10/25/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Counting Candles

When my family celebrated grandpa's 100th birthday last year, he was, according to his California identification card, still ten months shy of his centennial. It was a dress rehearsal of sorts, the curtains raised early to preempt the inevitable concern: that he might not make it to the Big 1-0-0.

As a Chinese-American family, the occasion called for a fanfare banquet dinner replete with gold-gilded kitsch and black-lacquered Lazy Susans on which platters of roast duck and tureens of shark's fin soup would spin and stop; spin and stop. It was sort of like a foodie's version of Spin the Bottle.

The grand finale for any family celebration culminated around grandpa's favorite "Dream Cake," a calorie-huffing vice whipped in hazelnut and milk chocolate, inspiring dreams -- and diets -- within the family for the past 20 years. That evening, my two male cousins wheeled out the cake (in dimensions to feed a small tribe) on a steel dim sum cart and stopped in the center of the room where grandpa was folded at the head of a table, a fortress of birthday candles casting a crimson glow on his face. It was like one of those vintage Kodak commercials: four generations of family and friends, from the St. John knits to the baby Mary Janes, all gathered around to sing "Happy Birthday to You" and lift cream-smeared forks to "Dear ol' grandpa, Francis!"

And, if one was to listen carefully, the loudest cheers came from the muse who sat beside him on this evening and most others, cake or no cake -- his wife of nearly 75 years. If the saying goes, "Man does not live on bread alone," then for Francis, his butter was Betty.

"Amazing genes!" many would say when learning the ages of the marathon duo, my 99-year-old grandfather and 94-year-old grandmother. "You'll live to be 100."

"101," I would reply, as if entitled to some borrowed fortitude. My excuse for those cigarettes I would sneak? "Gong Gong smoked some crazy-looking pipes his entire life -- and look at him!"

Keeping track of age; at a certain point, say after the age of 30, one would think there's a certain throw-up-your-handness to it all. But for whatever reason -- is it because the Chinese invented the abacus? -- my family, what with the token electrical engineer, the business analyst and the Calculus professor, has always been nimble with their numbers. And with each added digit came the recalibrated and onerous responsibility to "act your age, not your shoe size."

Growing up, around the eve of each birthday, an iteration of the following would happen: My grandmother would produce one hongbao (a red envelope said to impart luck), sealed and pregnant with weight, draw my hand near to hers and press the envelope into my palm. I would wait to open it on my birthday morning, finding crisp bills inside. These I would count slowly, the number of bills equaling that of my newly-minted age.

"This is our tradition," she would say. "Why?" I would ask.

"So you'll always look forward to turning one year older."

This year, the "looking forward" didn't happen. I turned 29 three weeks after my grandmother passed away from a stroke. One moment she was getting ready to meet her friends for lunch, the next she was getting whisked into the back of an ambulance. When the family arrived, the doctors would tell us it happened suddenly, the stroke and tumbling unconsciousness all relatively painless.

For whom was it painless?

In a sudden loss, you don't remember much. I had flown from New York back home to California in such a daze that I had packed like an idiot, lingering around the ICU in ratty high school sweatshirts, glasses smudged and hair smelling like Afghan pizza. (Afghan pizza: The only thing our family could think to order come dinnertime. It had nothing to do with grandma, which made it easier to stomach, I suppose.)

What I do remember was the quiet. My normally loud family was subdued, the only distinguished sounds coming from the heart monitor and a package of Red Vines crinkling and Diet Coke cans snapping. All of us squeezed into one tiny room, as if preparing for winter: my grandpa, the mothers and fathers, the cousins and babies. It was a sort of clinging to one another, like koalas, bracing for the crush when the EEG screen would go dark.

There was also the quiet of not making plans for tomorrow. Existence was kept within the day, as each hour with grandma suddenly seemed like borrowed time. I thought about things past. The way my grandparents met: she, the whip-smart university student, he, the big man on campus. I thought about their home: the ever-replenishing tub of Ferrero Rocher in the pantry; the intercoms in each room on which the cousins would sing off-key Celine Dion ballads; the living room where we performed custom Star Search-inspired dance routines. Memories buried deep in my psyche, coaxed into the present as a comfort and touchstone of auspicious beginnings. My beginnings.

This past Sunday, four months after grandma's passing, grandpa turned 100. My family returned to the same restaurant as last year, except everything was different and noticeably imperfect. Instead of 12 tables full of "aunties and uncles" (our default coinage for family friends), we kept it to just one table of close family. The guest of honor, living up to his age, was struggling to stay awake. His hearing had all but disappeared, so most of dinner was spent gesticulating wildly or shouting into "his good ear." My mom arrived late, carrying a smashed Dream Cake, the casualty of a perilous car journey with an Asian driver. A great-grandkid threw a tantrum -- and consequently threw-up -- at the table. And of course, The Woman Who Cheers The Loudest was absent, her silence heard in every pause.

But we still had cake and we still sang the birthday song -- loudly and off-key.


My grandparents, Betty and Francis.