When I awake, I instinctively look at the clock. The one that sits overhead is broken. 4:35. It’s perpetually 4:35.
I am back in Changchun after three years. I had arrived at the airport after a grueling travel session, spanning 1 ½ hours Chicago to Vancouver; 13 ½ Vancouver to Beijing; and another 1 ½ to finally get here. Whisked away by my Mom, stepdad and Tao Ge, my second aunt’s son, we whiz through the dark streets.
The air is damp and thick with the light smell of smoke, as Mom explains that is a mix of the heavy construction and the season—farmers are burning the stalks in their fields for planting season.
People still burn fields?
It’s nearly 10 when we arrive at the apartment complex—the one that my Grandma and fourth aunt’s family had moved into back in 2007: one of the then most chic in Changchun. In true Chinese style, Grandma already has her helper frying flour patties, and re-heating zhou and vegetables for me to eat.
“Child must be hungry,” she says, wrapping me in a thick hug in her fuzzy red sweater.
My things are promptly whisked into a bedroom.
Just our luck, Mom says, they have exactly two extra rooms. She and my stepfather are sleeping in the extra room in fourth aunt’s condo two stories above, and I’m sleeping here in Grandma’s guest room.
It’s my Grandfather’s old room of course. He has been gone nearly five years now. I still remember coming back in 2007 and 2008, when he had sat in his chair smoking cigarettes and crouching over the small TV, body frailer by the year. You go to hug him and pay your respects. He smiles a bit and hums up the energy from within to shout out your name in enthusiastic exuberance.
And then it’s back to the TV, back to his writing, back to his cigarette. What did we have to talk about anyway? And his ears, growing increasingly deaf, wouldn’t hear my awkwardly loud and deliberately spaced words in limited vocabulary anyway. You’d smile a bit. Give him another hug and retreat—no idea what might be swirling within his mind.
And now the image of him sitting in the chair is frozen in time through Mulberry Child. I’d seen it dozens of times, the scene they replayed from 2008 with my grandfather waving in front of the TV, taking a brief moment from watching the Games. It was when Mom had visited with a video camera when we knew—we all knew—the end was coming. I remember sitting in this house and knowing that this would be the last time I saw my Grandfather—family, and yet so distant from me—alive. That I would be an ocean away when he left us. And I was. In Las Vegas. An ocean away a month later when breathed his last.
The room has been converted, although in the center of the top shelf, there is a portrait of my Grandfather, perhaps in his 60s, with a shock of white hair and slightly smiling, looking dignified, proud and shining from within. Around him, there are family photos, of their kids when they were young—my aunts and uncles—photos throughout the year of when the family got together, all in terrible outfits. Despite the years, they still all pose like an old Chinese photograph—parents in the front, sitting regally—children and grandchildren all about. In some, Mom has terrible farmer tan lines on her arms and gigantic coke-bottle glasses. Those were from the 90s; it didn’t make sense why she had coke bottle glasses.
4:35. 4:35. The time seems to taunt me. The way that time kind of stands still in this room. And my grandfather is immortalized.