Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I got an email from my mom yesterday afternoon telling me that my grandfather had died. (Apparently my repeated admonitions about not calling during work hours have been effective.) It wasn’t really a big surprise, as Grandpa’s health had been declining for a few years, but it was still a bit of a shock. He’s the first of my grandparents to go, and somehow knowing it can and will happen doesn’t quite prepare you for it actually happening.

Grandpa was born in 1921 in Japanese-era Taiwan, so he was fluent in Taiwanese and Japanese from a young age. After WWII the KMT occupied Taiwan and he was forced to learn Chinese, and then when he immigrated to the US in 1972 he learned English as well. Once when I was about seven or eight years old I walked into his room and asked him what he was doing, and he said “studying German”. He was a huge fan of German opera and wanted to understand the music in its original form.

Grandpa loved classical music; his collection of CDs probably numbers close to a thousand. My family lived with Grandpa and Grandma from before I was born, until my great-grandfather died when I was eleven. Grandpa had the stereo system in his walk-in closet wired up to speakers all over the house, so we would often hear symphonies and operas being blasted throughout the house. As he grew increasingly deaf, the music got louder. Sadly in his last years he could no longer hear the music clearly enough to enjoy it, so he was deprived of one of his most cherished pastimes. He left most of his (meticulously catalogued) collection at our house when he moved back to Taiwan for good, and I hope someone will take good care of it.

About twenty years ago, Grandpa was diagnosed with colon cancer. He loved rich food and as a result had suffered from gout for some time, but after his cancer treatment (surgery and chemotherapy), he reduced his meat intake drastically, and the cancer never returned. He was extremely strong-willed and would generally accomplish whatever he set out to do; he similarly quit smoking cold turkey about five years prior to his bout with cancer.

About ten years ago, Grandpa started to lose his vision. He was diagnosed with macular degeneration and started to fly regularly back to the US for treatment. Unfortunately the doctors were unable to improve his vision, but after awhile they were able to slow the deterioration. For a time he was able to read using a special machine which magnified and backlight text, but eventually he could not read at all since he could see only light and dark blurry objects. This was a huge blow to him as he was such an avid reader; he would still have people read newspapers to him daily, but I imagine it was immensely frustrating to him not to able to read quickly and independently.

Despite the loss of his vision and much of his hearing, Grandpa continued to do his best to preserve his health. Up to about five years ago, he would walk an hour on a treadmill every day. He was extremely disciplined and had an almost military preciseness about him. I’ve been told he actually was drafted into the Japanese Army during WWII, but the Japanese didn’t trust their Taiwanese conscripts to serve overseas, so he never left Japan. Unfortunately he fell off the treadmill one day due to his vision problems, and it was deemed too dangerous for him to continue any longer. After that his legs started to weaken as well.

Grandpa could be stern and controlling at times. As children we were often afraid that “Grandpa would find out” that we’d been jumping on his bed or messing with the papers on his desk. He would sometimes forbid something for what seemed like poor (or at least inconsistent) reason. For example, he made my brother quit Little League, because as a boy he had a friend who hurt his leg so badly sliding into a base that he was forever crippled. However, he thought it perfectly fine to go skiing. In fact, when I was ten he decided I was ready for intermediate slopes, so he took me up and started teaching me to make parallel turns. At that time he must have been nearly seventy, but he’d learned to ski as a college student at Waseda University in Tokyo, and he was still quite good. Amusingly, later on when I told him I was going to Hawaii, he told me to avoid surfing as it was “too dangerous”.

Earlier this year, D and I took our then-three-month-old daughter R back to Taiwan to visit all of my grandparents (as well as D's grandfather, who also passed away this year). She is the first great-grandchild on both sides of the family, and all four of them were ecstatic about meeting her. Grandpa couldn’t really see her, but he patted her head, and felt her legs, and you could see his eyes watering. At one point R cried, and I was afraid Grandpa would be annoyed, but he just beamed and said “jia yong!” (“very strong” in Taiwanese). I joked to my sister then that it was the first time Grandpa had said anything good about a crying baby.

I will miss Grandpa, but I’m not that sad that he died. He would have been 91 next month, so most of his friends had already passed away, and with the loss of his vision, hearing, and ability to walk easily, he was increasingly bored and depressed over the last couple of years. His health was no longer good and he struggled to walk during the day and to breathe at night. My sister said she was talking with him one day last year and he suddenly said he was tired (of living).

Grandpa was intelligent, well-educated, cultured, successful, and forward-thinking for his time. He had a long and happy life, and in the end he just went to sleep and never woke up, which I bet is exactly what he wanted.

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