This is a reflection post and a narrative of my grandfather’s life as it has touched me and the many others around me. This article is a work in progress and will change accordingly as I elucidate the details required.
Tomorrow, March 1st, my grandfather will probably go off fourth-line chemotherapy for his metastatic non-small cell lung cancer. I don’t know if he fully understands, but when I tried to call him earlier, he was sleeping, assisted by a combination of morphine and a mechanical support for his breathing.
There are the times when I question my pursuit of medicine. Everyday, it takes a small part out of me to go out into the world and try to learn something new, connect techniques from the magazine Nature, to try to understand the world in the context of my grandfather’s disease a little bit better. However with every revelation, I realized that medicine’s goal isn’t necessarily to just save lives, but to return patients’ sense of normalcy and wellbeing to an otherwise crazed and frenetic existence.
Currently, my grandpa is currently being treated at the City of Hope, under the guidance of my role model and mentor, Dr. Koczywas. Last summer, I was lucky enough to observe her at work for a month in the clinic. As a physician, she was unshakably professional, compassionate as the situation required, and always hard-working. However, the memories that I have of her are that of a mentor, a source of steadfast knowledge and unwavering support of my endeavors. I am under no pretenses that her guidance is inspiring to me, just as I am inspired by my mother’s unwavering attention to my grandpa’s health, and my grandpa’s self-sufficiency in the face of it all, unwilling to show weakness.
Inevitably, death will come for us all. That is the inevitable, immovable truth that we must choose to come to grips with. However, the beauty of medicine today is that we have a choice in how we live. We can choose to preserve our quality of life, or fight back with toxic chemotherapy.
I want him to know that I care about him, that the unadulterated and wholesome love that I feel for him is genuine, unconditional, and without end. But, these are words I am afraid to say to him, unable to see him as anything but a man with an unwithering love for my sister, as well as a tempestuous temper. I love my grandfather, from his unshakable fortitude before the diagnosis of lung cancer, to his vulnerability he showed when he showed in bits and pieces. It was the words he refused to utter, to maintain his role as the head of the family intact, that informed me of his vulnerability, of the emotions and physical pain that he had kept hidden from the rest of us.
If you had to name a trait I love him for, I would name his mischievousness, i.e. taking us to Japantown on the weekends with my four cousins when we were smaller, to a small udon noodle shop. We spent the entire afternoon eating ice cream, looking at real metal swords, taking pictures and running around like cubs around a momma bear.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to describe this sadness without writing. Maybe the facetious guise of being busy at school has stolen the capacity to feel freely from me, the pursuit of grades, distinction, success a poor substitute for the vast amount of love my family has shown me. But it’s true, the tears had not fallen until now, until I’ve found this safe and comfortable place to call my own.
His father ran away from the family when my grandpa was small, no older than middle school, and his mother was illiterate, barely able to scratch out her own name. His father’s gambling addiction led to debtors coming and knocking at my great-grandfather’s apartment every day, demanding to collect for every penny that my grandfather’s father owed. It was a miserable existence, compounded by the poor living conditions, the lack of a future, and the constant fear of no dinner on the table.
Unfortunately, there was no money. As a result, my grandfather dropped out of school and sold candy, cigarettes, and trinkets to piece together dinner for the family. My mom used to tell me that he could spend days trying to sell gum and candy, only for people to purchase the commodities out of pity. In this way, he and his older brother barely eked a subsistence for the family. Perhaps it was the combination of a lucky break and the fear of living his entire life the same way that led him to finally realize that there was no future in staying on the streets. Luckily, his close older brother was able to solely support the family from the street, giving my grandpa the leeway to go back to school. Starting from the very bottom, after skipping years of school, he ultimately decided that he never wanted to go back.
As a result, from high school in Taiwan, he studied incessantly for a merit based test for banking. All his friends knew that he was poor, evidenced by his daily lunch of plain white rice and soy sauce, evident to anyone who knew him. He and his best friend would go to the library and read all material available on mathematics and banking, digging up old textbooks for reading. His habits were not much different from mines, except in the execution, and unwavering attention to his pursuit of a new life. Ultimately, when he got his exam back, he scored 4th out of thousands, being one of five students to get a job working for the Taiwan National bank.
A while later he got married to my grandmother, with the promise that she would never have to work a day of her life, and raised a family with three girls while simultaneously paying for his younger sister’s education. They lived within a large apartment complex, many stories high. Undoubtedly, he was immensely proud of all of his daughters, and supported their education in Taiwan as only he could. He had risen the ranks of government banking and had over a hundred employees under him. My mom use to tell me that he was so high up in banking that people would come over to the apartment for dinner, leaving bribes so that they could get loans approved, but he would always turn them down.
Strangely enough, he still does tend to cuss a lot. Perhaps it was a remnant of his difficult childhood, but while driving, a day never goes by without hearing an expletive shouted within the confines of the car. Maybe it was partially his difficult childhood or perhaps the constant weight of responsibility that led to his sailor’s mouth. I don’t know if the cussing stopped after he found a future, but it certainly returned when he decided Taiwan wasn’t enough. To describe it as my grandfather did, “Taiwan was too cramped, too many small houses and people were too close together.”
In the following year, he packed his bags, sold the apartment complex and left to America. His uncle lived on the East Coast, so he left with my grandma to the east coast, but at the time, he couldn’t go with my mom. At the time, the law didn’t allow them to emigrate together and he ultimately made the decision to be separated from his children, again in hopes of a better life.
He told me he only had 20 dollars to his name when he arrived. His credentials in Taiwan meant nothing as a banker and he was forced to pick up odd jobs like dishwashing to supplement his poor meals. The poverty was reminiscent of his childhood and again, he found himself at the bottom. Without a place of his own to settle on the East Coast, he decided to move to California in search of better living. He opened a fried chicken store and as conditions started to look up, he had my mom and her sisters join him in California. Unfortunately, his struggles did not end when my mom and her sisters arrived.
My mom said that every day, after counting the money in the cash register, he would cuss. It was a daily ritual, where he found himself again struggling to support his family. Even worse, my grandmother contracted hepatitis C and quickly fell sick and required hospitalization. In her brief 4 day visit, she incurred thousands in debt and my grandfather was again place in a difficult position. My mother and grandfather manned the chicken store, and everyday my mom would lug her books to school and cook dinner for the family as well as help out around the store, working upfront, cooking the chicken, cleaning the restaurant, packing meals.
To be honest, I never really understood what it felt like until many years later, when we were in Egypt traveling the Middle East, that my mom and I went to find food late at night, and we found a small, poorly lit restaurant hidden in an alleyway.
Unexplicably, my mom was excited, and she exclaimed that it was exactly like the fried chicken store that she worked in. The inside of the store was damp and manned by two teenage girls. The lighting was dim and there were a few fold-up chairs in the sparsely decorated room. There were no booths, but a single hanging light casted the entire room into shadow. It was then that I understood that she and my grandfather were not working there out of choice, but to support the family. Eventually, after many attempts to sell off the location (nobody was buying), my grandfather finally was able to search for a better job.
It was then that he said an unknown man offered him a job with the post office, in exchange for a hundred dollars for the application. Unfortunately, my grandfather was duped, and payed for the application, but it was the beginning of his government job at the post office that he would go on to do for 27 years. This was the man I got to know when I was at school.
Every day, when I got back from school, I would take off my shoes and plod over to my grandma. She was always cooking something, and I would sit down at around 3:20, with my grandpa to eat lunch. He was always stern, reading a newspaper, but would always ask me and my sister how school went. After lunch, he would normally go on to take a nap or read on his computer. It was into this stable routine that he eventually settled, only to be disrupted by the specter of cancer.
He is a man I want to make proud. There is no world in which I can match his achievements. Moreover, the hardships he faced as a child were unthinkable, but somehow, I wanted him to know that he inspires me, in everything I do, from my attempts to wake up early in the morning to study, to the struggles I have with finding patience when I am most tired. I aspire to be recognized as someone worthy of sharing his blood and name. I will fight to prove to him that my love for him is unconditional, fearless, and I hope that in some small way, I can bring him peace.