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first person

Illustration by Camilla Teodoro

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I relish the quiet of a predawn run. I focus on the cadence of my footfalls, breathe the crisp morning air.

I pass the local technical college and notice an older gentleman, leaning on a pillar. He sports glasses; his frame, slight, thin; grey hair combed over scalp. He stares into the ether of a dewy sky.

His posture and physical appearance, remind me of my grandfather. Or maybe with Father’s Day approaching I have him more in my thoughts.

I haven’t visited his grave in years.

Grandpa moved in with us in 1983, after Grandma passed away. I was nine. He came to Canada from Taiwan, where he was a well-respected school headmaster, back in the day.

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I never spoke much Taiwanese or Mandarin. Grandpa didn’t speak much English. We smiled and nodded a lot, but we still connected in our own way.

One way we bonded was over a game of Monopoly. He didn’t really understand the rules or much of what my little brother and I said; I don’t think it mattered. He chuckled and laughed when he landed on our hotels. Or when he pulled a card that read: “GO TO JAIL. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200.” He got a kick out of our amusement.

I think of Grandpa when I play the trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh! with my sons. I can’t keep track of all the spells, traps and effects involved in this game. I’m amazed at the reservoir of strategy and trivia my boys possess. Especially when they don’t remember to put away their shoes.

Truthfully, I don’t care if I win or lose these Yu-Gi-Oh! battles. I try my best, but I’m a rank amateur compared to my boys. What matters is spending time with them and making an effort to appreciate their interests. Sometimes, I peruse their cards, to inhale the creativity behind the characters’ stories. Get a load of these names: Eidos the Underworld Squire; Landrobe the Rock Vassal; Illusory Snatcher. I imagine writing for Yu-Gi-Oh! is a fun job.

I often stare at my kids. At how excitedly they explain rules; why my move was "not very smart"; how they go easy on their old man. They’re maturing on fast-forward. I imagine it’s a bit how Grandpa felt playing Monopoly with us.

Watching. Staring. Smiling.

Grandpa had kind words for us. At the dinner table, he’d say “thank you” in five languages: English, Japanese (arigato), Mandarin (xie xie), Taiwanese (to-sia), and German (danke).

“Do you know? Do you know?” he’d say, chuckling, before giving the customary Japanese itadakimasu blessing. He always ate every morsel of food Mom prepared.

Grandpa went for regular strolls. Legally blind, he took his walking cane everywhere. Sometimes, I saw him when I bicycled around the neighbourhood on my BMX bike. I’d shout “hey Grandpa!” and he’d wave, but I don’t think he could distinguish if it was me or my brother hollering.

He otherwise spent his days sitting on the couch, staring out the window, humming church hymns, tapping his leg with his hand to keep the beat.

I still wonder what he thought about. If he was alive, I’d ask him about living under Japanese rule until the end of the Second World War. Or how he felt about cross-strait tensions between Taiwan and China. What was it like living under martial law, before Taiwan developed into a democracy?

Did he think of mundane things, such as eating sweet potatoes (a Taiwanese comfort food) or telling his children to milk the goats? Did he marvel at the seasons, here in Canada, compared to Taiwan’s subtropical climate? Did he lose himself in the memories of his late wife?

Did he miss his homeland?

I often thought he was bored sitting on that couch. But as I age, I find peace in taking moments to stare out a window. Maybe I got that from him.

One day, I overheard Grandpa weeping to my mom that he was “a useless old man.” That was the translation she gave me. My heart went out to him, feeling reduced to a burden.

I didn’t see him that way. I saw him as proud and dignified, even when he took ill and was admitted to the hospital.

As a teenager, I logically understood mortality, but never emotionally grasped the gravity of death – its finality. One of my biggest regrets is not spending more time with Grandpa in the hospital. The night he passed was one day short of his 80th birthday.

I hadn’t expected to lose him that soon. Our family had taken a break from his bedside. None of us were with him when he took his last breath.

The hospital called early in the morning. I’ve never told anyone this, but I had picked up the extension after Mom answered. The nurse said Grandpa died in the still of the night.

Quiet emptiness.

At his funeral, filtered light streamed through the church windows. The smell of old wooden pews filled my lungs. During the eulogies, I wiped the tears from my cheek.

My father said Grandpa was a true gentleman, that he was strict but fair and a wonderful dad.

What I learned from my grandfather was to appreciate simple pleasures in life. To see the beauty in sunlight glinting off a spider’s web. To count the colours in a rainbow. To see a single leaf fall from a tree. To play Yu-Gi-Oh! with my sons.

I think it’s time to visit Grandpa’s grave.

Jeff Shiau lives in Ottawa.