Giselle (front) with her Bà Nội, sister Arielle, paternal grandfather Ông Nội, sister Cybelle, and Bà Ngoại. It was taken in Sydney in 1992.
A few weeks ago, my mother called me to tell me that my Bà Nội – paternal grandmother – had stopped eating and drinking. There wasn't much doctors could do.
Several days later, I woke up to a text: "Bà passed away last night at 2:30am."
Bà Nội was my last living grandparent. She was 94 when she died after battling severe dementia for years. I hadn't seen her since 2012 – she lived in Canada, 16,000km away. I'd guess I met her less than 10 times in my life. Three years old, then four, then eight, 11, 13, 16, 21, 23. I was always changing, a different version of myself each time, but she stayed the same – gentle, soft, only ever half-smiling.
Giselle (centre) with her sister Cybelle, her Bà Nội and Ông Nội. Photo: Supplied
I spoke and wrote to her in broken Vietnamese, just pleasantries – how are you? I love you. Whenever I visited, she was always sitting in her bedroom looking solemn, and I'd come and sit beside her. Towards the end of her life, she was surrounded by sterile white walls and nurses, and we wheeled her out into the sunshine like a newborn baby. She didn't recognise me anymore, and laughed weakly when I told her my name for the millionth time. Her memory had faded to the point where she didn't remember that her husband and several of her children had passed before her. Once she mistook my father for my grandfather, who died over a decade earlier, and it broke my heart.
I thought she'd always be there, my distant, delicate Bà Nội, and then suddenly she was the newest photo on my family's ancestral shrine, joining her husband, my maternal grandparents and her late children. From the nursing home to a photo frame. Nothing about my day-to-day life changed, and yet a constant was gone. It all felt so abstract.
My first experience with death happened when I was nine and my beloved live-in maternal grandmother, Bà Ngoại, passed away. The night she died, my sister answered the home phone and slumped crying in a corner of the staircase, hands over her mouth, and I didn't need to ask. Everything was so quiet after that.
We stood over her body, lying in the open casket, at the funeral. I looked at her face and it was the same, but I wasn't anymore. She was so still. Her hands, the ones that held mine all my life, lay motionless. I dreamed about her for years. I've never been spiritual, but I still catch myself praying to her when things get tough. I'm not sure I ever got over it.
Maybe it was the distance, or maybe grief changes over time, but Bà Nội's death did not hit me in the same way – not immediately, anyway. I felt quite pragmatic about it all at first. I told myself it had been coming for a long time, and that she was no longer in pain – that it was selfish to want to keep her around for longer. I didn't feel the explosive loss I did when I was a child, just a strange, floating sadness.
What struck me about both experiences was seeing my parents revert to childlike forms. After Bà Ngoại passed away, my mother cried every day and it felt endless. She told me of her regrets – how she wished she could take back the hurtful things. It made me want to be a better daughter.
When we found out that Bà Nội had stopped eating, my mother told me that my usually stoic father wept at the impending pain of losing a parent. But when she passed, he didn't cry at all. At the funeral service we held for her, we all wore white head cloths, marking the passing of a family member, and kneeled at the shrine. Her photo sat in the centre, that determined gaze staring out at us.
My father stood up, hands clasped in prayer, head bowed, and addressed the photo directly. "Thưa mẹ" ("dear mum"), he began, and suddenly he wasn't an old man anymore, but a young boy crying for his lost mother. My throat closed into knots as I shed my first tears since hearing the news, taking his pain on as my own.
It's an odd kind of sorrow, losing someone you barely knew but who was such an important part of you. Elderly relatives are especially so, when you are separated by bodies of water, languages, generations.
Bà Nội never knew what I did for work, what made me laugh, who I was in love with, who I wanted to be. I never knew much about her, either – her childhood, her interests, her dreams. She was just my grandmother – a person who was always there, who represented a time before me that I knew little about.
I held her hands every few years and thought that was enough, but now that she's gone, nothing feels like it is.