing too much more of his mental and physical capabilities.




A math teacher in Harbin


My biggest regret is that I lost time with him, that he left the world before I could show him some of my favorite things, and discover new things together with him, and learn about his childhood and his own world view, adult-to-adult.


That it had to happen during this pandemic where we couldn’t visit him in the hospital is especially painful. That I was not with him in the end, that the last time I saw him was in front of his apartment building when he turned around with the grocery cart and went upstairs, breaks my heart.


May 2, 2020

At present, I feel a need to record everything about grandpa, as if putting things down into writing would give some permanence to his life now that he’s already gone. I feel upset at myself for not knowing the nitty gritty details of his life story, and an urgency to put together the missing pieces from his brother and my grandmother.


And what of my own present? I feel a bit lost, as if I lost one of my reasons for living. Yet, I would not trade a single moment of time I had with him for any less pain now.


May 15, 2020

I won’t say “he’s like a dad to me” because he wasn’t. He raised me as a grandpa would raise a grandchild. We played games, he spoiled me, and he didn’t take himself, or life, too seriously. He rarely ever got angry, except when it was on behalf of the family.




Harbin, 1998


May 30, 2020

In The History of Love, a novel dedicated to her own grandparents, Nicole Krauss writes, “There are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone.”


I’m so grateful to my loving friends who have sent me care packages, bubble tea, and most importantly, given a closed person like me so much love, care, and — I think something that matters the most to someone who prefers to be sad alone — an unimposing presence.


June 26, 2020

五月初六. Happy birthday, grandpa. Today he would have been 85, and how I desperately wish we were eating hot pot and ice cream cake together. But now that we can’t make new memories, I can only reminisce.


Going to the Harbin ice festival.

Rollerblading along the 松花江.

Going swimming at 林业大学.

Playing pingpong with him at his school.

Taking a bus halfway across Harbin for flute lessons.

Eating everything he cooked, which was always delicious, especially long beans and pork.

Going to the morning markets behind our apartment in Harbin and eating 豆腐脑 and 烧饼.

Traveling all around China.

Trying lots of restaurants in NYC’s Chinatown in our weekend brunches.

Marveling at Alaska’s glaciers, kayaking in Seattle’s Lake Union, and riding Lime scooters around Portland, just a bit less than a year ago.

Playing mahjong and cards at their apartment in Brooklyn.


There was so much more I wanted to explore with him, but death doesn’t come when you expect it to. Who I am today and who I grow up to be is all thanks to you, grandpa. Rest in peace.




I love you, grandpa

 

Miranda Li has mainly written for herself, recording the small, beautiful moments in life in a desperate attempt to not forget. She is from New York City, and currently lives in Beijing, China where she is studying for a masters as a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University. This is her first published creative piece. The photos from this essay are her own.

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