Maybe the best place to start is at the end.
2009. The 6th of May. At Stamford Bridge, trailing by a goal and down to 10 men, Barcelona failing miserably at breaking down Chelsea’s defensive block.
It’s the second minute of time added on. The game and the tie are slipping away. But that’s okay, I tell myself. The season’s already exceeded all my expectations. They’ve done their best. I’m writing the eulogy for the Champions League campaign in my head already. It’s a good one, upbeat and admiring.
Then Dani Alves whips the ball into the box. John Terry heads it out, only as far as Samuel Eto’o, who brings it down and shields it on its way to Leo Messi. Messi accelerates away from the exhausted Michael Essien, and – pauses, just for an instant among the chaos, as if he has all the time in the world. He squares the ball to Andres Iniesta, lurking unmarked at the edge of the box.
Pep Guardiola runs down the touchline like a child who hasn’t yet learned about dignity or restraint. Iniesta whips off his shirt, wild joy contorting his face. He’s mobbed by his teammates. At the end of the game, Guardiola envelops Messi in a bear hug. They might both be crying.
On the other side of the world, I’m crying too. It’s not the first time that week.
* * *
Five days earlier, I got a text message on my crappy old Sony Ericsson brick, sometime in the afternoon. It was in Chinese. It said something like your grandmother has passed away. I didn’t cry then, because it didn’t seem real. Those were just characters on a screen.
My parents were taking a nap. I woke dad up and told him about the text, the one that said his mother was dead. I’ll never forget his reaction. His voice, speaking those words, finally made it real for me.
The next few days passed in a haze. I was useless, a wind-up clock with all the gears jammed. Just kind of numb. So numb that when our extended family called us during the last rites, to allow us to participate and say a few words, I couldn’t get any of them out.
I’m good with words in multiple languages, and goddamn proud of it. They’re how I make my living. I can stand up in court and speak off-the-cuff. But in that moment I couldn’t come up with the beautiful eulogy this amazing woman deserved, let alone give voice to it.
My dad said his bit. He gave me the phone and told me to say mine. The silence that followed as I choked on every word I tried to say was the longest of my life.
They kept the call going so we could hear the nails being hammered into her coffin. My dad is from the sticks. They’re very traditional, right down to coffin burials on the local mountain cemeteries.
I can go see her, if I want, buried up on that mountain with my long-dead grandfather. My name’s on the tablet along with the rest of the family’s. One day I’ll go pay my respects properly. Kneel down in front of the burial mound and tablet, light some incense, burn some ghost money, and maybe then I’ll be ready to give her the words she deserves.
* * *
The last thing I ever said to her was 奶奶, grandmother in my very proper Mandarin, in a tiny, shaking voice over an awful phone line, a day before she passed.
The last time I saw her was in 2003. I was 16 and settled in New Zealand. She was back in the sticks, Southern China, living by herself with a full-time caregiver hired by the family. By that point, she was suffering from various chronic health problems, and she was forgetful, temperamental to her caregivers, even paranoid.
But when I showed up, she was ecstatic. Fussing over us, chatting away in her heavy Hubei accent, bragging about my accomplishments to anyone who would listen. We hadn’t seen each other since 1996, when my parents left China. I’d written her some letters. Not nearly as often as I should have, of course. Teenagers are a pretty self-centered lot. I only occasionally remembered to feel bad about not writing her more often.
My grandmother was illiterate. My grandfather died when my dad was still a kid, at a time when life was impossibly tough and nobody in China had enough to eat. She did any old crappy job to get by and somehow managed to scrape together enough money to send my dad to university in the big city. I can draw a straight line between that amazing act of endurance and me being admitted as a barrister in New Zealand in 2012.
And then, having raised her own children, she then took turns raising each of their children, all six of us cousins, as if they were her own. From the time I was born to the age of 9, she lived with us and she took care of me. I still remember the time our neighbour’s cat fatally injured one of our chickens, and she had it killed and prepared with military efficiency before my parents had finished wringing their hands; how upset she got when I burned my finger reaching for the stove; being carried around in her arms and feeling safe.
Grandmother was very traditional. I’m the only child of her only son. She must have been desperately hoping I’d be a boy, carry on the family name and all that, but she never let on. In her eyes, I could do no wrong.
At the age of 7, I got it into my little head to teach her to read and write. After all, I was at school all day and she had to be bored cooped up at home. Books would help. It couldn’t be that hard, could it? The results of my youthful hubris were surprisingly good. She was a quick study, and she worked very hard to learn.
That was the kind of person she was. She gave us everything, and I gave back so little.
* * *
My grandmother’s dead. It feels like the world should stop.
But life doesn’t stop. I’m still at law school, dealing with an insane course-load and working part-time. Every step of the way I know I’m carrying not only the hopes of my parents, who went through so much to give me a better life overseas, but also those of the generation before, who’d starved and fought and killed and sacrificed so their kids could have a future. I have to keep going somehow.
The day after my grandmother’s death, Barcelona go to the Bernabeu. They’re supposed to be scared, in disarray, all softened up for Madrid to beat and overtake them. Instead they give the performance of a lifetime. They make me smile for the first time since I read that text message.
Four days later, Andres Iniesta scores at Stamford Bridge. For about five glorious minutes, the world’s in colour again. I’m crying, but it’s all right.
Whenever I think of that week, I don’t just think of being paralyzed by grief. And I have Barca and Don Andres Iniesta to thank for that.
(Hi, guys. Long time no talk. I’m on twitter @blackwhitengrey, as always.)