According to my mother, the only reason she ever regretted not teaching us Korean was that we could never appreciate my dad’s sermons. I grew up hearing my dad preach every Sunday, but never understanding a word. As you might imagine, Sunday mornings were a kind of mild torture for me. I would zone out through the sermon and the endless prayers, (so very many prayers!). My only relief came whenever it would be time to sing a hymn. I knew every hymn we sang, because I’d been singing them with my family my whole life.
My mother’s fondest fantasy was that we would be the Korean Von Trapps. She even went so far as to make us matching purple crushed velvet pantsuits out of entirely unsuitable heavy curtain fabric. In her fanciful vision, we would trudge together in velvet splendor through some alpine landscape singing in close harmony not Edelweiss or Do-Re-Mi, but Amazing Grace and What a Friend We Have in Jesus! The closest we ever came to fulfilling my mom’s most cherished dream was during church services. My dad never remembered to turn off his microphone, and his booming voice would fill the chapel. My mother would sing the alto part to my dad’s melody in her beautiful and powerful voice. My siblings and I would play supporting roles, singing in English while the rest of the congregation sang in Korean.
For me, my inability to speak Korean was never more painful than when my grandparents came to visit us. I felt acutely that they were bitterly disappointed that we couldn’t communicate with them. On one of their occasional visits, my grandfather took his customary guest turn at the pulpit and suddenly broke out into song in the middle of his sermon. His rich a cappella voice reverberated around the small chapel and roused me from my usual Sunday morning reverie. I knew the song he was singing, because I’d sung it with my own family hundreds of times. Higher Ground connects me to my childhood, and always makes me think of my father and grandfather.
Dad at the pulpit in 1984
My grandpa at the pulpit in 1984
My father preaching at my grandfather’s church in Korea.
When my friend told me she’d been doing quarantine hymn sings with her in-laws over FaceTime, I knew my parents would love this idea, and I knew Higher Ground was one of the songs we had to sing. My husband and kids learned the hymn and we made this recording for my parents:
It was such a joy to work on this song with my family. Now if only I knew how to sew! I’m sure I could rustle up some old curtains we don’t need anymore…
I have so many pictures of our kids, but this is the only one I have of us together…Remember when I stopped by to visit you on my way back from the doctor’s office, after I had gotten my cancer diagnosis? I knew you’d just had surgery, but we didn’t realize until then that we both had cancer. It was so terrible to discover that we were both going through the same thing, but it was also a comfort to have a friend who truly understood.
Remember how we texted back and forth comparing appointment schedules, biopsies, and scans, and how we tried to fit in visits in between? Remember the time we spent together as you were undergoing chemo treatments? Sometimes we chatted, sometimes I just sat next to you while you slept. Sometimes we continued our conversations over lunch after your infusion was finished.
Remember when you had your son drive you to my house to visit me after my surgery? You were still weak from undergoing treatment, but you wanted to bring food to me. Remember how you asked, “Are you ok with pig feet?” Yang! Could you tell I was having a bit of a panic attack trying to figure out how to politely say that I didn’t think I’d be able to eat pig feet?! (I’m so sorry)! Remember how when I was worrying about what was going to happen to me you texted me: “I am together with you“? Yang, even though we can’t see each other right now, I am together with you too. Thank you for being such a good friend to me. When we see each other again, let’s take another picture together, OK?
Isn’t it funny that we both have three kids who are all in the same grades and have often been classmates?
Remember how our youngest ones met in Kindergarten? You laughed when you told me how your son would crow about my daughter’s soccer exploits. He would brag to you about how she had scored ten goals in one game.
Remember the funny story you told me about the assignment they had to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up? I loved how you bubbled over with laughter when you told me your son said he wanted to be a cook so that he could make delicious soup for my daughter.
“And what does she want to be when she grows up?” you asked.
“A lawyer!” he said.
One day my daughter came home from Kindergarten looking a little perturbed.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“There’s a boy in my class and he’s telling everyone we’re going to get married and it’s so embarrassing!”
Of course it turned out that it was your son.
What a silly girl not to realize she had what we all dream of having: someone willing to dedicate his life to our happiness!
You’ve raised such sweet and generous children, my dear friend. They are a beautiful reflection of their mother’s spirit.
It’s late and it’s been a long day. I spent most of it giving travel signatures to students in face masks anxious to get home to their families around the world. I went shopping to stock up on groceries in case there are none the next time I venture to the store. My oldest son stepped off the train this evening at 7:30. Who knows when he’ll get back to New York? Has your son returned home yet? I hope so! Doesn’t it feel good to have everyone together again back in the nest, even though it’s under trying circumstances?
I am sending you lots of love and thinking about what I will write for you tomorrow…