“He made this in his first-grade arts and crafts class.”
I watch Nai Nai’s fingers caress the roof of the model train. It’s tiny but formidable. The individual cars, still intact after all these years, are made of ABC blocks propped up by ping pong ball wheels, and a conductor’s faded smiley face is still visible on one of the “windows.” Outside, the rumbling of a real R train makes the wooden blinds vibrate, creating the illusion of wind on this sticky summer day.
I ask Nai Nai if the wheels can move. It’s a question I’ve asked her a hundred times before.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ve never tried to push it around before.”
I’d always called her Nai Nai, the Chinese phrase for grandmother, but we weren’t related by blood. She used to rent an apartment two blocks down from the complex where my family lived.
For a long time, there was her son, too. I called him Ge Ge, the word for older brother, and before he left to study at Brown, he would let me sit on the back of his mountain bike and ride me all around Brooklyn’s “Crab Neighborhood.” The name was his idea, an homage to the naive crabs that fell off the barrels in the seafood markets and crawled onto the streets. I used to wonder why they liked the deadly traffic so much, but it wasn’t until Ge Ge took me to hear the crashing waves of the sea that I finally understood why. He made having fun a science. In the summertime, we stole cherries from the landlord’s garden, and in the winter, my mother invited him over for tea, doting at our noses bullied red by the snow outside. But we were always too busy smiling to have remembered to put our jackets on.
When Ge Ge and I weren’t together, Nai Nai helped me with my schoolwork. She spoke almost perfect English, something that both surprised and annoyed the white Walmart cashiers. At 20 years old, she left her job as a pre-school teacher in China to come to the United States with her father, but I like to say that she never stopped teaching. When all I saw were random letters on a page, she taught me how to dream up pictures and be a narrator. She read me Judy Blume. She also did what I imagine many grandmothers do: she held my awkward hands as I tried to craft the perfect dumpling, showed me how to put my first tie over a white T-shirt and played Chinese opera as we folded paper cranes together.
“They’re ginger roots,” she once told me while working away at her perfectly square sheets of paper. I had asked her about the lines that stretched all across her hands. “Everyone gets them when they’re older, and they’re not the most good-looking, but God do they help with making origami cranes.”
Over the years, I looked for those ginger roots everywhere, down the fantasy aisle of Scholastic book fairs and at the tennis courts where the older boys playing tag made me wish for my own growth spurt. In a mob of parents in tuxedos during choir performances, it was so easy to spot Nai Nai. She wore her gigantic jade bracelets and brought me pretty pink carnations in red supermarket bags. All I knew was that Nai Nai never forgot to show up for me. Coming out of the subway after a commute back from school, I saw home where the streets smelled of fish, litter and her herbal perfume.
But I must have taken the wrong train home a few years ago, because at one point, I struggled to remember where I was when I got off. Things changed a little too quickly for Crab Neighborhood, and I stayed up late at night trying to figure out what went wrong with this place that I had trusted to be so right and so safe. Nai Nai remembered less and less, and she started smiling more. She remembered to open her umbrella inside the house. She smiled when she wet her pants, and she smiled when the landlord issued her an eviction notice after seeing the hoard of broken china in her apartment. She danced. She cooked soup. She took me on trips to the local park, where we put on latex gloves and rummaged through trash bins for bottles. Most of all, she talked about how much she loved Ge Ge.
At the time, he was finishing his doctorate program. His visits were sparse, but I deposited the checks he sent for her. When Nai Nai and I weren’t at the park, we waited patiently for him to return our calls. His voice was now a steel gray, and honestly, it got harder and harder to believe that on the other end of the call was the same boy who once hid in the reeds beside me watching the ducklings hatch.
On one of his last visits to Crab Neighborhood, Ge Ge brought his girlfriend, a gorgeous woman. Nai Nai must have thought she was pretty too because she whispered in my ear that she liked her Saturn earrings. I was happy for Ge Ge, but I also watched him closely, scanning for a hint that he had remembered us all along. I waited, and I watched him watch the two women before him. I watched the way he sighed at the dirty laundry and at the dried urine that stained the walls. I believed until I couldn’t anymore. Both women were beautiful, but the choice was made before it was given. I was only the narrator. I was really good at reading scripts, but I knew nothing about how to make people stay.
Nai Nai’s last morning in her apartment wouldn’t be until a few months later. On that day, I took her out for a walk while my mother stayed behind to clean. The seafood market workers were just beginning to lay out their barrels of crabs and the November sky was blue and milky, offering its consolation in scarlet leaves falling from above. But at one point, Nai Nai wouldn’t walk any further. She stopped, turned around and asked me if I could take her to the bus stop.
“My son — he’s waiting to pick me up there. He called earlier today, and we’re moving into his house in New Jersey together. Look, I even made him soup. I hope he likes it. He loves his purple yam soup.”
“Of course, Nai Nai. I know he does.” We headed for my mother’s apartment, making sure to hurry.
Nai Nai is at a nursing facility now, all the way on the other end of the city. Her arms and legs stretch as far as her Medicaid allows, and her smile is unapologetically hers. Lots of tongue. The nurses scribble away furiously in their notepads, but I’ve learned to think otherwise. I picture a schoolyard, the ringing of a dismissal bell as a small boy runs into his mother’s arms amid a background of happy screams.
I finally understand that the scariest symptom of Nai Nai’s Alzheimer’s is not that she forgot — it was losing the ability to lie about what mattered to her. She’s always smiling because only the feelings from the brightest moments remain visible. The disease is a promise etched into skin and bone that even as the rest of the world rides to a place far away, she will stay behind remembering, imprinting on the wrong stimuli and strangers and believing that they are somehow a trace of the one who got away.
I wish I had the courage to tell her, though. I wish I did, because tonight, I’m standing on the sidelines watching her spin alone under a broken chandelier as she waits on the world to give her something wonderful. Her hair is down, she’s 18 years old and she has her favorite pearl necklace on. Nai Nai always loved sound. She loved people, and she still does. She loves how the color of youth looks on her lips, but even more so when it’s on her son. She knows because she used to knit his little sweater vests herself.
Today, Ge Ge’s train sits on a shelf to the left of Nai Nai’s bed, just far enough from the tattered windows to avoid the rain. During the summertime when I return from college and visit her, Nai Nai asks me to pull up the wooden blinds and sit the train on the windowsill so that it soaks up the sunlight. I do. And before I leave, she always tells me the story of where she got the train. I always ask her if the wheels can move, hoping she would finally give a different answer. But she never does.
From the facility, the bus ride home to my mother’s apartment takes about half an hour. As I wait for a B70 between 92nd and 93rd Streets, I can’t help but look down at these hands of mine and imagine what they would look like with ginger roots crawling on them.
I can’t help but wonder what I would do if one day, the bus never came for me, too.
Featured Image via Alice Mao