Every year when school let out, Yukiko and I spent the summers with our popo and goon goon in their condominium in Kaimuki. Perched up on the seventh floor we looked down on a dried up stream bed lined with monkey pod trees, and filled with shopping carts and scattered trash. The opaque curtains and Vornado fan provided little relief from the heat as the afternoon sun blazed through their living room windows. When the little pink ribbon stapled to the grill of the fan fluttered uncontrollably, it meant it was time for my sister and I to head to the pool.
Goon goon would fish out quarters from the deep pockets of his brown slacks for me to dive after. If he didn't have any change that day, he’d pull out his keychain attached to his belt loop by a long thin chain, and remove the heaviest key and toss it in the water. We would spend hours at the pool--goon goon passed out in the shade in a lounge chair, me diving for his key, and my sister floating in the water.
When our fingers were sufficiently pruned and our eyes burned from the chlorine, we’d return to 718. My sister and I showered. Goon goon threw the towels in the washer, while popo prepared the filling for Chinese dumplings. I always remember the afternoons being odd for some reason. I don’t have a clear recollection why, but I always remember it feeling empty and quiet. Maybe we were all tired from the heat. Or maybe we were all just ready for a nap.
The TV turns on. Zach Morris and AC Slater are trying to outwit Mr. Belding and we begin to make dumpling wrappers by balling up the white dough. Center the ball of dough between the stainless steel plates of the press. Smash the dough into an oblong shape. Mess it up. Popo fixes it. We stuff the wrappers with the filling and run our moistened finger tips along the edge of the wrapper. Pinch, fold. Pinch, fold. Over and over until the filling is gone. Popo steams the dumplings in her awkwardly large silver steamer contraption on her stove. We stuff ourselves with dumplings, the white wrappers now turned translucent.
Those are my memories growing up with my grandparents.
Some time after I left for college, a lot began to change at home. Popo and goon goon were getting older. Every time I returned home it seemed they aged a decade. The changes seemed so much more dramatic each time I parachuted in and out of Hawaii. As they slowed down they moved out of 718 and into an assisted living community.
So much of the responsibilities fell on my mom’s shoulders as their only child in Hawaii. For over a decade my mom patiently and diligently tended to every demand by my grandparents as they tried to find their old lives in a new environment. Where would popo and goon goon be satisfied with the food? Which aide would popo allow to bathe her? How many times would popo need to fall before she realized she needed to use a walker to maneuver? When would she stop arguing about the kind of television my mom bought for her?
The thing to understand is that popo is a strong woman to a fault. She’s determined and she’s strong-willed. Stubborn and argumentative. She knows what she wants and she won’t stop until she gets it. Unfortunately, that translates into a daily uphill battle for my mom, which became increasingly combative as my popo’s dementia progressed and her health condition deteriorated. Popo lost track of reality and time. She became increasingly incoherent. And every interaction turned into an argument. I can only imagine my mother never feeling appreciated by her own mom who she provided care for on a daily basis. It took a severe toll on my mom’s happiness and health.
I feel guilty because I have not lived in Hawaii for 15 years now. I have not been around to support my mom during the most difficult of times with my grandparents, especially after goon goon passed away three years ago. So when my mom called last week with the news of popo’s prognosis, it was time to come home for her last few days.
By the time I arrived Popo seemed frozen. She couldn’t speak. She could barely open her eyes. And she had stopped eating. Her body was shutting down as she neared the end. I told her all about my new life with Jenny in the bay area. I told her about a really awesome tripod I’d purchased recently. And I shared with her our memories. She lit up when we video chatted with my cousin and reached out to my niece when she came to visit. She shut her eyes in pain and sadness when Jenny and I had to leave for the day. I kissed her on the forehead and promised to return.
On Saturday, October 3rd we received a call from Kahala Nui at 4 in the morning. Popo was not doing well. My mom, dad, uncle Peter, aunty Penny and I rushed down in the still of the night. My mom held her hand and told her everything was okay. I watched popo’s chest rise and fall for the last time as she took her final breath and passed peacefully into a better place.
These photos are about my mom’s relationship with her mom. It’s about how taxing the past decade has been on my mom. It’s about the unconditional care and love that my mom gave everyday until popo’s final breath. It’s about a sense of relief, in the most self-less of ways to ensure her mom passes peacefully. It’s about the people that looked after popo’s care and happiness. It’s about renewal as my mom finds happiness in being a grandma and creating the same memories I shared with my popo.