Ashes to Ashes: Start where you are and change the ending

The day my family scattered my grandfather’s ashes, I was several hundred miles away, working a summer job and about to head into my senior year of college.

My mom called me afterward to tell me about how it went. She said it was windy, and in response, I asked if any of my grandfather’s ashes had accidentally flown into her mouth as they were scattering what was left of him into the sea. I could hear her laugh through her tears over the phone.

I haven’t thought about my grandfather in a little while. Sometimes, I find myself grasping at memories of who he was before the Alzheimer’s and dementia took over. The end was long and terrible, and still somehow unexpected. Nowadays, when he pops back into my mind, I chant facts about the person he was in life in an attempt to forget about the shell of who he became as he neared death.

His name was Chun-Wah Lee. He was a wonderful cook. He couldn’t sleep without at least one light on in his room. He was terrified of rats. He had a very short temper. He loved me and my siblings dearly.

My grandfather was a figure in my life who became more complicated and difficult to understand as I grew older. My sister and I spent a good chunk of our childhood in our grandfather’s care. With two parents who worked long hours, our grandfather (who we referred to as gong-gong — the Chinese word for “maternal grandfather”) often picked us up from school and transported us to various sports practices and music lessons. Like most grandparent-grandchildren relationships go, it was easy to love him, and it was easy for him to love us.

The first time my image of my grandfather was complicated was when I was in middle school. I was a strangely frugal child who saved every penny and dollar that was handed to me on Chinese New Year or birthdays. When a large chunk of the money I was saving went missing, I panicked and told my mom, who knew I was keeping close to $1,000 shoved in a not-so-discreet white bag under my mattress.

“Did your gong-gong know about the money?” she had asked me.

We never really got down to how $500 mysteriously disappeared, but most of my family believes my grandfather took it.

From there, little tidbits of information about the man my grandfather was before I was born would slip out. By high school, I had heard stories about how he was a terrible husband and father who would run up debts that would be left for my grandmother to pay off.

In this story, my grandma (who my siblings and I call po-po) is unequivocally the hero. She single-handedly raised three children on basically nothing, and has countless anecdotes about my grandfather, detailing times when he was unable to hold down a job or would physically abuse her. Since learning about the things she had to endure, I’ve often felt guilty about any remaining affection I have for my grandfather. How do you allow yourself to love someone who hurt others that you also love dearly? Does it make you a bad person to love them, knowing the pain that they caused? These questions plague me when I think of him.

It’s still difficult for me to reconcile those two versions of my gong-gong — the man who always bought me lollipops after school and saved the cool new quarters he got for coin my collection, and the angry drunk who was mostly an absent parent in my mother and her siblings’ lives.

Looking back, I think my grandfather had many regrets about the way he conducted himself. I remember when I was in elementary school, he used to play this game with me where he would ask me, “how many people love you?” and we’d sit on the couch, listing out all of my relatives together. When we’d gone through as many people as my elementary school mind could remember, he’d look at me with sad eyes and say, “you’re so lucky that so many people love you.” I think what he really wanted to say was, “I wish those people loved me too.”

Until the very end, my gong-gong referred to my po-po as his wife. I remember so many times when he’d proudly show off pictures of her that he kept in his wallet, asking people, “isn’t she pretty?” Those moments were strange for me to witness because at best, things were icy when both of my grandparents were in the same room together. At family gatherings, we always made sure to seat them away from each other and if they ever did need to communicate, it was usually in short and stern sentences that spanned, at most, one or two words.

I don’t know if my grandfather was still in love with my grandmother, but I do know that he cared for her, even in the face of his appalling actions toward her during their marriage. Once, after news that my grandmother had gone through a cancer scare, my grandfather sat on our couch and sobbed out of sadness.

“She doesn’t deserve to die,” he said. “I’m the one who should die.”

I don’t write any of this as a defense of my grandfather. I do not deny that he did bad things, or pretend that his attempts later in life to mend his relationships with his ex-wife and his children could ever adequately make up for what he did. But as his grandchild, I have a very different experience and understanding of him.

The duality of my gong-gong reminds me that the world is not black and white. Humans are fallible. And the reality is, despite our best intentions and most valiant efforts, we will disappoint those we care and love — we will break their heart and their trust. Ultimately, there are capacities within us all to love and hurt. From what I can tell, my grandfather allowed his capacity to hurt others lead him through the first part of his life. But even so, I’d like to think he eventually learned to allow his capacity to love to lead him to the end.