The spreadsheet stopped growing. The ache remained unmitigated. A person’s knowledge of death could be exhaustible, yet it did nothing to exhaust the pain of losing a child. If Jiayu were to start a spreadsheet of people who were alive and healthy and happy, perhaps she would end up with a much longer list, but if many deaths could not produce an effective antidote to one death, what difference would many lives make?
It occurred to Jiayu that someday Evan might appear on another person’s list. The thought neither consoled nor disturbed her. On the spreadsheet there was Hua, a high-school classmate who had committed suicide the year before they graduated. There was the father of Jiayu’s preschool friend, who had killed himself two years ago, one evening after he finished rehearsing with the retirees’ choir. Jiayu had never once spoken to Hua in high school. Her friend’s father wore dark-framed glasses, but that was all she could remember.
Still, she returned to the spreadsheet often, trying to recall one more moment, one more detail. Sometimes a new name occurred to Jiayu, amazing her, as though the dead were patiently waiting for her to recover them. An old woman known as Granny Brave, who had lived alone in the next alleyway, was said to have been a peasant partisan during the Second World War. After her death, this was confirmed by the newspapers, which also printed a picture of the Brave Girl—her nickname during the war—when she was a teen-ager, her hair chopped short, a carbine on her shoulder, and two unsheathed daggers haphazardly tucked into her belt. In third grade, Jiayu and her best friend had schemed to win a yearlong contest that consisted of doing good deeds, and they decided that they would visit Granny Brave every day, cleaning her house, running errands for her, preparing simple meals, and listening to her reminisce about her legendary war years. She waved them away the first two times they came, and when they persevered she chased them out with a broom. If they dared to show up again, she admonished, she would report them to the school as harassers of a veteran revolutionary. Oh, such humiliation, such injustice, Jiayu thought now, feeling, for the first time in a long while, the urge to laugh. She remembered that, the day after Granny Brave’s threat, she and her friend had dug up ten earthworms and hurled them into the old woman’s yard.
Oh, what fun to relive the years of the young and the undefeated.
Or to retrace the lives of the old and the accomplished. Of all the people on her list, Jiayu was most often drawn back to her grandfather. He had lived a long and happy life and had died at the age of a hundred and one. He had been a good husband to his wife, a loving father to his eight children, affectionate and fair to all his grandchildren. He had not cried when Min’s little girl died but had given each of his great-grandchildren born after that a silver longevity lock—a pendant with “A Hundred Years of Long Life” engraved on one side and “Wealthy, Lucky, Safe, and Peaceful” on the other—to secure their fragile existence.
In his old age, after the death of his wife, he had spent part of his time living with each of his children and part travelling alone, sometimes stopping by the homes of those grandchildren who had established families of their own. Because Jiayu’s mother was the youngest of the siblings, her family often received her grandfather in August. Never did the visit extend beyond a few weeks. He did not allow himself to become a nuisance to anyone.
Her grandfather’s life alone would make a good memory lane, Jiayu thought. His stay had usually overlapped with her summer holiday, and she had been his companion on his morning jogs, evening strolls, and many outings to the palaces and the parks of Beijing.
She could, while sitting in front of the computer, walk down memory lane in the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City, as long as she followed the never-changing routes: from a round pavilion to an octagonal pavilion, from an arched stone bridge to an arched wooden bridge, from a koi pond with lily pads to a koi pond without lily pads. On the hottest days, they had remained at home, sitting in the shade of the scholar tree in the yard, her grandfather pouring tea for himself from a tin pot kept cool in a basin of water, Jiayu hunting for inchworms among the low-hanging branches. The transistor radio he had given her they kept at low volume, but when they tired of readjusting the dial they left it to broadcast static. Sometimes her grandfather dozed off. Only then would Jiayu pick out one of the coins he’d given her and go buy an ice pop.
Every summer before her grandfather’s arrival, her mother would talk to herself as she readied his room. Each visit is one visit fewer in this life, she said. At his age, you never know if there will be a next time. After years of teaching at the school for the deaf and the mute, she had developed a habit of speaking her thoughts aloud, forgetting that the world could hear what she said.
Jiayu heard everything. A more sensitive child might have worried herself sleepless or watched her grandfather’s every movement with anxiety. But nothing about him had indicated ill health. After a day or two, it was hard not to believe that he was going to live forever.
All things had seemed in order under that scholar tree. Jiayu was an ordinary child, easily contented; her grandfather, a man with a well-lived life. Life was supposed to be like that, each generation reaching a gracious end when it was their turn. Yet this order, disturbed by Evan’s death, made Jiayu uneasy. If she had taken it for granted that Evan would lead a long and happy life, like her grandfather, could she not have made similar mistakes in blindly taking everything for granted?