On not saying farewell: A personal essay

Photo from the movie, "The Farewell"
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Entering the world is difficult; I’ve felt suspended in a soupy haze that seems to be a common condition. Many things have contributed to my own particular slump. My grandmother’s recent passing is one. When the doctors discovered her cancer a while back, my family in India didn’t tell her the full extent of the diagnosis. The lie soon came unstuck, which was fairly in line with how the world itself seemed to be unraveling. I forget how, exactly, my grandmother learned about the illness; it seems to me now that the details aren’t too important.

What became important was the big glaring fact that, in the end, she would know. She would be aware of her own imminent departure. When that end did arrive, my family was locked out, prohibited from being at her bedside. India’s borders were closed at the time, a literal fencing-out. The specific kind of goodbye that my family was expecting to have with her never came.

As a way to understand some of the things I was feeling in the aftermath and to feel a specific kind of distant comfort I’m only able to get from movies, I rewatched Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical “The Farewell.” Awkwafina portrays Billi, a second-generation Chinese American immigrant who learns that her grandmother has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Billi’s ordeal continues when she must grapple with the fact that her family is choosing to keep this information to themselves.

I saw this film for the first time last year with my mother, maybe a month or so before my grandmother’s diagnosis. Back then, its small details resonated with me most. Over the phone, Billi falsely tells her grandmother she is wearing a hat in the cold to keep her from worrying. Billi and her father slouch on the bed next to each other, in the exact same positions, considering horrible news together in silence. The last thing Billi’s grandmother says to her is, “Be good, my child.”

Afterward, my mother said the film was too morbid for her, but admitted that she loved Awkwafina’s acting. The way Billi manages to dredge up a smile for her grandmother’s sake, all while constantly slouching, like some shrinking cloud of gloom and doom — reminds me of someone I know, my mother told me pointedly.

When I rewatched the movie alone in my apartment in Berkeley, I found my mother in Billi’s mother, in the dogged determination to keep going, the pragmatism, the prickly, tricky love. And I saw my father, too. Billi’s dad has that dark humor, that careful suppression of emotion, only letting it surface when truly pushed. And, of course, Billi’s grandmother, like mine, calls her granddaughter a stupid child with a fond smile and does exercises early (and loudly) in the morning, immune to the judgement of others. This is what makes “The Farewell” hit so close to home — a genuine depiction of expressions of love and feelings in a household like mine.

My favorite scene, though, the one I’ve rewatched the most, is the most openly emotional part of the movie. Even though it’s only three minutes long, it captures the struggles of being a grandchild of someone who you are always saying goodbye to.

Billi and I are constantly trying to navigate ourselves toward the smallest piece of hurt.

Billi tries to tell her mother that she wants to stay in China, that she is willing to forfeit her own American life and responsibilities to take care of her grandmother full time. She breaks down trying to explain why this feels so essential to her. She talks about the pain she felt in missing her grandfather’s death and in not even knowing he was sick. “You never told me what was going on,” Billi says about her grandfather’s illness. “And I come back, and he’s just gone.”

Her mother has nothing to say in response, because Billi is right. It’s impossible to always be present. Decisions have to be made from afar, and they’re not always the right ones.

That’s often how it is with these things, especially in a family like mine or Billi’s. Billi and I are constantly trying to navigate ourselves toward the smallest piece of hurt. Attempting to minimize the damage because we are born already bereft, although we don’t learn this until much later.

Recently, I read my grandmother’s old messages to me on WhatsApp. I’d almost deleted the app from my phone before realizing it probably contained some of the last pieces of her. She who sang prayers every morning, who did three crosswords daily (each in a different language), whose most commonly used word in our texts is “ananda.” Real joy. I scrolled up to a message she sent me three years ago, when I told her I was finding things difficult after arriving on campus for the first time.

“Amar mone hoy tor mon shokto. Tui egobi. Bhalo thakbi, kamon? Bhalo thakbi.” I think you’ll keep going forward, since your mind is tough. Be good, okay? Be good.

“The Farewell” draws to a close with Billi’s grandmother’s fate still up in the air. Despite this, Billi makes the choice to leave China. She goes back to her life in New York, which, on first view, felt to me like an unresolved ending. Upon rewatching, though, it seems to me that Billi is able to carry her grandmother with her in a way that transcends countries and oceans. Maybe she doesn’t really need to say goodbye because it’s been expressed already too many times in the past. It’s already known. In an interview, Wang said while writing the ending of the film, she kept coming back to the idea that immigrants and their families are always leaving.

I’ll add that we are also forever coming home. I come home to my family so we can steer each other through the aftershocks of grief. I come home to Berkeley once more, and the world is strange and will be for the foreseeable future, but at least I am trying my best to reenter it. My parents come home to the United States, years and years ago, and every call they make to India ends with the words, “Go with my prayers and be well,” instead of, “Goodbye.” And although I don’t know where it is exactly, my grandmother comes home somewhere now, too.

Contact Ankita Chatterjee at [email protected].