Kenneth Lam presents “Always Returning to You,” a new series on grief, nostalgia and confusion in the wake of deep personal loss.
Following his grandmother’s passing, Lam returned to his ancestral home in Shan Pui, Hong Kong where his grandmother spent the last years of her life. The objects in this series are taken from his everyday memories with her: the bowls they ate with, the clothes she wore, her daily medications. Each photo seems to depict a person who has vanished, mid-activity, into thin air. They describe Kenneth’s experience of grief, who was unable to visit his grandmother in her last days because of the pandemic.
My Grandmother’s Language.
“Just to let you know, Mama is in hospital, doctors are saying she will have a week or so left. If you want to send a voice note I will play it to her”
I never sent you a voice note. Saying goodbye through the phone felt unusual. The thought of my broken Chinese being folded into a small goodbye note felt wrong. How could I say everything to you when we never really spoke? Talking was not in our vocabulary. After all, the language we shared didn’t need translating.
Do you remember when I would feel unwell, you’d place your rough watery hands on my back. Shaking loose small drops of white flower oil. You’d knead and roll your weight into me. A damp heat would seep through my skin. The sound of your jade bracelet would rattle alongside my heavy breath like the percussion of a requiem. Can you tell I am feeling unwell now Mama? You were never really proud of the man I was in England, perhaps because you never really knew him. I’d stripped him off in the bathroom. A heavy shower washing away any traces of my British Identity. Not once have I heard you say my English name. To you I was not that, to you I was your grandson.
Is there a word in Chinese for when leaves fall off trees and they land back onto earth?
I’d constantly photograph you. I would hold up your picture like a mirror. You would push away the magazines I would bring back from England shouting “why me, I’m so ugly!” I never told you how beautiful I thought you were. Your hair was constantly changing. Soft currents of grey, white and silver floated around your head in the spring months. When I was younger your hair was permed. Tight curls would frame your small face. I’d watch you place one small felt ribbon within your curls. You would always finish this routine by softly patting both of your palms over your head, as if crowning yourself. First prize to Hong Kong’s new beauty queen.
I even liked everything you wore. A tiny pantry-like wardrobe stood by your bed. It was filled with shades of purple cardigans. Raisin, prune, dry salty plum, ingredients to dress a Grandma. In the evening you’d wear white cotton pajamas decorated with blossom flowers. Their petals would roll down your sloping back. I would rest my head on you. Your hand would eventually brush me off and I too would glide, float, roll all the way back home. Is there a word in Chinese for when leaves fall off trees and they land back onto earth? I often felt like that leaving you.
We would go to the wet markets every morning. Miniature earthquakes would erupt under my palms as I clung onto your wheelchair handles. Another off road adventure for us. Eventually your mode of transport got so old that all your grandchildren chipped in for a new one. We unveiled it to you like a brand new car and I was your chosen chauffeur. Your tiny fingers pointing to whatever direction you wanted to go in. “Is this your grandson?” market sellers would ask. “Yes, he comes all the way from England every year.” This was better than any job I had back in London.
Is this what Chinese Love is? Did you teach him that? To cook, to feed, to be near?
My Chinese was never strong enough for you. Going back to Hong Kong was an act of re-finding my mother tongue. But conversations or language were not needed in this relationship. Our relationship was not formed by the tellings of your past or feelings. I didn’t even know your name. This relationship was like no other, it was built by presence. Something I have reluctantly learned through the repetition of my father’s actions. Is this what Chinese Love is? Did you teach him that? To cook, to feed, to be near? Do you remember how I’d run to you if I heard you walking down the stairs, offering my hand to make sure you wouldn’t fall? How I’d bring you a tray of breakfast, tea with buttered toast and microwaved sausages? A seven year old’s attempt at a gourmet meal. I’d wait for you if we were walking too fast. I am still waiting for you, but I am now learning how to walk ahead of you.
What do I do now. I find myself rubbing your oil on my chest before I sleep. I burn incense so I can smell you. I eat too much because my father does not have the words or the language either. My mouth is full of food, swallowing emotions so they do not have to be shared and digested amongst others during family meals. I smile and mask a heartbreak by asking for seconds, clinging onto a childhood that’s departing. I wish I could return to you and feed you like I once did. It’s not until I am in your room alone that my words feel too heavy. Where I sit alone with a grief that weighs on me like tropical heat. Where no words leave me, just a heavy breath burning out my throat. I realize this is as close as I’ll get to you. So I rest my head on your pillow where we once laid. I close my eyes, waiting to feel your hand on my back. I won’t say a word or speak a sentence as you know I have come back for you. You do not need my words or language to know that. I am finally fluent, speaking a language you once taught me.