Transplant by JZ Ting
JZ Ting is an Asian-Australian geek, lawyer, and writer. She has lived on four continents but stays for Sydney’s beaches where she pretends to be a mermaid. Her fiction has appeared in Pencilled In literary magazine and been performed at Subbed In events, and she tweets online @ting_jz.
Grandma dies in the best way possible: peacefully, in her garden chair, under sunny Sydney skies. She fell asleep, the nurses say, first to my father who arrives from work, then my mother, then me. She fell asleep and didn’t wake up. The best way to go.
They don’t tell us that she was alone, but we know anyway. She was alone each time we visited, a tiny, white-haired Malaysian-Chinese lady with broken English surrounded by white-haired, white Australians who drink English with their breakfast teas. The landscapes are English too, all roses and neatly trimmed hedges politely perplexed by the papaya my father planted, a poor substitute for the majestic rambutans Grandma left behind. The retirement village website trumpeted gardening as a resident perk. It didn’t mention multicultural staff.
She died in her sleep, my parents say, reaching across oceans to aunts and uncles, cousins and classmates, Grandma’s friends from church. They spin the message into Mandarin and Foochow like silver into gold I cannot touch, though my parents spill enough of it in fights. The coins I scavenged were never enough to spend with Grandma, so instead I bartered: smiles, school marks, my stomach for the fruits and soups she prepared just for me. A few hours every month to pay off my guilt. The funeral will be in Sydney. We hope you can make it, but understand if it’s too far.
Planes converge while Grandma waits in a local morgue. To me her loss is soft and nebulous, an abstraction I try to map out in Sydney streets. They send me home where arguments are silenced, bankrupted by my father’s grief, while my mother rations out affection in rice and steaming bak kuh teh. She tells me how when her grandfather died, the entire family ate fresh durians beside his open coffin which took pride of place in the living room for the village to pay respects. That night, I dream of Grandma’s ghost lost alone in the dark.
Thank you for coming, we say to people filing past. It’s sad but not unexpected, and she was cared for to the end.
Grandma lies beneath a bouquet of banksias and winter skies. The small congregation sings in English and Mandarin as photos flash, and only now do I begin to know her: family portraits, a bride to the grandfather I never met, a church group sweating in the tropic heat. There’s a photo of her posing with my father, startlingly young, in a tiny Malaysian airport, and another holding infant me. One black-and-white picture of a tall young woman in a floral qipao, her smile proud and bright, hands full of furry rambutans plucked from her trees.
Did she know? When she gave her son a one-way ticket and suitcase of books, did she realise what she was sacrificing? Would it have been kinder for my father to leave her in her village, alone but at home, with family reunions once a year? What is it like to migrate when you’re so old, and die in a foreign land?
I don’t know. I couldn’t afford to ask.
Grandma dies and we say farewell. I hold my father’s shaking hand telling myself that Sydney’s earth is as dark as Malaysia’s earth, that the one sun shines on both, and rain falls all the same. Yet the wind that blows between us is cold, scented with eucalypts fresh as a wound, and sour like regret.