It was Mother’s Day two years ago. We sat in my grandparents’ backyard in the shade of the veranda. After 30+ years, the porch was dilapidated with decaying wood and rusted tools. The chairs were falling apart and could barely support my overweight grandpa. We had just finished the garden tour that Ma ma (grandma) takes me on every visit to describe the condition of her garden. It was falling apart, the fruit was growing less and less taken care of. The gophers were hard at work undermining her careful tending of the fruit trees, vegetables, and winter-melons she used to always have in plenty. She ranted apologetically about how she was getting too weak and tired to do as good of a job gardening- plus, the new neighbors had a dog that kept barking at her when she was outside, and she was scared of its angry growls.
I think it was this year that I went and bought a glass vase and flowers for my grandma. She initially thanked me, but later, as we were sitting in the backyard with that annoying dog barking, she confronted me, “Why did you get these? These will just die in two weeks… sigh”. My dad chuckled and shook his head, smiling at me.
She pointed behind me to a plant in a pot. It had large leaves on the bottom and a single long, thick stem that ended two feet high in a brilliant red flower. In cantonese, she continued, “Look at this flower here. Your mother gave this to me years ago. It’s still alive even now. What’s more is that it only blooms every Mother’s day. These are the kind of plants I love. The ones that keep living”
That night, after she had made her special meal for me, I listened. She had to check her blood sugar. I asked her how her health was going. She let a long sigh. And like the many times before, she showed me her notebook that logged her blood sugar. Some days were way too high. Some days were way too low. She was sweating that night. She wasn’t doing so well. In fact, grandpa had done most of the cooking that night. She then transitioned into the usual lecture- be diligent and hardworking at your job, find a girlfriend because you’re the only grandson to pass on the family name and please keep visiting me.
She had worked so many hard years in the US. She and my grandpa came over 40 years ago and sold everything so that they could give their 5 children the opportunity at a better life. They went through the humiliation of not knowing the language, of working in kitchens and laundromats and gave everything so their children could prosper.
That night, after I had gone home, I received a call from my dad that grandma had to go to the hospital because she was having congestive heart failure. Luckily he was in town visiting and he could drive her to the hospital.
That was one of the longest weeks in my life. Grandma hated the hospital. They kept trying to feed her food specifically tailored for her diabetic condition… but she looked at it in disgust. In stubbornness, she crossed her arms and looked away defiantly from the food. She didn’t want to eat the American food. My grandpa, in frustration, said, “How can she eat this stuff? We don’t eat this western food.” We were so far from the safety of their old dinner table…
That week, I tried to talk to her about Jesus. I talked to her about the God that loved her, and the God that created such a loving heart in her for me. I talked about the God who cared for her. She looked away sadly and just said, “I haven’t been a good enough person for that God. I don’t deserve that God.”
I tried to go down as often as possible to visit her in the hospital. I knew it was far from home, and she wanted to get out of there. That next week, she finally was able to go home.
This last February, during Chinese new years, I was late. I heard her say a later time, and had taken a nap. When I awoke, I saw on my phone were multiple calls and messages. I called and found out I was an hour late. I raced down from Oceanside. I knew this was the worst thing I could have done as a Chinese grandson- to miss the most important family holiday dinner. I was angry. I was angry at the stupid drivers who wouldn’t get out of the way. I was angry at the distance. I was angry that God took me to this place so far from my grandparents.
I got to the house, and everyone had finished eating. In fact all the food had been put away, and everyone was sitting there looking at me and making fun of me. But then my grandma, upon seeing me, immediately brought out every single dish that they had just put away- the chicken, the daikon beef stew, her pork stew with black fungus that she only made on new years… Without any condemnation, she had me sit down, put chopsticks and a bowl in front of me. “Here is the chicken that you love to eat so much. We saved a lot for you. Please, eat more. And don’t forget to eat your vegetables. You know how your mother gets when you don’t eat those…”
About two months ago, she was back in the hospital. But this time she was smarter. Last time she had been in the hospital, she learned she had been there for so long because she stalled going to the hospital, thinking that she would be all right if she waited and had made it worse. This time, she immediately got herself to the emergency room. She looked strong and, although annoyed, was in much better spirits than last time. She now proudly ate the disgusting american food, with a fear that if she didn’t eat it, the american doctors would punish her by making her stay longer.
I learned my lesson this time. I bought her some potted orchids. I told her it was to make her room more beautiful, because she was the most beautiful paternal grandma I knew (ha. the only one). She looked at them, proud of her grandson for getting her something that would last for more than two weeks.
Victoriously, she left that hospital 3 days later, with an iron will to be healthy. But the doctor had said she only had so much more time to live. I didn’t want to believe it. She looked so strong in that moment, so determined to be healthy so that the family would stop worrying about her.
Last Friday I received a call from my dad. He told me to go straight to the hospital. She was back there again.
I got there, and it was just my uncle. Usually, he’s a very happy relaxed man with a mustache that just makes me think he’s smiling even if he’s not smiling. But not even the mustache could hide the gravity of the situation. “How is she doing, suk suk (uncle)?”
His eyes were red, and he was trying to hold it together. A long pause and then, “Not good.”
My uncle had been with her for 4 or 5 hours alone, so I told him I would relieve him and told him to go back to the house and rest. After he had left, it was hard to sit there with her. She didn’t have the strength she had two months ago. It was hard to breath, it was a struggle to move. She wanted to talk to me so much but would keep running out of breath. I kept telling her to sleep, but she kept her eyes open because she was so glad I was there with her.
I asked her again- “Have you received Jesus yet?” I continued, “I know it’s a little annoying that I ask you, but I do this because I love you so much, and because God loves you so much. If you believe in Jesus, you won’t be alone. You can go to heaven. Jesus will be with you and you won’t have to be scared. And you’ll see me there one day.”
She looked back at me, paused and replied with struggling breath, “…I don’t know. I know that you and your family have always wanted me to but…” and it was getting hard for her to talk.
“Grandma, you don’t have to give me reasons why or why not. Just think about it. This is really important to me. But I want you to decide on your own. Let me know tonight or tomorrow.”
I had always been cynical about these deathbed confessionals. Cop outs for real conversions and life discipleship. Plus, in seminary, we’re always debating if heaven is what we think it is, and if hell exists or not… But that night, those debates and rants meant nothing. More than anything else, I wanted to see her say yes to the Jesus that she imitated more clearly than many Christians did in her love for us. Later that night, after her (maybe 5th) demand for me to go home and rest and not worry about her, I drove home. On that drive home, I started to think about all the 42 students I had witnessed at community colleges make decisions to allow Jesus to become Lord of their lives this year. I ranted at God, “Lord- All of those 42 will feel so empty if I can’t see You work in this 1 person…”
The next morning, Tricia and I went to Trader Joe’s and picked up some orchids. It was the day before Mother’s day, and I had learned my lesson from those two Mother’s Days ago. This was the first time grandma would meet Tricia. We got to the room with the orchids in hand, and she was overjoyed to meet my girlfriend. It was seemingly a very happy moment- my entire father’s side of the family was there. My grandpa took the orchids and showed them to Mama and he proudly told me that the orchids I had brought the last time she was in the hospital were still alive and had at bloomed at least 11 beautiful flowers.
My uncles and aunts, who had driven all night from the Bay Area decided to leave and let my family take over so they could sleep. When they had left, my grandma whispered something to my mother. My mom pulled me aside and said, “She just told me, ‘Whatever my grandson has asked me to do, I say yes.'” In disbelief, my mother tried to specify what it was, and wasn’t sure if it was about Jesus. “Daniel, you better just ask her.”
As I went to her bedside, I asked her if she wanted to receive Jesus yet. She then went on to share, “I used to go to church all the time in Hong Kong with a relative. I’d been a very good person and had no idols in my house. But when I came to America, everyone at church looked down on me because of my situation. I didn’t want anyone to look down on me, so I stopped going to church, since their God seemed to look down on me too.”
It’s funny. This grandma, so selfless and Christlike in her love for us, was rejected by the church. They had a shining example of God’s love in their midst and they rejected her and looked down on her, for being the exact kind of person that God had called the church to look after- the immigrant, the poor.
“You know, Jesus is different from those people, grandma. He doesn’t look down on you. He sees you as His precious daughter. Are you ready to say yes to that Jesus?”
She nodded. I pulled my dad in, and He prayed for her to receive Jesus, as my family and Tricia laid hands on her. She received Jesus- the one who looks after her when she is too weak to look after others; the one who doesn’t look down on her, but loves her so deeply. The one who doesn’t look at why she isn’t good enough to go to heaven, but welcomes her home to a feast no matter where she’s come from or how late she is to the feast.
Two days later, peacefully, sedated by morphine, she drifted off to be with the Father. Before she had passed, she had one tear coming out of her eye. My aunt told her not to be afraid as my father prayed Psalm 23 over her. As soon as I heard the news, I drove as fast as I could.
I haven’t wept so hard in a long time. I will miss her so much.
Later that day, we were sitting again in the backyard, the whole family… well I guess not so whole anymore. We were laughing. We were crying. Somebody pointed at the flower that Mama had pointed out to me 2 years ago. It was the day after Mother’s day, and it had not yet bloomed. My grandpa sighed, “It probably won’t bloom this year… but look at those orchids you bought. Look at how beautiful and alive they are.
That night, we all quietly ate all of Mama’s favorite foods- the vegetables, the white chicken, and the last of the daikon beef stew she had made before she went to the hospital. She couldn’t eat many of these things anymore because of the diabetes, but would always snack at them rebelliously. We ate in honor of her.
I went outside and sat in the yard again as the sun set. I was sad. But there was a soft whisper of joy in my heart. My grandma was no longer a vase of beautiful flowers that would just perish in temporality. She was now a beautiful orchid plant that would live on, brilliantly making heaven more beautiful because she’s there now. This beautiful daughter was home now.
My dad came out and sat with me. “You know, she really did love you.”
We quietly held back the tears, and I looked behind me.
…The mother’s day flower had begun to open up in brilliant red.