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The Figure at the Balcony
She was just an ordinary woman.
She was born in the forties and survived through the tumultuous years of a fast-changing China'from the birth of the People's Republic of China to the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, these revolutionary events were trivial to her'or at least, not the highlights of her life.
In the sixties grandma, still in her teens, moved to the city with grandpa carrying a few yuans in their pockets and some ragged clothing that were characteristic of their humble origins. They earned a relatively good life, a four-room apartment on a four-floor building built particularly for the administrative personnel from grandpa's factory. The red-walled building was very different from the ones China had nowadays, aside from the fact that it was slightly tilted due to an earthquake happened long time ago. The tilted antique was one of a kind--guarded by old, eroded red brick walls and surrounded by little gardens of grapes, cucumbers, pumpkins and wild clovers. A narrow entrance guided the inhabitants' ways from a similarly narrow and muddy road into the gardens, flickering in green and covered by leaves, vines, and fruits dangling from the trellises.
The balconies jutted out from the building, facing the muddy road and the narrow entrance. The top one is where Grandmother used to linger'doing nothing in particular. It had always been a habit for me, even now, to look for her on the top balcony every time I leave or come back to this place. She was always there.
Grandma had a characteristic round, protruded belly like that of a pregnant woman. On the other hand, the two small, disproportional legs magically supported that part of the body. She used to walk down and up the stairs everyday to the markets a couple hundred meters away. Because of the weight of her upper body, she had to literally walk down one step at a time, putting one foot down and then the other on the same step, and then climb back up the same way, with occasional resting periods to catch her breath. I sometime mimicked her way of walking down the stairs, just like a crippled person; I sometime rushed down the stairs, just to see how long it took to wait for her to get to where I was. And then I grew up and she grew older, I helped her walk down the stairs as I supported her arms with mine. An invisible smile often silently dashed across her face and she would then push me away'Shayatou, naughty girl, you're only going to make things harder for me.
And then she began coughing. A retired pharmacist, she thought she had the answer to these common symptoms of a cold. She gave herself a few pills and never really paid attention to her deteriorating condition'she had too many other things to care about'until her voice gradually became coarse, and at one point she could barely speak.
She was diagnosed with gastric cancer. I was already in the America then.
Two years later, I returned to China during my winter break. As I approached the familiar four-floor apartment building, now stood amidst construction sites in solitude, I found a familiar figure on the top floor balcony, leaning against the railing with the accompaniment of the night-blooming jasmine and milk-white daffodil that the owner had obviously carefully tended. I walked through the winding path that led to the stairs, and I felt the same composure as I saw the familiar grapevines, the trellises, and the wild clovers. The tranquility of the little gardens helped me to prepare for the worst'the one thing that changed in this complex.
Surprisingly, when I showed up at the front door, I was not welcomed by everyone but a sick and pale lady in bed; I was welcomed by an old but energetic lady who in fact immediately lifted one of my luggage up and carried it into the room. During the time of my visit, things were much the same as two years ago. Grandma not only cooked our meals everyday but also woke up early in the morning a couple of times and walked down the stairs'the same way, like a crippled person, one foot down and then the other on the same step'to the market a couple hundred meters away to buy my favorite food. She was always there on the balcony, next to the night-blooming jasmine and milk-white daffodil when I returned from shopping, friend-visiting, or sight-seeing at the end of each day. For a few times though, through the narrow gap of the half-opened wooden door to Grandma's bedroom, I saw her sitting before the mirror, combing the hair that she was once proud of'the few hairs that were still left'with no, or rather, unfathomable expressions.
She died shortly after I came back to the United States. Later my older cousin told me, crying hysterically in a way that I never would have imagined, that grandma could not even get out of the bed before I went back to see her. No one knew where she got the energy. It was unbelievable. Remember when she lifted your luggage when you just came back? Oh god, I couldn't even bare looking at it. Grandma told them that she could not stand the chemotherapy anymore, and that there was no reason for her to tolerate them anymore. What worth all these pain and suffering? What was there to live for?
My wish was fulfilled. It was fulfilled the moment I walked down the muddy and narrow road, waving to the figure at the balcony.