Brick, Stone / by Anna Li


When the seed of the tumor sprouts, spreading across his body in filigreed roots, my grandpa does not admit that he is dying. Even when the technician pulls up his x-rays and points to his spine, now porous where the cancer has eaten the bone, he denies it. The technician’s finger traces the translucent stream of my grandpa’s spine, which looks like a dried shoreline when the tide has rolled away and worms, somewhere beneath the surface, needle millions of holes into the sand. Both are porous and brittle with something that buries inside it, but one is eaten by worms and the other by cancer.

“It’s grain,” he says. “Grain on the film.”

“Sir.” The technician is gracious, but firm. “The x-ray clearly shows major deterioration in your bones, especially in your spine.”

“I told you, I’ve told you all a hundred times, I pulled my shoulder with the damn lawnmower. Don’t you think there’s any possibility at all that it’s just grain on the film?”

The technician squints his eyes at the x-rays, and then to my family’s bowed heads. “I mean, I guess there’s always a possibility, but it’s highly unlike—”

“But there’s still a chance. And it’s grain.”

+

My grandpa has brown, leather skin. The wrinkles gather on his face like a knot on a tree. Moles pepper his face. Once I told him I wanted to connect all the dots; his usual frown sliced even further into a hard, slivered line, and his chin wrinkled like a walnut shell. The only time he smiles is when he sings “Edelweiss.” He doesn’t know all the words, so he makes them up as he goes along. His quaking bravado and heavy Chinese accent do not stop him from singing the tune with as much gusto his small lungs can muster, the wrinkles of his face broken out in wide crescents. He smells of bamboo and mothballs. But his hands are his most distinctive feature, broad and tough like baseball gloves from constantly working with them.

He gardens. When we make our annual visit to Tennessee, he folds my small hand into his and shows me his garden. The warm air swims with all the suffocating fumes. He points to bushes dripping with purple lilac. My nose clogs with their sweet smell. We look at his goldfish pond and watch their bodies ripple into orange commas beneath the skin of water. Their scales catch the light. He shows me irises, their tongues panting from the heat. He coaxes the jungle from their green cases.

He fixes things. His need to fix moved my grandpa from his shack in China to the United States. Years later, we visit the remains of his house in Shanghai. In the room where he spent hours studying for his exams, there is a desk, cement walls molting the wallpaper in thin, brown peels, and no windows. He roots his family in this hardworking restraint. They never used the heater, not even during winter. When the cold grew bitter, he lined the windows with scraps of Styrofoam and layered in mounds of sweaters. My grandpa is an engineer through and through; if there is a problem, there is a solution. He can fix anything—even, he believes, his own illness. Even when his body shrivels until his legs are temporarily paralyzed, his technical mind dissects possible ways he can fix himself.

At three in the morning a few weeks before Thanksgiving, my grandpa rings the bell. My dad and his family groggily stir and walk to his room. Propped up on pillows, he folds his hands against his stomach.

“This is a family meeting,” he says. “I need you to help me. I am weaker, I know. But I can overcome this. It’s going to take many small steps. It’s going take a lot of effort and help from you all. But I know it can be won.”

 “What small steps?” my dad asks.

“Small exercises. Starting with small, repetitive movements and slowly building my strength again. Like this.” He hinges his arm out and in. His arm is frail and thin, and it quakes from the energy of the small movement. “But,” he continues. “It’s going to take help from all of you. I need you. I am not strong enough to do it on my own, but soon that will change. So let’s start—right now.”

“Are you serious?” my dad says. My grandpa deflates. “We are not exercising now.”

“But—”

“No. It’s three in the morning. We can work on this tomorrow.”

His lip freezes into that thin line of skin.

+

She watches me divide the floor with a wide road of butcher paper. She watches me lie on my stomach with fists of crayons. She watches me scribble fins of bright color on the blank page, but my mom isn’t paying attention.

Still? Not to the doctor—or even you? What about the hospice chaplain that your mom has been talking to? Maybe she has said something—no?” My mom cradles the phone closer to her cheek. The only sound in the kitchen is my hand moving in shapes against the paper. “I love you,” she says to the voice on the other line. The kitchen remains silent. She hangs up.

“Anna,” she says. “Daddy’s going to be gone for another week.”

“Why?” I ask. I read the names of colors printed on my crayons’ waists. Jungle Green.

“Grandpa’s sick, very sick. Daddy needs to be there for a little longer.”

“When will he be back? When Grandpa gets better?”

“I don’t know, ” she says. She watches me read names, silent. Magenta. “Anna, Grandpa might get better.” Cerulean. Indigo. I smear the blue into thin rings. Our kitchen is quiet and still. She takes a deep breath.  “But he might not.”

I look up to her face and see its change. The half-moons beneath her eyes, the creases of her forehead pool with colors so dark, I don’t have names for them.

“Do you understand?”

+

My grandpa has become so frail and in pain, my dad begins carrying him to bed like a toddler. My dad wheels him to the bed, lifts him gently from the chair, stands him up straight, sits him down on his bed, and leans him flat so he can sleep. The whole process takes a total of thirty minutes. He times it. My grandpa is built like a small child whose skin shrinks around its thin skeletal frame.

 “When I heal,” he says to my dad, “that lawnmower will be the first thing to go.”

My dad braces himself. They argue the same topic over and over again. He tries avoiding it but he finds himself tracing the words again, the way the conversation slips naturally into the same loop like a familiar and worn path. “Dad, it’s not the lawnmower that caused this pain. It’s the cancer that’s causing this.”

“No,” my grandpa says. “It’s not cancer. I don’t have cancer.”

“Dad, you have cancer. It’s eating away at your bones and it’s almost in your vital organs. If you don’t do anything about it, you’ll—” he stops. The gravity of the word lodges itself in his throat. “Dad, it’s not the lawnmower,” he says. “It’s a tumor. It’s cancerous. You saw the x-rays. You heard the technician—”

“There’s room for error.”

“No, Dad, there’s no error. You have to see the truth.”

You need to see the truth, Harry. I told you, I pulled a muscle in my shoulder when I was working on the lawnmower. It swelled, the vertebrae inflamed and slowed down movement in my legs. But it will heal. I can fix it.”

“This isn’t a problem you can fix.”

“Wutzen.” When he is angry with my dad, he calls him by his Chinese name. “I know what is wrong with my body. I can fix this—I will. It’s going to take time, but it will get better.”

My dad is quiet. Even when my grandpa is wrong, dead wrong, he never loses an argument. Even the tumor, marbled like a golf ball on the back of his left shoulder, must not exist if he declares it so. But my dad refuses to give in. “But what if it doesn’t?”

My grandpa’s lip presses into a thin line. He closes his eyes and pretends to not hear.

+

The life drains out of him in a steady and slow stream. When the family can’t imagine how he could get any thinner or weaker, he does. No one will talk about it besides my dad. We are a family of brick and stone, always silent and letting the hard edges compact and settle and cement inside our chests. My grandpa, the life peeled away from him in layers like a matryoshka doll until he is the hard center of himself, speaks nothing of his pain.

My dad and my grandpa sit in the waiting room for another appointment. The chairs are rigid plastic, the kind with a thin lip of cushioning on the center of the seat. He says nothing, but my dad can see the pain of his spine lined in my grandpa’s face.

My dad sees a nurse carrying a pillow down the hall. “Would a pillow help?” he asks. My grandpa nods without saying anything.

He approaches the receptionists’ desk, a woman with deep circles around her eyes and frazzled hair wrapped into a taut bun. She picks nervously at her fingernails.

“Can I get a pillow for my dad while we wait? He’s in a lot of pain.”

Her face doesn’t register the question and barely moves when she speaks. “Sorry, sir. We don’t have pillows.”

“I just saw a nurse with one. I know it’s a small favor, but he needs it. He has cancer. The tumors have grown all along his spine and now he can’t sit well because the cancer has eaten most of his back.”

“I told you, we don’t have pillows.”

My dad leans in until he breathes a hot cloud against the glass. His voice begins to shake. “I just need a pillow. One pillow. I know you have them.”

“There’s nothing I can do.” She looks down at her thumb and peels the nail back.

He clenches his fists. “Listen,” he says. “Why does that nurse get a pillow and my dad doesn’t? He’s a patient here. He’s sick, very sick. He doesn’t have much longer. All you have to do is give me a pillow.” My dad raises his voice. He never raises his voice. He pounds a hand against the desk. He never pounds his fists. She looks startled. “You don’t care about my dad. I carry him to bed every night. All I’m asking for is a pillow, one pillow, a stupid, damn pillow.” He hears his voice that is his own, but it doesn’t feel like his. He listens to it ramble heated words to the wide-eyed receptionist, but even with his back turned, he watches my grandpa curved against the rigid chair, still and silent and barely moving.

*

“Why are you fighting so much about this?” the hospital chaplain asks my dad. “Why are you arguing so much about it?”

 “They wouldn’t give him a pillow. It’s a hospital. Wouldn’t they give him one pillow?”

“They’re a receptionist staff. They have no idea where the pillows are. It’s not just that.” Her voice grows a little softer. My dad leans in to hear what she says. “You know your mom has been talking to me about the situation as a whole, not just your dad’s condition. She’s concerned about you, especially with all the arguments you’ve gotten in recently. Says you argue a lot with your dad. Why?”

“Because he won’t admit it,” he says. “It takes us thirty minutes to put him in bed because of his pain. And he still won’t admit it. He needs to admit the truth. He needs to accept that it’s not a pulled muscle or anything he can fix, that it’s something a lot more than that.”

“I understand. I’m asking something else. Why? Why does he have to know the truth?”

My dad stares into the linoleum tiles of the hospital floor. He stares hard and memorizes every cornered edge until he can see the pattern on the back of his eyelids. His mouth opens. “I don’t want him to leave without a chance for us to say all the things we need to.”

+

When we take our yearly trip to Tennessee, some things are different. In the final weeks of school, my mom yanks me out of the classroom. My teacher already has my homework for the next week. I have to learn the colors of the rainbow on my own, roy g biv. My mom buys me a new dress that I hate because it’s black, and I don’t like black, and I tell her this over and over again, but she ignores me and buys it anyway. When we arrive at our grandparents’ house, some things are normal. It smells like dust. I still sleep in my dad’s bed from when he was a kid and try to read the things he carved into the wood with his pocket knife. We catch fireflies outside in old pickle jars and poke holes in the lids for air. But things are strange, too. My grandma has collected more wrinkles than the last time I saw her. These days, the adults bow their heads over the kitchen table, and in the dark, they speak in hushed tones.

The strangest thing is when Grandma pulls us kids into his study, where we’ve never been allowed before. Rows of trinkets line like soldiers in the glass case.

“Pick one of his things out,” she tells us.

I pick out a bull carved from wood. I like his flared nostrils and his head lowered to charge and his hoof tensed back like he’s kicking back dirt. It smells like bamboo and mothballs, familiar somehow. No one explains why we keep his things.

No one explains why Grandma starts crying when I ask if Grandpa will show me the garden. Mom shushes me as an explanation.

One morning, we rise early, I wear the new dress that I hate, and we go to church. But the service is strange, too. We don’t sing songs, and everyone wears the same horrible color. Everyone’s face is folded with sad and dark creases. A large wooden box squats in the center of the stage.

I do not understand. They start to play an old recording of him. He is singing Edelweiss in his broken English. The sound is muffled and quavering, and it’s uncertain if that’s his bravado or just the recording. I look over at my dad. He is crying, crying like a child. His cheeks are silvered and he grips his chin in his hands. I’ve never seen my dad cry. Something in me is embarrassed and shocked to see my dad cry, so I turn away.

We stand. A man tells us all to walk by the casket. When I reach the wooden box, I look inside. There in the box is my grandpa, stale and stiff. He is frowning deeply still, but something about his face looks different. He looks like he is sleeping, but I know it is something deeper than sleep, though I don’t know what.

“Touch his lips,” the man says to me.

I do. My fingers brush against his lips. I jerk back.

His lips are hard and brittle, like touching cold brick. And the knowing tries to break through that thin membrane of understanding, but it cannot. All I grasp is that this is not any color I learned lined in its bright spectrum, this is something far darker and deeper than I can understand. This something that takes the breath out of you, hardens you into a shell, a husk.

After the funeral, they haul a huge green dumpster to the front of the house and begin to throw in piles of his things, including the lawnmower. My grandma wants to strip the house of memories within a week, and then she will leave the house for good. I ask my grandma what will happen to the garden.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m leaving. There’s no one to take care of it.”

I go outside. Some of the irises are already wilting. No one has taken care of them for weeks. They are brown and shriveled tongues. The way they have grown so small and fragile reminds me of Grandpa in the casket. I shiver. This something steals the breath out of you and everything else. I don’t like to think about it too much, because it feels much heavier than I can carry. I take small branches from the old dogwood tree and weave them into a crown. I leave it on the grass as a memorial for all that it could mean and all that I do not understand.

+

Years later, I ask my dad what his last words to his dad were. We sit around a table. It’s Thanksgiving. My dad becomes so quiet that I think he doesn’t hear me, or worse, that he doesn’t want to answer. He sits and stares at the wall for a minute. And then he tells me.

It is the last day of his visit. My uncle agrees to drive him to the airport. My dad wakes up in the early hours of the morning. It’s the part of morning that still feels like night, when few things are awake and everything is dark, silent. In the houses on their street, there are no lights but a few streetlamps with forms quietly turning over in their beds. In the dark of the morning, my dad enters into my grandpa’s room. He sits on his bed, turns on the small lamp on the bedside table. The way the light hits him shows every fault of his body, frail and thin, all lean bones. My grandpa opens his eyes. It’s heartbreaking, my dad says. Someone so stubborn and hardened can become so fragile and small. He looks like a wrinkled infant, helpless and slim against his bedcovers.

My dad has been trying to think of the words to say. He has built sentences of farewells in neat layers in his mind, and then breaks them down, and restructures them again. But they do not fit. He decides not to. He decides to do something else.

In the dim light, my dad leans close to my grandpa, almost as if he is about to whisper something in his ear. He leans over until his face is up against my grandpa’s cheek, leather skin stretched over sharp bone; my dad can see every cliff of his gaunt face.

He kisses his cheek.

My grandpa touches the place where my dad kissed him. The shock ripples across his knotted face. “Why did you do that?”

My dad is quiet. He has not kissed his dad since he was a small child. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

My grandpa narrows his eyes. His mouth opens. “What do you mean by that?

The hardest part, my dad tells me, is that he meant it—every word. Grandpa did not have the slightest sense of what my dad was trying to say. As my dad walked out of the dark room, my grandpa a sliver of bone against the pillow, it was then he realized what my grandpa would never know—that this was something beyond denial or pride or stubbornness. It was belief. Even as his small bones break down and the cancer burrows further and further into the bone, he does not know that he is dying.

“What did you say after that?” I ask him. I can see him leaning out of the doorframe with my grandpa watching, his eyes half-closed.

My dad gets glassy-eyed, looks at me, but doesn’t see me. Sees beyond my forehead, beyond the walls of our house, some distant void far back. “Nothing,” he says. “I got on the plane and left. He died ten days later.” He keeps looking past me, back and back again, and I see it too, past the brown garden with the dried irises, past the lips brittle and hard, and into the window seat. My dad looks out this window from the aerial view of the airplane, where the ground clips and the waist of the horizon flattens into veins of highway, spines of neighborhoods. There, circumferenced by dark houses like graves, one house sits with its bedroom light still on. A triangle from its light makes it look like the core of the earth is wedged with a thin, yellow sail. My grandpa still sits there, frozen, unmoving. What did he mean by that?