My wife called me today with very sad news. Her grandma, her dad’s mom, passed away today in Shanghai. We are very saddened by the news. Grandma, or “Nai Nai,” was 89 years old. She lived a very long life, outliving many elderly Chinese. She was born and lived most of her life in Hexian, a county in Anhui Province, China, about one hour west of Nanjing along the Yangzi River. I can only imagine the changes she must have seen during her lifetime, from growing up as a peasant in rural China after World War I, through the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and into the Deng Xiaoping era and China’s revival as a world power. Her life makes me recall one of my favorite novels, “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,” which chronicles three generations of women in one Chinese family during the 20th Century.
I met Nai Nai twice and have fond memories of her. I wish I could remember her name. Learning her name was a big challenge, because each time I asked, I met with strong opposition. Unlike America, referring to your elders by name in China, even modified with a title, is considered inappropriate. Hence, she was always known as “Nai Nai,” the Mandarin Chinese word for paternal grandmother (the maternal grandmother is called “wai po”). I first met her was in 1994, when I visited Hexian with my wife’s family. We went to my father-in-law’s hometown and visited the place where he spent his childhood. Nai Nai was a smallish woman. I remember her smile and the twinkle in her eye. I did not know her well, but she always seemed like a sweet lady. I’m sure it was a bit strange for her to meet a foreigner for the first time and at the same time welcome him as the newest member of the family. The second time I saw her was in 2000, when we attended my sister-in-law’s wedding in Shanghai. I remember that she seemed so happy to have family around her and have her children reunited. She had taken care of my sister-in-law as a child, so Nai Nai was especially excited to attend her wedding. My sister-in-law and she were very close.
Even though Nai Nai lived a full life, we are sad to hear of her passing. She reminds me how precious life is and how important it is to be ready when the inevitable happens, both in life and in death. One cannot know which day will be the last day of life, so live life to the fullest, as if each day were your last. Never take for granted the lives of those you love, because you never know when they will be taken from you. When my grandpa fell ill with cancer, we waited until it was convenient for us to visit him. He passed away while we were en route to see him one last time. I was devastated. I regret that I let convenience get in the way of saying goodbye to my grandpa. Two years later, when my aunt was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I dropped everything to see her a few months before she passed away. A few years ago, I helped bring my mom and my grandma together again one last time. I’ll never forget the touching moment when they reunited. Three weeks later, my grandma passed away. I did not see her again, but my final moments with her, watching her embrace my mother, is a memory etched in my mind. I’m teary eyed even now thinking about it.