When I was young, and indeed, as recently as last year, I used to think it was kinda dumb the way that my family would always insist on family pictures during gatherings. I think the aspiring photographer in me always preferred candid shots. I didn’t like it when we all lined up in rows of standing, sitting, and crouching people, trying to get the camera angle just right and setting a timer. I thought it was artificial and didn’t really say anything about who we are. Not only that, but we always used everyone’s cameras– so we’d bee shooting the exact same image for each family. Everyone understands that nowadays, with digital cameras, we could just copy an original and mail it out to everone else. But it’s an old tradition I guess, one that I always tried to get out of.
Last time I was in Montreal, my sister was still trying to find a teaching job. Now she’s a well established day care owner. She’s done really well for herself. She gets in a bit of trouble with my parents here and there, because she doesn’t call home as much as she used to. I can tell her Chinese is getting even rougher around the edges due to misuse. But all in all? She started her own business– and it’s doing well. It’s a viable source of income that she’s gotten to be profitable in less than a year.
I saw her for a while working with the kids, and you can tell that this kind of thing is what she was made for. She’s where she wants to be, and I’m really happy for her.
When I got back home, my parents were fighting about the duplexes that we own, constantly. My dad is sick of owning them. Bad tenants. They really are lopping years off the life of my dad’s mental health I think– but mom doesn’t want to sell them, because we need the income to help fund law school. I don’t often feel guilty– but I do feel that, once again, despite that my parents and I have our differences, I owe them. Not just for the money– but for the strain that this kind of thing places on my parents’ marriage at times. My mom and my dad are both very intense “Type A” personalities, although one of them is an old school “a sledgehammer does all the work of a hammer, plus more” mentality, and the other is a more progressive, western, critical analytical type. Neither of them tends to back down, and most of the arguments are about nothing more than methodology.
I worry about my dad especially. Everytime I’m away, when I go back, he’s the same– but in a way that makes me feel like he’s resisting the times. It’s not just technology, but world views. He’s starting to feel old, I guess is what I’m getting at– he’s starting to complain more about how he can’t go running as often as he used to and all that. He seems more… angry. Quick to snap. But maybe that’s just what comes with old age– I never really expected my dad to mellow out with old age.
But he rejeuvenates every now and then, like when we’re out having a good meal, or when he gets to play with my uncle’s 3-year old twins. That gives me hope, that reminds me that dad is really okay– it’s just that times have been tough lately, and he’s been under a lot of stress.
Mom is forever the coordinator of the house. It’s her strong point, and it’s also her fatal flaw. She’s often right, but she forgets that she’s not at work and that the relationships she has with family are not those of the workplace where she has authority to tell people what to do. But she’s keeping it going right. Recently, she’s decided to take off every friday, which is something I’ve been trying to get her to do since I came back to Montreal in 2008. My mom is a workaholic– she’s not someone who will go into retirement easily, so it’s best that she eases into it I think. My dad agrees.
Watching them has taught me a lot about relationships though, including my own with [CM]. My parents fight a lot– but at the end of the day, or perhaps at the end of the week, they’re there for eachother. I think that, despite what I consider a respecatable resume of past relationships, I’m just insecure at times, and I’m still learning how to be a good boyfriend. CM helps teach me those things. She’s tough in many, many ways– not the least has to do with the kinds of abuses that I put on her. Because of the fact that I am more comfortable with her than anyone else, she gets the full brunt at times of my selfishness, my overprotectiveness, and my egocentricity. But she’s learned to keep me in check.
She’s not without her faults. But we’re getting there, I think. Wherever there is doesn’t really matter, but we’re in it together.
A few days after I arrived in Montreal, we were driving in the car.
“Did you tell [Jinryu] what Gramma’s got?” my dad asked my mom.
“She’s got leukemia,” said my mom. Almost as an afterthought.
It kind of hit me like a punch in the face. It’s that feeling where suddenly the world is rushing backwards away from you. When you get punched in the face, it’s because you’ve just seen stars and for a moment you’re confused by the sensation of suddenly seeing yourself going backwards– the stun makes it such that you don’t feel any pain, but somehow, you just can’t move, and you’re backing up as the world leaves you behind.
And as always, my first reaction was anger.
I think that one of the big things that people don’t realise about me is that I’m intinctively someone who taps into anger, when I don’t know what else to do. That doesn’t mean I let it out. But my first internal monologue to react to situations? It’s me, finding reasons to place blame, finding fault in others.
My first reaction to this was situation, in my head, was “How long have you guys known? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
My first actual question, I don’t know why, was “So, what now?”
For the rest of that trip, I resented every time a picture was taken of Gramma and me. The artificiality at times made me feel angry and at some point, even a bit nauseous. People were taking these pictures because they knew that these might very well be the last pictures I take with her. They were taking these candid photos all of a sudden because suddenly, now that she was dying, suddenly Gramma was someone to pay attention to.
I was angry because people in my family seldom pay attention to Gramma. It’s true that my parents’ generation has had a lot more time to live alongside her than I have, but the fact is that people treat her as the slightly crazy old lady who sometimes just says too much. That’s probably not totally unfair, because Gramma can be mean and judgemental to her children. Her affections skipped a generation, so she’s always highly regarded my sister and I.
But just… stop. Stop. Taking. Our. Picture.
You never did this before. Stop acting different now.
The song by Filter, “Do you want to take my picture?” comes to mind.
In the end, I diffused myself over time. I broke down at some point while having an argument with CM. I felt better afterwards. I got to air out a lot I think. I don’t remember the details, I just know that CM helped get me back on track.
I was angry at everyone in Montreal, and I didn’t really know why. I mean, what would knowing sooner have done for me? Would it have helped me get through final exams? Was it somehow my right to know? The basic theme of my anger has always been accusing questions– but they’re not the useful questions, because the answers make no difference.
When I went back to Montreal, there were a fair amount of family gatherings on account of my being there, and on account of Gramma’s condition. But she’s okay for the moment. She basically has a very weak immune system, but at the moment, she’s doing just fine. In fact, the blood transfusions have made her more energetic than ever– that kind of Gramma I remember from years back. We wonder how long she’s had leukemia.
When I went back, I spent most of my time with family. Did more than a couple of days work on carpentry and maintenance work for the apartments. Only had time to spend one evening and one night with friends unfortunately, but given my state of mind, I’d probably have felt strange about having too much fun, given the reasons for my return.
I’ve never had someone close to me who was considered “dying” before so frankly, I’m not sure how to deal with it. I’ve known lots of people who died– patients who I became friends with. But there’s a difference. Perhaps the difference is why we go through some of the motions of being family– the practice of taking pictures, for example– because somehow those motions indicate something that is different and unique about those relationships.