Last week, I received an email forwarded to me, telling me that my favorite cousin, PF, had had a stroke. Today, I visited her on her 92nd birthday, her three sons, their wives and children congregating at the family home, taking turns coming to see the matriarch in her hospital room on her birthday. They said she had fallen last night on the way to the bathroom, taken to the ER for an MRI to see if she had injured her head, keeping her up until 5 in the morning. Already weak, I was told she was very tired and might not be awake enough to recognize me.
Not to worry, as she said my Chinese name as soon as she saw me: “Sung-mei,” and held my hand, her wrinkly hand over mine. It took awhile before I gave her gifts that I had brought her that I thought she might like: a soft mohair taupe knitted capelet from Glasgow, Scotland, which she immediately took in her gnarled hands to warm them up, not caring if the soft thing went over her shoulders or not. She whispered in Chinese that she “liked it very much.” A deep mulberry fluffy throw went over her knees replacing one that had kept her lap warm. I attached the tiny earbuds to my Apple Ipod shuffle and turned it on to play music I had downloaded last night. It was a movie score, composed and conducted by her late husband, a famous clarinetist and composer who had died in 2003.
Of all my Chinese relatives, PF was the one I held closely as a role model. Unlike my mother who revered convention, PF and I were free spirits, fiercely independent and not afraid to experiment with food, making things or using things in different ways. She would use some pottery bamboo tools as hair sticks, winding her long dark hair quickly into a twirl on her head. Now, her hair was cut to shoulder length, but I brought a cherry burl hair stick to show her, because she had loved natural things like it in the past.
Back at the house, her three sons were busy behind closed doors discussing family business while the women sat in the kitchen doing a crossword puzzle. The dark red brick linoleum in the entryway and kitchen was an identical pattern to the one that was in my Lexington kitchen when the kids were young. I remember washing and waxing it to a dark shine so many times. It was a fond remembrance and an amazing coincidence that our kitchens had had flooring in common all those years.
As I leaned over to say goodbye, PF said slowly but very clearly to me: “Take care of your family, take care of yourself. . .and (a pause) be happy!” I’m glad that I went and had a chance for us to visit one more time on her 92nd birthday today.