Losses have become part of millions of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. In How We Remember Them, we reflect on how we deal with this loss and the tangible and intangible things that remind us of what we lost.
I learned of grief in 2003 when my grandmother, Youa Lee, passed away. I was 22 years old and a senior in college.
My Hmong American family was a refugee. Adults go through the pain of losing friends and neighbors; they lose a country and everything it contains. But I was born in a refugee camp, a stateless child, living only with the remnants. Because there is love around, that is enough.
The oldest person I know is my grandmother. In that fiery waiting place, I asked her to assure me that she would never die:
Under the gleaming leaves, sitting on the smooth dirt at her feet, six-year-old I would say, “Pog, promise me you’ll never die.” My grandmother would reply, “That’s something I can’t do Promise. I, like all creatures, die one day, and when I die, you’ll be ready to learn how to live without me.” I’d tell her, “But I won’t.” And then , I will cry. At first the tears were burps in the throat, then they grew limbs and climbed up my body until the cry fell from my mouth. Grandma would say, “Why are you crying? Don’t cry. Pog’s just telling the truth.” Between the ups and downs of my breath, I’d tell her, “I don’t want your truth. I just want you.” My grandmother Will yield; “Well then. I won’t die. I promise.”
Her commitment and her presence were enough for me for many years until 2003, when I had to face a truth beyond her or me, and in those final days the only thing I could hold on to was a The simple fact is that some people loved my grandmother before me. I began to understand that, somewhere outside of me, there was a place full of her parents, siblings, my grandfather, her most precious daughter, waiting.
In 2003, I had to learn how to live in a world without a grandmother.
Grandmother left 13 suitcases. It was full of gifts we gave her: a Polaroid camera, a coffee pot, two pairs of espadrilles, a gorgeous skirt and a slick polyester shirt, tiger balm and peppermint oil. It’s full of things she’s made: little cloth bags with zippers on them for healing herbs and medicinal plants, ropes made from cut plastic bags, and sticks she grinds into toothpicks. At her stall, I found myself with only one shirt.
At first, the shirt smelled like grandma. It smelled like peppermint oil and panacea, like spicy dried herbs, and the dry dust that I remembered flying around her. Every once in a while, I pull out a shirt from a different closet in my life and smell her.
The years have passed. I am getting old. I’m married. I have children. We moved from one house to another. Shirts travel with me and hide behind my clothes. I smile every time I come across it. I started to dread smelling it and found that the grandmother’s scent was gone, replaced by: just mine. Washing powder, and occasionally a little perfume. It hangs in my closet untouched for a long time.
Then, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic hit. I am more at home than ever. I no longer see my extended family. My aunts and uncles, my grandmother’s children, are all old. Some of them died of old age and diseases such as cancer. The rest, we want to keep safe. Despite the noise of the larger world, a new silence has entered our lives. We all know silence is a good thing: it means no news, it means everyone is fine. A year into the pandemic, I started to believe in a little corner of my heart that if we all stayed away from each other, if we all hid in masks, then maybe we could all get through. Then, the phone started ringing.
The COVID-19 infection is here. They devastated our family. My community is ravaged. Then, an uncle fell ill. there’s still one. One survived. The other didn’t. The survivor, his hair, once salt and pepper, turned as white as scallion roots in water. They flew in the direction of the wind of sorrow. I curled up at home, soothing my aching heart.
I’ve had a pain in the past when my dad and his brothers were intact. It pains me when our family is pinned to grandma. As her medicine bags pass through our homes, her treatments provide a cure for our heart, body, and soul ailments.
On a windy day, I went to my closet. I opened it and didn’t know what I was looking for. I run my fingers through my favorite cotton shirt, a button-down shirt for work, a casual shirt for play. Grandma’s shirt fell from the hanger to the floor. I picked it up. I see dust on its shoulders. In front of the bedroom window, I hold up my grandmother’s polyester shirt. Even though it is black in color with red spots, light passes through it. I open the window. The wind blows over it. My nose is facing the fabric. I started coughing. The wind on my chest rises and falls with the smell of dust, mild dampness from past winters, decades from 2003 to 2022.
The old fears were suffocating. My grandmother’s smell is gone. Instead, it’s not the smells I know and love, but the smells I want to stay away from: the smells of time passing, the smells of dust, the smells of the wear and tear of the seasons. So many years of grief, now multiplied by the passing of an uncle, the source of my strength as a child, a man who died not because his body succumbed to old age, but from an unstoppable epidemic. I forget what my grandma said, “All living must die.” I’m not six anymore, but I’m not ready to leave the life of the people I love, and I know I never will.
There is no way to prepare for grief. It is deep and sometimes takes decades to excavate. My grandmother passed away in 2003. I miss her very much. I still miss her. My uncle just passed away in this pandemic, but his memory will go way beyond it. When I talk about the past two years, I talk about him.
I’m going to talk about someone who made no promises to me. I’m going to talk about a man who, before I was born, lived my life in a country I never knew, who had to become a refugee again in a neighboring country and then again in a country that resettled him. I’m going to talk about a guy who was brave when the pandemic hit, got up as the sun rose, worked hard in the sun all day, only to do it again the next day. He tills the land and cultivates what grows. Among them, I. He understands that we live and die because his mother raised him and left him to raise others. I’ll talk about his legacy, how we don’t know our deaths, but how in our lives we have to honor what they left behind.
In the back of my closet, I have a shirt that once belonged to my grandmother, Youa Lee. I washed it this year. Now it smells like my household laundry detergent, the smell of spring, maybe green grass, the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, a magical illusion, an inner yearning for lifeless longevity. It hangs on the far end of my clothesline. Every time I open my closet for the past year, I know it’s there. I know it will wait.
One day, when I’m old, I want to wear it. Not all the time, but occasionally, when I’m out and about, walking in the sunshine my grandmother, my uncle and I love. I accept now that, like all living things, I will die one day. Not only will I leave my children, but maybe my grandchildren as well. I knew that if I lived my life like my grandmother and uncle did, they wouldn’t be ready for life without me when I was gone. I will die knowing that my memory and the legacy of my love will far surpass me in what they carry, in the words of innateness, in the memories shared, in the shirts I wear as an old lady. My straight shoulders will tire from gravity, the skin of my eyelids will droop, and the rest of my hair will blow in the direction of the winds of sorrow and the winds of wisdom.