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8 Feb 2012

Remembrance – I put today’s entry off for quite some time, thinking that it might get easier to start writing if I waited. But I waited, and it didn’t get any easier. Then I wrote it, but still I hesitated, because it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted closure. I wanted a way to say goodbye. But I’ve come to realize that this is not going to happen for quite some time, if it happens at all. I still need to write this, though, if not as the last step in the process of dealing with this, then at least as the first.

“ mother-in-law became my mother-in-deed.”

Many of you probably know that the new year according to the lunar calendar—the year of the Dragon—began a little over two weeks ago, on Monday, 23 January. What most of you do not know (although some of you do) is that this day also marked the passing of my mother-in-law. After battling cancer for six and a half years, at 2:05 that Monday morning it was finally time to put aside the fight.

I’ve already dealt in my own way with the week of funeral proceedings that followed—this was a relatively private thing for me. What I’d like to do today, publicly, is write a remembrance of my mother-in-law. I know it is impossible to put into a few hundred—or even a few thousand words—what she meant to me. I know now, having already written this and rewritten it, that it’s not going to come out in some neat, tidy package that will perfectly encapsulate my feelings and give me peace. If anything, coming back to this reopens the wound and pours salt into it. As I wrote to some friends and family last week: “There is no bottom to the well of tears—there simply comes a time when we no longer feel the need to draw from it.” I don’t know when that time will come for me, but I know that I will get no closer until I write this and put it online. Everyone grieves in their own way, everyone finds their own way of coping; putting thoughts into words is my way of coping, and putting words on this site has the added bonus of sharing with others how her life affected mine, and in a small way seeing to it that she lives on.

I met Hyunjin’s mother in 1996, not too long after Hyunjin and I started dating. My first impression was of a short, kindly woman who smiled a lot. She did not speak English, but she was patient with my very poor Korean. Before Hyunjin and I were married, I had something of a nomadic period, when I had no permanent home and moved from place to place, sometimes staying no more than a few weeks at any given place. Hyunjin’s parents had pity on me, though, and made room for me in their home. After Hyunjin and I were married, we lived with them for a while longer before moving out. Then, when they moved to a house in Yongin, outside of Seoul, we rented the half-basement apartment from them. We spent four years there. Although we had separate living spaces, we ate dinner together most of the time. During those four years I got to know Hyunjin’s mother and father much better.

My mother-in-law was born in Ilsan, north of Seoul, on 31 August (the 29th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar), 1951, during the Korean War. Like many Koreans of her generation, born in the turmoil of war and growing up in a devastated post-war nation, her life was one marked by want and sacrifice. As the eldest child of the family, she was responsible for helping to support her family, which included two younger sisters and four younger brothers. When she was an elementary school student, she went to live with a relative, where she did chores and odd jobs. The years that she would have normally spent in high school were spent in various factories, where she sent money home to her family—at the cost of half a finger that was sliced off by some machinery.

Then, while on a train, she met her future husband, a tall, quiet young man who helped her with her bags. They were married in 1973, and the following year gave birth to their first child—the child who would eventually grow up to marry an odd American with nothing to his name but distant dreams for the future. Two years after this they had another daughter, but even as my future mother-in-law was busy raising two daughters in the economic turmoil of the 1970s, she was still determined to graduate high school. She enrolled in a correspondence course and, after much hard work, did earn her high school diploma. Although she did not have the opportunities most people have today, she always kept alive her love of learning and reading.

She also loved to travel, and she particularly loved the mountains. I remember going hiking in the first few years after Hyunjin and I were married and being amazed at how quickly she would scramble up those mountain paths. During her battle with cancer, in the few years reprieve she had before things finally got worse, she traveled around Korea with her husband and climbed just about every mountain that had a name, and probably a few that didn’t, too. I even interviewed her for an article I wrote once on Korea’s mountain-climbing culture, and she told me that the mountains were what kept her alive.

She had a great love for other people, and I believe that also played a part in not only keeping her alive, but in giving meaning to her life. She loved to entertain guests—which sounds like a rather high-class way of putting it, now that I write it. It would probably be more accurate to say that she loved to cook for people and bring joy to them through her food and her caring. I suppose you could say that this was the natural result of a life of sacrifice, a life lived for others, but it would have been easy for things to have turned out differently. She could have been selfish, but she never was.

She was always worried about me having things to eat. In the many meals we shared, the phrase I heard most often was, “There’s nothing for Suho to eat” (Suho is my Korean name). Of course, she would say this as we sat down at a table filled with delicious food—there was always something for me to eat. And much of what I had spoiled me. The first time I ever had yukgaejang (a spicy beef soup/stew) in Korea was at a university dining hall. It was OK, but nothing special. The second time I had it, though, was when my mother-in-law made it. From that point on, every bowl of yukgaejang was compared to that bowl, and rarely did they live up to my expectations. At the funeral home, yukgaejang was on the menu, and we ordered it for the first evening meal. It was good, better than most versions I’ve had, but I mused aloud to Hyunjin that it still didn’t hold a candle to Mother’s yukgaejang. When she cooked something, it became the gold standard. For the rest of my life, I think, I will judge Korean food by this gold standard.

It is difficult to explain the Korean son-in-law/mother-in-law relationship to someone who is only accustomed to the Western version of this dynamic. You don’t even have to have been raised in a Western culture to know this; watch any Western sitcom and you will quickly learn that men do not get along with their wives’ mothers. The situation is reversed in Korea, though—in Korea, women do not get along with their husbands’ mothers. The son-in-law, on the other hand, has a revered and special place in the family: he is called the “hundred-year guest,” meaning that even though a hundred years should pass, he will still be treated as an honored guest at his wife’s house.

This, of course, implies a certain distance in the relationship as well, and it is true that my mother-in-law could not feel entirely at ease around me. But I think we had a much closer relationship than many due to the time we spent living under the same roof, and perhaps (or at least I would like to think) due to my willingness to be open and not carry the baggage that might come with a Korean son-in-law. But I think it goes beyond that—I think the fact that I had to adjust to life in a very different culture from the one in which I grew up always meant that I was going to form strong attachments. Despite the (perfectly understandable) initial reservations, once Hyunjin and I made the decision to marry, her mother and father immediately accepted me into their family. They never judged me or criticized me, even when they easily could have. In a word, they accepted me as a son. And my mother-in-law became my mother-in-deed. My own mother was always there for me, always praying for me, but at the other end of a vast ocean. Although the relationship could not be the same, my mother-in-law was in fact like a mother to me for fifteen years, and that is how I want to remember her.

This is a photo of my mother-in-law and father-in-law from several years ago. It is amazing to see how little the disease affected her outwardly—she looked like this to the very end.

(The following is a final message written to my mother-in-law. If it looks like gibberish as opposed to Korean, that’s probably because of the page encoding. If you read Korean and would like to see it, you should change the encoding of the page to Korean.)

어머님, 그 날에 제가 마지막으로 안아드렸을 때에 어머님께서 “고마워”라고 말씀하셨습니다. 저에게 마지막으로 하신 말씀이었습니다. 그 때에 뭐라고 말씀을 드려야 할지를 잘 몰라서 그냥 “내일 뵐게요”라고 했습니다. 그러나 그 다음 날, 그리고 그 이후로 뵙지 못했습니다. 지금 생각해보니까 저도 “감사합니다”라고 말씀을 드렸으면 좋았을 텐데요. 그렇게 말씀을 드리지 못해서 죄송합니다. 정말로 감사합니다.

이젠 질병과 고통이 없는 곳에서 편안히 쉬시기를 기원합니다.

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