Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Caterpillar

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After a two-week hiatus, I’ll start publishing new posts again tomorrow. Here’s the last of my favorite old posts. I’m ending with this one because it encapsulates what I want to do with this blog…that is:  to illuminate the extraordinary ordinary moments that add up to a lifetime. Thank you so much for reading and for your comments!

Last Friday morning I was in a big fat rush. It was going to be a busier day than usual at work. I woke up stressed out about all the documents I needed to crank out, the emails I had to answer, and the presentation I was going to give that still needed fine-tuning. I wanted to get the kids to our neighbor’s house early so I could get to work.

To my frustration, instead of letting me drive them there, my children begged to be allowed to walk. I didn’t have the heart to say no, but I warned them that they would need to hurry. I drove the short distance myself, passing them as they walked. I parked the car at our neighbor’s house and waited for them. While I stood there waiting, acorns turned into mighty oaks, mountains eroded into plains, and species evolved.

I was reminded of my son’s first tee-ball experience. During one of his games I was standing behind the fence right behind his two coaches. Whenever it was time for the two teams to switch sides, they would tuck their chaw into one cheek with their tongues so they could yell out, “HUSTLE, BOYS! COME ON! HUSTLE! HUSTLE! HUSTLE!” as they stood there with their arms crossed over their beer bellies. All the little four year olds would run across the field as fast as their little legs could carry them. My son would lope along at a gentle pace a few yards behind the pack. At one point, one of the coaches turned to the other with a look of disgust and spat, “That boy don’t know the meaning of hustle.”

As I waited by the car in front of our neighbor’s house I could see my children slowly ambling along the road and thought, “Come on kids, hustle, hustle, hustle!” As if in perverse response to my mental plea, I saw them slow down instead, and then drop to the ground to inspect something.

“Come here, Mom! You have to take a picture of this!” my son called to me.

For a second I thought about scolding them and reminding them that I was in a hurry. For some reason, (OK, probably because my son so adroitly played to my photo obsession), I grabbed my camera and walked back to where they were.

To be honest, I was kind of disappointed at first when I realized they were just looking at a caterpillar. But they were both so completely entranced that I crouched down to look at it myself. I could see their point. The translucent lime green skin! The perfectly segmented body! Those curious speckles!

The caterpillar was a cosmic gift. For a moment, the mere fact of its existence arrested time, that most precious commodity of all, and we were wonderstruck. Oh, to always have the open heart and reverent eyes of a child…to slow down enough to see the abundant miracles around us and to know instinctively that appreciation of these wonders must always take precedence over lesser concerns.

I love you.

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One more about my dad, first posted a month ago…

Earlier this week, I wrote about how delighted I was to finally get junk mail from my grad school. It was the proof I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all a dream…that I had in fact gotten the degree I had struggled to earn for far too many years. What finally got me to actually finish the degree long after my heart was no longer in it was a phone call from my mother during which she dropped the most devastating weapon in her arsenal: an emotional nuclear bomb that rained all over my angst-ridden psyche. “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies,” she said to me over the phone in a quavering voice. It was a bravura performance, which could have won her an Oscar. It spurred me to drag my heaving flanks across the finish line, staggering and gasping all the way. Although my dad was in perfect health at the time, my mother wasn’t exaggerating about one thing. It did mean a lot to him. I wrote this essay five years ago about my father’s reaction when I finally received my Ph.D.

The words “I love you” have never, not once, either on purpose or by accident, ever fallen from my father’s lips. It’s not that he doesn’t feel genuine love. I think he worships my mother. His children know that he loves them deeply in his own way. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him uncomfortable.

When we were little, we used to always give my mom and dad a goodnight kiss. One day, when I was about five, I kissed my mom, and then went to kiss my dad. As I drew near, he said, “You don’t have to do that,” and fended me off with a stiff arm. I froze in mortified hurt and wordlessly slunk off to bed. We never touched each other again until the day I went to college. My parents were about to drive back home after helping me unload my things and dropping me off at my dormitory. My mother gathered me into her arms as if I were five rather than seventeen. She kissed me and then hugged me for a long time as if she never intended to let me go, all the while tenderly whispering into my ear all of her hopes and dreams for me. When she finally did let me go, she wiped the tears from her eyes and urged me to give my father a hug. Deeply embarrassed, I tentatively approached him and awkwardly held out my arms to him. He patted me stiffly on the back and turned to leave with an “O.K., well, see ya.”

My mom is a woman who almost always gets what she wants when she wants it. One day she summoned all her considerable powers of persuasion to get my father to say the three words she’d never heard from him.

“Just say it,” she cajoled, “I won’t even look at you. Please, just once.”

My dad remained uncomfortably mute.

Never one to give up a battle and completely unaccustomed to failure, my mother tried a hundred different ways to get him to say those words.

Exhausted and demoralized, she tried a final tactic. “I’ll say it first and then you say it back to me…I love you.”

There was a long silence, and then finally he mustered a sheepish, “Me too.” She gave up. It was the best he could do.

Shortly after I defended my dissertation and was finally awarded my Ph.D., I got a letter from my dad addressed to Dr. Adrienne X. It was written on pages and pages of his favorite yellow lined pads. It must have taken him ages to write that letter. In his barely decipherable handwriting I read very formal words of congratulations and advice about my future. In those words I know he was really saying: “I love you. I love you. I love you.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

 I love you too, Dad.

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Dad’s Books

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I’ve written about my dad too…

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My dad has been losing his vision to diabetic retinopathy. He can no longer drive. He misjudges distances and he sometimes stumbles. Worst of all: his ability to read has been seriously compromised. He has consulted with specialists on two different continents. He’s had laser treatments and injections. He has bought pair after pair of new glasses in the hopes of improving his vision enough to be able to read again with ease. He has tried reading on the Kindle and the iPad without success. Lately, he has decided he will no longer seek available treatments.* Still, every morning he spends a couple hours hunched over his beloved books with a powerful magnifying glass, laboriously trying to make out the letters, which remain stubbornly, traitorously blurry.

My dad has suffered terrible losses in his life. His father died when he was just a child. He lost siblings to the privations imposed by war and invasions. He has always lived modestly, never indulging himself in anything other than the books that are his treasure. He would think nothing of giving away cars, furniture, clothing, before each of our many moves, but his ever growing collection of books always went with us across continents and oceans. Despite my mother’s vociferous objections, he would not be parted with these. When we finally settled down in Virginia, he built his own bookshelves and filled them with his cherished volumes of Heidegger, Machiavelli, and Kant. He lovingly fashioned suede covers to rebind his most cherished books that were literally read to pieces.

My husband, a scholar who appreciates the same kind of literature, was perusing my father’s bookshelf one day when he suddenly burst out laughing. Interspersed between two volumes of philosophy, he had spotted this:

Goats and GoatkeepingOn the bottom shelf was a space devoted to the inevitable porn stash every dad has hidden away somewhere. In my dad’s case, his porn consisted of many, many, well-thumbed issues of Dog World magazine. What can I say? His interests are wide-ranging.

When my parents moved back to Virginia after many years of living in Korea, they took stock of their belongings. Before they had left for Korea, they had a shed built in their backyard just to house my dad’s books. They never expected to be away for as long as they were. By the time they returned, the books had been languishing in the shed for over a dozen years. Some did not fare well. Mice had nibbled the pages of some. Others had suffered from water damage. I’m sure it broke my dad’s heart to discard these books. What he did with the ones that survived broke our hearts. To our shock and horror, he boxed up the vast majority of the books that he had collected over a lifetime and shipped them to the university in Korea where he had been working all those years, as a donation to the library.

My siblings and I had grown up with these books as the only constant part of our landscape. Many of them predated our own existence. To us, it was as if my dad was sending bits of himself away. It seemed like a surrender to old age and to his loss of vision, it seemed like a farewell to his life of scholarship. We said nothing to my father, but amongst ourselves, we mourned for all of these losses.

Now I realize that we needn’t have worried. Lately, every time I go to Arlington to visit my parents, my dad presses a piece of paper into my hands upon which he has scrawled in his illegible handwriting a list of the books he wants me to hunt down for him. The latest book list included Summa Contra Gentiles by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. Little by little he is replacing the books he regrets having shipped to Korea, the books that had to be discarded, and the books that are falling apart from overuse.

“And please try to find them in hardback so they’ll last longer,” my 78 year old father says in his quiet, gentle voice.

“Sure, Dad,” I say. There’s nothing I’d rather do.

*At the University of Virginia, researchers are investigating the use of stem cells to treat and perhaps even reverse the effects of diabetic retinopathy. They are getting close to the clinical trial phase of their study.

More about my dad here:

Take me back to San Francisco

O wonderful 

Wheat Belly Sisters, or: “Hangin’ with the Harpies”

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fenwickI laughed. I cried. I scarfed down some Cheetos.

In his current incarnation as a paleo adherent and owner of two CrossFit gyms, my brother Teddy has transformed himself into a rock solid mass of rippling lean muscle and sinew. Once the wearer of “husky” size clothing, Teddy now refers to his more humanly-proportioned former self (the one we, his older sisters, always cherished and adored) as “that guy” and “morbidly obese.” He has found his passion and calling. His clients gush about him. He changes people’s lives. They say things like, “Thank you for creating an environment where people push each other to be the best that they can be.”

So last summer all my siblings and I got together at my parents’ house in Arlington. It had been awhile since we had seen each other. Teddy sized up his three dear sisters and he came up with an action plan.

The following week three identical amazon.com packages were delivered to three different households. There was no note, just this:

Wheat Belly

Now of course on an intellectual level we understood that our brother was expressing his concern for his sisters. That this was, undoubtedly, a ham-fisted expression of love. But…Ouch. Just…ouch.

A three-way email flame-fest of epic proportions ensued. My oldest sister wrote the first message. She reported coming home exhausted from a long day at work, being happily surprised to see a package addressed to her, opening it…and bursting into tears. My second sister was incensed. Me? I opened my package and read lying on the couch, eating a bowl of Cheetos, the book propped up on my big fat wheat belly. Knowing that our little brother had sent all three of us the same, bluntly-named book (did a caveman come up with that title?!) was a sister-bonding experience like no other.

Fairly early on in our email flame-athon, my sisters and I began addressing each other as “Wheat Belly” or even just: “Fatty.” When my sister Amie said that all she wanted to do to was to console herself by eating a bagel with her fellow Wheat Belly Sisters, it occurred to me that we really should and that we could do this. The Wheat Belly Harpy Weekend was born. (Oh, did I mention that my brother likes to refer to his sisters collectively as “The Harpies”?

The planning went a little something like this:

On Friday “we would have a delicious carb-laden dinner and then go to the movies…On Saturday, we would roll around on our wheat bellies by the pool after a huge breakfast of bagels, pancakes and waffles. Then another really starchy, carby dinner…”

The weekend was awesome. We spent the weekend in a hotel. We went to a spa. We filled our wheat bellies.

…And we made a special toast to our little brother, who had made it all happen:

Bread toast

Thanks, Teddy! Love, Fatty

Post script: All was forgiven when my beloved brother went with us to the boardwalk this summer and had a token lick of cotton candy in solidarity with his sisters.

Related post: Golden, Pt. 3

Lessons from My Mama

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Two posts for the price of one! These posts got the most views in one day…

“Don’t buy junks!” or: Spend money on people, not things.

Frugality is an Olympic sport for my mother. For example, she wouldn’t dream of buying waxed paper. Why would she, when she can use the perfectly good, free waxed bags that come in cereal boxes? She has an elaborate tiered system of usage for paper towels, which makes one roll last an entire year. They can be used multiple times (by the same person) as napkins. When they’re too dirty to serve this purpose, they graduate to the next stage, at which point they go into an old oatmeal container to be on hand for soaking up excess pan grease. When there’s so little toothpaste left that it becomes difficult to squeeze out, she cuts open the tube with a pair of scissors so that every last bit can be scraped out.

We’ve been chastised by a cousin for letting our mother dress in shabby clothes. She made the vest she’s wearing in the photo out of an old duvet cover and leftover material about a million years ago. It’s been washed so many times, it’s disintegrating. We’ve all begged her to throw it away, and you can bet we’ve plied her with new ones to replace it. She finally conceded that it was time to give it the heave-ho, but the last time I visited her, I blinked my eyes in disbelief when I saw her still wearing it.

“Wait a minute? Are those patches on your vest?” I asked incredulously.

She proudly showed off the new patches she’d sewn onto the most raggedy bits and said, “Now I can wear it until I die!”

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Every time she receives yet another new vest, or indeed any present we or anyone else ever buys for her, her eyes gleam as she imagines how happy it will make the next recipient she’s already planning to give it to.

When she was still living in Korea, my mother would visit me once a year in Virginia. The minute she recovered from jet lag, we’d make a pilgrimage to Sam’s Club,  where she’d spend a small fortune on medicines that would literally fill an entire suitcase.

“You can’t possibly go through all that before you come back for another visit!” I once exclaimed.

She looked at me like I was crazy and explained that she was taking them all back to give away to people, who couldn’t afford them. On that same occasion, I learned that she also regularly gave scholarships to students.

“Hey, Moneybags,” we’ll say affectionately, when we see her giving away money yet again, “Been shaking that money tree in your back yard again?” But the fact is: we all know that money has been extracted out of  toothpaste tubes, alchemized out of used and reused paper towels, and saved by never spending a penny on herself…

People above rules.

When I was a child I would occasionally ride the bus in D.C. with my mother. She would always try to sit as close to the driver as possible. As I nervously eyed the big sign that clearly told passengers not to talk to the driver while the bus was moving, my mother would launch her irresistible charm offensive. In no time at all, stone-faced, surly drivers would fall under her sway. They would be laughing and sharing personal anecdotes like a couple of long lost BFFs. By the end of every ride, I swear the drivers would be ready to give up a kidney for her.

Her disregard, and indeed disdain for rules that hinder human interaction was never so clear as when she came to visit me when my first baby was born. He was going through a phase when he would torture me by never ever sleeping more than an hour at a time. I was thoroughly exhausted and was trying to rectify the situation by “Ferberizing” him. The “Ferber Method” is a technique developed by Dr. Richard Ferber to train an infant to learn how to self-soothe and put himself back to sleep. Basically, it involves a training period during which you let your baby cry for longer and longer periods of time. Ultimately, the method is supposed to result in a baby, who doesn’t cry and who sleeps soundly through the night. When my mother came to visit me and realized that I wasn’t leaping to rush to my baby’s side when he cried, she was outraged. She snorted when I tried to explain the rationale. Whenever my baby so much as peeped, she would pick him up and hand him to me and demand that I whip it out to nurse him. As I did her bidding, she would stand there watching me like a hawk with her arms crossed, shaking her head and muttering under her breath in a seamless blend of Korean and the Universal Language of Disgust the whole time, “Ay-goh!…’Ferber’ joah ha neh!…Tchuh!”

My mother has always been guided only by her own rule: to love and care for people with extravagant generosity. She is as warm and effervescent to gas station attendants as she is to her own children and grandchildren. At the same time, the truth of the matter is that she is a formidable, if benevolent force of nature, who always gets her way. The miracle of it all is that she manages to completely subjugate people with a weirdly hypnotic and bewitching despotism, which inspires only devotion and gratitude for her attentions.

In case you’d like to read more about my mother, here’s a roundup of all the posts I’ve written about her:

My Mama, the Drama Queen

Working It Out

Take Me Back to San Francisco

The Sound of Music

The First Day of School

Golden

Golden, Pt. 3

Golden, Pt. 4

The Golden Finale

How My Mom Got a Patient Sprung From St. Elizabeth’s

63 Bowls of Seaweed Soup

This is My Mother

50th Anniversary

Lost and Found

Their Country

How My Mommy Saved Me

O wonderful

The Palace, the Countess, Seaweed, etc.

 

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My Mama, the Drama Queen

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My mother is a force of nature…

I’ve re-posted this one once already, but I can’t resist posting it one more time.

My dad told us that he heard about my mother before ever setting eyes on her. According to him, Seoul was abuzz with excitement about her acting. This horrified and mortified my grandmother, who considered acting a déclassé pursuit not too far removed from prostitution.

Although my mother gave up stage acting after college, she has worn the tiara of an inveterate drama queen all her life. She is brash and sparkling: like a firecracker rather than a candle. It was a cosmic accident that my mother was born in Korea, and not in America. Korean women titter hesitantly with their heads bowed and a hand covering their mouth; my mother throws her head back and guffaws raucously. When she’s happy, she trills like a bird. When she’s angry, her eyes blaze, the moon eclipses the sun, and darkness falls heavily upon the cold earth.

Her exceptional acting skills have been called into service many times over the years. A Korean couple once called my parents in the middle of the night to ask them to accompany them to the emergency room so that they could help interpret for them. They waited in the emergency room for hours while the woman’s condition worsened. She was doubled over in agonizing pain, but was still made to wait. Suddenly, my mother stood up and started screeching at the top of her lungs like a madwoman, “This woman is DYING! She’s DYING and NO ONE IS TAKING CARE OF HER! SHE’S GOING TO DIE, RIGHT HERE IN THE WAITING ROOM!” Later my mother reported burning with shame and embarrassment as she created the scene, but she didn’t stop screaming until the orderlies rushed over and wheeled the woman away. When the doctors came back, they reported that the woman had had an ectopic pregnancy, and had indeed been minutes away from dying when my mother gave the spectacular performance that saved her life.

My mother continued to hone her craft over many years and in many venues. Bank performances became her specialty. In fact, torturing bank employees across America and getting them to do her bidding became something of a hobby for my mother. As she can’t drive, she would have me take her to the bank. My mother would sit silently, clutching her big shabby purse on her lap until called, whereupon she would blink her eyes like a dazed little bird and wander into the cubicle of her next victim. The affable bank employee would size up this little old lady, crack a few genial jokes, make a few pleasantries…And then my mother would begin.

“Now. I received this letter from you telling me that my CD matured. I would like to withdraw my money, please.”

“Ah, yes, Mrs. Kim, but it’s now July 15th, and the deadline for withdrawing was more than two months ago.”

“Yes. I understand. But I was in Korea, and I couldn’t come until today.”

No matter what the banker said, no matter how patiently he would point to the date long passed, my mother would just keep repeating her request over and over in the same mild-mannered way.

“I couldn’t come by May 1st, because I was in Korea. My flight arrived only a few days ago. I was sooo jetlagged, but finally I was able to come today. And I would like my money now.”

It would go on like this for a good ten minutes. “Pooooooor sap,” I’d think to myself as I would watch the banker squirm like  a pinned insect. Finally, he would succumb to the inevitable and hand my mother whatever she wanted on a silver platter. I imagine those bankers consoled themselves with the thought that they were doing a good deed for this dear, confused little kitten. If they had paid attention, though, they would have witnessed a remarkable metamorphosis as she strode out the door counting her bills like a Korean Keyser Söze.

Her own family was treated to the theatrics as well. When she thought we were watching too much T.V., for example, she heaved the  set into the driveway, pulled the plug out from both ends, and chopped the cord into a million pieces. When I was struggling to finish my Ph.D. with a toddler and an infant to care for and was ready to give up on the whole project, my mother called me one day and pleaded in a voice overwrought with emotion, “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies.” Never mind that he was in perfect health, the dissertation got written that year.

About four years ago, we almost lost my mother. She was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis and given eighteen months to live. She came back to America to be treated at Sloan-Kettering through a clinical trial of a chemotherapy drug. When it was clear that the treatment would kill her faster than the disease, she was kicked out of the trial, but she had had just enough chemo to knock her disease into remission. Fiercely independent, though still weak as a newborn lamb, she insisted on dragging herself back to Korea on a 20 hour flight, against doctors’ orders and despite the entreaties of her family. My dad shudders when he recalls her lying on the airport floor from sheer exhaustion during a layover. She broke three ribs the day after arriving when she tripped over the suitcases she was too tired for the first time in her life to unpack the minute she arrived, but she had triumphed. Giving Death the finger, she had staggered back to her own apartment, and her own life. We went to visit my parents that summer and met my father’s assistant minister. This grown man in his thirties, married with two children, confessed to my brother in his heavily accented English, “I am scared of your mommy. But I love her.”

Honestly, I could write a whole novel about this woman, but I’m too scared she might read it and I’d be in big fat trouble. Instead, I’ll leave you with some photos of my mama, the Drama Queen from her early acting days.

There she is……….on the left!

In these next two photos, she’s the badass on the right.

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A fractured humerus is not humorous

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And then there was the time my son broke his humerus…

and his mama donned a hairshirt and indulged in a week-long self-flagellation session:

I can’t get it right.

Dirty Little Secret

Idiosyncratic Medicine

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