Personal Histories: Abridged by Amanda Liaw

Photo by Amanda Liaw

$2,800 and a 30-hour flight with two stopovers.

When I was a child, I was the only one who went to those gala dinners with him. It probably made him proud when others saw me there, the dutiful grandchild. His friends, fellow old men, would speak about society things—the Liaw association, which they were part of, for my last name—and I would eat a free dinner and discreetly use my phone. Some scholarships were given out onstage. There might have been dances. At the end of the night, I shuffled home with him, waiting for a bus or for my father, who almost always picked him up with long-suffering sighs and a raised voice. A father-son relationship that, from glimpses I’ve seen, was largely discarded for the said friends we dined with. The raised voice came quick to counter increasingly deaf ears, the rejected dinner invitations – a resentment that needed the distance of a generation.

The trick with writing one’s personal history is that I compress time to my advantage. Three, maybe four, outings with my grandfather over a lifetime and I’ve cast myself as the respectful granddaughter. Nevermind my own instances of impatience or the refusals that stretched into his long, lonely afternoons. I tell myself, possibly futilely, that if I can’t be at his funeral, then at least I’ll write about it.

“Just say something,” my mother tells me. “Call him your grandfather.”

“爷爷, I love you,” I say to the sleeping hairs on his head.


“I’m holding the phone up to his ear,” my father instructs. Think of something to say. Something that’s less of a platitude than, “爷爷, don’t be afraid.”

It’s an indictment when my father hangs up two minutes into a 30-minute visitation. But what would I have said even if I’d known he could hear me? For years, I’ve seen him age in 18-month intervals. I foresaw his death in high school when I wrote a script about the would-be family dynamics at his funeral. I’ve filmed him sitting in his bedroom, eating at the dinner table, his back to my camera, me forever filming him facing away. He would tell me how he couldn’t hear well even with the hearing aid, how he couldn’t see well through the cloudy cataracts, and how he hated the pain of moving around. There had not been the sort of in-between conversation I could fall back on. No significant inside joke, no familial memory of substance. Or it might have always been me who refused to find an actual, breathing story.

In my script, I had featured gossipy aunties who pointed out if you stayed thin or looked fatter as a familiar greeting, one my grandmother still opens with. There were red lanterns that lit older milling folk. Tension ran between my grandfather’s immediate family and his friends, echoing what I’d heard in his life. His coffin rested towards the center back of an open hall with large, spindly ceiling fans turning a lazy wind. I had envisioned customs and had written them in with vague notions of Chinese-ness, thinking I knew even then how cultural power could lend gravitas.

Somehow, at 27, I’m still waiting for the consequences of my ridiculous mythologizing to catch up to me. More than one grand-aunt is ill. The older folk got older, my grandmother has dementia, various other relatives have suffered strokes and falls, my grandfather is dying after a brain aneurysm. At some point, as I sit across the ocean and write, shouldn’t there come a deeper realization of my own childhood naiveté? That there is no longer some timeless look at aging as-yet-unaffected-by-time, not when my grandfather’s funeral is nothing like what I’ve pictured. And I’m not even there.

Over a video call, I try to ask my grandmother how she feels. She’s always been frank about death, but it must feel different when death moves close to your face. “Grandma, how are you?” I ask with my brand-new English-to-Mandarin dictionary out in the living room. “Are you really okay?” Unopened since I last tore through Michelle Yeoh interviews, determined to reteach my tongue Mandarin, desperate to reclaim my heritage, who’s staring blankly before me, not understanding what I’m asking her.

Every time I return to Singapore, I try to schedule one day to sit down with my grandma and ask her about old photos, given that her refrain to any questions about present life is, “I’m only waiting to die.” So, I promise myself I won’t lose her memories in time. But I don’t end up making the time. My sisters and I have only had one unscheduled outing with her in our childhood when we insisted on bringing her to see a movie. Sometimes I wish she made it easier for us. I wish I had the energy to insist and push and commit. Because I know she won’t remember telling me over the phone, “I want to do things but I don’t feel like doing them. I’ll wait until you come back.”

I’ve thought a lot about moving 24, 30 hours away, about waiting while my body is in motion. When I first left for college abroad, I started piecing together a little film about my family, which I call “Last Days.” My last days at home, my last days with home. I knew someone’s permanent last days with us would come, so every visit began to anticipate that, too. And every visit has felt like “last days” because I come home and pack until my room can be given away for something else. Seven years alone in America and I’ve forgotten how to be family, a comfort I grew up with that shouldn’t have been so easy to lose.

My grandfather is hospitalized on my grandmother’s birthday. I hear she forgets and forgets even at the hospital. I wake up early for me, night-time for them, and spend two useless hours reminiscing because my father said his death is inevitable. I get the text that he dies before midnight and at least it’s quick. I hope grandma is okay. My father seems alright, pragmatic.

Expression is all a very selfish endeavor. I make another promise that I’ll open those photo books with her when I go back next August. I’ll be there, I tell her as I’ve always told her, selfishly, while my father takes her to the eldercare center twice a week, while I film her looking out her bedroom window once every two years, in between my memories of my grandmother cackling to her sisters on the phone more than a decade ago and my grandfather showing me the relics he keeps in his cupboard, such as the one cup he got from an ancestor’s grave.

I’ll be there in time, I tell myself. In the meantime, I keep writing and I keep recording. In time, I will understand why I do this. I know there’s a purpose. When my mother explains why I don’t need to come to his funeral, I don’t like it but I do understand. She says, “This is one of the funerals.” Next time, I’ll be there. Video memories of distance and stasis, my lonely contribution, but still preserving family history nonetheless. In time, I tell myself. I repeat and I hope, in time.

Amanda Liaw (she/they) has always loved to tell stories. Born and raised in Singapore, she studied theater and film before moving to the United States eight years ago. Now, they do communications at Spur Local, a DC-based small nonprofit. Inspired by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha’s Octavia’s Brood anthology, they host writing workshops with After the Storm, a local anticapitalist magazine. She also enjoys pole dancing and reading romance novels & fanfiction. 

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