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Anne Liu Kellor

Keeping My Promise to Popo

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Anne Liu Kellor | Longreads | September 2019 | #of minutes (2,604 words)

No one can agree on how old my grandmother is. Because she was born in wartime China, because they use the lunar calendar, because she immigrated from the mainland to Taiwan to America and declared her own birthdate, or because she’s always been vain and told people she is younger. Is she 98, 100, 102? Her sister claims one age, Popo another, her Social Security card yet something else. How can there be such a range of unknown?

Regardless, now she is finally, undeniably, old. I watch as Popo rests in the hospital bed in Monterey Park, her body thin, dressed in a pale green gown. Oxygen tube in her nose and around her neck, short greasy hair flattened, black with white roots. Mouth curved into a frown. Hearing aid, glasses, wig, glittery rings, all removed. Fingers no longer able to scrawl characters on her erasable black board with the pointed stick. Eyes no longer able to watch Chinese soap operas on TV. Mouth involuntarily moving, like she’s chewing, or rooting. Voice involuntarily making sounds, eh, eh, eh, eh. Sleep coming in short intervals, drifting off for an hour here and there, in between nurses coming to check on her.

The nurses are Filipino, Chinese, East African. They come in and open her curtain every hour or two, glance at her vitals, rotate her body, write things down on a chart and leave. On the white board beside her bed it says “Mandarin,” so sometimes they speak to Popo in Mandarin, but the white board does not say that she is basically deaf, and that in the last many years she’s reverted to speaking Cantonese, her childhood language. They might as well be whispering to her in Tagalog or Somali. She does not hear a thing they say.
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