Origami Letters: Too Much Memory

Origami letters is a series we are experimenting with, where we share moments from our relationship through a selection of letters we’ve sent each other over our four year marriage (and nine year relationship).
These letters have been lightly edited for grammar and brevity. Pseudonyms are used to protect people’s privacy.

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There, sir, stop. Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone.
— Prospero, The Tempest

Jennie here. 

Below is an email I received from Ivan after our wedding reception in Taipei in 2016. His grandfather came to our wedding but seemed like a completely different person from the one I'd met a few years prior. I want to share with you what it was like meeting Ivan's grandfather for the first time.

In February 2012, I flew to Taipei for the first time to meet Ivan's family. And the way things worked out, I arrived in Taipei a full two days before Ivan. So, I met his parents for the first time by myself and it was very awkward. On the second day of my trip, his mom dropped me off at his [paternal] grandparents house to meet, hangout, and well - to babysit me in some sense while she went work.

Ivan's grandfather reminded me a lot of this man: Gunther Holtorf, a man that I read about several years ago. He was a former airline CEO who had driven more than 820,000 kilometers over two decades with his wife across the world.

Let me make this clear: at the time, I spoke NO Mandarin. But fortunately his grandparents spoke two languages: Mandarin and Japanese. In broken English, Mandarin, and primarily Japanese, his grandfather and I somehow managed to get along quite well.

Ivan's grandfather was a man who had lived in Taiwan under the Japanese rule, built and owned a successful business, was a Judo master, a poet, and a painter. Oh, and he loved to boast about his prized belongings (e.g. articles about him showing Judo exercises to the Taiwanese police, a Rolex he once bought on a six month trip across Europe with his wife, and poems and paintings he'd personally crafted); he shared all his adventurous stories and gloated about his successful grandchildren. He shared things with so much history and detail. You could tell how proud he was of his life's work.

Spontaneously, after drinking lots of tea and sharing countless stories with me, he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride on his scooter. Just imagine for a moment - I'm meeting a man in his 80's for the first time and he asks me if I wanted to take a ride up to the mountains on a dinky scooter. I said yes, of course but his grandmother was pretty hesitant about letting me go. So, he drove me up to the mountains and I felt like I nearly died on several zigzagged turns. He winded through the uneven mountain road as if he were in his early 20's. And I remember that half way through the scenic ride - we both needed to go to the bathroom, awkwardly told each other in broken Mandarin and Japanese, and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes frantically driving around the mountain pass to find a goddamn washroom. 

His grandfather was truly a larger than life character.

November 5, 2016
Subject: Too Much memory
To: Jennie
From: Ivan

vintage-photo-memories-old (1).jpg

Dear Jennie,

For weeks I've thought about what I should say about my grandfather. With the end probably closer than I'd like to admit, it might be helpful to put my thoughts and feelings down in writing, so that I can come to some sort of understanding about the whole thing before it happens.

My grandfather has the early onset of Alzheimer's. Not sure how you would define 'early.' How does the brain choose which things to forget? When he was at our wedding ceremony and reception in October, he still remembered my name and who I was. I'm grateful for this, though the significance of the events were lost on him. I watched him eat the food that was placed in front of him. Dutifully, like a child.

With my grandfather, I think about what it means to have lived. In eighty five years of his life, he's raised four children, who in turn provided him with nine grandchildren. He's been rich and poor, had his triumphs and defeats, and has travelled and cultivated his internal and external worlds. He's had a taste of fame, of competition, of loss and deceit. He's bought Rolexes on a whim and travelled across Europe by train. He's held his own calligraphy and art exhibits, taught judo, and coached sumo wrestlers. He's taken to the open road by motorbike, hunted wild boar with packs of hunting dogs. He's had periods of violence and tranquility.

It's hard not to ascribe heroic qualities to his life - and these are only the stories that I know. Growing up, I probably thought he was invincible. I think what hurts most is not his impending death (which happens to everyone), but the manner in which he's fading away. Now I understand why the ancient Greeks wanted to die on the battlefield. In a way, I had secretly wished that for him: that he would get his due, that his end would measure up to everything he had been in life.  

I'm glad he won't remember the end - even if it hurts those he's leaving behind.

Neither my dad or I are anything like my grandfather. At least, not in any way that matters. Our lives just don't have that grand sweeping narrative running through it. And that's okay. Before he lost his ability to paint and write, I asked him for a Chinese couplet that's now hanging above my desk:

Translated, it reads: Find meaning in simplicity. Travel further in silence.

More than anything, my grandfather taught me that it was okay to be myself completely.