Months before my paternal grandmother, Mamá Cruz, died in Mexico City, she embarked on a seemingly unnecessary but emotionally gratifying new enterprise. Ignoring poor eyesight and multiple body aches that contrasted with her lucid mind, she started knitting several scarves for me, her son’s firstborn who had been sent to the United States alone as a kid in pursuit of a chance to transcend economic adversity.
For the larger part of my life, my relationship with my grandma existed solely over the phone across two countries: the homeland and the land of conditional opportunity. Like the granddaughter and grandmother characters Billi, played by Awkwafina, and Zhao Shuzhen’s Nai Nai in Lulu Wang’s heartbreaking feature “The Farewell,” we lied to each other out of kindness during our chats, hiding the pain of our separate afflictions, hoping not to weigh on the other’s life.
A grandmother through and through, Mamá Cruz would comment over the phone on my physical appearance based on a recent photo she’d seen — Ya estás bien alto mi muchachito hermoso (You are so tall now my beautiful boy) — and inquire, far from subtly, about any romantic prospects. ¿Y la novia? Todas las muchachas han de estar vueltas locas (Do you have a girlfriend? All the girls must be going crazy).
But beneath our efforts to fend off despair, her lingering concern in every call was living long enough to see me again, now a man who had, at least in her eyes, become “someone in life.” For me to work anywhere near the film industry amounted to tremendous pride for her.
At the end of our chats, we’d send each other verbal hugs and kisses in lieu of those we despondently suspected we would never have once more in the flesh. I, an undocumented youth, could not leave the U.S. to visit her. Necessity had distanced us geographically, and the laws of the world, which always seem to apply harsher to those burdened with scarcity of resources, were keeping us apart.
That notion of feeling grief in advance, knowing tragedy will strike soon, is devastating in the impotence it produces. Billi knows her Nai Nai’s days could be numbered due to a cancer diagnosis, but she won’t tell her because ignorance, her family believes, works as empirical medicine to prolong her health. She goes along with the well-intentioned deceit, withholding the truth during a visit heavy with finality.
I too lied, trying to reassure Mamá Cruz that somehow, soon, we’d be together, knowing well that I had no control or power over my situation. She’d promise to stay strong, for as long as she could, awaiting my return. We never saw each other again.
Cruz Ortiz, who practiced tai chi, took dance lessons, cooked Mexican red rice like no one else and was an avid crafter, died August 2018, leaving for her grandson the scarves she’d confected upon learning about his yearly trip to a frozen land for a film festival called Sundance. She took it as her duty to ensure I was warm in Utah. If nothing else, the cold was within the realm of things she could directly protect me from.
Even more imperative, I believe, her concern was to make certain I knew I was loved. The 15-year-old kid she’d said goodbye to many years before couldn’t be back by her side, but he was never forgotten. I can imagine her knitting with purpose, with desperation even, mustering the strength to complete her project between surgeries. On the receiving end of such generous grace, I couldn’t help but crumble once her keepsake, coded with an unspoken message of selfless care, reached my hands. It wasn’t fabric I was holding, but memory incarnate.
A grandmother’s devotion is of course not exclusive to Latin American or Asian families; most, regardless of latitude and culture, envelop their grandchildren in ceaseless displays of affection. Yet it’s the element of migration and the severed intergenerational connections it creates that modify the family dynamics in Billi’s story, my story and those of millions of others whose relatives are scattered far from their common source.
There’s an intrinsic loss of identity that comes with being part of any diaspora that stretches beyond language and traditions, and it’s caused by the detachment to the whole to which we belong and the inevitable, though never complete, assimilation to our new surroundings.
For immigrants or their children, born or raised abroad, the family back in the country where their heritage is grounded remains distant even when close to the heart. Between those who stayed and those who left, there have been too many missed weddings, births, milestones and, inevitably, funerals.
Tormented by her absence from most of her extended clan’s recent history and the crushing cognizance that Nai Nai might not be around next time she visits, Awkwafina’s Billi, who left China when she was a young girl, reproaches her mother (Diana Lin) for the choices that removed her from them, in particular because she wasn’t allowed to come home when her grandfather died.
Regret for the mountain of bonding moments unfilled in her past and anger for the ones she may not have in the future, Billi is prompted to wrestle with her worldview as someone with a fractured selfhood.
If her American upbringing somewhat desensitized her to the values her family in China upheld as communal wisdom, then is she still one of them? On the flip side, had her parents not taken her to a new country and raised her away from their motherland, would she still be who she is today? I’ve asked myself the same questions and have been unable to arrive at a solid conclusion. We’ve traded emotional comfort for opportunity, and in many cases survival, and the price in spiritual stocks is massive.
As we fight to preserve the links to our origins and in turn understand who we are, grandparents, and in some luckier cases great-grandparents, stand as the oldest physical embodiment of our family’s histories, carrying with them an essence from which the following generations stem. In salvaging, and sometimes questioning, their impressions on the world, we save ourselves from being cast adrift.
Both of my grandmothers died without me being able to attend their funerals. Thirteen years before Mamá Cruz died, Mamá Jose, my mother’s mom, to whom I was even closer as a child, left the world of the living prematurely. To lose someone with no final farewell is a common misfortune for immigrants whose loved ones didn’t join them. Separation, tragically, sets in as part of our accepted reality. If ravaging inequality and violence coerced you to do so without documents, the likelihood of agonizing from this absence-induced hurt is almost inescapable.
Not unlike Billi’s Nai Nai, Mamá Jose, a woman of immeasurable strength, had an acid sense of humor (perhaps born out of confronting hardship as a widow rearing eight children on her own) and, in spite of her humble background, exuded regal elegance.
A prideful lady, she would never be caught in public in a disheveled state. Her superficially stern demeanor gave way to sweet complicity, and she spoiled her many grandkids without breaking character. Though she comprehended the reasoning, she feared for me in my departure and held on to her faith for the both of us. She’d lost too many to the United States — her oldest daughter had come several decades before, and her youngest son disappeared in the U.S. never to be found again, becoming an eternal source of unresolved sorrow for her — and was afraid I’d be another casualty. Not long before I left, we took a photo together, a rarity for camera-averse Mamá Jose, which I treasure.
Since I couldn’t be at Mamá Jose’s burial, my closest cousin read a letter I wrote, expressing at 16 years old my first encounter with grief. Words were the most I could offer from afar. It was insufficient, clearly, but a small respite from the anguish of not being present, as sadness enveloped the entire family.
Wishing you had been there, not for their last ceremony but long before, plagues you with guilt, regardless of whether that was an option — for me it wasn’t. And so those in my position learn to live with an irreparable void that’s heightened by the terrifying fear that more loved ones may die before we can embrace them. Time is unscrupulous, and so we go on prepared for heartache, numbed by our daily preoccupations, while thousands of miles away their lives go on too.
Billi won’t get back the time spent far from Nai Nai, thus every new interaction with Nai Nai becomes invaluable, not only for her but also everyone in the family who’d flown from the nest to find greener pastures elsewhere. Ill-equipped to brave mortality, like the rest of us, Billi’s coping strategy is to safeguard the most precious cargo from her trip to China, newly made memories to cherish come what may.
In the absence of such a gift, in my case, I had the scarves Mamá Cruz made, which ironically I deemed too precious to pack with me on the trip to Sundance this year. Not wearing them diminished their actual purpose but at least kept them safe. I can’t afford to lose any more of her. Yet if I’d known “The Farewell” would wreck any semblance of fortitude in me, I might have reconsidered.
The darkness of a crowded Sundance theater was conducive for the liberation of repressed tears as I first watched “The Farewell.” Sobbing while in an ocean of strangers, the loss hit me with the force of decades-long suffering. Guided into my own unresolved sorrow by the hand of Wang’s film, I realized that woven into the fibers of that wool Mamá Cruz laboriously strung together was a permanent reminder of a bond unfazed by what life had put us through.
The traumatic blow of a lack of closure is softened by the knowledge of why it hurts so much: Love like that doesn’t know death, even after it.
Carlos Aguilar reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times.