When I was three and a half, my yeye drank pesticide and killed himself. To understand why, you first have to know this: from the day I was born, Yeye loved me dearly. He fell in love with me, he said, as soon as he saw my tiny face. And on that very day, he asked my parents to move in so that he could watch me while they worked.
In China, it is common for one grandparent or another, or even an aunt or an uncle, to move in with new parents to help look after children. But my grandfather had a characteristic that worried my parents. He was addicted to liquor and drank it every day. A lot of it. Because of this, my father denied Yeye’s request.
Yeye’s feelings were hurt but not enough to quit drinking.
Not at first. After all, my dad still let me stay with him and my grandmother during the Lunar New Year and Autumn Festival holidays. So for a while, he was able to have liquor and me both.
However, my parents eventually started to worry about this unsupervised time too. And my dad picked me up from these visits earlier and earlier.
When Yeye noticed that our time together was dwindling, he devised a strategy to avoid my father. As soon as he saw my father’s car, he would hoist me on his back and race up the mountainside behind his house to hide and play until my dad gave up looking for us.
But Yeye knew his trick would not last forever. After all, my dad could just refuse to drop me off. So finally Yeye did it.
He went to my parents and solemnly promised not to drink liquor anymore.
At first, my parents didn’t believe him. But when he didn’t touch a drop for several weeks, they talked. Afterward, my father called Yeye and told him that he could move in for a year and watch over me. And he could begin this new role on his birthday. That would be their present to him.
Yeye’s eyes filled with tears at the news. He was so full of excitement that it was very hard for him to wait until his birthday. Nevertheless, he managed to be patient until the day arrived.
But then the whole plan fell apart.
It happened like this:
My third uncle, who ran a bus business, was supposed to drive the couple of hours to my yeye’s village and then get him to our apartment in time for Yeye’s birthday celebration and his first night as my caretaker.
That was the plan.
But my uncle started in a game of cards with friends early that morning and got lost in that. By the time he remembered that he was supposed to pick up Yeye, it was too late.
Today, of course, everyone would be constantly calling everybody else to check on everything.
But this all happened before there were cell phones. True, we were one of the few families with a landline. But we could only afford one. And my dad kept it in his office, which was located in another apartment in our building.
That’s why when it started getting so late that something was obviously wrong, my dad decided to walk to my uncle’s.
He thought that maybe my uncle had misunderstood the plan and driven Yeye to his place and was waiting on us. Just before my dad got out of the building, the phone in his office began ringing—over and over—and would not stop. When he answered it, he heard my grandmother’s voice.
“Your father’s gone,” she said.
* * *
My yeye waited for my uncle a long time.
He waited until he became convinced that no one was coming for him and that my dad had changed his mind.
Sad that he’d lost my dad’s trust again, and his chance to be with me, Yeye drank a glass of alcohol. Then another—all the while crying his heart out.
When the alcohol didn’t dull the pain, he drank a bottle of pesticide.
My grandmother watched him drink the pesticide—but she thought he was just drinking more alcohol. Even when she went out a little later to go shopping and came across him completely still on a sofa, she just thought he had fallen asleep. But then she came back home and tried to shake him awake.
* * *
The first seven days after Yeye died were filled with funeral preparations. My mom had to use up all her sick days from work to get everything done. My dad was very busy with the preparations too. So neither of them had much time to look after me. That’s why, on one of these days, they sent me to a daycare.
I seemed okay when my father dropped me off that morning. But when he came to pick me up later, he couldn’t wake me. Not completely. I’d mumble and stir but immediately drowse off again.
Worried, he asked the daycare attendant how long I had been sleeping.
“For most of the afternoon,” she said. “I know because she was asleep during snack time and also asleep when her grandfather visited.”
The attendant then told my father that she was so concerned by my deep sleeping that she asked the daycare nurse to take a look at me. The nurse said that I was probably just catching a cold, and my body was fighting it off.
The attendant’s words didn’t make my father feel better. Not only did he still find my deep sleeping strange, but the comment about my grandfather visiting unsettled him. Since his father was now dead, this grandfather had to be my mother’s dad. But neither my dad nor my mom had mentioned that they were going to drop me off at the daycare to anyone. So how did my mom’s father know I was there? And why had he even visited?
Confused, my dad asked the attendant what my grandfather looked like.
She gave him a long, careful description that included the wearing of a unique, black fedora.
When she was done talking, my dad was so shocked he couldn’t breathe.
She had described his dead father, my yeye, perfectly.
My dad rushed me home. He and my mom tried everything to wake me.
Pushing pressure points.
Slapping my feet.
Pricking my middle fingertips with an acupuncture needle.
That’s when they began to suspect my problem was related to the daycare visit by my yeye’s ghost and decided to carry me to a psychic.
The psychic confirmed their worst fears. “Yes,” she told them. “You’re correct. Your daughter’s problem is her grandfather. He’s attached himself to her. He loves her very much. So he doesn’t mean harm. Nevertheless, the attachment is draining your daughter’s strength."
Frightened, my parents begged for the psychic’s help. She agreed but said that she couldn’t help until the next morning.
That’s when the sun was powerful enough to give her the yang energy she needed to fight the ghost.
When morning came, the psychic set up a square table in our living room. She sat in front of it, meditating and chanting, while my father—per her directions—walked around in our yard, holding a black umbrella while shouting my name. After they’d done this for a bit, the psychic took a chicken out of a wooden carrier. She cut its head off and used the bloody neck stump to paint magical symbols on a stack of yellow papers.
These she pasted all over the house. When the last of them were glued to the wall, I woke up. Just like that.
The unhealthy bond between my yeye’s ghost and me was now broken, the psychic explained. But I would still be vulnerable for a long time to ghostly influences. So the paper talismans should stay on our walls. We took the psychic’s advice and kept the talismans up until the day I turned eight years old.
* * *
Some people question whether the psychic and her rituals really helped. Maybe I would have woken up anyway, they say.
But I’m convinced that they worked. This is because of what I remembered when I awoke.
After Yeye walked into the daycare that day, he led my spirit away from my sleeping body to a Western-style carnival (It’s important to say here that all of this was very real and not like a dream. To this day, for example, I can still recall how things felt, tasted, and smelled at the carnival).
The carnival surprised me. I had never seen it before in our town. And, at this time of my life, I had never even been to a carnival or encountered one on TV (This was 1993. Just like phones, televisions were still rare and so were Western-style carnivals).
Nevertheless, I had a really good time there.
I ate a big strawberry candy, rode on a Ferris wheel, then in a bumper car, and finally on a giant car-shaped ride that swung in the air.
But there was one bad thing. Or at least strange.
Ever since Yeye and I left the daycare, the sky looked wrong. It was an odd, ashy gray—stained with purple. A very scary kind of color, as if a big storm was about to break.
It didn’t rain though. So we kept playing and eating delicious food.
But even carnival fun can last too long. And after what felt like two days passed, I was so exhausted that I could barely stand.
When I complained to Yeye that I was tired, he hoisted me on his back and took a couple of steps forward.
Suddenly, we were no longer walking on the carnival grounds but on the mountain road next to his and my grandmother’s house. Trees lay to the sides of the road. Icicles hung from several of them, and Yeye and I took turns snatching them off the branches and eating them like popsicles (People in the mountains did this all the time when I was a kid).
I had just about finished one of these tree-sicles when abruptly I found myself back at my parent’s place, fully awake, my opened eyes taking in my parents, the psychic, and the talismans all over our walls.
This is how I know the rituals really helped.
* * *
After I woke up that day, I rarely saw my yeye—just a dream every year or so. Three dreams were especially vivid. I think these might have been actual visits.
In one, Yeye was digging a hole in the ground—a deep one as tall as a person. When he looked up from his work and saw me, he handed me some candies.
“Why are you digging?” I asked him.
He told me the hole was part of a highway and that he was part of a work crew. There were other kinds of work that he could have chosen. But the highway construction project was the closest project to me that he could get. He intended to stay on it another twenty years. That way, he said, he could watch out for me.
The second dream I had occurred when I was grown up and just starting college in another city—far from where I and Yeye had once been so close.
In this dream, I was walking across a field when I suddenly came across Yeye sitting on a stone seat outside a yard with super high walls.
“What are you doing here outside the wall?” I said.
Yeye told me that someone had cut down the shade tree near his house and so he was sitting under the wall to get some shade.
The next day I called my mom and told her about the dream. She said it was just a random dream and not to be so serious about it. But then a few days later, she called me back.
“Your dream meant something,” she said. It turned out that my fourth aunt’s husband had cut down the tree in front of the grandpa’s grave.
The most recent dream happened in 2015. It was different from all the others. While I could hear Yeye’s voice, I couldn’t see him. It was like he and I were standing in a large, dark room.
“I have to leave you, little one,” he told me. “It’s time for us to let each other go. You have to look out for yourself now.
Don’t fight this. It is the right thing.”
I promised him I would do my best to let go. Since then I have not dreamed of him once.
My yeye really, truly, so deeply loved me. Even more than my dad. No matter his faults, he constantly showed me this.
If I wanted candy, he would buy a big box and then another big box.
If I wanted to eat watermelon, he would get one of those big, twenty-five pound ones.
If I wanted clothes, he would buy me three outfits and let me switch from one to the other—all on the same day.
Sometimes, his generosity drove my dad crazy. He would yell at me for asking Yeye for so many things. At those times, Yeye would jokingly chase my dad out into the street and threaten to beat him with a stick for scolding me.
Once, a chicken that Yeye raised scratched me. The next thing I knew the chicken was cooked into a soup for me. He never raised any more chickens in his yard after that. My dad sometimes says that if Yeye were still alive, I would have turned out to be a spoiled, rotten girl. I’m not certain that is true.
Anyway, it’s approaching midnight now. I miss my yeye.
That’s all I wanted to say.
Copyright, 2021, All Right Reserved; by Yi Izzy Yu