Three generations – I had no intention of writing a journal entry when I woke up this morning. I had a full day ahead of me, and was looking forward to finishing up some work for one of my classes. Life has a tendency to ignore our carefully planned schedules, though, and it has done so once again today.
I just received an instant message from my mom, saying that she had bad news. My grandfather on my father’s side passed away today at the age of 78. Apparently he was not feeling well during the day, so he went to the hospital. They sent him back home, and he began to feel worse that evening, so my uncle called 911. By that time it was too late—he had had an aneurism.
Our conversation ended up being rather short, as neither of us really knew what to say. It was not that we didn’t know what to say, of course, but at a time like that either you say nothing or you let it all out, and we both chose the former. But I do have something to say, and even though I have to stop at the end of each paragraph to compose myself, I want—I need— to get this out.
This picture was taken in the summer of 2001, during a trip my wife and I took around the United States. We met my parents at my grandparents’ house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we all spent some time together. This picture was taken by my wife in front of my grandparents’ house, and she has titled it Samdae (“Three Generations”). In my memory, it was the first picture taken of just the three of us together, and it was also the last.
I hadn’t seen my grandparents for quite some time before that trip, and my wife and I decided that there was really no doubt about whether or not we would stop to see them. Considering how often we get back to the States these days, we had no idea when we would be able to see them again, and so we felt it was important to see them this time around. I can’t imagine how I would feel right now if we had not taken the time to see them.
It hurts to have lost my grandfather like this, but I know that he is in a much better place now, and he is at peace. Rather, my thoughts turn to those he left behind. My grandmother is not well, but my grandfather had always been there for her, to take care of her and to love her even though she might not always be herself. Now that he is gone, what will she do?
My mother tells me that my youngest brother, Matthew, was hit hard by this. He was supposed to go out to spend a week with my grandparents, and he always enjoyed the games that my grandfather used to play with him. He was such an easy person to be around, always laughing, always taking the time to play games with his grandchildren. And now my heart goes out to Matthew. I don’t think he was old enough to remember the day that we said goodbye to my grandmother on my mother’s side, the day that we stood in the hospital room as she lay there in a coma, and the doctors said she wouldn’t make it through the night. I knew it would be the last time I would see her on this earth, and I said goodbye as best as I could. But Matthew was still too young to understand, I think, and this may be the first time he has had to deal with this. Hang in there, bro.
Of course, my thoughts are mostly with my father. I am acutely aware that he has just lost the very same figure who is foremost in my mind right now, and I also know I will never be able to tell him I know what he’s going through, not until it is too late. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is what is causing the tears to flow.
Four days ago I turned 30. In my journal entry for that day I commented on how I didn’t feel any older, and gave a number of reasons for that—but I left one reason out, and it wasn’t until later on that I realized what it was.
When I was young, my brother Brian and I used to tease my father about being an old man. My father is a merciless teaser himself, and we were true to our blood. Deep down inside, though, I never actually thought of my father as an old man—in fact, I refused to think of him as an old man. “Old” was pretty much anything past my father’s age. So when I was very young, 30 and beyond seemed old. Then, as I got older, 30 suddenly seemed a lot younger, and 40 became old. Then even that was pushed back to 50, and these days “old” is 60 or beyond. And while I’m sure that this had something to do with everything being relative, in the back of my mind there was the idea—the hope—that my father would always be the strong, unmovable figure of my youth.
Once, before I had left the States to come to Korea, there was a split second where I thought I may have lost my father. We were at church on a Wednesday evening, and one of my father’s friends came up to me. “Your father was in an accident,” he said.
I remember that everything grew blurry, and a crashing torrent like a tidal wave rocked me. A cry began to gush out of the depths of my soul, and without knowing what I was doing I grabbed my father’s friend by his shirt and shook him, screaming, “Is he OK?!”
He stared at me as one would stare at a wild animal, and managed to say, “Yes, he’s OK. He’ll be fine.” I let him go and sank back, and my world slowly came flooding back in. My father was alive. He was OK. (And I feel I must say this here: if you ever have to tell someone that a loved one survived an accident, for the love of all that is good in the world please begin with “Your son/daughter/etc. is OK.” Don’t ever put them through the torture I went through.)
It must have been only a matter of seconds before he told me that my father was OK, but in those few seconds everything fell apart. It just couldn’t be—how could such a strong man as my father be gone? It was too much for me to handle, and my brain just shut down while my instincts took over. I do not know what I would have done if my father had not survived that accident, but God protected him that night and spared us all.
A few years ago, before the trip around the States during which the picture above was taken, my mother sent me a video tape. I’m pretty sure there was something of importance on that tape, but I do not remember what it was. What I do remember is the last few minutes of the tape, after whatever it was that had been the purpose for the tape was finished. Ever frugal, my mother decided not to waste those few minutes and videotaped my father doing some yard work.
As she zoomed in on my father, I was stunned—his hair was rapidly graying. It may sound silly, but I struggled to hold back the tears as I watched the tape. My father had gray hair. My father was not the man I remember from my youth. My father was growing older. See? Even now I can't bring myself to say that my father is old. He's just older.
I like my life, and I think that this is what God had planned for me, but it is hard being away from my parents, especially now that I am older. There are times when, for no reason in particular, I will think of my parents and have to fight back tears. I try not to let my wife see this, and I try to pretend that nothing is wrong.
There is in Korea a very important concept called hyo. This is generally translated as “filial piety,” and it means to be loyal, obedient or faithful to one’s parents. And whenever I hear the word hyoja (“faithful son”), it feels like a knife is being driven into my heart. I am the oldest son, and yet I have left my family behind to live halfway across the world.
There is also a saying in Korea that I learned while studying Korean at a language school. It is a child’s saying, not unlike what children in the United States will say as they avoid the cracks in the sidewalk: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” The Korean saying warns against clipping fingernails at night, or you will not be there when your parents die. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I let my fingernails grow rather than clip them at night. I do not consider myself a superstitious person, but I have never been able to get that saying out of my head.
I think it’s time to stop now. As is typical of these soul cleansings, thoughts and feelings are flushed out in no logical order, and I have a feeling that I have now stopped making sense to anyone but myself. But I have said what I have to say, and I have purged myself of some of the demons that lurk in the shadows of my soul.
Tomorrow my father will be 56 years old, and he will be flying out to New Mexico to be with his mother and his siblings. I can’t think of a more difficult way to spend a birthday, and I wish there was something I could say to make it easier. My thoughts go out to all my loved ones: Matthew, I know what you’re going through, but it’s going to be OK; Brian, I hope you’re doing OK—drop me a line and let me know what’s up; Grandma, I love you and I’ll be praying for you, and I hope to see you again soon; Mom and Dad, I love you, and I’m sorry I can’t always be there, but I promise you that I’ll come back; Grandpa, save me a seat up there, and get the chessboard warmed up—I’ve been practicing.