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Watching my grandmother's decline Add to ...

I watched my grandfather watch my grandmother the other day.

Sitting with family around a noisy dim sum table, his eyes followed her as she slowly - as most of her movements are these days - leaned over her bowl and took a bite of tofu. There was pride and relief and love in his eyes.

I've never noticed my grandparents this way.

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Busy Chinese restaurants are notoriously noisy places, thanks to the combination of cavernous dining rooms and large families. The usual solution to overcome the hubbub of conversation and racket of dishes is to simply speak even louder.

But you could always hear my grandmother. She's usually the loudest person in the room without even trying.

My poh-poh - my mother's mother - was, to put it in a word, a force. She is the second of six sisters. They all feared and admired in equal measure her "dominant personality," as my aunt put it. She was brash but she always went after what she wanted, I'm told.

My grandparents met on the back of a Chinese Army truck. I can't imagine how that conversation began. Perhaps my grandfather noticed how her strong character set her apart from the other uniformed recruits? Or maybe she made the first move?

I've seen later black-and-white photos of my grandmother, her chin-length hair rolled into curls, lips stained red as was the fashion. She had some style to go with her sass.

Rotund, bossy and mostly shrill, she reared five children alone for those first few years in Canada while my grandfather worked in kitchens around Europe and sent money home.

They eventually bought and ran one of those typical small-town Chinese-Canadian restaurants. My grandfather did the bulk of the cooking there and at home. A former school principal, she did the bossing around.

As typical immigrant parents with big dreams, they expected their children to do well in school and help in the family business. My mother, the eldest, was obedient and thus favoured. My aunts have few memories of coddling but some of corporal punishment.

The first Chinese New Year that I brought my then-boyfriend home to meet the family, my grandmother swept around the room handing lucky money in red envelopes to all of us grandchildren. Thinking he was out of place, my now-husband was content to step back until it was over.

Instead, she walked up, punched him hard on the arm and thrust a $10 bill in his face. "For you," she said firmly.

The next year, she almost shoulder-checked me into a doorway as she blocked my path and demanded to know when we were getting married.

"You can set a date any time," she graciously offered.

That was my grandmother and that was how I thought she would always be.

But during one of her thrice-weekly swimming sessions at the local pool more than two years ago, she slipped and hurt her shoulder. Then some minor ailments were followed by a stroke.

My mom warned me on the phone that the grandma I would see on my next visit was no longer the poh-poh I remembered, but it's still a shocking adjustment.

At 87, she has crossed from stout to frail. She speaks just above a whisper, no longer telling anyone what to do.

The woman who used to point out what leftovers she wanted to take home - while she and everyone else at the table were still eating - no longer has an appetite.

In that natural regression back through the years, she now has a childish resistance to trying any food put in front of her.

I don't know what my grandfather does at home, but when we go out, eating is a long process of coaxing my grandma to let us put food on her plate or bowl, convincing her it's worth trying, then holding your breath that she'll actually eat.

And so I watched as she did eat the other day, and I noticed how closely my grandfather watched her.

There was so much in his eyes: relief that his wife was having a good day after those nights when he refused to leave her hospital bedside; happiness that she was surrounded by family; and love that he could continue to give her.

My grandparents have moved from their own apartment into an assisted-care facility where he sleeps on a day bed in the living room, but they are lucky enough to still be together.

I have no idea how they fell into the kind of love that has carried them through so many decades.

As a teenager, I remember asking my mother and aunts more than once how my gentle, pensive (and dapper) grandfather dealt with years of such a loud, domineering wife. They would laugh - but they never really had an answer.

Looking back, I feel so ignorant for asking that question.

With my own first wedding anniversary just past, I know there are qualities in my husband that I am fortunate to see, experience and appreciate - and I could care less if anyone else noticed them or not.

I would be so lucky if years from now, my husband looked at me - at a flickering stage of beauty, vigour and health - with the same unwavering adoration that I saw in my grandfather's eyes.

Andree Lau lives in Calgary.

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