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  • A Different Kind of Mind Palace
  • Mike Yunxuan Li (bio)

I stepped into Grandma's bedroom for the first time since her funeral three days ago. The room was almost empty now, without traces of life, except for the pink sponge swabs she'd sucked on her final days, stacked in the trashcan, the green boxes of pain medicines scattered on the TV table, and the gray portable toilet stationed by the door. Reaching her bed in three strides, I realized how simple her room was: a square bed, a sofa we no longer needed but were too lazy to toss, a thick black television, an old night table, and an antique green vintage desk lamp. A few feet away, through the opened blinds that perhaps would never be shut again, I saw Emily, our neighbor's kid, doing homework at her desk. She looked different now, her black hair down to her shoulders, her white tank top short and tight, outlining her elegant curves and tanned belly. I still remembered her as the fifth-grade tomboy who used to kick my ass in the one-on-one hoop shoots after school. Grandma's room was on the west side of our house. The only view her window offered was the window of the neighboring house. She could've watched Emily grow up, yet Emily probably was never even aware of her existence.

I never recalled going in Grandma's room during the day and feeling comfortable. Sunlight always felt compromised in her room, as if the rays that made it past the house in front were not from the sun but from a weak light bulb. Even now at night with her lamp switched on, her room felt dark, like a cave lit by a torch, the kind of place I would get yelled at for studying in. I kneeled by her night table and pulled out the drawers for the first time in the ten years she had lived with us. Inside the top drawer were the souvenir spoons and refrigerator magnets Dad had gotten her on his business trips, [End Page 133] a box of thread and needles, and a folded twenty-dollar bill. In the lower drawer were an old Chinese notebook from the 1970s with newspaper articles about health and cooking glued onto its yellowed lined pages, and a printed email from 2009 that her friend had sent Dad, asking about her condition post–stroke surgery. Grandma's final days had been peaceful, I heard. The stroke that had made her slower in everything a decade earlier helped her out in the end by numbing her sensitivity to pain. But I wondered, when she left, if she had any idea of the cancer in her stomach, or continued to believe it was all just a temporary stomachache.

On the bottom of the lower drawer, I found a bunch of lined papers sewn together by a white thread. The front side was filled with systole and diastole fractions. Grandma had been told to document her blood pressure on her own after turning seventy. The dates ran from December 12, 2009, to November 17, 2018. The numbers from October 10 to November 17, 2018, particularly drew my attention. They were out of shape and squiggly as if a toddler had jotted them. It was the month in which her blood pressure no longer mattered. The cancer had spread from her stomach and was everywhere in her body. She could barely walk, and her days were numbered down to the weeks. Yet she still recorded daily for that month, despite how hard it was to move her fingers, how futile the whole attempt was. It was like her way of telling us that we would always be together. The stomachache would pass. The pain would pass. Everything would be back to normal again.

When I saw the back side of the pages filled with stick-figure drawings, I realized that she had collected my scratch papers from the recycle bin to document her blood pressure all these years. She was always thinking about us; even the papers, she wanted to save all the good ones for us. But...


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pp. 133-147
Launched on MUSE
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