It was 12 a.m. when my grandmother rose to the stars. 12 a.m. when my mother began sobbing. 12 a.m. when my six-year old self sat outside, looking for pebbles.
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I guess somebody would characterize this stage in life as monumental— a time of monumental sadness, monumental isolation, monumental realization. My own realization as my eyes scanned carelessly over the neatly-swept, concrete driveway was that I was looking for pebbles I knew were not there. And that I was sad over somebody I barely knew. Emotions, a rather unfathomable concept.
Five years before I was born, my mom and dad were introduced to each other through mutual friends. Though my parents were both very ambitious people, they got along surprisingly well, pushing and supporting each other without bitter competition. And because my mom was happy, her mother contributed her wholehearted support; every time my dad was invited over to the house, my grandmother would claim to have “accidentally” cut too many fruits, sneaking a large plate of carefully-sliced bananas, peaches, and apples onto the table.
Three years later, my mom and dad got married with a very laid-back wedding, my mom overjoyed in a beautiful white dress and my dad proudly standing next to her in a newly ironed suit. Since my mom and dad rarely had the occasion to wear such nice clothes, they chose to have a long photo shoot after the wedding, traveling to three different scenic points in China— the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City. The biggest picture hanging in our living room today shows off my parents’ favorite photoshoot at the Summer Palace in Beijing, featuring the vast, glistening lake and a virtually cloudless, summer sky. In the picture, my mom’s head rests casually on my dad’s shoulders and my dad’s head tilts down as he kisses her forehead. There was many a day when I would stretch up my neck to peek at these framed wedding pictures on the bookshelves of my house, imagining my mom and dad when they were young and my own future photoshoot. In one of the pictures stands my grandmother, face filled with excitement and hands clutched enthusiastically together in front of her stomach, next to my mom and dad. Pure happiness.
Two years before I was born, my parents began dreaming of America, the “land of opportunities” as they often told me. Since my dad’s parents were not rich, my dad plunged determinedly into his work and stayed many late nights at his company debugging lengthy computer codes. My mom, too, worked more vigorously at finishing her education. My parents’ hopes grew along with their savings like a big bubble until they became scared to keep hoping for fear of something going wrong and popping their dream.
“Every day I told myself ‘almost there’ but it always seemed like we were at the exact same spot as the day before,” my mom sighed to me in Chinese. Whenever she comes to this part in the story, her face takes on an overwhelmingly tired look— a look reflecting almost two years of constant work knowing full well something could go wrong at any time. Despite this, my mom and dad were unceasingly each other’s biggest supporters and their relationship becoming only stronger, making the mundane days more bearable.
Around ten months later, my dad received a higher-paying job offer for a company in Singapore he had been interested in joining. Despite his interest, my dad began writing back almost immediately to reject the offer, unable to bear spending all of the saved money for the move and dragging my mom into many more months of hard work.
“You can’t reject such a great offer! I can take up a job while studying, we will move to America eventually,” my mom insisted to him.
Still, my dad remained adamantly against the relocation until my very-frustrated mom called my grandmother for advice. Upon hearing their dilemma, my grandmother immediately contributed a large portion of her own savings to support the move.
“Never give up a good opportunity,” my grandmother urged my parents as they entered the airport. “I believe in you reaching your dream. Don’t worry about me, I will be fine here.”
So, with my grandmother praying at the terminal and wiping away the worried tears she did not betray in front of my parents, my mom and dad embarked for Singapore. There, my dad accepted his job offer and my parents quickly settled down, restarting their daily routine, with their bubble of hope growing once again.
When I was born one year later, my mom and dad had almost saved enough to make their move to America. My mom tells me that she was so happy when I was born that she used up all of the film on her favorite camera to mail pictures to my grandmother.
“This is our apartment’s black couch. This is me holding Jasmine on the black couch. This is Marvin (my dad) holding Jasmine on the black couch”
At the top of the bookshelf in my house, there is a framed picture of me, a pale baby with little hairs sticking out from my head like pineapple leaves, sitting on my dad’s lap. In another, my mom is seen laughing in the corner while I, with no top teeth, enthusiastically attempt to bite into an apple on the bed, without success. In yet another I sit in a blue tub, staring confusedly in a mirror at the chubby figure frowning back at me.
Immediately, my grandmother flew to Singapore to celebrate with my parents. My mom says that my grandmother sometimes stood over the crib for thirty minutes at a time, just appreciating the sight of her first grandchild.
“You liked her a lot. You smiled every time you saw her,” my mom told me.
Of course, I don’t remember.
Six months after I was born, my parents finally achieved their dream of moving to America. They rented an apartment in San Jose, California (which my dad confidently pronounced San ‘J’ose to the taxi-driver), provided by S3 where my dad had recently been hired. The soft carpet floors provided perfect cushioning for my delicate knees and I began crawling around the house.
“Whenever I caught a glimpse of a tiny figure on all fours stumbling past my doorway, I knew that you were up to trouble,” my mom recounts of my mischievous endeavors.
One time, she says, she walked past a small receipt scrap left on the floor and in the time she took to walk to her room and put down her bag, I had happily devoured my delicious paper meal.
“Spit that out!” she exclaimed to a very confused baby, and I turned around defiantly, crawling away.
Since my mom had changed her major concentration when she arrived in America, she needed start graduate school over again and was often frazzled by her studies, feeling pressed for time.
“A chemical-engineering major won’t get you anywhere in America,” she was falsely told by her peers from back home. “Engineering is much more useful because you can start earning money right away.”
Knowing that my mom was busy studying and my dad was busy making money, my grandmother vowed to make another trip to America to lessen their stress. Even after her retirement, my grandmother began taking on a couple of casual jobs here and there, such as helping with bagging purchases at farmers’ markets, to fund the visit. The next time she was reunited with us was when I was three years old, fully able to walk and run around the house. Often, I would crash into a piece of furniture, rub my leg, and continue running around to the horror of my worried mom.
“Jasmine has steel legs and no brakes,” my grandmother had commented to my mom as she observed me zipping around the house. It was during this visit that my grandmother gave me a beautiful white pebble, glittery on the top and smooth on the bottom.
“It’s my good luck charm,” she had said warmly to me.
Although my memories from this visit are only images I have mentally conjured to match my mom’s stories, I have always sensed something significant with the white pebble. When I look down at it, the glitter shines like stars in the night sky and running my fingers against the smooth surface comforts me, as if I always have a supportive companion. My mom told me that I gently laid this valuable pebble in my most treasured box, a glass box stained with vibrant pink and deep blue. Even now in college, I have made it a habit to open the box and pay the pebble a visit at least once every time I fly home.
When I was almost four years old, my baby brother was born and my parents bought their first house in Cupertino, California. My mom told me that like my grandmother, I often peeked at my brother in the crib, fully in love with the new member of the family. It was when I turned five years old that my grandmother came to visit us in America for the last time.
“Beautiful,” my grandmother would say to my mom while looking at my brother and me.
Soon after my grandmother returned to China, she fell ill and suffered a heart attack. Since she was transported immediately to the hospital by my uncle, she survived, but was still in dire need of surgery due to internal bleeding. My mom and dad hurriedly sent money to my uncle so the surgery, assured by the doctor to be with a high success rate, could be scheduled for as soon as possible. My mom booked the earliest flight to China and with no delays, she would arrive a day after the procedure was successfully finished.
To my parents’ horror, this “easy” surgery was unsuccessful for my grandmother, a result deemed by the hospital to be a “medical mistake.” But for a patient who was already leaking blood from blood vessels into the body, shouldn’t blood thinners have been the obviously-wrong medication to give? Yet because of this doctor’s “medical mistake,” my mom received the call the night before her flight, saying that my grandmother had passed.
So, here I was, sitting on the driveway looking out into the darkness, searching for pebbles, searching for my grandmother.
When my mom took her flight to China the next day, I sat in my room, dazed by the feeling of loneliness. I took out my colored pencils and began drawing what I imagined my grandmother had looked like when she came to visit for the final time. I drew my grandmother smiling brightly, hands clasped in front of her body, wearing a flowy, red long-sleeve and grey pants. I accidentally splattered a tear onto the paper as I wiped my eye, creating a distorted oval of wetness. A wet pebble. I grabbed my white colored pencil and drew the white pebble next to my grandmother’s feet.
My mom returned from China a week later and we honored our grandmother’s life with a Chinese tradition. My mom bought lavishly-colored and intricately-folded paper boats, paper planes, paper trains, and paper cars while my dad bought paper clothes and exchanged some American dollars for Chinese dollars. In our backyard, we gathered some wooden sticks on top of a bin and lit a small fire. As we burned each item, watching the smoke ascend into the sky, my grandmother would receive the real version in heaven so that she could travel, dress, and never run out of money. With the boat we burned to the stars, my grandmother would be able to sail heaven’s seas and with the plane she could traverse heaven’s skies. This ritual was silent, and at the last minute, I ran into the house to grab the picture I drew of my grandmother. As I watch the picture burn, I send my grandmother my silent thanks; although I do not recall meeting her, she was my parents’ biggest supporter and my number one fan.
I visited China for my first time in third grade, ten years ago, with my little brother and parents. Although my memories before six-years old were spotty at best, making remembering even the burning ritual difficult, I felt my heart racing just to be in my grandmother’s homeland. My mom crouched down at the plaque with my grandmother’s name on it and I followed suit, staring down at the beautiful black-and-grey stone. The letters were in Chinese so I didn’t understand their meaning, but I traced the intricate lines with my eyes, feeling like I was finally, truly meeting my grandmother. 5/13/2004.
For five years we lived on the same Earth. And now she continues to live in memories. I reached my hand down to swipe a tiny rock off of the plaque, thinking back to the small, white pebble sitting at home.
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