The End and the Beginning Met Us
On the first Wednesday morning of the Year of the Rabbit, I received news that my Puo Puo (maternal grandmother) had a massive stroke the night before. The stroke left her brain and body irreparable. My mother and her siblings who live in the metro Vancouver area, as well as Puo Puo's grandchildren and great grandchildren were fortunate enough to gather with her throughout the Lunar New Year celebrations the weekend prior. Puo Puo, in her 90s, had been frail for quite some time, and she, who must have sensed a forthcoming transference of energy, asked her children to gather around her again Tuesday evening, and within minutes of their arrival to her home, the stroke occurred.
At the hospital in the neuro ICU, we all took turns spending time with Puo Puo as she laid on the bed in a coma, breathing deeply, and where we each took note of how her remaining inhales and exhales were limited and precious. I had also reached out to the coven-mates of the Homing Coven - not so much for direct help - but simply to share where I was at, so that they could see me fully. Many spent time lighting candles, sent energetic support, and co-holding a container for emotional and bodily peace for Puo Puo, to which I am inexpressibly grateful.
I was born in Taipei, and raised in a traditional Taiwanese household on the west coast of Canada from the age of 2 onwards. I admired my Puo Puo for her resilience, tenacity, and in moments, her outright defiant nature. Puo Puo was born into a wealthy family who was grooming her to be an elegant and desirable bride one day, and as she grew up, her own mother decided school would become less of a priority for her as the only girl in the family. This path being unpalatable for Puo Puo, she insisted that she attended school, and when her own mother forbade her, Puo Puo voluntarily demoted herself in the family to the status of a housekeeper, and promised that she would perform all the chores in exchange for room and board, and the freedom to receive an education. It also meant that she did not have a dowry or a "respectable" arranged marriage, and instead, fell in love with an orphaned man, my grandfather, who lost everything during the political unrest in China. These are some of the parts of her that inspire me. Her vision, and her refusal to be manipulated even by societal and cultural standards of her time.
Yet, the paradox also existed. Puo Puo gave birth to 5 children (three girls, followed by two boys). The internalized, gender-based injustices she had sustained were transferred to her own children. My mother and aunts' challenging life experiences as both children and adults contrasted with the easier, sweeter lives of my uncles because of Puo Puo's favouritism of boys. For many, many years, up until the days leading up to her passing, I held an indignant resentment towards Puo Puo. I wasn’t the only one. My two aunts have increasingly distanced and kept their distance over the years from their mother. My own mother, despite her own internal struggles, was tenacious in her desire to remain close to Puo Puo, for better or for worse, and would visit her weekly and spent time caring for her during the lockdown days of Covid.
* * *
A few years ago, while leaving a restaurant where Puo Puo, my mother, my aunt, my cousin, and I had lunch, it suddenly started raining hard. I removed my jacket and held it over Puo Puo as none of us had an umbrella with us, and my cousin and I walked gingerly with Puo Puo to the car. When we got in, Puo Puo turned to my mother and asked, Why are the kindest married out of the family?
A painful compliment to receive.
* * *
The day I visited Puo Puo at the hospital, I had a private moment with her in the room. I spoke in Mandarin, softly, as I wasn’t sure if speaking too much would disturb her. I kept it short. I said I didn’t understand everything, and what I did understand, I couldn’t always agree, and I said that for now, it didn’t matter anymore to me, and that what mattered was that she was my Puo Puo and I her granddaughter. I thanked her for being my Puo Puo. My cells were humming as I spoke, as I reflected on the powerful truth that the egg that made me was in her body at one point. I spent the rest of the visit in silence listening to her breathing, admiring her fine, poreless skin, feeling her strength despite her frailty, with my vision intermittently blurred by my tears.
* * *
The next day, My dad, Puo Puo’s son-in-law, the one my Puo Puo would call when she felt blue, needed perspective, or when she had complaints about her own children, called me from the hospital. His voice cracking and broken, unable to say more than a few words at a time, They’ve removed her IV.
We cried together over the phone.
* * *
The night before Puo Puo passed, I felt a pull to light a candle and traditional Buddhist incense, and sit with a pencil and pad of paper. From Spotify, I was drawn to a song sung by a South African musician who sings in Xhosa, his native tongue. Then between eyes closed, body swaying, deep exhales, and then the movement of my pencil, I wrote a poem to say goodbye. The song remained on loop. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, after her passing, that I became curious enough to translate the name of the song into English. It translated as “Return”, “I’m back”, or “I’ll be back”. As I was saying goodbye, her spirit was already reassuring me of her return.
* * *
The next day was my birthday. I was planning on sleeping in (my one and only birthday wish to my partner and boys), and yet, I awoke at 5AM. I heard Puo Puo. Include me on your altar, she said. Of course, I replied, and began imagining how it would look. I knew she was leaving very soon.
When I got up and entered the kitchen, my partner and boys sang me a campy birthday song, and were each smiling ear to ear for me. We’ll start you scrambled eggs, Mama! I cut the fruits for your fruit salad myself, Mama! We sandwich hugged, me being the cheese in the middle, enjoying the squish.
Then the phone call from my brother shortly after. She passed a few minutes ago. I quickly changed out of my pjs and drove to the hospital.
* * *
When I got there, we spent time in the same room as her body. Then a few cousins exchanged dreams and visions we each received. Instructions on what to do next. My aunts, uncles, and my mother, a collection of cultural Buddhists, atheists and agnostics, and one evangelical Christian, listened attentively, eyes wide open.
* * *
Meanwhile in Taiwan, where my Nai Nai (my paternal grandmother) lives, before the news travelled to her, also received a vision from Puo Puo, whom she befriended throughout the decades they were mutual in-laws. Nai Nai saw a group of travellers walking towards the horizon, their backs to her, and then one turned around and waved to her with a cheerful smile. The traveller was my Puo Puo.
* * *
I texted a friend — Do you think there is symbolism in her passing on my birthday? I’m 44 today. 4 means death in Chinese symbolism, but 4+4=8, a symbol of destined luck and the eternal.
* * *
Returning home, I approached my altar, placed a photo of Puo Puo next to my Gong Gong’s, as well as pink flowers all over. In Taiwanese tradition, pink flowers are reserved for when elders over 90 years of age pass on, in lieu of white ones. Pink, according to Chinese traditions, symbolize longevity. I didn’t yet feel her at the altar, yet, but I felt Gong Gong’s anticipatory welcome and Yeh Yeh’s respect.
Then I swept the floors and wiped surfaces. Puo Puo loved a clean home. Then lit more Buddhist incense. In case she visits. No— I told myself— for when she visits.
* * *
I prayed to Puo Puo. I asked, when she’s ready, to give me a sign when she had reached the realm of the Dead safely, and have reconnected with the others.
A bird, please, I asked. My Gong Gong and Yeh Yeh appeared as rare/contextually unlikely birds when they reached the Otherside.
* * *
Puo Puo was an efficient traveller, or perhaps it was her psychopomp? A few days later, the bird sign arrived in my yard. I was washing the dishes, looking out of the kitchen window. So many memories of when I was young watching Puo Puo as she washed dishes, particularly how she washed chopsticks, rolling them between her hands, me enjoying the distinct sound of chopsticks rubbing together.
A small bird with a black head and blue cap, yellow neck, black belly, with sides warm, golden yellow with black stripes, and brown wings. A bird I have never seen before in the west coast of Canada. I ran to my Birds of the World identification book, and took my time to pore over each page, looking for the image of the bird that had just visited. It took me nearly an hour to locate the bird in the book. A Gurney’s Pitta. An endangered bird only found in Myanmar and Thailand!
I noted it quietly and later that day, I mentioned this to my partner, when we happened to both be in the kitchen. As I shared about Puo Puo’s visitation, and as he raised his eyebrows in scepticism, the Pitta arrived again in the yard.
* * *
The next day, over dinner, I told my mom about the bird. I showed her a photo of the bird’s illustration from my book. She studied the bird for some time, then said, with a voice expressing awe, that when Puo Puo was younger, she used to paint Chinese watercolours of trees and birds, and that Puo Puo would paint birds that looked just like the Pitta.
* * *
All of Puo Puo’s children, her children’s children, and their children’s children, dressed in black and pink, gathered around in a sea of pink flowers.
An altar with her image, candles, incense, and more pink flowers.
Fond memories, bittersweet tears, rituals of chanting, the burning of paper money, a Buddhist meditation.
We witnessed fire, then ash.
Into the hungry earth and absorbing skies—
The end and the beginning met us.
With a contribution of $8 USD (or your preferred amount), you can keep UNSEEN on Substack thriving and evolving. If UNSEEN's message and general body of work have helped you in any way, please consider donating.
Beautiful and very moving. Would love to know the name of the Xhosa song you played on loop and the name of the musician.