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My grandma in Wuhan is philosophical about COVID, life and her favorite topic: death

My grandpa Yeye and grandma Nainai. After they both caught COVID last December when China abruptly lifted its restrictions, my grandparents have felt significantly weaker. Their morning walks now consist of more resting than walking. To my grandparents, the virus should've been a death sentence. However, they were still kicking and cooking on my screen on a video call last week.
Laura Gao for NPR
My grandpa Yeye and grandma Nainai. After they both caught COVID last December when China abruptly lifted its restrictions, my grandparents have felt significantly weaker. Their morning walks now consist of more resting than walking. To my grandparents, the virus should've been a death sentence. However, they were still kicking and cooking on my screen on a video call last week.

In 2020, the graphic artist and memoirist Laura Gao, who was born in Wuhan but came to the U.S. with her family when she was a girl, wrote about a trip she had planned to her birthplace to see her beloved grandparents. COVID caused her to cancel the trip. We wondered — how are her grandparents now faring? She checked in her with her grandma via WeChat.

When I call my grandma, Nainai, I hear two voices crooning their love for each other. "我是否也在你心中" Am I In Your Heart by 高安 Gao An belts from my phone before Nainai appears on the screen.

I stutter, "奶奶,怎么样? Nainai, how are you?" trying to hide the fact that her new WeChat ringtone had startled my phone right out of my hands.

A WeChat video call with my grandparents. Nainai's head takes up half of the screen while my grandpa, Yeye, settles for a few pixels in the corner. As the matriarch, Nainai dominates every space she's in. However, their love is mutual.
/ Laura Gao for NPR
/
Laura Gao for NPR
A WeChat video call with my grandparents. Nainai's head takes up half of the screen while my grandpa, Yeye, settles for a few pixels in the corner. As the matriarch, Nainai dominates every space she's in. However, their love is mutual.

As usual, Nainai's head takes up half of the screen while my grandpa, Yeye, settles for a few pixels in the corner. As the matriarch, Nainai dominates every space she's in. However, their love is mutual. A few minutes into our call, Nainai helps Yeye, whose hands can't keep steady, open a container of wild chicken freshly chopped from the butcher. In turn, Yeye prepares her favorite Cantonese-style steamed ginger chicken for lunch. The same dish he learned in his hometown of Jiangxi. And the one that would woo my grandma on their first date.

A typical lunch for my grandparents: Cantonese-style ginger chicken, freshly-made sausage over rice and a shot of baijiu liquor for my grandpa.
/ Laura Gao for NPR
/
Laura Gao for NPR
A typical lunch for my grandparents: Cantonese-style ginger chicken, freshly-made sausage over rice and a shot of baijiu liquor for my grandpa.

Yeye's birthday is next month, coinciding with the Mid-Autumn Festival and, most important, my parents' first visit back to Wuhan in a decade. I'll join them shortly after my book tour ends. My uncle had suggested an outing to the Yangtze River Park to watch the lights show followed by a lavish dinner at Wuhan's hottest restaurant. Nainai would rather have Yeye's home cooking. My grandma is known for her frugality, but this time, she's more concerned about the crowds of people. After she and the rest of my relatives in Wuhan caught COVID last December when China abruptly lifted its restrictions, my grandparents have felt significantly weaker. Following Yeye's second hospitalization, they've retired from their nightly badminton matches. And their morning walks now consist of more resting than walking. My heart dropped when my mom first broke the news to me. The nine days in 2022 that I, a fit long-distance biker in my 20s, spent convulsing in bed with a hellish COVID fever felt like an exorcism. To my grandparents, the virus should've been a death sentence.

However, they're still kicking and cooking on my screen today.

Yeye, the more bubbly of the two, lifts his shot of baijiu and thanks the borders for finally opening up so we could have this rare family reunion. Nainai quickly slaps his arm, scolding him for drinking in front of the kids. Yeye responds by loudly slurping the liquor off-camera as both of them chuckle.

One would think from these interactions, my grandparents would be 60, pushing 70. However, Yeye will be celebrating his 87th birthday! Nainai's 83rd follows closely after.

They seem so youthful I can't help but hum "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from The Sound of Music. I ask if they ever danced at home during the pandemic. Nainai jokes that Yeye's TV qigong exercises look like awkward dance moves.

After lunch, Yeye begins grinding the rest of their butcher's haul into fresh sausages. He still uses the same machine I fiddled with as a toddler. Nainai shows me the row of sausage jars stacked across their kitchen counter, all for our visit.

Yeye teaching me (age 3) how to grind sausages in our old Wuhan apartment in 1999.
/ Courtesy of Laura Gao
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Courtesy of Laura Gao
Yeye teaching me (age 3) how to grind sausages in our old Wuhan apartment in 1999.

"You used to gobble these up so quickly after school you'd get a stomach ache!"

She recounts how she and Yeye would trek a mile each way to pick me up from school, journeying along river bridges and highways. I'd trade my backpack and art projects for their Ziploc bag of sausages. After my little brother was born, Yeye would push his stroller alongside us as I pranced from one puddle to the next, Nainai's hand always firmly locked in mine.

After my parents and I left Wuhan for Texas when I was four, my grandparents flew from China every other year to take care of us.

My stylish grandparents with my little brother, Jerry (age 6), and me (age 11) in 2007.
/ Courtesy of Laura Gao
/
Courtesy of Laura Gao
My stylish grandparents with my little brother, Jerry (age 6), and me (age 11) in 2007.

"I don't know how we handled those 20-hour flights back then. We were so young and spry." Nainai sighs.

"You still are," I always remind them.

Somehow, our call inevitably arrives at their favorite subject: death.

"It's not a big deal. Most of our friends are dead," Nainai exclaims with the same monotony as one would say "we're out of eggs" or "the toilet's clogged." When I try to change the subject, she pauses and looks away.

"It's hard to explain to someone so young. But you're an artist, right? Envision this."

"If life was a one-way path to the sun, the youth sprint toward it. But the ones closest to it, people like Yeye and me. We're slowly trudging forward with our backs to it. We know it's there. We feel the heat burning brighter on our backs with each step. But we'd rather look at the people sprinting at us." She points at a family picture we took the last time we were all in Wuhan together.

"Walking backward is tough. Especially after COVID, ha! But with the right person," Nainai says as she looks over her shoulder at Yeye grinding away in the kitchen.

"It's not so bad."

Nainai never gets philosophical. My internet connection must have been just as moved as I was because it decided to disconnect right then. My video is replaced by a thumbnail of my profile picture. My grandma's face quickly drops with concern, wondering why my head suddenly shrunk. I laugh and tell her I'll close out and call back.

As the same Chinese duet ringtone croons in the background, this time I listen closely to the lyrics.

等你在红尘中

Waiting for you in the red dust

无论风雨中

No matter the wind and rain

无论世间多冰冷

Or how cold the world is

我的心里早已把你深种

I've planted you deep in my heart

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Laura Gao is a cartoonist living in San Francisco. Her best-selling graphic memoir is Messy Roots.

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