How Lindsay Wong's grandmother taught her how to find joy and resilience in dark times
Misfortune and Resilience in the Year of the Rat (And admitting that I was not okay) by Lindsay Wong
Misfortune and Resilience in the Year of the Rat (And admitting that I was not okay) is a personal essay by Lindsay Wong. It is part of Transmission, CBC Books' original writing series reflecting on life during COVID-19. Read more works from Transmission here.
This story contains strong language.
When I visited London in summer 2008, an auntie of a good friend of mine, read the sketchy lines of the future on my palms. She declared that I was someone who "sucked up bad luck like a human vacuum cleaner."
She wasn't wrong.
Three hours after her ill-fated pronouncement, I crashed head-first down the stairs of The British Museum, broke a pricey Nikon D90 camera and badly rotated an ankle. A year prior, I had been struck by lightning. In Canada, only nine-10 people are murdered annually by random lightning, so let me just say, after experiencing such a freak phenomenon, I had anticipated an expiry date to my misfortune.
No such luck. Freak accidents happen to me as frequently as it rains on the west coast. Once, my plane to NYC caught fire twice en-route, and I spent the night in the Sheraton's room 666. No joke.
In 2015, when I moved back to Canada from the United States, I was still hoping to press pause on my shitty luck and combat Vancouver's horror-worthy rental market. Half a decade later, a mishmash of postal codes, including one halfway home, where grown men screamed nightly from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., I was still trying to locate a half-decent place to habitate. Then miraculously, I found a brand new abode near Joyce Station. Being continuously sleep deprived at the halfway home, I rejoiced at my Craigslist find. Never mind that the bedroom was six by seven feet, roughly the size of a prison cell and cost $800 a month — not economical for a broke-ass millennial juggling three low-paying jobs. The other problem was that out of the house's seven inhabitants (including me), two of the roommates were frontline hospital workers. Normally, this would not be an issue. But a few months after I signed the lease, COVID-19 set in.
Poh-Poh was flawed, difficult and magnificent. Like some knowingly doomed ogeress, she fought against fate.
Also, shortly after I moved in, my Poh-Poh, the name that we called my maternal Chinese grandmother, could no longer swallow solid food. She was relocated to a nursing home a few blocks down the street from me. Due to extreme busy-ness and work exhaustion, I kept rescheduling our visits. Next week, I reassured myself. According to my mother, who had visited Poh-Poh, my grandmother's condition deteriorated. As a paranoid schizophrenic, Poh-Poh believed that Japanese ghosts of soldiers from the Second World War raped her after dinner.
Of course, as luck would have it, roommates one to six and I shared a bathroom. We argued about who should, could, would buy a chamber pot. Despite isolating in my prison-sized room, I became ill with what seemed to be probable coronavirus. A hallucinatory 40 F fever with extreme pain radiated from my eyelids to my bunions. Even my tailbone ached. I blacked out for 16 hours and thought I had died.
When the fever broke, I coughed like I was a drowning mermaid. It was like I was choking on seaweed and shards of oceanic glass. Glittery pain, like tidal waves, pooled across my vision, crashing into my chest and back. Explosive diarrhea followed, then I lost my ability to taste. All nourishment was like chowing down on loonies and toonies — weird, intense and deeply metallic. It depressed me. Eating was a significant past-time of mine, and I liked food more than I liked people. I also felt ashamed, since humans were dying on the news and I was complaining about busted taste buds. Bitchy with morose, I was mortified with these swirling thoughts, and also unsettled by them, especially since I wanted to hide inside my tired body.
Then my mother phoned nine times. Poh-Poh had been assaulted by another ghost-army.
Fourteen days later, coughing and panting with queasy relief, I hauled my possible-COVID-19 ass out of bed. Slouching to the kitchen, I managed to gobble down roommate number three's gluten-free macaroni, and I recalled spring-time of 2016. I had been wheelchair shopping in Burnaby with Poh-Poh. An unlucky woman with an extremely tragic life, perpetually disgruntled, she hurled profanity wherever she went. And it was her feral-eyed misfortune that I had inherited. When I was a child, I often thought that because my grandmother endured so much sorrow, her brain had melted like one jumbo-sized marshmallow, which is why she mostly yelled the F-word.
It was a rare and beautiful thing to see my grandmother have fun.
That day, pink cherry blossoms attacked my sinuses and I mouth-breathed like a cranky, hay-fevered dragon. While my mother haggled with the store owner, I decided Poh-Poh and I both needed some amusement. "Be right back!" I announced, wheeling her out the front door for a test drive.
For 20 minutes, I sprinted around the parking lot, pushing my 80-pound grandma in a wheelchair with metallic red handles. To my shock and delight, she yipped sounds of terrier-like joy. I remember she smelled strongly of eau de roses and dried feces. Whooping like a pair of wannabe hoodlums, Poh-Poh and me, we wove around parked cars, in haphazard circles. "Faster!" the old woman grunted, lifting her hands over her head, and I was pleased with myself, for Poh-Poh seemed to enjoy my spontaneity. It was a rare and beautiful thing to see my grandmother have fun.
Winded, I managed five and a half laps before the shop owner insisted that I return the wheelchair. As the sun glared down at us and Poh-Poh shat herself, I understood for the first time that this was what life was: you persisted, found your brief moments of joy, even if you had no hair, no teeth and were visibly miserable and incontinent.
"We should get one with a motor," I announced helpfully to my mother and the shop owner. I gave Poh-Poh the thumbs-up sign. "Something with a great braking system so we can wheel her up and down the neighbourhood."
"What the hell are you talking about?" my mother said. "You just want to race it down a giant hill."
She knew me too well.
Fast forward again to 2020, the Year of the Rat (an unlucky year according to the Chinese zodiac) and the Year of the Great Pandemic. Freshly recovered from my illness, I was teaching a YA workshop at the University of British Columbia, which had moved online because of COVID-19. As I said goodbye to my students, citing platitudes about community, authenticity, kindness et al, horrendous luck struck. Like an incident of freak lightning. Poh-Poh dropped dead. The text bearing the news exploded across my MacBook's screen. An accompanying photo from the nursing home illustrated the sad caption. Open-mouthed, Poh-Poh appeared to be screaming a final Fuck You to the living; I was proud that she wore such a furious, cantankerous expression.
I let out a hideous, toad-like whimper before I realized that a few of my students hadn't logged off yet. My tongue stuck out like a golden retriever. God, I looked pop-eyed and obscene. Flinching, I rethought my parting words. What I should have said to my undergraduates is that none of it, anything really, matters without wielding a healthy dose of resilience and a sturdy sense of humour. Be a zombie, I should have insisted. Keep popping back up even if life shoots you in the head. The key to surviving, I had thought, strangely, is having the bad-assery to call out tragedy and hardship for what it is — bullshit.
And yet, I still couldn't believe she was dead.
I understood for the first time that this was what life was: you persisted, found your brief moments of joy, even if you had no hair, no teeth and were visibly miserable and incontinent.
Time passed. I sat, quiet and cat-like. Shaking like a malfunctioning washing machine, I chastised myself for not giving my students a word limit on their assignments (some of the keeners had submitted 50,000 word novels). After Poh-Poh died, I became determined to fuck over my grief and guilt within a 72-hour time frame. Self-care felt too luxurious for me. Bad luck was seriously kicking my ass. As if I could thwart it, my immigrant work ethic and me stayed up for three days marking student portfolios, assured the program chair that I was absolutely fine, then went to bed for five days.
I raged. I screamed.
I was not okay. My skull: an earthquake of bone and quivering blood vessels. It hurt so badly to breathe. It hurt to eat, even if sustenance didn't taste metallic anymore. My heart and eyeballs stung. Like I had ingested a bag of wasabi peas and then rubbed the green powdery shit onto my corneas because I thought I deserved it. Was homegirl crying? Were my tears from unmitigated relief, terror, allergies or a mystifying millennial combo? But grief is a complex, greasy, unpalatable thing. A mouthful of undigested monkey turds that you learn to dry swallow and hurl. Poor Poh-Poh. Poor everyone.
Eventually, I would heal, but all during the week, as I attended Zoom meetings, emailed my publicist, responded to students' queries, I could smell feces and wild roses — an uncanny whiff of a ghost who was dead but not quite gone.
An ancient creature, Poh-Poh survived mental illness, incest, assault, intergenerational poverty and the violence of her birth and place. A young woman who was sold to a random dude for $100 and bore him eight children and was illiterate in not one but two languages. Poh-Poh was flawed, difficult and magnificent. Like some knowingly doomed ogeress, she fought against fate.
Life is archetypal and cryptic, it bullies by punching you in the front teeth. Over the years, I've become obsessed with superstition and had the Chinese character for perseverance (毅) tattooed on my forearm. A Hong Kong artist calligraphed "Artistic passion and resilience triumphs all," which his daughter tattooed onto my thigh, adding swirling chrysanthemums for luck. My wish to the ancestors in Rat Year: let me become a badass who powers through her misfortune and fuckedupness with the grace and speed of a turbo-motorized wheelchair.
Lindsay Wong is the author of the memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug-Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, which was a finalist for the 2018 Hilary West Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction and was defended by Joe Zee on Canada Reads 2019.
She has a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, and is now based in Vancouver, Canada. My Summer of Love and Misfortune, which publishes on June 2, 2020, is her first YA novel.
Transmission is a series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. It was published in spring 2020.