My grandma’s backyard still looks the same.
The potted little yellow flowers on the veranda. The shady arbor wrapped in twisting branches and climbing vines. The wooden bench, splintery and peeling, yet sturdier than any store bought seat. The rows and rows of strange and exotic fruits and vegetables, all in various stages of growth. The large oak tree, with its leaves healthy and lush, its branches stronger than ever.
I like to think that everything is the same.
But it isn’t, and that is everywhere. Images of my grandpa repairing the brown picket fence, humming nonsensical tunes to his own whimsy, flash by like mirages. Pictures of him on his knees, working alongside my grandma in the garden, and with his deep, throaty laughter as he spun small children around with his arms. He seems to have taken Bà’s soft smile, her airy laugh, and sparkling eyes along with him.
The fried scent of bánh tai heo, “pig ear” cookies wafts into my nose as I look around, temporarily wiping any melancholy thoughts away. I trace the scent to the backyard door, where Bà is carefully walking towards me, holding a bright red porcelain plate stacked with her signature treat. She sets them down on the table, the plate thudding dully on contact.
“How are you, dear Linh?” she asks, her words slightly stilted from her accent. She slides into the chair and folds her hands together. Her thinning white hair is pinned up, although wispy frontal strands drift astray of the ponytail, brushing against her tanned, wrinkled skin.
“I’m good,” I mumble through a mouthful of crisp, sweet cookie.
“Oh, lovely,” she says softly. She strokes the kitty, Maggie, absentmindedly and her gaze clouds over as she stares off into the distance, as if covered by an invisible film of sadness.
“Ngoại?” I say tentatively.
“Unh?” She shifts in the chair to smile at me. The corners of her eyes crinkle into their well-worn lines.
“Are you all right?”
“Oh, yes.” She bobs her head in a nod. Under my doubtful stare, she pauses, as she seems to play with the right words, and simply adds, “I . . . miss him.”
There is a palpable weight on my stomach when I say, “I’m sorry.” My grandmother, my bà ngoại, so strong, who has gone through so much, looks so fragile. So sad. I don’t know what to say to help ease her pain. “I miss him too,” I bumble.
She smiles sadly, then pats my hand. “Cám ơn con,” she says. Thank you. The effort in her voice to lighten the conversation is apparent. She takes a deep breath and resettles her shoulders, a reset, if in posture only. “You see that tree?” she asks, looking over at me to make sure I am understanding. “Chú Quang and I are going to cut. We build a greenhouse. Much better for plants.”
Her stilted words and long pauses leave broken holes in the sentence. It takes me a second, then the crushing meaning of the words falls down on me.
"Oh,” I say. My cookie tastes like cardboard now. “When?”
She reaches for a cookie of her own. “Quang is coming by next week,” she tells me, seemingly oblivious to my thundering heart. “We try to finish by end of January.” She bites into the cookie, then makes a face. “This is not good,” she spits. “Bá ngoại did a bad job.”
She pushes the plate away. “It is too cold out here,” she says. “Inside?”
“. . . Yes, of course,” I say, after some hesitation, and push my chair back to stand up.
She gets up from her own chair, much more slowly than I. She strains to get up; her hands tremble as they press against the armrests and a strenuous pink blossoms across her cheeks.
Somewhere in the back of my head I know that something’s not right, but I bury it deep, deep down. Bà is okay; she is healthy and strong.
I convince myself that saying this makes it true. But fear lingers in the back of my head, sticky and creeping and sending chills down my spine.
She has to be okay.
“You… you did it,” I whisper, my mouth falling open. “You cut it down.”
It’s April, and the sun is finally overcoming the crisp chilly air. It’s been three months since Bà’s fall—right after Tết, the Lunar New Year, and almost two months since her return from the hospital. We’re standing in her backyard, staring at the stump of a tree that, not even a week ago, proudly stretched high in the sky.
“I did,” she says simply. “Now there is room for the greenhouse!”
My eyes feel like they are bubbling, and my face feels hot. Grandpa planted that tree thirty years ago. Gone. Gone, gone, gone.
“Linh,” she says gently as hot tears spill down my cheeks. “Oh, dear Linh.”
Her comforting words don’t help me; her wrinkled, tanned hands, capable of soothing any injury, heal nothing. The change in the air is unbearable. The tree is gone, and she’s so fragile, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t control anything right now. I need things to be the same.
“Oh, good, dear Linh.” My grandma’s frail, wrinkled hand reached up and pats my hand cheerfully, like she isn’t lying in a hospital bed surrounded by chirping, humming machines whose purpose I can’t even begin to fathom.
“How are you feeling?” I ask, settling into one of the plastic armchairs that sit by her bed. My uncle is in the other, his eyes closed. I’m not sure if he’s sleeping. He’s been fussing over my grandma all day.
“Okay,” Bá hem-haws. “I have many people taking care of me. How about you? You are good?”
“I’m good,” I say hesitantly.
“Good?” She inspects me closely, scanning my face. “No, I do not think so.” Her warm fingers brush against my forehead.
“I am,” I say, but it’s hard to swallow.
She touches my cheek. “Linh,” she says calmly. “Look at me. Tôi đang lành lại—I am getting better every day. You can’t do any-thing.” This last part is said rather bluntly as she leans back on her bed. “I fell. We cut the tree. It happened. All done. Now we just focus on how to fix.” She pauses, thinking. “Or how to grow.”
Her words are clipped, blurred, mixed up in the space between her native tongue and English, but I know what she’s trying to get across. I marvel at how my small little grandma can use the few words in her limited English inventory to land such a hard punch. Beside me, Uncle Quang lets out a loud snore.
“Is there anything I can do?” I blurt after an extended period of silence, surprised that coherent words are able to tumble past the rock in my throat.
“Oh, yes,” she says, looking pleased. She draws herself up and starts rambling off a list of things in Vietnamese. “I need my sewing basket, my cup—”
“Hang on—” I scramble for my phone and jot down all her wish list items.
She continues. “—book on my bed table—ahhmm—pillow? Mmm . . . kem đánh răng—how do you say?”—she jabs Uncle Quang awake and asks him something in rapid-fire Vietnamese, who replies groggily, “Toothpaste?” (“Ah! Yes!”), then continues, “Picture of Ông Ngoại…and pretzels.” The corners of her lips curve into a smile. I don’t know why she loves Snyder's pretzel rods. She always keeps a stockpile of at least three king-size bags in her pantry.
I read the list back to her to double-check. She nods, pleased, once I’ve finished reciting it. I kiss her on the cheek, then get into the car and drive to her house.
Maggie is right at the door when I unlock it, mewing at me angrily. “Hello, Maggie,” I giggle, slipping my sneakers off. “I know. I’m sorry. Bà being sick is tough on you too, isn’t it?”
Maggie stalks across the floor.
“But she’s shown us she can fight.” I pause, thinking about her struggle these past few months. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned about her, it’s that she’s one tough cookie. . .She’ll get better soon.” I continue my monologue as I pour some cat food for Maggie.
First on Bà’s list is her mug. I’m already digging through the cupboard for her floral peony mug when the window catches my eye. I walk outside, Maggie at my heels, and sit on the bench, facing the stump with a clear view of the expansive backyard. I lean back and take a look at the potted little yellow flowers on the veranda. The shady arbor wrapped in twisting branches and climbing vines. The handcrafted wooden bench, splintery and peeling but sturdier than any store-bought seat. The rows and rows of strange and exotic fruits and vegetables—longan, grapefruit, guava, all carefully selected by Bà—all in various stages of growth. . .and the oak stump.
I take one long look at it, in all its glory, and walk towards it, inspecting it closely. Yes, things aren’t the same. But that’s okay. I think it is. There’s nothing more to do—nothing I can do. My gaze falls on a few forgotten planks of wood by the stump, and I think of the abandoned efforts to build a greenhouse. Bà’s words in the hospital come drifting back to me.
Now we just focus on how to fix.
I slide my fingers along the smooth bark, wondering.
Or how to grow.
With an effort that’s almost painful, I wrench away and walk back to the house.
Bà is still waiting.